Salmon River Survival Guide
From On The Water, September 2020
It can be intimidating arriving in Pulaski for the first time, surrounded by thousands of anglers seeking the big, strong king salmon that run the river. However, with some basic river knowledge and tips, you can survive the salmon season’s mayhem and hook plenty of fish in the process.
The Salmon River runs 17 miles from the Lighthouse Hill Reservoir in Altmar to the estuary where it empties into Lake Ontario. Just up-stream of the estuary lies the Douglaston Salmon Run (DSR), which is a two-and-a-half-mile private stretch river where anglers can buy daily or season passes to fish. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation offers 12 miles of public fishing rights along the river, so there are plenty of access points to wet a line.
Chinook and Coho salmon migrate up the river starting in late August, with better fishing picking up around mid- to late September. Columbus Day tends to be the busiest time in Pulaski because the salmon migration is in full swing and steelhead fishing starts to pick up.
Two of my favorite salmon spots on the river are “Long Bridge Pool” and “Ballpark.” These public access areas, just upstream of the DSR, offer good structure and runs. These areas tend to get crowded in early September because the fish haven’t made it upriver yet—but an early morning wake-up call can help secure a good spot for the day.
Naturally, as the fish make their way upriver, the fishermen follow. “Sportsman Pool North” and “Sportsman Pool South” offer beautiful stretches of water. These areas are some of my favorite places on the river to watch a sunrise and swing flies with a spey or switch rod. There is a marked public-fishing parking lot right off NY-13 for “Sportsman’s Pool South,” and an-other parking lot on the north side of the river on Centerville Road for “Sportsman Pool North.” As you move toward the upper section of the river, “Trestle Pool North and South” both offer park-ing areas and good stretches to fish. But like most public spots on the river, these areas get crowded quickly, so the earlier you can get on the water to lock in a location, the better chance you have for a successful day.
The “Lower and Upper Fly Zones” in Altmar are strictly designated for anglers pursuing fish with fly rods. If you’re traveling to the river this fall to catch a salmon on the fly, this is one of the best places to do so. Due to the large number of fly anglers on the river, the fly zones still get crowded but can be less pressured than other public areas that allow all techniques of fishing. It is important to note that the fly zones are catch and release only. The Lower Fly Zone is open from September 15 to May 15, while the Upper fly zone is open from April 1 to November 30.
There’s no question that every well-known fish-ing town has its own personality, and Pulaski is no exception. When you take Exit 36 on I-81 North, you are greeted with Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop. It has anything you need and everything you forgot at home—it’s a signature stop in this salmon town.
If you’re strictly a fly angler, swing by Whitaker’s Sports Store and Motel. It has everything for fly fishing and more. I often find myself here after a long day on the river, restocking my box with hot flies and getting the latest reports. The staff is very courteous and more than willing to help you find what you need to get out on the river. Whitaker’s also has a nine-unit motel for anglers. I’ve stayed there multiple times and find it to be the perfect fisherman’s lodging.
If you’re looking for a place that’s a little higher end, drive upstream to Altmar and find the Tailwater Lodge. This upscale hotel, tailored for anglers, opened in 2014 on the banks of the Salmon River. Though a little pricier, you get what you pay for. The rooms are incredible, and the restaurant right off the lobby makes it a popular spot in the fall. Even if you decide not to stay here, it is worth going to the restaurant to enjoy a meal and celebrate a successful day on the river.
One of my favorite spots to grab a bite to eat after a day of fishing is Stefano’s Pizzeria and Restaurant in Pulaski. It offers a wide range of food choices, but you can usually find me eating a chicken parm hero and recapping how many fish I lost that particular day.
The Riverhouse Restaurant on Salina Street is another great option to sit down for dinner. The food here is always great, and it has a very nice atmosphere. Paulanjo’s Pizza is a good stop for grabbing a midday bite before getting back on the water for the afternoon.
