“When the water receded to 200 cfs around 5pm March 19th, I landed two beauties(one around 18″) in the trophy section using #6 black stoneflies fished at the head of a pool. Sunset was around 6:30pm.” Matt Chapple”
The lower portion of the West Canada from Trenton Falls flowing south through a picturesque valley to the Mohawk River at Herkimer is one of Central New York’s premier trout streams.
It offers everything a fly-fisher could dream. It has deep pools, long runs, classic riffle water, large brown trout, and good aquatic insect populations. There is also a year round fishery. The section from the dam at Trenton falls to the bridge at route 28 is open year round. This section is catch and release and only artificial lures may be used.
The West Canada has good populations of stoneflies. During the winter months, fishing stonefly nymphs sizes #6 to #12 will produce fish when fished slow and deep. Hatches of caddis and mayflies start in the spring and continue throughout the summer and into the fall.
Hatches start with some Quill Gordons (Epeorus pleuralis) in April, but the hatches become heavier in May with the emergence of the Hendricksons (Ephemerella subvaria). There are a variety of mayfly hatches and nice caddis hatches throughout the season well into the autumn, so be prepared with Elk Hair Caddis with green, tan, or gray bodies as well as Caddis emergers and pupa which are effective patterns at times when fish selectively feed on ascending caddis.
Comparaduns and sparkle duns are good patterns for the slick long pools during mayfly hatches. Some other exciting hatches are the Golden Drakes (Potamanthus distinctus) in July, the White Fly (Ephoron leukon) in August and September, and Blue Winged Olives in the autumn.
When fish are not surface feeding, nymphs and streamers will also take fish. I have taken some my biggest fish fishing nymphs on the West Canada. Prince Nymphs, Stonefly imitations, Woolly Buggers, and streamers with a touch of yellow or chartreuse can be effective.
Access to the West Canada Creek is very good. Route 28 follows along the creek for the entire stretch and provides numerous access points. No need to stay just in the catch and release section as there are fish throughout the river. The West Canada Creek is subject to releases from the dam. A water level of 900 cubic feet per second is a nice fishable level, but levels from 500 to 600 are my personal favorite.
The winter season is typically long, cold and gray in central New York. Through this long cold winter season, fly-fishing is without any major insect hatches. The other three seasons are graced with some beautiful hatches possibly starting with the Hendrickson’s in the spring and ending in late fall with caddis flies and olive mayflies. Through the winter, just the sight of an insect can give the bright optimism of spring and create a vision of the season to come.
When the majority of fly-fishers think of hatches, the first type of insects that come to mind are the delicate mayflies, which are synonymous with the sport. In central New York mayflies are not the first insects to hatch. Every year, when there is a wintertime thaw or on a sunny day in late winter or early spring, little black or brown stoneflies begin to emerge from central New York streams and rivers . These insects can be seen on various streams throughout the region including Finger Lakes tributaries, Lake Ontario tributaries and various other inland streams. The best and easiest place to see them is on a snow bank. If there is still snow along the stream banks when they hatch, they are easily observed. Their black/dark brown bodies against the white snow make them stick right out. If the snow is not there, looking at some bushes, trees, boulders or any other structure along the stream banks on a warm day is the next approach to spotting them. Some days they can be seen flying after they have dried their wings and then you know the hatch is happening.
The fishing can be productive with stonefly imitations during these early stonefly hatches if there is a heavy enough hatch and the fish key in on the insects. Imagine that the immature forms will become dislodged from the underwater rocks from which they emerge and will attempt to swim and become available to trout. Stoneflies do not emerge like most mayflies and caddis, but on the contrary will swim and crawl along the bottom of the stream until they reach the edge and then they will crawl along the rock bank to dry their wings and prepare for flight . Often times the water temperature is warm enough for them to hatch but air temperature is still cold so the wings will not fully develop, which is interesting to see as they crawl across the snow with the wings still in the wing case. Since stoneflies are crawlers and are not available on the ascent from the water like many aquatic insects associated with trout fly fishing, it can be easy to miss a small hatch. My success with little black /dark brown patterns through the winter into the spring is enough to convince me that the trout are focusing on these insects. If your lucky and adults emerge but fall back to the waters surface, trout may feed on the surface. This can be the first dry fly action of the season in central New York.
