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Fishing for Steelhead Trout
in Lake Ontario Tributaries

A Beginners Guide by:

Paul Moore
Senior Fish and Wildlife Technician
NYSDEC, Cortland, NY

Fishing For Steelhead Trout!


Note: The mention of product names in this brochure does not constitute an endorsement by the State of New York.

Steelhead Strains

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation currently stocks two distinct strains of migratory rainbow trout called "steelhead" in Lake Ontario. These are Skamania (a summer run strain) and Washington (a winter run strain) which both originally came from the State of Washington. A small number of "domestic" Randolph Hatchery strain rainbow trout are also stocked in some locations on Lake Ontario. All rainbow trout strains are native to Pacific coast watersheds of North America and Asia. Rainbow trout were brought east to New York State beginning in 1874.

Washington Steelhead

This winter run strain was brought to New York in the mid 1970's from Chamber's Creek in Washington State. These fish represent the largest group of steelhead stocked by New York with approximately 490,000 put in the Lake Ontario watershed annually (current policy as of year 2000). There are 20 tributaries of Lake Ontario from the Niagara River in the west to the Black River in the east which receive stockings of Washington steelhead. The fish are stocked as 6" yearlings from late March thru early May. After spending a few weeks in the stream, they imprint to the unique odor of the watershed as they smolt or turn a silvery color and swim downstream to Lake Ontario. Typically Washington steelhead will spend between 2 to 4 summers in the lake feeding before returning to spawn in the stream where they were stocked. Age 3, 4 and 5 fish generally account for over 90% of the spawning fish each spring. The average size of the Washington steelhead in a run would be 6 pounds for age 3 fish, 9 pounds for age 4 fish and 12 pounds for age 5. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead do not necessarily die after spawning and can return in subsequent years to spawn a second or third time and can live to a maximum age of 8 or 9 years. The rigors and stress of spawning does cause substantial mortality, especially in the males. This along with the fact that they face another year of being caught and harvested by both tributary and lake anglers means that repeat spawners make up only a very small percentage of the run. Mature Washington steelhead begin to enter Lake Ontario tributaries in small numbers as early as mid-September. This is especially true of large rivers such as the Salmon , Oswego and Niagara which have strong flows not as dependant on rainfall. By mid-October the run has intensified as the water temperatures of the streams drop to the optimum range of 45-58º F for migration. The late October thru November period, before water temperatures get cooler than 40º F is typically one of the best times to fish for Washington steelhead in the tribs because they are still aggressively feeding. As water temperatures drop into the 30's the run will slow considerably, however brief warming periods will bring new fish into the tributaries throughout the winter months of January and February. Mid-March will usually signal the start of the spawning activity on the gravel beds located in the headwater areas. Spawning can continue through late April. Broodstock for the Washington steelhead stocking program in Lake Ontario are fish that return to the Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar. Egg taking operations at the hatchery generally take place around the last week of March through the first week of April. After spawning, the fish begin to drop back downstream to the lake. As water temperatures rise the fish's metabolism increases rapidly. Hungry and no longer distracted by the spawning ritual, these "drop-back" fish begin to feed heavily and can provide excellent fishing on some tributaries into mid-May. Factors which influence how quickly spawned out fish will move back to the lake include flow levels (high and low flows cause rapid out migration), stream temperatures (those tributaries that have cooler water sources tend to hold fish longer into the spring), weather patterns (cool, wet springs will keep the fish in the tribs longer) and the relative fertility of the stream (the fish stay longer in those streams with an abundance readily available of food items). Males tend to linger longer on the spawning grounds causing them to suffer a higher mortality than females.

Skamania Steelhead

Skamania are a summer run/spring spawning strain of steelhead which was developed by the State of Washington from wild stocks on the Washougal River. Fish were selected by choosing those individuals that ripened up the earliest. It turned out that these fish were also the older and therefore larger fish in the run. Indiana was the first Great Lakes state to import Skamania steelhead for Lake Michigan during the late 1970's. New York obtained its first Skamania as eyed eggs from Indiana and Michigan in 1985 and subsequently developed a captive broodstock to provide eggs for our own program. After experimenting with several potential stocking sites it was decided to concentrate on developing a wild broodstock on the Salmon River System. Skamania steelhead are currently stocked only in the Salmon River at the rate of 48,000 yearlings annually. The fish are put into the smolt release pond at the Salmon River Hatchery during early May and allowed to leave when the urge strikes them. Enough adults have been returning to the hatchery in Altmar to supply all of our egg needs thus eliminating the necessity of maintaining the captive broodstock . A new dimension offered by Skamania steelhead is the potential for a summer tributary fishery on the Salmon River. These fish can enter the river as early as May with the bulk of the run coming in the June - September period. Conditions which stimulate the run are the 4 special recreational water releases from the Orion Power hydro-electric dam at Lighthouse Hill each summer or rising water levels caused by heavy thunderstorms combined with several days of cooler weather. The Skamania tend to race up the river quickly so timing is critical. Your best chance of catching one of these powerful fish is during and immediately following one of these periods of increased flow. Even though Skamania enter the river during the summer they will not be sexually mature and ready to spawn until late February through early April. The runs of Skamania are relatively small compared with the winter run Washington steelhead but their addition to the Salmon River is helping to make that system a truly year round fishery.

