When discussions of winter steelhead fisheries arise, most conversations lead to popular fisheries such as the Salmon River or Niagara River. But there are other options out there; some can rival the big boys when it comes to numbers of trophy sized trout. The Black River in Dexter, NY, is the northern most steelhead stream along the American side of Lake Ontario.
While fish ladders allow steelhead to migrate up through the city of Watertown, most of the action takes place below the first dam in Dexter. Since the dam is only a few miles from the open waters of Lake Ontario, fresh run steelhead and browns appear at the dam throughout the fall and winter. As with any trout fishery, there are prime times and preferred gear that takes fish on a consistent basis.
Eggs, Eggs and more Eggs
It’s no secret that winter steelhead and browns love eggs, whether it’s the real deal or imitations thereof. The trick to picking the right bait is being tuned into the fishery and having a few options available. Jason Hamilton of Under the Float Guide Service is an egg fishing junkie and has a pulse on this fantastic fishery. “The Black has a reputation for its strong fall salmon run, but most folks don’t realize how good the steelhead and brown trout fishery can be,” says Jason.
“I find that Trout Beads are hard to beat in the fall when eggs are prevalent from the spawning salmon. But as we transition into winter, the fish tend to prefer real eggs tied in sacs.” As for the eggs, Jason will utilize eggs lightly cured in Pautzke’s Borx O Fire or straight fresh eggs. “The bite can change on a daily basis; some days the fish will take the cured eggs as fast as you can feed them and ignore the eggs on the next day. Having a variety of eggs will keep you on the bite!”
Be sure to mix up the netting colors when tying eggs sacs. The same blue netting that is popular to the south on the Salmon River works well here. But since the Black runs with a heavy tannic stain, bright netting is also a good bet. Bring a healthy mix of pink, white and chartreuse, the latter being the color preferred by the trophy browns that lurk here.
Float Fishing Reigns Supreme
The bottom of the Black River is strewn with boulders and broken rock, so bottom bouncing is difficult at best. Float fishing is the method Jason prefers to present his egg sacs. “There are fast runs and deep holes below the dam in Dexter that are ideal for float fishing,” comments Jason. “I find that big floats, those that can hold 12-20 grams of weight, are necessary to get your bait down and stay down in the swirling, heavy currents of the Black River. The fish aren’t as picky about the presentation as they can be about the bait.”
With the big floats, make it a point to bump up your mainline and leaders to handle big fish in the heavy flows; 10-14 pound mainline and 8 pound fluorocarbon leaders are standard gear for this fishery. Be sure to check your hook points and leaders often as the ragged bottom can chew up terminal tackle, which can lead to lost fish if not checked often.
Change up with plugs
The best steelheaders are well versed in several disciplines; it pays to know several techniques in case the fish ignore the usual presentations. For Jason, running plugs through the prime holding lies can produce some extra bites on really tough days. “I usually run plugs when the float bite dies off; there are just days when the fish have had enough eggs and you need to change things up” Jason told me on a recent outing. “I prefer a plug that can run deep and stay down in big currents; Wiggle Warts are hard to beat in the winter, their wide wobbling action drives stale fish nuts!”
As with most plug fisherman, Jason like to run four rods with the lures set back at the same distance. “I like to put a wall of plugs back to the fish. They can’t take it when all the plugs come wobbling back in their house. Sooner or later, they are gonna whack one!” Color preference can vary, but bright metallic colors produce most often. Start with a variety of colors and let the fish tell you what they want. When the plug bite gets dialed in, double hook ups are not uncommon!
The winter weather in upstate New York can be brutal, but those nasty windy days can often be the best. Several years ago, I was headed south on I-81 from Alexandria Bay with some Canadian friends bound for the Salmon River. Problem was a snow squall overnight had the highway coated and treacherous. Being Thanksgiving Day, we had limited time to fish and decided to get off the highway in Watertown and take our chances on the Black River.
Thank goodness we did because we landed 20 steelhead and 6 browns that morning, even as the snow squalls picked back up making visibility nearly impossible at times. Bring all the warm clothes you can manage and be ready for snow and wind. If you do, you will be rewarded with trophy trout and a lack of fishing pressure. – Reference: Lake Ontario Outdoors
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