A semi-deep slow presentation will be essential during these early hatches due to cold water temperatures and to mimic the crawling behavior of these little stoneflies. Don’t neglect letting the fly swing at the end of the dead drift as fish are sometimes triggered into the bite by the movement of the fly across their field of vision. This is always the best way to hook a fish!!
Here are some flies to try during the stonefly hatch:
Pheasant Tail Wet Fly
Hook: Nymph hook size 12-16
Thread: Olive 8/0
Tail: Pheasant Tail fibers
Abdomen: Pheasant Tail Fibers
Rib: Fine Copper Wire
Thorax: Peacock Herl
Legs: Hungarian Partridge(two turns at the head)
This one has been good on the West Canada in the winter.
Hook: nymph hook 6-14
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Brown Goose Biots (split)
Abdomen: Angora goat Fur
Rib: Vinyl rib
Thorax: Angora Goat Fur
Wing Case: Turkey Tail
Collar: Black Hackle
I have used this pattern to take browns, steelhead and landlocked salmon.
Hook: Scud Hook 10-14
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Black Marabou
Body: Black Micro Chenille
Hackle: Black Palmered and Clipped
This is a good winter steelhead fly.
Hook: Scud hook 10-16
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Black hackle fibers (4-5)
Body: Black Rabbit mixed with green and red Flashabou
Landlocked Atlantic Salmon caught and released in the fall of 2003
History in New York
Of all the salmon species that exist in New York’s waters today, including Chinook, Coho, Pink and Sockeye, only the Atlantic Salmon is native to the state. Lake Ontario once supported a population of wild Atlantic Salmon. This population may have originated from the anadromous form which is one that lives a large part of its life in the ocean and spawns in freshwater. The anadromous form may have migrated up the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario and into its tributaries and never returned to the Atlantic Ocean but used Lake Ontario or the Finger Lakes as a substitute for the ocean. This form of Atlantic Salmon is referred to as “Landlocked”, and this population of Landlocked Atlantic Salmon was once quite large and there were major spawning runs that existed in the Salmon River system, Oswego River system, and the Genesee River system as well as others. The loss of suitable spawning habitat caused the decline and subsequent extinction of New York’s Atlantic Salmon population. Some of the major contributors towards the loss of spawning habitat were, dams which blocked access to prime spawning areas, agricultural run off which covered spawning areas with silt, and the removal of stream-side trees which caused increased water temperatures, over harvesting, and water pollution. By the late 1800’s the native Lake Ontario salmon were gone.
New York at Present
At present there are many lake and tributary systems across New York State that have populations of Landlocked Atlantic Salmon. Unfortunately these populations are maintained by annual stocking programs. There is very little if any natural reproduction due to the presence of a small fish commonly called an alewife, which is not native to Lake Ontario or the Finger Lakes. The Alewife invaded the Great Lakes and reached a peak in the 1950’s. Two examples are Lake Ontario and Cayuga Lake which both harbor populations of Alewives. The skin of the Alewife contains an enzyme (thiaminase) not found in the natural forage base of the Atlantic Salmon. This enzyme causes the breakdown vitamin B-1 (thiamine) which is essential to successful growth of the alevin stage of the atlantic salmon. With this vitamin deficiency the alevin usually die. Although natural reproduction does not occur, many stocked Atlantic Salmon return to the streams were they were stocked and can be viewed as they spawn from mid October to mid November during the peak of spawning activity. Unlike pacific salmon such as Chinook and Coho which have also been introduced into some New York’s waters, some Atlantic Salmon may return to their home lake after spawning and may return to spawn again. So they can sometimes become quite large, which is a good reason to practice catch and release. There is research being conducted in a combined effort between Universities, state and government agencies to determine the feasibility of Atlantic Salmon restoration to New York. At present through stocking programs Atlantic Salmon can be found in Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes, some Adirondack lakes and Lake Champlain. Recently programs to re-introduce the native forage fish of Atlantic Salmon are being investigated.