Domestic Rainbow Trout

In addition to the two strains of steelhead rainbow trout, the NYSDEC also stocks a domestic strain rainbow trout into Lake Ontario. These fall spawning domestic rainbows have shorter, stockier bodies than steelhead and come from broodstock kept at the Randolph Hatchery. They are the same fish used to stock Inland ponds and trout streams. These domestic rainbows may look different from steelhead but all rainbow strains are classified as being in the same genus and species: Oncorhynchus mykiss and exhibit similar behaviors. Currently 75,000 of these domestic rainbows are stocked annually in harbor areas around Lake Ontario such as Wilson, Sodus, Olcott, and Hamlin. These fish typically move out into the lake to feed and grow. When mature, they run up nearby tributaries in October through December to spawn providing angling opportunities for the stream fisherman. Although mature fish may only be 20 to 24 inches in length, they can weight 5 to 8 pounds and put up a strong fight.

Wild Steelhead

Biologists estimate that as much as 30% of the steelhead population in Lake Ontario may be wild fish, produced in various tributaries, particularly on the Canadian side. Streams on the New York State side of the lake in which wild steelhead reproduction has been documented include Little Sandy Creek, Lindsey Creek, Irondequoit Creek, Skinner Creek and the Salmon River tributaries Trout and Orwell Brooks. The young of wild fish generally spend 2 years in the stream before they grow to smolt size. Due to the hazards of the natural environment, the survival of wild fish from the egg to smolt is only about 3%. When comparing adult fish, a wild steelhead can be difficult to tell apart from a fish that spent its first year in a hatchery. One way to tell is to look closely at the fins, especially the dorsal or top fin. A wild fish will have a perfectly formed fin with straight long fin rays while a fish of hatchery origin can have a severely eroded fin with short curving fin rays caused by crowding in the hatchery raceways. While contributions from naturally reproducing fish are certainly welcome in the fishery, available nursery habitat for juveniles is a limiting factor and hatchery plantings are necessary to produce the level of steelhead fishing we now enjoy.

The Steelhead Rivers

Yearling steelhead are currently stocked in 20 tributaries of Lake Ontario. These stocked streams are where you should concentrate your efforts because, like salmon, these fish will imprint on the natural odor of the watershed and return to them as mature fish. However, some of the fish stocked may not imprint properly on the stocking site and will stray into other rivers. With this in mind, virtually any Lake Ontario tributary that has some gravel bottom riffles and a year round flow of water may attract a spawning run of steelhead trout. Each river or stream listed here will have its own unique characteristics such as run timing, how rainfall effects water conditions, fishing pressure, available public access, and type of steelhead holding water. They range from small brush lined creeks to large powerful rivers. To become a highly successful steelhead angler it pays to spend a lot of time getting to know intimately one or two rivers of the size and type you prefer to fish. Below are listed all the stocked steelhead streams on the New York side of Lake Ontario plus a few which get wild runs or strays from other stocking sites. Some of these streams have Public Fishing Rights (PFR) sections where the state has purchased permanent easements to guarantee access for fishermen. This list starts in the western part of the lake with the Niagara river and moves eastward.

Lower Niagara River

Carrying the flow from all the upper Great Lakes the Niagara River can only be described as massive and powerful. Up to 180 feet deep in places with a flow of up to 1.5 million gallons per second the lower river has an average width of 1/4 mile. Water flow is strongly influenced by New York Power Authority water releases. Most of the steelhead fishing is done from boats using specially developed drift techniques designed to deal with the deep swiftly moving water. There are many well known and named "drifts" between the Devils Hole and the mouth of the river. As intimidating as this river looks, it can also be fished from the bank in numerous spots downstream from the famous "Whirlpool". Access points for shoreline fishing include Whirlpool State Park, Devils Hole State Park, Artpark, Lewiston Sand Docks, Youngstown Docks and Fort Niagara State Park. Due to the turbulent flow and fast currents anglers should use extreme caution when fishing the Niagara from either a boat or the shoreline. First-time boaters are strongly encouraged to seek assistance from experienced boat anglers or a charter fishing guide before venturing out on their own. The Lower Niagara receives a stocking of 45,000 yearling steelhead each year.

Twelve Mile Creek

This medium size Niagara County stream begins on the Niagara Escarpment and flows northeast for approximately 10 miles before entering Lake Ontario just west of Wilson Harbor. The lower portion of the stream is wide and sluggish so most of the steelhead fishing is done in the area from Youngstown Road upstream. Some public fishing rights (PFR) sections have been acquired on this water. Twelvemile Creek is stocked with 15,000 steelhead yearlings each year.

East Branch Twelve Mile Creek

Entering the lake through Wilson Harbor in Niagara County this stream is about 12 miles in length but the best fishing is in the lower section below Braley Road. The NYSDEC has purchased PFR in this area. A total of 15,000 yearling steelhead are stocked in this stream annually.

