When I get it in my head that I want to accomplish something, good luck trying to stop me. I’ve wanted to catch a western New York giant lake-run brown trout on a fly rod for a couple of months now. From all the reading I’ve been doing online, November has looked like the best month to make it happen. And the location that has looked the most promising is one of the Lake Ontario tributaries in Orleans County, New York. I’m talking Sandy Creek, Johnson Creek, Marsh Creek, and the famous Oak Orchard River. I’d never been to the “Oak” before and so on Friday I got up early and made the trek to Albion, New York. Instead of going straight to the river, I decided to stop at a local tackle shop to talk and try and get any intel I could on what was happening and what I could do to increase my chances of landing a giant brown. I arrived at Oak Orchard Tackle & Lodge (Orleans Outdoors) around 6:30am. When I arrived, no one else was in the shop and I had a chance to meet the owner and fishing guide Ron Bierstine. Ron confirmed that there were plenty of browns, steelhead, and salmon in the river. He showed me some fly patterns that he thought might be successful and I ended up filling a container and adding some more ammo to my fly box. If you are heading to the Oak, stop by and visit Ron, he has a good selection of flies along with plenty of tackle for the spin and float crowds as well.
After I left the shop, the river was only a five minute drive and I decided to park at the Waterport Dam public access lot. The fish that run up the Oak are unable to move past the Waterport Dam and so the place that a majority of anglers fish the Oak is in the mile and a half of water that extends below the dam. When i pulled into the lot there were a decent number of cars already there. All the reading I’d done made it clear that in the fall the Oak can be full of fishermen. I parked and got dressed and rigged up. It was cold on Friday morning, with air temps hovering just below 40 degrees. I was glad I had my cold weather gear with me. I decided to fish with my 10’-8wt Redington Vice and Sage 2200 series reel that is spooled with a floating line, including a 9’-3X leader tipped with 3X fluorocarbon tippet. I headed down the pathway to the dam and stopped for a second to take a picture.
The Waterport Dam is interesting because they have a bottom release area, but there is also a large waterfall to the right of the dam. There were maybe a dozen anglers fishing off of the fenced in concrete platform that wrapped around the water realease area. It appeared there were a large number of fish contained in this area. The fishermen were using nets attached to ropes, almost like crab traps, to lower down into the water to try and land fish they had on their line from 15 feet above. It was entertaining to watch. I took the path that headed to the right and quickly realized it wasn’t going to be an easy walk. This first part of the river has a path that follows a steep bank and when that path is wet, it is treacherous.
I made it a few feet and then decided it wasn’t worth breaking a leg so I made my way down into the water and opted for walking behind other fishermen to get downriver. It is important to note that if you want to fish this first 600 feet below the dam release, you are required to wear a Personal Floatation Device (“PFD”). Although I didn’t see a single fisherman wearing one, there were signs everywhere. After a while, the river spreads out and the terrain flattens out into woods on either bank. As far as I could see, there were fishermen lined up on the water. I finally found a spot that looked open and hopped into the water. There was a rock creating a nice seam in the water and I decided to start drifting flies here. I started out with a small black stone fly, figuring that most guys were probably drifting candy colored egg patterns. The water that is closer to the dam has more depth to it and it is not easy to see the river bottom and even more difficult to see fish. After 30 minutes, I wasn’t hooking up with anything so I decided to move further downriver. The water has more riffle charateristics further down and there are some beautiful runs. It is also easier to see fish holding or moving through the water. As I was walking I came across a nice run where I saw several king salmon holding and spawning on the gravel bottom. Much of the reading I’ve done on catching lake-run browns says to target water below spawning salmon because the browns will hold below them to eat eggs that are drifting in the current. Taking this advice, I started drifting a peach colored egg pattern through this water but I didn’t find any brown trout. I did however start catching salmon. I fished this area for a couple of hours and I was able to observe several good steelhead move through, as well as the occasional fresh salmon. However most of the fish I caught were salmon that were reaching the end of their life cycle.
Some people call salmon entering this stage “zombies” because the fish use their body weight as energy and they literally start to die. They begin changing colors and wasting away while protecting their eggs. Around lunch time I hooked into a fish that fought differently than the other salmon I’d been catching. This fish fought like a steelhead and made many acrobatic jumps. It turns out I caught my first Atlantic salmon on a fly rod. The Atlantic is the only native salmon species to the Great Lakes. It was cool to catch.
During the mid afternoon i did not observe any lake-run brown trout being caught and I didn’t see any moving past me in the river. I watched several other anglers hook into and land king salmon. In the early afternoon I walked downriver to an area of the river they call the “Archery Hole,” because of the Archery Club that sits on the other side of the river. This area was the most congested with fishermen. I attempted to fish here but after ten minutes, my patience wore out. I don’t know how anyone can tolerate this type of fishing for an entire day. I will never understand why another fisherman thinks it is acceptable to stand directly across from you on the river and cast within two feet of you to drift their rig. After the first tangle of lines, I cut my line and headed back upriver. I’d love to fish this Archery Hole on a midweek trip some time when the number of anglers isn't so high.
As I walked back upriver and got closer to the dam, I ran into some local guys that I stopped and chatted with. They also hadn’t caught any brown trout. They said they didn’t see many caught and wondered if many of those running were still holding downriver and hadn’t made their way upstream yet. They explained that further upriver there was a tree that had fallen in the water and they’d seen a guy hook into and land a nice brown earlier. I decided to head up there and give it try. When I got there I started dead drifting a woolly bugger. After several casts I had a fish crush my bugger and I fought him for a couple minutes until a nice gentlemen downriver netted him for me. It ended up that to my surprise, it was my first lake-run brown trout. Granted it was not the 30” fish I had come to catch, but it was still by definition, my first lake-run brown and I was pleased to catch him.
I hooked into several more salmon while I fished this area. As the afternoon wore on the temperatures dropped and the wind picked up. It felt like winter fishing by 4:00pm. Eventually I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to catch my big lake-run brown trout on this excursion and I decided to call it a day and head home early. I felt like I’d only gotten a small taste of the Oak Orchard River. It was a vastly different fishing experience than what I’d encountered in Newfane on 18 Mile Creek. Holsinger’s Fly Shop has a new video on YouTube where they draw a comparison of the Oak and 18 Mile in western New York to Elk and Walnut Creeks in western Pennsylvania. I thought that was a great comparison. I will be back to the Oak Orchard River some day soon. That giant lake-run brown trout on a fly rod has still eluded me, but I’ll catch him, one of these days.