There aren’t many other places where you see the majority of people in town walking around in waders. It’s quite a scene that makes fisherman feel at home. However, many establishments have “no spikes inside” signs hanging in their doors—which makes drivethrus very popular.
Know The Flow
The discharge of the reservoir upstream controls the river’s water flow, meaning the water level can change quickly in a short amount of time. It is important to keep an eye on the flows, which can be found on the USGS website (or the websites of the local tackle shops).
Prime water-flow conditions for shore fishing are anywhere from 350 to 700 cfs. Keep an eye on the flow as your trip approaches and consider rescheduling if the river rises above 1600 cfs. Anglers in drift boats can fish effectively in higher water, but it can be a challenge for fishermen working the banks.
The bottom of the Salmon River is extremely slippery, rocky, and uneven. To stay safe and fish effectively, wear boots with studded soles or attach jetty cleats like Korkers over your boots. These will help you grip bottom and navigate the river safely. A wading staff is another helpful tool, especially for inexperienced anglers who haven’t waded in strong current before.
Chinook and Coho salmon are targeted primarily with spin or fly gear, though some do use centerpin equipment. Each method is very effective and comes down to personal preference and opinion.
Most salmon spin rods are anywhere between 8 to 10 feet long. Reels must hold a minimum of 150 yards of line and have a strong drag. Most spinning-rod anglers spool up with 12- to 20-pound test, but 14-pound test is more than sufficient. Using a lighter leader—preferably fluorocarbon—decreases the visibility of the line in the water and leads to more bites. Many anglers use barrel swivels to attach their leaders to their main lines, then tie monofilament to one end and 3-foot fluorocarbon leader to the other.
Bring a variety of split shots on your trip be-cause the salmon tend to sit on the bottom. De-pending on water depth and flow, you may need to adjust weights as you move between spots. I like to start with a 3/0 spilt shot, adding and removing it as necessary. It’s important to note you won’t be able to purchase lead split shots in New York.
Protect Your Eyes
When the salmon are running, and even when they aren’t, there will be split shots and hooks flying around the river as fishermen cast, rip their lines free from snags, and pull hooks on fish. This makes eyewear a necessity. Not only will a pair of polarized glasses help you see into the water and spot the fish, it will protect your eyes. Bring a few different lenses for low light and high sun.
On The Fly
When I chase salmon, I fish with a fly rod. My setup consists of a 9-foot, 8-weight rod paired with a 7/8-weight reel. Make sure your rod has a good backbone to fight the fish—especially if fishing with a one-handed fly rod. My reel is spooled with over 150 yards of 30-pound backing, with a 7/8-weight floating line that I tie 14-pound-test mono to as my leader connected via barrel swivel to a 3-foot, 1X fluorocarbon tippet.
In general, the go-to baits are egg sacks and egg patterns. There are a wide variety of colors and patterns, as well as a whole array of egg flies, on the market. I keep it simple and fish with a single egg fly and change up my color throughout the day until I find what is working best.
Douglaston Salmon Run
The Douglaston Salmon Run (DSR) is a private stretch of the first two and a half miles above the estuary where the fish first enter the river. Anglers from all over the world come to fish and lodge by the DSR. Several types of fishing passes are available: full day, afternoon, and season. It is also worth noting that the DSR strictly enforces New York State fishing regulations and adds a few of their own conservation rules, including prohibiting the harvest of all trout species and Atlantic salmon. The pricing and number of anglers allowed on the run each day change depending on the time of year.
I've spent many days fishing the DSR, and I have always enjoyed myself, fish or no fish. There are fewer number of anglers than on public water, and it's the first stretch of river the fish move through. Everyone thinks differently about whether or not it's worth the money, but I've had many days that were well worth the price of admission.
In the early fall, king salmon are the main attraction, with Coho salmon a close second. In October, brown trout and steelhead begin to make stronger appearances, and by November, the majority of fishermen have switched over to targeting steelhead and browns, though it’s not unusual for schools of Coho salmon to run the river into November.