Eighteen Mile Creek

This Niagara County stream which enters Lake Ontario at Olcott is not stocked with steelhead, however the harbor area receives 12,500 domestic strain rainbows yearly. When these fish mature they can run up the creek a distance of about 2 miles before being stopped at the Burt Dam. Besides the large pool below the dam, there is about 1/4 mile of riffle/run water before the current slows and deepens. Access is available at Fisherman's Park located just downstream from the dam and also in Olcott for those anglers who enjoy fishing from the two large piers that extend out into the lake.

Keg Creek

A small gravel and silt bottomed stream this Niagara County water enters Lake Ontario approximately 3 miles east of Olcott. Summer time flows can get very low but in the fall and spring steelhead can migrate upstream as far as Swigert Road, a distance of about 2 1/2 miles. The best fishing is in the lower ½ mile of stream below Route 18. Keg Creek gets 10,000 yearling steelhead stocked annually.

Marsh Creek

This Orleans County stream is a major tributary of Oak Orchard Creek which joins it approximately 11/4 mile upstream from the lake. It receives a stocking of 7,000 steelhead yearlings annually. It is fishable at least up to Route 104, but after the first 3/4 mile it becomes rather narrow and shallow.

Johnson Creek

Flowing through farmland and orchards this small size Orleans County stream is stocked with 6,700 steelhead yearlings. Lake fish can run upstream as far as the dam in Lyndonville, a distance of about 8 miles. This stream is heavily posted. Access may be difficult to find.

Oak Orchard Creek

This medium sized stream is one of the top producing steelhead waters in the western part of the lake. Entering Lake Ontario at Point Breeze in Orleans County, migratory fish have access to the lower 4 miles of this 20 mile stream before reaching a dam at Waterport. The first mile below the dam has a gravel bottom and enough current to offer good fishing conditions. In the lower 3 miles the current slows considerably and is best fished from a boat or canoe. The stretch below the dam can be reached by parking in a lot on the main road and walking down the Niagara Mohawk access road to the creek. Oak Orchard Creek gets 21,000 yearling steelhead annually.

Sandy Creek

A small stream in Monroe County it enters Lake Ontario approximately 3 mile east of Hamlin Beach State Park. Steelhead can migrate upstream at least as far as the town of Murray in
Orleans County a distance of about 10 miles. Sandy Creek is heavily posted in the lower sections but can be accessed by canoe or cartop boat. This stream is stocked with 15,000 steelhead yearlings annually.

Salmon Creek

Beginning in a swamp to the south of Brockport in Monroe County, this small stream flows northeast for approximately 15 miles before entering the lake at Braddock Bay. Lake run fish can only access the lower 5 miles of stream before reaching an impassable dam just above Parma Center Road. Access to the lower part of this stream is limited because of heavy posting above Manitou Road. It receives 5,000 yearling steelhead annually.

Genesee River

This large river begins in Pennsylvania and flows north for over 100 miles before entering Lake Ontario at Rochester in Monroe County. Fish from the lake can migrate upstream for about 5 miles before reaching an impassable falls near Driving Park Avenue in the center of Rochester. An annual stocking of 22,000 yearling steelhead is made in this river. Access is good with numerous sites developed by the City of Rochester, Monroe County and New York State available. The riffle water between the falls and Seth Green Island is wadeable with a rock/rubble bottom. This section receives heavy fishing pressure because the fish tend to stack up here. Below that the river is flat and slow and can be boated or fished from the bank.

Irondequoit Creek

This medium size stream, averaging 15-20 feet in width, enters the lake at Irondequoit Bay in Monroe County on the east side of the City of Rochester. It receives 20,000 yearling steelhead and is also a good quality inland trout stream containing wild brown trout. The stream runs through a combination of residential, park land and wooded areas. Access can be a problem with some sections heavily posted. Steelhead will run at least as far upstream as the Town of Fishers in Ontario County, a distance of approximately 12 miles.

Maxwell Creek

Entering the lake just to the west of Sodus Point in Wayne County this small stream gets stocked with 20,000 yearling steelhead annually. Fish migrating in from the lake can only ascend the stretch from Maxwell Bay upstream for 1/2 mile to an impassable barrier. Fishing pressure can be heavy in this limited area. A parking are is located on the east side of Maxwell bay off Lake Road.

Sterling Creek

Located in Cayuga County this stream is known locally as the West Branch of Sterling Creek to differentiate it from Sterling Valley Creek. It begins in the town of Victory and flows north for 21 miles before emptying into the pond at Fair Haven Beach State Park. Fish migrating up from Lake Ontario only have access to the lower three miles before reaching a dam at Sterling. Currently 6,200 yearling Steelhead are stocked in this stream annually. The stream averages 50 feet in width, has a good constant flow of water over a gravel/silt/clay bottom. The primary area of the stream for steelhead fishing is a 11/4 mile section from Old State Road upstream to the dam in Sterling.