Fly-fishing for Atlantic Salmon
The Atlantic Salmon is still regarded as one of the top game fish in New York. They are known for their hard runs and incredible leaping ability which makes fishing for them an exciting experience. New York anglers can use a variety of fly-fishing techniques at various times of the year to fish for Atlantic Salmon. In the spring when off shore water temperatures are still cold salmon can be found along shorelines feeding on bait fish and they also may enter the lower stretches of tributaries to feed on schools of bait fish, such as the rainbow smelt or alewives. In the Lake Ontario tributary system they may enter a river in the spring and stay in the river until spawning in the fall. Streamer patterns that mimic small bait fish are effective at this time. A 9 to 11 foot 6 weight fly rod or even a longer 12 foot plus rod are good choices for battling the wind and casting streamers in the early spring conditions. Sink tip or sinking lines work well but at certain times a floating line can be used when salmon are in close to shore chasing bait fish near the surface. When salmon move into the lower stretches of tributaries following the smelt or other baitfish they will often feed furiously, but the action often does not last long as they move out as quickly as they entered the tributary, which will require being in the right place at the right time. Swinging the streamer as well as varying the retrieve with quick stripping motions will entice salmon to strike when they are chasing baitfish.
During the spawning season when salmon move upstream in search of a mate, the fly-fishing strategies are somewhat different. The salmon are not moving into the stream in search of food as they are in the spring, but enter as a result of an instinct to spawn. Although it is commonly thought that they are not feeding, they will still strike a variety of flies possibly out of aggression and territoriality, including dry flies, as they protect their spawning areas or hold in a pool during their migration. Post spawn salmon may also resume feeding and can become veracious feeders. Salmon can be taken using a variety of techniques and patterns in the fall. Stripping and swinging streamers is one method as salmon can violently strike a streamer as it moves through the area in which the salmon has taken temporary residence or where the female has prepared a spawning bed. Swinging small wet flies and nymphs will also produce strikes. When the water temperatures start to drop in late fall and winter and the salmon in the tributaries become less active and the salmon will be less likely to move aggressively and will be more likely to strike a nymph on the dead drift, but will occasionally grab a well presented streamer pattern.
Atlantic Salmon, the only native salmon to New York, is a prime example of how the pressure of modern human civilization can cause the decline of wildlife. Although the wild salmon are gone from New York, there is still opportunity to see salmon as they take part in their annual spawning migration. As they are truly one of the most exciting fish to pursue with a fly rod.
Effective Wet-fly Nymph
The soft partridge hackle has lifelike action in the water, making the fly appear alive, like a swimming, struggling, or emerging nymph or small fish. This fly can be fished using various techniques including the dead drift, the wet-fly swing, and in slow water they can be retrieved using a very slow stripping action. All of these techniques I have found to be effective at various times and conditions while fishing for New York’s Atlantic Salmon.
Olive Bead-head Wet
Hook: curved nymph hook 4-12
Thread: olive 6/0
Tail: pheasant tail fibers
Abdomen: Olive hare’s mask spun in a brush
Rib: fine gold wire
Thorax: peacock herl
Collar: Hungarian partridge two turns
Head: Two turns peacock herl and gold bead
Releasing a beautiful Landlocked Atlantic Salmon back to the stream
NICE RAINBOW brings a smile. Matt landed this nice female rainbow using a #8 Reddish Brown Hare’s Ear nymph on April 11th, 2001 at about 1:00pm. It was 27 inches and weighed in at over 7 pounds. He immediately released it saying “She will lay eggs this year and come back next year again to help create more of these beautiful fish.”
Before steelhead were established in Lake Ontario and its tributary system in the late 1960’s; rainbow trout were introduced into the Finger Lakes tributary system. Stocking and management established substantial runs by the 1950’s and runs still exist today.
