Gearing up: Fly Fishing Gear for The Great Lakes

Choosing the Right Fly Fishing Gear for the Tributaries

Man poses holding a large trout in front of river with using the right fly fishing gear.
Proper fly fishing gear contributes to success as Rob Streeter shows with this impressive catch.

The tributary streams flowing into Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are unique. These waters produce both Coho and Chinook salmon, giant brown trout, some Atlantic salmon, and plenty of steelhead. These streams have delivered trophy fishing opportunities to us right here in our own backyard through a successful fish stocking and management program by the DEC. In addition to producing great fishing, these flowing waters have also produced some unique fly fishing equipment developed specifically for these creeks and rivers.

Conditions and Fishing Pressure Produces Specialized Gear

One of the reasons these tributary streams produced unconventional fly fishing gear, stems from the fact that they draw a lot of anglers. Fishing in tight quarters on rivers where there usually isn’t enough room for a backcast due to stream side brush led to fly rods, reels, and lines adapted to the task at hand. The “noodle” fly rod was one of the first fly fishing gear innovations and will certainly not be the last to come out of the great lake tributaries of New York State. Here is a look at practical fly fishing gear that works well in the area ,and better yet, will work on steelhead or salmon streams anywhere.

Finding the Right Rod for the Great Lakes Steelhead

Rod Length

The first piece of fly fishing gear to consider is your fly rod. One of the most important aspects of a fly rod is the length. The standard 8-9 foot rod is the most common length manufacturers offer in their rods, but having a fly rod of 10-12 feet in length is a big advantage on Great Lakes streams.

Longer rods make it easier to mend line and to roll cast with enough distance to fly fish effectively. They also provide much more shock absorption when a big fish is fighting hard against the rod, resulting in fewer broken tippets. We prefer rods with a relatively soft tip but a sturdy butt section for fighting big fish.

Rod Styles

There are two schools of thought on rod styles. Some folks like a traditional one-handed rod equipped with a fighting butt. Yet, there now is a lot of interest in two-handed rods. Switch rods (single Spey rods) and full length Spey rods are gaining hold on the bigger streams like the Salmon River. I have a switch rod built by Bart DeFrancisco (Bart’s Rods), and it is a very good rod for fishing steelhead under winter conditions.

I haven’t had any experience with fishing a full-sized Spey rod but have a friend who does quite well with Spey tackle on the Salmon River and the bigger tributaries. The advantage is in being able to cast much farther than with a conventional rod and also in being able to better handle a big fish.  In fact, Spey Nation holds an event on the Salmon River each June where you can learn about two-handed Spey casting.

Bigger Guides Produce Better Results

One thing to look for on any fly rod for fishing the tributaries, is oversized guides. When you are out fishing for steelhead in the middle of winter, rod guides ice up.  Oversized guides that are a few sizes larger than would typically be found on a rod of that size work a lot better.

Reels for the Great Lakes Tributaries

Reel Choices for All Budgets

The good news is that having a $600 reel is not a necessity for effective angling on the tributaries. There are plenty of reels in the $100-$200 price range that will fish very well and are capable of consistently landing big fish.

Picking the Right Color for your Reel

The first idea to consider is color—that’s right, color! The fish on the tributaries receive a lot of fishing pressure and anything to provide a little stealth is an improvement.  The reel that I use most often is a Ross, which is an excellent and affordable reel that functions very well even on steelhead with light tippets. Better yet though, the reel is black so I don’t have to worry about the sun flashing on it and spooking fish.

Consider the Drag

The second consideration is the drag.  It must operate smoothly while being easy to adjust when a big fish is on an out of control run even while you are wearing gloves.  If a fish is tearing out line and more drag is needed, it is hard to adjust the drag on a lot of reels with cold fingers and even worse with gloves. A large knob to adjust the drag with is always a plus.

The Plus Side of Large Arbor Reels

Large arbor reels are also good for this type of fishing. Sometimes fish run downstream only to figure out that the pressure comes off when they turn upstream and swim as hard as they can. Being able to bring in slack line in a hurry is the advantage of a large arbor reel.

Specialized Fly Lines

a variety of sink tip lines are crucial fly fishing gear to have on hand
A variety of sink tip lines are helpful fly fishing gear to have when fishing Lake Ontario tributaries.

Long History of DIY Multi-Tip Lines

Specialized lines are one of the innovations to come out of the Great Lakes streams.  For example, long before companies started offering multi-tip fly lines, anglers in the area were experimenting with homemade multi-tip lines, generally sink-tips made with various weights.  One line that we have used with success is a sink-tip line with interchangeable tips made from the heaviest sinking lines available.  The difference between these and the standard sink-tip models is that we use ultra fast sinking lines (13 inches per second or faster).

If you can afford one, the new multi-tip lines are great.  You can also make your own by putting loops in the fly line using any method.  We use a simple pair of nail knots made of monofilament to hold the loops.

Line Color

Line color makes a difference.  We typically buy dark olive colored lines and avoid the brighter colors.

Other Gear to Consider for Great Lakes Tributary Fishing

Proper fly fishing gear was used to aid this man holding a salmon caught on the tributaries in NYS.
Jim Kelso lands Atlantic salmon on the tributaries of NYS, with the aid of the proper fly fishing gear.

Pick your Gear to Blend with your Environment

Most fishermen don’t think in terms of camouflage, but they should.  On the majority of the tributary streams on both Great Lakes in New York, the fish get plenty of pressure.  Fish see in color just like we do.  Wearing a bright red hat or worse, a brightly colored shirt or jacket, is a sure way of spooking fish.  Don’t believe me?  Stand up on the bank during a good run and you will see pods of fish move away when anglers wearing bright colors wade into the pool.

The same thing goes for accessories.  I ended up getting a good deal on a tackle pack, only to discover that it was bright orange when it arrived.  Naturally, no refund; and yes it did spook fish until it was replaced.

Gear for Traversing the Tributaries

Another must is a set of Korkers or a similar wader with studded cleats.  The streams have a lot of moss and can be pretty slippery to wade in.  The cleats or studs make wading a lot safer, especially in the winter when there is ice to contend with as well.  Cleats are an important safety consideration.

A wading staff is another plus. Sometimes you end up trying to cross a stream or going a little deeper, and most of these streams have plenty of current.  It never hurts to bring along a wading staff.

Getting Set Up for New York State’s Tributaries

While you do need to spend some money on getting decent equipment, you do not need to spend a small fortune to get equipped to fish the tributary streams effectively.  Add in some relatively simple fly patterns like a selection of Wooly Buggers, nymphs, and egg patterns in a variety of colors and you can catch fish on any of these streams.  If you are new to fishing these streams with fly tackle, or are looking to upgrade your gear keep these simple ideas in mind when it comes to selecting your equipment.  The tributaries to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie offer specific fishing challenges and overcoming them takes the right equipment!

Original Article By Rob Streeter

About The Author

Rob Streeter enjoys fly fishing for many species, especially trout and salmon in the Lake Ontario tributaries. He is the outdoor columnist for the Albany Times Union and freelances for several publications. He is a member of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America.

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