Sterling Valley Creek

This Cayuga County stream is the east branch of Sterling Creek and is similar to the main branch only smaller in size. The headwaters are in Oswego County town of Hannibal from which it flows north for approximately 15 miles and joins Sterling Creek about 11/2 miles up from the
lake. There is an impassable barrier at the Route 104A bridge so all steelhead fishing occurs below this point a distance of about 2 miles of fishable water. It receives a stocking of 9,000 yearling steelhead annually.

Oswego River

The Oswego is a large river with a watershed draining an area of several hundred square miles in central New York before entering Lake Ontario at the City of Oswego. There is about 11/4 miles of fishable water from the harbor upstream to the Varick Dam. Depending on water releases there is some water that can be waded on both sides of the river below the dam. Further downstream the city has constructed concrete walkways with railings from which anglers can fish from shore. This river is stocked with 20,000 yearlings annually and can have fishable numbers of steelhead present from September through May.

Grindstone Creek

Grindstone Creek is a medium sized stream averaging 25 feet wide with a sandy rocky bottom and heavy brush along the banks. It enters Lake Ontario at Selkirk Shores State Park in Oswego County. The State has purchased approximately 3 miles of PFR and constructed 4 parking areas on this stream between the Route 3 crossing and an impassable dam in Fernwood. Below Route 3 where the stream enters the park, it widens out into a long estuary. Some steelhead fishing takes place right at the mouth especially in the fall by anglers using floating egg sacks. This stream receives a stocking of 5,000 yearling steelhead each year.

Salmon River

The Salmon River in Oswego County is without doubt, the most famous steelhead river in New York State if not the entire Northeast. This beautiful and scenic river averages 125 feet wide, has a gravel/cobble bottom and classic pools, runs and riffles. Minimum base flow releases from the Lighthouse Hill hydro-electric dam are helping to make the river a year round fishery. It is the broodstock source for all steelhead and Pacific salmon stocked in the state. To insure that adequate numbers of adults reach the hatchery at Altmar it receives more yearling steelhead than any other river; 120,000 Washington strain and 48,000 Skamania strain annually. There are approximately 15 miles of fishable water from the lake to the dam. Access to the river is excellent with approximately 10 miles of this length covered by PFR easements and numerous fisherman parking areas. Two catch-and-release fly fishing only areas are located upstream of the Village of Altmar.

Little Sandy Creek

This Oswego County stream is not stocked but is one of the few Lake Ontario tributaries that support a run of wild steelhead. It is a small stream averaging 20 feet in width over a bedrock/rubble bottom. Beginning on the Tug Hill Plateau, it flows west through woodland and farms for about 12 miles before entering the lake at Sandy Pond. Access to the stream is good with 2.5 miles of PFR easements and a fisherman parking area on Norton road.

Lindsey Creek

A small swift stream with an ideal gravel bottom approximately 10 miles in length. It enters the lake through Sandy Pond. Located in southern Jefferson and northern Oswego counties this stream is not stocked but receives stray fish from other streams nearby and has documented natural reproduction of wild steelhead. Access is good with some PFR sections and undeveloped parking areas along McDonald Hill road and County Route 87.

Skinner Creek

Located just north of Lindsey Creek this Jefferson County stream also flows into Sandy Pond. It is not stocked but receives a run of wild steelhead and strays from other streams. This stream is wider and deeper than Lindsey Creek and is approximately 15 miles in length. It has good public access with PFR easements and several developed parking areas from Mannsville to the mouth.

South Sandy Creek

This medium sized Jefferson County stream receives a stocking of 28,750 yearling steelhead each year. It is over 20 miles in length but steelhead fishing is limited to the section below Monitor Mills Dam at Ellisburg. It has a good mix of pools and runs with a fair amount of spawning gravel. Stream banks are mostly open making it a good water for fly fishing. There are several fisherman parking areas and PFR easements in the section between Route 3 and Ellisburg.

North Sandy Creek

Physically similar to South Sandy, this stream is not stocked with steelhead but it gets fish straying in from other waters. It has PFR easements in the lower section near the Route 3 crossing and has good steelhead fishing upstream to the village of Belleville.

Stony Creek

This medium sized stream of approximately 15 miles in length enters Lake Ontario at Sawyer Point in Jefferson County. Steelhead can migrate upstream as far as the dam in the Village of Henderson a distance of about 3 miles. It is stocked with 20,700 yearling steelhead annually and has some PFR sections. There are developed parking areas near the mouth and at Route 3.

Black River

The Black River is a large powerful river draining a watershed of several hundred square miles extending well back into the central Adirondacks. Entering the lake through Black River Bay in Jefferson County this river receives 72,000 yearling steelhead annually. Fish ladders at the Dexter Dam and Glen Park hydro project allow steelhead access to approximately 8 miles of the lower river before reaching an impassable barrier at the Mill Street Dam in Watertown. There are several access points for shore fishing including the DEC fisherman parking areas at Van Duzee Street in Watertown, on Fish Island in Dexter and just upstream from the Glen Park hydro project. There is good shoreline and boat fishing access downstream of the Dexter Dam.

