When to Fish The Early Salmon River Run

An angler holding a big salmon caught during the early Salmon River run.
The early Salmon River run can be fruitful for anglers who know where to look.

Experience The Salmon River Run

I do not want to start this article by sounding like some old geezer, but at the risk of sounding like one, here I go. As you talk to someone that has spent many years fishing the tributaries of Lake Ontario, they tell you about how things change and evolve.

Unfortunately, most of the time these discussions are about negatives. But this time I have a strong positive for you: the growing numbers of the early Salmon River run near Pulaski, NY. These numbers have been growing slowly but steadily over the years, but, over the last few seasons, the Salmon river offers an increase in numbers of salmon running earlier than normal.

Why Are Salmon Running Earlier in the Lake Ontario Tributaries?

Wild Salmon

The question is, what caused the change in the salmon migration habits, why are do the kings of the Salmon River run earlier than before? We have always had some sort of made up theory that would fit the movement. However, we now know these early salmon runs are made up of wild kings, not salmon stocked by the DEC Salmon River Fish Hatchery.

A Research Project Was Born

How do we know this? We’ve known for years that the Salmon River run in Pulaski, NY has been producing large numbers of young Chinook salmon.  But we did not know if any of these fish were coming back as adults for spawning season and if so, how many. For many reasons, this was information that needed to be discovered, so a research project was started on the Salmon River.

Salmon Reproduction on the Salmon River

Over the years there has been an ongoing study on salmon reproduction in the Salmon River. You may have seen this going on in the spring: groups of people from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation going to various locations on the Salmon River run, with buckets and a seine net.  These are researchers counting the salmon fry. Over the years these numbers have been amazingly high.  The estimated production of young Chinook salmon ranges somewhere between 7 to 10 million.  That is a lot of free fish!

Fin Clipping for Hatchery Fish

The issue here was that, there was no idea what number, if any of these young wild fish were returning to the river. With this question in mind, a second phase of reproduction research was started. The state run salmon river hatchery in Altmar, (near Pulaski NY) purchased a piece of machinery from out west that mechanically clipped the adipose fin on all stocked salmon.

This project lasted for three years. The fin clipping procedure made it easy to identify hatchery fish from wild fish. Simply put, for the past three seasons, if you encounter fish that have a adipose fin, then it is a wild salmon. What we found out surprised all of us. The return of the wild salmon was much bigger than anticipated.

Implications Of Wild Salmon Migration

Longer Salmon Season

So the big question is what does it mean for us fishermen. First there are more fish to fish for, on a good run. From this point on I must put in a disclaimer as this is my own observation. In a typical fall we will see our hatchery fish start to show up around mid September. The majority of early salmon, the ones we see in August to mid September are wild fish. This is giving us a 2 to 3 extra weeks on the salmon season.

Trying to Predict the Wild Salmon Run

The surprising part is trying to predict a Salmon River run. These fish seem to not follow the normal rules, water temperatures and water flows. They run when they run. Water flows and water temp do not matter as much. These wild salmon will run in low and hot water, as warm as 74 degrees.

We need to keep in mind that we are fishing to a wild population of fish. There is going to be fluctuations in the timing and in the numbers of fish.  Normally, the timing of runs does not fluctuate more than a week or two. Do not let low-water flows and/or warm water temperatures discourage you from looking for a run of fish.

Good Weather Runs on the Tributaries

Besides the fishing opportunities these wild salmon are providing us, we have an opportunity to do some tributary fishing in pleasant weather. This may not sound like much to somebody new to tributary fishing but, the seasoned fishermen understands and can appreciate an opportunity to fish for kings in the rivers in short sleeves.

Less Crowded Angling

Because of inconsistent timing the early Salmon River runs of wild salmon, there’s also reduced number of people fishing these early runs. For someone who is interested in staying out of the fishing crowds, here is an opportunity worth considering.

Fishing Techniques For An Early Salmon Run

Taking advantage of this new opportunity is not hard. However, due to the early running time of these Salmon, we need to take a few considerations into the fishing methods we use for these early runs.  Even though the salmon may enter the river in adverse river conditions, low Salmon River water levels and high water temperatures, these conditions will still dictate where we fish and how the salmon will respond to our presentations.

Location For Upstate NY Salmon Fishing

It will not matter how far up river salmon make it if the water temperatures are in the upper 60s to lower 70° range. My experiences show me that our best success comes in the Lower Salmon River. The further upriver and more time the salmon are in the river the more stressed they become and more reluctant to bite. This may sound obvious to any experienced salmon fisherman, however due to low water flows and high temperatures this phenomenon becomes even more exaggerated.

Water Speed Affects Fishing Success

The type of water you can fish will also play a role in your success. Because of warm water conditions, oxygen levels will be low. The deeper pools with slower water are not the best water to fish at this point. These deeper pools are going to have low oxygen, making the salmon feel lazy and exposed — not good conditions to encourage the salmon to bite during these early spawning runs.

The simple solution is to move to the head of the pools and concentrate your efforts in the faster water. Here the oxygen levels are higher, the broken water works as a ceiling, making the fish comfortable.  Some of the most productive water I have found for early low-water salmon fishing is the pocket water between all the popular pools. Here, you’ll find fast-moving water with plenty of oxygen, broken water surface to put the salmon at ease and most importantly, at least for me, out of the way of the fishing pressure.

Fly Fishing Presentations For Early Salmon

Swing Flies

Fishing for salmon is fairly simple, I use two basic presentations. First, is my favorite, not because it’s always most productive but because I enjoy fishing this way. I like to swing flies. When it comes to salmon you need to slow the swing down and we need to get it down to their level. Keep in mind, the salmon are near the bottom not on the bottom.

Dead Drift

The second presentation I use is the most common. A dead drift presentation. I will normally start out swinging flies into productive water; if this works I will most likely stay with it. Fortunately for me this slow swing presentation is often very effective during the early season Salmon River run.

Some days the salmon want the fly softly dead drifted into their holding water. Both of these styles of presentation sound simple but like anything else a little practice and time on the water makes you more productive.

Flies for Early Salmon Fly Fishing

As for flies, I am primarily a woolly bugger fisherman. Easy to tie and you can’t fish the fly incorrectly. I also like leech patterns. Both styles of flies are easy to tie and the materials are readily available. When it’s a tough day during the Salmon River run, a large Black stonefly nymph dead drifted into quality holding water can often save the day.

Original Article By Jay Peck

About The Author

Jay Peck is a fishing guide on the Lake Ontario tributaries. With 40+ years of fly fishing experience including 30 years as a licensed New York State guide, Jay has been applying his knowledge of the sport and local waters to help anglers in their pursuit of migratory fish, inland trout, and a variety of warm water species. Jay is also an accomplished spey caster and fly tyer. He has developed several fishing techniques and fly patterns for fishing the tributaries and inland trout streams. To learn more, check out Jay’s youtube channel, and get in touch with Jay at jaypeckguidesflyfishing.com.

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