Sandy Creek & The Altmar King

On Friday evening I convinced Janelle to come to New York with me to find out what was happening with the mid-September salmon run. By 5:00AM Saturday we were halfway to Pulaski and I was debating driving past the Salmon River and heading further north to see if we might discover King salmon in Sandy Creek. The reports out of the lower Salmon River had been consistent for a couple of weeks. Each day pods of King and Coho salmon were seen moving into the Douglaston Salmon Run (“DSR”) from the estuary. With fishing guides buzzing about the DSR, I figured Janelle and would experience less fishing pressure on Sandy Creek. At 7:00AM we found ourselves scouting the parking lots in Ellisburg and Mannsville. There were cars in the lots, but all I saw were New York license plates and this is typically a good indication that only the locals are on the fish. I decided that we’d start exploring water below Monitor Falls and work our way towards the lake. I rigged my 10’-8wt Redington Vice with a 12’ Rio leader that had a 12lb. rating. I ran 1X Trout Hunter tippet to my line break and then dropped another short section of 1X to an Egg Sucking Leech pattern with an orange egg at the top. I never put weight on my line until I see the water. I rigged up Janelle’s rod with an almost identical set-up and then we both jumped onto the trail that runs along the cornfield on the eastern edge of Sandy Creek. When we got down to the water, I was surprised at how low the creek was. There was enough water for fish to move upstream, but they didn’t have many options.

 Janelle watching me fly fish from the bank of Sandy Creek.

Janelle watching me fly fish from the bank of Sandy Creek.

It appeared a majority of the people we’d seen parked in the lot, were fishing a large pool just down stream with us. There were about ten guys, half of which were throwing large spinners on spin tackle attempting to either floss or snag fish. We kept walking as I was hoping to find some overlooked water where we could fish runs or crevices that possibly held fish that weren’t spotted by the early morning river walkers. After walking about a hundred yards further, I saw a large King salmon dart out of a narrow but deep run into a large holding pool. He proceeded to move across the creek and run up a very shallow waterfall and into a deep pocket of water. Janelle and I raced back upstream and positioned ourselves in the middle of the creek just above the pool where this fish had paused to rest. I started drifting my fly down into the pocket water and on my third drift my fly stopped, I set the hook, and I was stuck on a rock! As I attempted to free my fly, to our surprise, this giant King made his next attempt to run upstream. He moved up through a very narrow run and jumped out at the top and beached himself in three inches of water. Janelle’s eyes went wide as she couldn’t believe how big this fish was. At this point we could’ve picked this fish up with our bare hands. We watched him flop around until he worked his way back into the run and let the current swiftly move him back down through the pocket water and eventually into the deep pool we’d originally spotted him in. We tried to drift flies to this salmon for fifteen minutes before giving up, figuring this fish must’ve had enough of “life out of the water.”

We spent the next couple of hours exploring water downstream towards Ellisburg. As the morning went on, the number of people checking out the creek increased. I did not lay eyes on another salmon the rest of the time we walked the creek. However, I did watch a handful of guys hook up with fish in the area we’d originally walked into. These fish appeared to be smaller and from a distance appeared to be Coho salmon. By late morning I was frustrated that we’d wasted so much time on Sandy Creek and told Janelle that if we wanted to get her a fish, we’d have to head back to Pulaski.

We headed south to Pulaski and followed the river east towards Altmar. We stopped in several public river access lots. There were a large number of cars but we only observed a few people coming back from their morning fishing session with a stringer full of fish. I remember reading that a good pod of Kings had pushed into the river mid-week and I figured those fish had probably made their way to Pineville or even as far as the lower fly fishing zone in Altmar. I decided to drive to the lower fly zone and when we got to the parking lot, it was packed. I didn’t realize that the lower fly zone had opened that morning for the first time of the season. Had I realized this, I may have chosen to fish there at first light but after we parked and walked down to the water, I’m glad we didn’t. The lower fly zone was packed with people. The area along the concrete wall just below the fish hatchery cable was insane. There must have been 30 fly fishermen crammed in that section. Janelle’s first comment was, how do these folks cast without getting tangled. I said they do, just watch. Although there were a lot of people, it wasn’t without reason. There were a lot of fish holding in this water. We watched over a dozen hook-ups in the short period of time that we stood watching. Although it looked like a circus, it was neat to watch and definitely gave me the itch to hook up with a fish. Janelle and I briefly attempted to fish the riffle water above the Rt. 52 Bridge. At 500CFS this section of water was too sketchy to be wading in and after ten minutes of trying I decided it would make more sense to get out and try a different spot.