Appropriate Tackle

Spin Fishing Tackle

Most anglers using spinning tackle on the Lake Ontario tributaries for steelhead are using "drift fishing" techniques. For this type of fishing the spinning the rod should be long to keep line off the water and sensitive to detect the often soft bite of the steelhead. Graphite is the best material for these rods because of its sensitivity and its lightness to length ratio when compared to fiberglass. Spinning rods should be 8½ to 10 feet in length, have a light to medium action and be rated for 6 - 12 pound test line. Some anglers prefer the ultra long and slow action "noodle rods" which can be up to 14 feet long and rated for 2 - 4 pound test line. The advantage of these rods is they allow for delicate presentations of small baits on very light leaders which are needed when fishing to spooky fish in clear water. Since they bend all the way to the butt they act like shock absorbers making it almost impossible for the fish to break the line. The spinning reel should be an open face design with enough spool capacity to hold at least 150 yards of 8 - 10 pound test line. It is essential that it have a perfectly smooth drag with no sticking or fish will be lost on the initial run. Leaders used by spin fishermen average 2'- 4' in length and 6 pound test.

Fly Fishing Tackle

Although steelhead are strong powerful fighters, you will not need tackle quite as heavy as that used for chinook salmon. It is important to have a rod with enough length to hold line off the water, make quick mends and control the swing of the fly. Preferably the rod should be made of graphite for its lightness and sensitivity needed to detect hits. The ideal steelhead rod for New York's Lake Ontario tributaries would be 10 foot long for 7 weight line, however any rod 9 - 11 foot for 6 - 8 weight line could be used effectively. A rod of this type would work well with either of the two main presentation techniques used by fly anglers (bottom drift-fishing and the classic wet-fly swing). The fly reel is very important in controlling the first lightning fast runs of the fish and protecting the light 4-6 pound test tippets commonly used. It should have a smooth disc drag with enough capacity to hold the line and a minimum of 100 yards of 20 pound test backing. The backing should be a bright color which contrasts with the fly line color. This helps you estimate how much line you have out when a steelhead makes a long run and allows other anglers to see where your line is going so hopefully they won't cast over it. In over 90% of fishing situations your choice of fly line should either a weight forward floating line or a floating running line (.029 - .032 diameter). This latter type of line is commonly used when drift fishing with a fly rod. Leaders don't have to be fancy like those used for trout fishing. Usually they are at least as long as the rod (9' - 12') and composed of a butt section with 6' - 8' of 8 or 10 pound test and a 2' - 4' tippet section of 4 or 6 pound test.

Effective Flies, Baits and Lures

Unlike pacific chinook and coho salmon which no longer feed once they enter streams on their spawning run, steelhead trout will continue to feed to a certain degree when they are in the tributaries. This is especially true of summer and early fall running fish that have many months to go before they spawn in March and April and stream temperatures are high enough to keep their metabolism active. Most of the effective flies, baits and lures represent some type of natural food found in the stream such as fish eggs, mayfly and stonefly nymphs, caddis fly larvae,
leeches, sculpins and small minnows. Some lures are designed to stimulate the curiosity of the fish or trigger its aggressiveness.


Artificial flies are one of the most popular and effective baits used to catch steelhead in Lake Ontario tributaries. Because unlimited combinations of hook size, color and type of material can be put together they can represent just about any of the natural foods present in the stream. They can also be designed to stimulate the fishes natural curiosity or trigger an aggressive response in a fish trying to protect its territory. Steelhead flies can be classified into four main types. These are egg imitating patterns, nymphs, wet fly/streamer types and attractor patterns. Different patterns and sizes are used at various times depending on season (steelhead feed on different things at different times of the year), water temperature, water clarity and flow conditions.

Egg Imitations

All migrating salmonids have an innate attraction to eating fish eggs either their own or other species. It is not known whether this is related to the sexual urges of the spawning run, some survival instinct which tells them to eliminate rivals or a behavior learned when they were juveniles in the stream and eggs were an important part of their diet. What is known is that an egg pattern can be effective at just about any time of the year. Especially good times to use them are the fall when salmon are spawning and again in the spring when the steelhead themselves are spawning. Egg patterns come in many different colors, sizes and styles. Most are quick and simple to tie. Popular colors include peach, orange, hot pink, chartreuse, flame, blue or a combination of two to show an eye spot or nucleus. Hooks range from a size 12 micro-egg to a size 4 glo bug with size 6 or 8 being the most common. Popular patterns are the Glo-Bug, Estaz Egg and Sucker Spawn. Egg patterns are fished "dead drift" just off the bottom.


Most Lake Ontario tributaries have an abundance of mayfly nymphs, stonefly nymphs and caddis fly larvae on their bottoms. These food items are available to the steelhead year round and are an important part of the diet of young pre-migrant fish. Chinook salmon will dislodge thousands of these nymphs while digging their nests on the spawning gravel making them available to the steelhead. Nymph type flies used for steelhead are similar to those used for trout except that they commonly have a touch of flash added such as a wing pad made of a sparkly material. Natural colors such as black, brown and olive work well although some nymphs are constructed entirely with flashy materials in hot fluorescent colors. Bead head style caddis flies are also very effective. Nymphs used for steelhead range in size from 4 to 14 with size 8 and 10 the most common. Popular patterns include: Flashback Gold Ribbed Hares Ear, Pheasant Tail Nymph, Prince Nymph, Chartreuse Montana, Bead Head Caddis and Black Stonefly. Nymph type flies are fished "dead drift" along the bottom.

