Going to Combat for Lake-Run Brown Trout

One fish that has eluded me on the fly rod is the Great Lakes brown trout. Both New York and Pennsylvania now have thriving Great Lakes brown trout stocking programs. The program in New York is more mature and in late October, these brown trout that commonly grow to 30” and larger come into the Lake Ontario tributaries to spawn. Last week I was doing some research on where I’d have the best shot at catching one of these giants and the two bodies of water that kept coming up in my research were both located in western New York, the Oak Orchard and 18 Mile Creeks. I found a video on YouTube that was posted in 2015 by Holsinger’s Fly Shop, and in it, they discuss the great run of lake-run brown trout, steelhead, and salmon that comes up the 18 Mile Creek through Newfane, New York. After watching several other videos, I decided I had to head to Newfane to see if I could hook-up with one of these brown trout.

 Looking downstream on 18 Mile Creek toward the old trestle bridge.

Looking downstream on 18 Mile Creek toward the old trestle bridge.

Ironically, the western part of New York near Newfane and Olcott was one of the only areas in the Lake Erie and Ontario region that did not receive heavy rains late last week. Last Friday afternoon the Salmon River was on the way to 1,800CFS at Pineville, so high that even the DSR was forced to close for fishing for the weekend. Erie was in the same situation although they were in desperate need of rain and a kick-start to the steelhead run. Newfane was the logical place to head and fish in good conditions.

Early Saturday morning I made the almost six hour drive to Newfane. After several cups of coffee, a couple hours of Coast-to-Coast AM and a lot of Blake Shelton, I arrived in Newfane around 7:00am. Just north of Newfane off Rt. 78 there’s a dam on 18 Mile Creek named Burt Dam. The dam completely impedes any migrating fish from moving further upstream. It is at the dam and a half-mile below it where all fishing is concentrated. Because of the popularity of the location with anglers, the town has set up a parking area at the dam called Burt Dam Fishermen’s Park. When you arrive you have to pay $3 to park in the lot for the day.

After entering the lot, I had a tough time finding parking because the lot was so full. But I found a spot, got all my gear together, set-up the GoPro and started my hike down to 18 Mile Creek. It wasn’t so much a hike as it was just walking down a steep hill. The creek sits right next to the parking lot. As I came down the hill I realized that this was going to be a very different fishing experience than the Salmon River fly fishing zones or the Douglaston Salmon Run access. From the very first section of fishable water, guys were lined up shoulder to shoulder with no more than five to ten feet between each other. In most fishing circles, this type of fishing is referred to as “combat fishing.” This is because fishing lines are often crossed and tangled, people argue about position on the water, and occasionally fist fights even break out.

 The Burt Dam spillway where the "combat fishing" gets heaviest.

The Burt Dam spillway where the "combat fishing" gets heaviest.

I headed upriver to scope out the entire area. A brief overview of the fishable water goes like this. You can start fishing at the bottom of the Burt Dam spillway. Here there is a large pond and tail-out. This area then narrows into a shallower run that moves a couple hundred yards downstream to a rocky flats area mixed with shallow pockets of water and occasional channels. The river then flows through another run to an old train trestle where the creek widens and deepens to water that is unfishable unless accessing it with a boat. There were fishermen in almost every part of the fishable water. The most mind blowing was at the dam where there must’ve been 50-75 anglers in the water standing in a big circle, all casting toward the middle at a large pod of fish that had nowhere to run. I decided to focus my fly fishing efforts on the flats area as I noticed there were several areas of 30-40 yards of water that no one was fishing because it looked unproductive. However, after getting into the water and exploring, I realized these areas were rich with fish because there was limited fishing pressure there. As I was searching through my fly box I watched a half-dozen large Chinook salmon cruise into the shallow riffle in front of me. Then almost unnoticeable just a couple of feet behind them, there they were, a couple of large lake-run brown trout. The brown trout stay right on the heels of the salmon as they deposit eggs on the gravel and they are looking for stray eggs to dine on. With so many guys throwing standard bright egg patterns and salmon flies at these fish, I decided to try a different tactic. I tied on a black, very natural looking Stonefly with rubber legs. After several drifts, one of the Chinooks snatched my fly and I was hooked up with my first fish. I spent several hours fishing that general area of the creek and had many hook-ups with salmon, but only brought three to hand. The fishing pressure started to lighten during the midafternoon and didn’t pick-up again until evening. At that point, a lot of guys came back out on the river and there was a noticeable increase in fish movement as the lowlight conditions set-in. All day Saturday I watched good-sized brown trout working their way upstream. I spent a couple hours really focused on trying to get one of them to take an egg pattern but was unable to connect.

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As I left the lot on Saturday afternoon I was a happy salmon fishermen, but I wasn’t able to accomplish my goal and it was all I could think about. I decided to grab a room for the night in Lockport and come back in the morning and see if I could connect with a brown trout.

On Sunday morning I woke early, grabbed breakfast at Denny’s and made it to the water around 7:00am. The air temperatures were noticeably colder in the morning, close to 38 degrees. The water release out of the dam was comparable to the previous day and there was just a slight stain to the water. I made my way to the flats area I’d fished the day before and found more fishermen than I'd expected. I ended up having to post up in the middle of the creek and cast back toward the bank. Here I was able to find fish that were avoiding the bank fisherman. During the first couple of hours there was no shortage of salmon. I landed four by midmorning.

Close to lunchtime a good movement of fish pushed upriver and it was during this push that I saw several very large brown trout following salmon. I worked these fish and came so close to hooking up, it was frustrating. I tried several types of flies, everything from woolly buggers, to egg patterns, stoneflies, and even some small pheasant tail nymphs. I just kept catching salmon. I ended up having one of the best afternoons of Chinook salmon fishing I’ve ever had. By the time I had to head home for the week I had landed 10 Chinooks. In the late afternoon I did end up landing a good steelhead, but it was the only one I caught all day. As I walked back to my truck, I couldn’t stop thinking about the lake-run browns I saw move past me. I will never complain about a great day of salmon fishing, but the lake-run brown trout have eluded my fly rod and it is still top of my mind.

 The lone steelhead I caught on Sunday afternoon.

The lone steelhead I caught on Sunday afternoon.

 The last salmon I brought to hand before heading home on Sunday.

The last salmon I brought to hand before heading home on Sunday.