 Janelle testing out the water in the upper fly zone near Altmar.

Janelle testing out the water in the upper fly zone near Altmar.

Janelle and I decided to grab lunch at the Salmon River Outfitters bar and while we ate it occurred to me that if salmon were already at the hatchery, there were most likely some fish trickling into the upper fly zone. After lunch we drove up Rt. 22 to the top parking lot on the upper fly zone. When we arrived there were only three cars in the lot. We donned waders once again and started hiking back the trail that follows the river downstream. The upper portions of the river were too deep and fast to even think about wading, much less crossing the river. We made our way down to the large pool that runs for about 100 yards and has a large downed tree in the middle. Any frequent visitor to this section on the Salmon River will know exactly where I’m talking about when I say downed tree. That tree was in there last year and the fish like to stack up around it. There wasn’t a soul around on this section of the river and Janelle told me she saw fish breaking the surface on the other side. We stood and watched and sure enough, there were quite a few large splashes as salmon rolled on the surface. I positioned Janelle below the fallen tree and I fished above it. Poor Janelle, no sooner had she gotten set and started casting her line to a splashing fish and two other fishermen from downriver caught wind of fish and positioned themselves right below her. She made the best of it. I started experimenting with the amount of weight on my line, as the water is deep in this section of the river. After almost a dozen drifts, I suddenly felt my line snap tight on a dead drift and I lifted my rod to find a salmon hooked up. The minute this fish felt tension on the line, he took off downriver. He made a beeline for the fallen tree and went right under it with my fly line in tow. Fortunately I was able to position my rod in such a way underwater to allow the line to pass under all the limbs. Honestly, it was a miracle that my line didn’t hang up in the tree. I moved with the fish, crawled through the tree branches and came out the other side unscathed and still fighting the fish. I forgot how hard these King salmon fight. You always find out real quick if you’ve tightened your reel to your rod well or not in the first minute or two of fighting a King. I did my best to turn the fish while still keeping tension on the line. Eventually the fish made one last attempt to run back upriver to the tree and I was able to keep him from getting back under it. As he began to tire, I worked him over towards shallower water until I was able to walk him thirty yards downriver and into several inches of water where I could beach him and get him in my net. Wow, it was epic. The release of adrenaline you experience attempting to catch a King salmon on fly rod is unbelievable. The entire experience was epic.

 Proudly holding up my first King salmon of the year.

Proudly holding up my first King salmon of the year.

After taking some pictures and appreciating the giant fish, we released him back into the river so he could continue his instinctive need to move upstream, spawn, and then die. Janelle and I spent the rest of the afternoon working our way down to the bottom boundary on the upper fly zone. During our exploring I saw at least a half-dozen kings moving upriver. Unfortunately, I was unable to hook-up again, but it was neat to see the fish. Janelle was unable to find her first salmon and I was disappointed she didn’t get a shot, but the run wasn’t prolific yet and even a veteran of the river would’ve had a challenge hooking a salmon this day. By late afternoon, both Janelle and I were exhausted and weren’t looking forward to a four hour drive back to southeastern, Pennsylvania. We made our way back out the trail we’d walked in on. We ran into a handful of fishermen on the way out, all of who had reported very little action. Was the early September run overhyped? Perhaps, but it felt great to be in New York chasing salmon with a fly rod. Janelle and I arrived back at my truck, got our waders off, got into some fresh clothes and started the long trek back home. I’ll be back later this month and am hopeful I’ll find another battle with a King!

 Janelle and I together on the Salmon River for the first time.

Janelle and I together on the Salmon River for the first time.