Wet fly/streamers

These flies are fished off the bottom on an across and downstream swing type of presentation. Generally these patterns work better when stream temperatures are above 45ºF and steelhead are more inclined to chase or follow a fly. Types of natural food represented by these flies includes crayfish, minnows, sculpins, leeches, juvenile trout and salmon, and various aquatic insects which are rising to the surface to hatch out. These flies should be tied with soft materials such as marabou, hen hackle and rabbit fur strips which impart a lot of movement in the water. Like the nymph patterns mentioned above these flies are often "souped up" with a bit of fluorescent color, brass bead or shiny synthetic material added. Sizes range from 2 to 12 with a size 8 the most common. Popular patterns include: Muddler Minnow, Wooly Bugger, Egg Sucking Leech, Bead Head Soft Hackle Hares Ear, Black Marabou Leech, Spade, Black Bear Green Butt and March Brown.


With these patterns you are trying to stimulate the steelhead's natural curiosity or evoke an aggressive response from the fish. The don't really represent any of the natural foods found in the stream. Usually these flies are relatively large, use bright fluorescent colors and have materials that impart a lot of motion in the water. Colors used in attractor patterns include white, purple, chartreuse, flame and orange. Often two sharply contrasting colors will be incorporated in the pattern to get the fishes attention. Sizes used range from 2-6. These flies are fished on an across and downstream swing presentation near the bottom. Popular patterns include: Comet flies, Spey flies, Rabbit Strip Zonkers and Optic streamers.

Natural Baits

The most popular natural bait used when fishing for steelhead in the Lake Ontario tributaries has to be real egg sacks. They should be tied up in smaller sizes than what you would use when salmon fishing ( the size of a dime is about right ). Trout eggs seem to work better than salmon eggs for making these smaller sized sacks. Try using various colors of nylon mesh when making your sacks. Blue is often a very effective color. Worms are another natural bait that is often overlooked by anglers. Garden size seem to work better than large night crawlers. Caution is required when using worms since juvenile trout and salmon may swallow the bait, increasing hooking mortality. This is especially important in May when there are many smolts moving down the rivers. Small silvery minnows either salted or alive drifted though the tail of a pool can be deadly at times. Colored mini marshmallows, cheese balls, small crayfish, leeches, canned corn and burrowing mayfly nymphs (wrigglers) have all been used successfully to catch steelhead in the tributaries.


Steelhead in the streams can be enticed to hit single bladed spinners. Small 1/16 to 1/8 ounce sizes with a gold blade seem to work to best. Some anglers custom make their own using various colored glass beads for the body. These lures are cast across stream an allowed to flutter down through likely holding areas. Remember single point, free swinging hooks must be used on all lures fished in Lake Ontario tributaries from September 1 through March 31 (except floating lures). This rule is subject to change - consult the current NYS Fishing Regulations Guide. Popular brands include Rooster Tails, Mepps, Colorado Spinner, Panther Martin and Blue Fox. Artificial eggs are another commonly used lure on the Lake Ontario tributaries. They come in a variety of colors from hot fluorescent to natural tones. Some are in the shape of clusters, others are impregnated with scent and a few have tails that wiggle in the current. They are all fished dead drift with a single hook just off the bottom. Some of the commercially sold artificial eggs are Jensen Eggs, Crazy Eggs, Berkley Power Bait and Salmonoids. Several styles of floating plugs can be used on steelhead. They are most effective on the larger rivers such as the Oswego, Salmon and Niagara when fished out of a drift boat using a back-trolling technique. In this method two or more plugs are let out behind the boat as the operator maneuvers it to work the plugs through the holding water. The steelhead are forced to the back of the hole where they often decide to attack the plugs rather than be pushed downstream. A wading angler can also use these plugs by positioning himself above a suspected holding lie and working the plug in front of it. The bank angler can use a small plastic side planer device which uses the force of the current to pull the plug across the pool or hold it in a desirable location. Examples of floating plugs used for steelhead include: Hotshots, Wiggle Warts, Tadpollys and Fat Raps. These plugs come in a variety of finishes and colors with hot fluorescent patterns such as flame or chartreuse performing the best.

Steelhead Behavior

Understanding steelhead behavior while they are in the tributaries is important if the angler wants to be successful in pursuing this species. This behavior changes with water conditions, weather conditions, the season and the length of time the fish has been in the stream. Just when you think you have the fish figured out they will surprise you by doing something new. Keep in mind that the sole underlying reason that they leave the relative safety of the open lake and enter a shallow river where they are exposed to constant danger is procreation. Each steelhead is unique, some will enter the rivers in September and spend 8 months or more before spawning while others wait until March when they rush in, spawn and are back down to the lake in a few weeks. But all steelhead seem to have a few traits in common which have been observed and recorded by many of the dedicated anglers pursuing them. Below are listed some of the most important ones.