There are many tributaries throughout the Finger Lakes region that receive runs of rainbow trout. Fish will start to run in the fall and continue to enter the creeks during late winter thawing periods and some will enter as spring progresses. When water temperatures start to rise, spawning will commence. During warm winters many of the early run fish will spawn in the late winter and these fish may return to the lake by the time April arrives. Anglers can intercept these early spawning fish in the lower stretches of the creeks as they drop back to the lakes and hold in the deeper pools. Fish returning to the lake after spawning can really turn on and feed ravenously as they need to build energy depleted during the spawning process. Other years, with a late thaw, there can be fish still arriving in April, and can often be seen moving upstream or darting up a riffle, well into April. With the right timing Finger Lakes tributaries offer excellent opportunities to fly fish for some beautiful Rainbows through April into May. Most range from 2-5 pounds, but some tributaries will draw an occasional 8-10-pound giants that some old timers refer to as “knot testers.”
Many Finger Lakes tributaries that receive runs of rainbow trout are small and are often lined with trees and bushes. When fly fishing these smaller streams long casts are often not a necessity, making roll casting critical. An 8 1/2 to 10 foot, five to seven weight rod and a floating fly line is a good outfit for the smaller creeks. Developing creative casting techniques and being aware of obstructions within your casting area are necessary when fishing smaller creeks. One cast I have used frequently in the smaller waters, is to use the resistance cast or flip. This is a very simple cast and uses the resistance of the water to load the rod. This cast starts by resting some fly line in the water downstream of where you are and then perform one hard casting stoke to flick the line upstream a short distance to a target ahead of where you want the fly to drift or swim. This technique limits false casts and motion, which can spook fish on smaller tributaries and will also avoid back-casts which can hit overhanging branches, trees or bushes. Leader length and tippet diameter is determined by water clarity. During high off color water conditions a short leader (7-8 feet) and 3 feet of six or eight pound tippet can be used because the sight distance of the fish is much shorter and they will not be spooked by the leader. As the creeks clear, I typically lengthen the leader and reduce tippet diameter when dead drifting flies or switch to swinging flies which is a technique that always presents the fly with the leader upstream of the fly. These fish can be leader shy and spooky during clear water situations. Four-pound test can help with a natural presentation when fishing a nymph pattern during low clear water conditions. A combination of an eight to nine foot leader and a three feet of tippet will give sufficient separation between the fly line and fly . Bead head or weighted nymphs help get the fly down. A small tin split shot on the leader or attached to the a tag left at the tippet to leader connection can also aid in sinking the fly. I like to avoid the use of heavy split shot, and like to stick with small sizes, especially during low clear water conditions as losing flies to the river bed can be frustrating. When the rainbows are biting they will rise up to take a drifting nymph or move to take a swinging fly which is much more satisfying than dredging the bottom and potentially hooking a resting fish.
Coming from the security of a deep lake, these fish are very wary and easily spooked when they move into a small tributary. Angler pressure combined with the natural instincts of fish to avoid predators will drive them into cover, so I always use caution when approaching the creek-side keeping an eye out for fish and I always wear a nice pair of polarized sunglasses to aid in sighting fish as well as help to see the stream bottom . Good places to find lake run rainbows are, in deep holes, undercut banks, log -jams, around boulders, in plunge pools, or some heavy riffle water with a little depth.
Small to medium sized nymphs are one effective way to entice Finger Lakes rainbows into biting a fly. Some good patterns to try are small bead-head nymphs, hare body nymphs, and wet flies.
Pheasant Tail Wet
Hook: Nymph 8-14
Thread: olive 8/0
Tail: Pheasant tail fibers
Abdomen: Pheasant Tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire
Thorax: Peacock herl
Legs: Hungarian partridge (one or two turns)
Squirrel Hair Nymph
Hook: Nymph 8-12
Thread: Olive 8/0
Tail: Gray, dyed olive or Black squirrel fur
Abdomen: Gray squirrel fur
Rib: Peacock Krystal Flash
Thorax: Same as abdomen Squirrel Fur (teased out)
Wing Case: Peacock herl
Bead Head Olive Wet Fly
Hook: Nymph 6-14
Thread: olive 8/0
Tail: Olive Hare’s mask
Abdomen: Olive hare’s mask
Rib: Fine gold wire
Thorax: Peacock herl
Legs: Hungarian partridge (one or two turns)
Head: Gold Bead
Peacock herl has a natural iridescence and seems to increase the effectiveness of any fly pattern.