  • Steelhead prefer to hold in areas with a moderate to fast current flow and of medium depth (3' - 4'). This type of water is commonly described as a "run".
  • If the water is cloudy the fish have a greater sense of security and can be found in water as shallow as one foot.
  • Areas where two currents come together to form a "seam" are prime holding lies.
  • In heavy broken water or rapids look for smooth, glassy patches called "slicks" which may hold a fish or two.
  • Pocket water formed by boulders in fast current is another area which will hold fish.
  • Steelhead often hold above or below structure such as large boulders or logs which buffer the current and provide security.
  • Fish will hold along ledges and just below sharp drop-offs.
  • In a large pool, steelhead usually like to hold in the head and also in the tailout.
  • In March and early April, when the fish are spawning the majority of the fish will be located in gravely riffle areas or holding in deeper runs close to these areas.
  • Unless faced with low water conditions, low water temperatures or heavy angling pressure steelhead do not prefer the bottoms of deep holes like chinook salmon do.
  • Optimum stream temperatures for steelhead (when they will be most active) are 45º to 58º F.
  • In high water conditions the fish will hug the shoreline and the inside of bends to escape the torrent and for easier movement upstream.
  • On large rivers such as the Salmon River, steelhead will stage just downstream from important spawning tributaries such as Trout and Orwell Brooks. Here they will wait for favorable flows and sexual maturity before entering.
  • Steelhead will tend to move upstream on rising and falling water and hold steady in low flows or flooding conditions.
  • Steelhead have an aversion to bright light so on sunny days fishing is best at first light and again during the last hour of daylight.
  • On overcast, rainy days steelhead will remain active and moving all day.
  • When water conditions are right, steelhead can move upstream 3-4 miles in a day.
  • Fish that have only been in the river a few days and those lower in the river are usually the most aggressive and easiest to catch.
  • The longer the steelhead has been in the river the darker in color it will become. A fish with a mint silver color or "chromer" is a fresh run fish that recently left the lake.


It has been said that 10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish. This is certainly true in steelhead fishing. The experts who really have a passion for the sport spend a great deal of time in pre-trip planning and preparation. They study the weather patterns, purchase topographic maps of the river, call local tackle shops for stream conditions and carefully check all their tackle and equipment. There is no short- cut to success. These anglers spend their time on the river wisely by observing and trying to learn something new each trip out. Many record their fish caught in a fishing log book along with other notes such as water temperatures, stream conditions, successful flies or baits used and new holding areas discovered. The goal of all this preparation is to be in the right place on the right river at the right time with the right equipment to have the best chance of connecting with one of these magnificent creatures.

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing is a method of presenting your bait in a free floating manner along the stream just off the bottom. Ideally it should be moving at slightly less than the current speed and appear unattached. Position yourself across from or across and slightly upstream from the suspected holding lie. The closer you can get to the lie without spooking the fish the better. Cast across or across and upstream (depending on current speed). Have the least amount of weight added to your line that is necessary to get your bait down to near the bottom without constantly hanging up. As your rig drifts back to a position opposite you, raise your rod tip up towards the vertical to minimize the amount of line on the water. You want to just maintain contact with your bait without causing drag or pulling it towards the surface. You should occasionally feel the weight ticking along the bottom. As the rig passes you, turn your upper body to follow the drift and slowly lower the rod until the line and rig are directly below you. During the drift watch your line where it enters the water. Hits can be detected by any slight hesitation, upstream movement or slight tug on the line. If you see or feel any thing strange raise the rod quickly about 6 inches in a pre-hook set to determine if a steelhead has taken the bait. If you feel the fish set the hook by sweeping the rod down and to the side. Resist the urge to strike by raising your rod up and back as this action will usually pull the bait right out of the fishes mouth. The drift fishing method is used by both fly and spin fishermen to present flies, egg sacks, worms, yarn balls and a variety of other natural and artificial baits. Some drift fishermen use a bobber or float with the bait suspended on a light leader slightly shorter than the depth of the water being fished. Split shot are attached 12" above the bait to keep it down near the bottom. If the float hesitates or stops a lift of the rod is made to confirm the take by a fish. Bobber fishing is usually only practical when fishing water less than 6 feet deep over a uniform bottom without a lot of other anglers close by.

Across and Downstream Swing

This method works best with spinners, wet flies and streamers in areas of moderate current speed such as runs, tail out of pools or deep riffles. It is most effective when the water temperature is above 45ºF because the fishes metabolism is more active and they will be more inclined to follow a lure. It also is a good method to use when the fish are on the spawning gravel in March and early April as it can trigger an aggressive response. Position yourself upstream from the suspected holding area. Make your cast directly across or across and slightly upstream allowing the lure or fly to sink rapidly until it is just off the bottom. As it as it passes a position 45 degrees below you the line should come under tension and it should begin swinging in an arc across the stream just off the bottom. Ideally the lure will pass in front of the fish at eye level causing the fish to follow or strike. Usually there will be no doubt in the anglers mind that a fish is on because the strike is hard and violent with the fish hooking itself. Sometimes the line just stops during the swing however and the angler needs to pull up slightly on the rod to see if a fish is there or the lure is hung up on the bottom.