The Finger Lakes region has excellent opportunities to challenge the fly-fisherman in search of powerful lake-run rainbow trout.
Fly fishing for brook trout and then brown trout in the Catskills spawned the beginning of a whole new generation of fly fishers and fly fishing literature, which is now the basis of fly fishing lore in America.
The history of the brown trout in New York and the United States began in the late 1800s. Fred Mather, working for the U. S. Fish Commission, was sent to a fish cultural exposition in Berlin, Germany, there he met Friedrich Felix von Behr. Friedrich von Behr was a wealthy sportsman and the president of the German Fish Culturists Association. The two became friends and von Behr took Mather fishing to some streams in the German Black Forest, where Mather experienced fishing for a different species of trout, the brown trout. This relationship spawned the import of brown trout eggs to America and the first eggs arrived in the U. S. around February 1883. Some of the eggs went to the hatchery at Cold Spring Harbor, NY and some went to Caledonia, NY. Others were shipped to Michigan. These shipments contained both the lake form, Seeforelle, and the brook form, Bachforelle. Later shipments from Germany, Scotland, and England, were also used in streams in the U. S. and the fish quickly established self sustaining populations. One example is New York’s Beaverkill, where brown trout thrived and fish of up to eight pounds were recorded. The brown trout in the Beaverkill developed a reputation as a more wary and difficult fish to catch, which gave rise to a new fly fishing culture and thus was the beginning of a whole new generation of fly fishers and fly fishing literature, which is now the basis of fly fishing lore in America.
Brown trout are now stocked stocked throughout New York state. There are populations in both lakes and streams throughout the state and there is also abundant natural reproduction and there are also streams managed as wild brown trout fisheries.
In New York there are both stream resident and lake run brown trout. There is an immense variety of coloration among brown trout in New York. Brown trout can have both red and black spots. Some forms that spend much of their time in deep lakes may lack red spots and may take on a silvery appearance. Brown trout coloration and spot distribution also varies depending on diet and the stream or lake in which it lives.
Brown trout are fall spawners. Spawning is initiated when water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and daylight shortens. The female brown trout will construct a spawning area called a “redd” in a shallow gravelly area by swimming on her side using her tail to clean the gravel. This may take a few days. This activity will attract attention from males. The males will then compete to determine who will fertilize the eggs. The number of eggs deposited depends on the size of the female. Successfully fertilized eggs will develop over winter and hatch in the spring. Brown trout living in lakes and feeding on fish can live up to 15 years. The typical steam brown trout will live for four years and grow to 15 to 20 inches.
The diet of the brown trout consists of aquatic invertebrates and insects as well as crustaceans and small fish and some terrestrial insects. In lakes the brown trout can grow very large, specimens of over 10 pounds are periodically caught in tributaries of Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes.
Fly-fishing and Brown Trout
Fly fishing for brown trout is both challenging and enjoyable. Due to their selective nature when feeding and their very wary behavior, the pursuit of brown trout can require educated fly selection and careful and precise fly fishing techniques. The eyes of the brown trout are adapted to see in dim light, due to the abundance of rod cells in the retina. This can mean fishing can continue after dark and can be good on dark poor weather days. Brown trout can be taken on a variety of flies. During hatches of aquatic insects brown trout will often feed exclusively on a specific insect and will even feed on a specific stage of the insect which spawned the phrase “match the hatch,” where the angler must closely mimic the exact size, shape and sometimes color of the brown trout’s selected food. Lake run fish in the Finger Lakes will often hit a swinging streamer which mimics a small fish. This is also an exciting way to fish for brown trout in New York. Fishing with subsurface patterns such as stonefly, mayfly, caddis and midge imitations will also produce when fishing for lake run and stream resident forms, when insects are not emerging from the water. Fly-fishing for brown trout is both fun and challenging and the angler with persistence will be rewarded with a beautiful trout.