Playing and Landing the Steelhead

Most steelhead are lost within the first 10 seconds after the hookup. The explosive power and speed of these fish when first hooked is amazing! Often it is seemingly all over before it began. The angler is left dumbfounded wondering what just happened. A broken leader and the frozen image of a huge silver fish suspended in the air a few feet above the river is all that remains. During these first crucial seconds of the battle any little mistake made by the angler or flaw in his equipment usually results in a lost fish. It is important to get any loose line back on the reel as quickly as possible. Don't try to stop or turn the fish on the first long run, you can't. Just hold the rod tip up and let the reel's drag do the work. It should be set tight enough to put some pressure on the fish and prevent the spool from over running, but not strong enough to break your leader. Sometimes the fish will charge directly at the angler. If this happens you must reel furiously to try and keep the line tight otherwise the slack will often allow the hook to work free. If the steelhead gets a great distance downstream from you in fast water you usually have to follow it and try to get below it. One trick that will sometimes turn a fish running downstream is to lower the rod and open the bail on the reel or throw a lot of slack line off a fly reel. When the fish feels the line go slack it will sometimes stop and turn back upstream. The idea situation is when the fish is running upstream where it has to fight both the current and your drag. Keep the pressure on the fish and fight it by holding the rod low to the water and switching from one side to the other. This will keep the fish off balance and you will be able to turn and tire it more quickly. Don't over play the fish to exhaustion, especially if you intend to release it. With the fish near the surface and tiring, use the rod to lead it into a wide mouth net held by your partner who should be positioned below you. If by yourself the best method of landing a steelhead is to pick an area of the shoreline with a smooth shallow bottom without snags and guide the fish with the rod tip so that it swims head first up on the beach. A wool glove on one hand will help you hold the fish and a pair of needle nose pliers or hemostat will aid in hook removal. If the fish is to be released try to keep it in the water while you remove the hook. When taking a picture have the camera ready before lifting the fish out of the water for a quick shot. To release the fish hold it upright facing into the current until it regains its strength and can swim away.

The Future of the Steelhead Fishery

The goal of providing a healthy stable steelhead fishery year after year in Lake Ontario and its tributaries is a complex one for biologists and managers. Successful steelhead management is not a simple "assembly line like" process of stocking more fish to get larger returning runs. The angler needs to realize that steelhead are just one component of a vast and complex interacting ecosystem. Any ecosystem such as the Lake Ontario watershed is dynamic and in a constant state of change brought on by both natural and man-made factors. To successfully manage a species like steelhead biologists have to look at the ecosystem as a whole. Lake Ontario has been effected by many changes in the last 40 years including pollution control, the explosion of the cormorant population and the accidental introduction of unwanted exotic species. The Clean Water Act of 1964 began the process which resulted in drastically reducing the amount of phosphorus entering the lake. This caused a drop in the lakes ability to produce food (primary productivity) which was first observed in the early 1990's. The invasion of the zebra mussels, spiny water flea, ruffe and round goby in the last two decades have effected food chains and increased water clarity. Cormorants ( a fish eating bird) have caused problems by preying heavily on recently stocked fish and competing with salmon and trout for available prey fish. Another piece of the puzzle in developing a successful steelhead management plan is the human factor. Conflicts between various angler groups, pressure from business owners and tourism interests, the increase in fishing pressure and controversy over tackle restrictions and regulations all become part of the mix. Fortunately for anglers the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has a dedicated and professional staff of researchers, ecologists, biologists, technicians and fish culturists. They work hard everyday to protect Lake Ontario and its tributaries from further damage by man's activities. They are constantly working on ways to maintain and improve the steelhead fishery. Some of the recent and on-going projects related to steelhead include the Cooperative Pen Rearing Projects at Oswego, Oak Orchard and Niagara River; a tagging study on the Salmon River to determine optimal stocking sites; creel surveys to determine angler harvest; the wild juvenile steelhead surveys on several Lake Ontario tributaries; and the annual monitoring of adult steelhead returning to the Salmon River Fish Hatchery to determine age, growth and survival. New York State's fish hatchery system has a central role in maintaining a quality steelhead fishery by the careful selection of broodstock, fish disease monitoring and prevention, striving to produce the largest size yearlings for stocking and careful transport and release of the hatchery product. The angler can also do his part in helping to protect the future of the steelhead fishery in Lake Ontario. Participate constructively in public meetings and comment periods concerning the resource and proposed regulations. Cooperate when asked to give information on your catch for creel surveys. Show good sportsmanship when on the water. Obey the rules and regulations on daily limits and tackle restrictions. Be aware of the health advisory on eating steelhead from Lake Ontario (currently recommended at no more than 1 meal/month). Practice catch and release or voluntarily lower your limit. Learn to get along with your fellow angler on todays crowded rivers. With all of us working together to protect, conserve and wisely use this resource the steelhead fishery of Lake Ontario should have a bright future in the new millennium.

Basic Tackle Setups

Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing Setup

Spin Fishing

Spin Fishing Setup