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Fall Landlocked Salmon in the Adirondacks

Robert W. Streeter

In Colonial times, Atlantic salmon served as a staple food source for the Colonists. The salmon ascended  streams each fall in heavy numbers. Sadly, exploitation of this fragile species along with habitat alterations in the forms of dams and pollution put an end to the once prolific runs of Atlantics. Catching a true, ocean-dwelling Atlantic salmon is something that hasn’t happened in my lifetime in New York, although I’m certain that it may happen again one day.

While we don’t have the ocean bound version of the Atlantic salmon any more, there are a number of streams in the Adirondacks where runs of the landlocked version of these great gamefish are still available. These streams do not see the numbers of salmon that the popular tributaries along Lake Ontario do, but the salmon are plentiful enough to produce good fishing if conditions and timing come together. Adirondack landlocked salmon runs can start as soon as mid-September and typically last up until early November, with the peak action taking place during the month of October. The streams where this fishing opportunity takes place all flow into Lake Champlain.

Lake Champlain Tributaries

Landlocked salmon are prevalent in Lake Champlain thanks to restoration efforts begun in the 1960’s, and they run the major tributary streams twice each year. In the spring, salmon run the major tributaries chasing schools of smelt that are on their spawning run. In the fall, landlocked salmon enter the streams on their own spawning journey. Establishing and maintaining these salmon runs has taken a lot of effort. The factor that has enabled the restoration of the landlocked salmon is the ongoing sea lamprey control effort resulting in greater adult salmon survival in the lake. The landlocks we enjoy today are the descendants of salmon from Sebago Lake in Maine.

The three primary streams along Lake Champlain that receive runs of salmon include the Ausable, Bouquet and Saranac Rivers. Each of them has some public fishing areas, although the logistics vary from stream to stream.

Ausable River

The salmon fishing on the Ausable River takes place close to the mouth and continues upstream for about two miles to the Route 9 bridge.  This is a flatwater area where a small boat is needed, but only part of it is open for fishing from boats. The launch site most people use is the Ausable Point Campsite. The land along the river upstream of the bridge is privately owned. While there really isn’t any water available for wading anglers, anglers working streamers or spoons from a small boat catch their share of salmon each fall.

A fishing map of the lower river is available at: http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/31900.html.

Bouquet River

On the Bouquet River, the majority of the salmon fishing is downstream of the dam and fishway at Willsboro on Route 22.  There is a nice pool and some pocket water below the dam that is fun to fish. Most folks reach the dam from Exit 33 on the Northway (Interstate 87). You can also launch at the cartop boat launch on School Street in Willsboro, which will provide access to the two miles of flatwater that lead to the mouth of the river. In the fall, salmon will get above the dam as well through the fishway, so don’t be afraid to try the pools above the dam.

A map of the salmon fishing area on the Bouquet is available at:
http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/31899.html.

Saranac River

For the Saranac River, most of the fishing is right in the City of Plattsburgh on the three miles of the river downstream from the Imperial Dam. The salmon can be found anywhere in this section of the river, and part of the area can be fished by boat. There are also some streambank areas owned by the city that are accessible as well.

A public fishing rights map of the lower Saranac is available at:
http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/31898.html.

Salmon Fishing Regulations

There are special regulations for salmon fishing on all of the Lake Champlain tributaries and anglers should take the time to read them before fishing. Landlocked salmon present a special fishing opportunity, and as such, are protected by special regulations on most waters.  It is important to take the time and read the regulations for the specific water that you intend to fish.  Pay careful attention to the legal requirements for fishing tackle as well. For example, there are sections of the Ausable and Saranac where fishing from boats is not permitted, and they are described in the Lake Champlain regulations found at:
http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/31510.html. 

In addition to the regulations, flow conditions on the streams have a lot to do with how good the fishing is going to be.  The Ausable and the Bouquet rise quickly after a rain event.  The Saranac tends to be a little more moderate in how it reacts to rainfall.  The best way to check the flows is to look at the USGS stream flow data website at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt.  Navigate to the New York page where you can get instant information on each of these streams.

Fishing Techniques

When the salmon first come into the streams on their spawning run, they are more active and will hit streamers as well as take small spoons or spinners.  If you are fishing near the mouth of one of the tributaries in a boat, troll tandem streamer patterns like the Gray Ghost, Black Ghost, Nine-three or smelt-imitation patterns.  My favorite streamer patterns for landlocks and lake trout are three of Ed Bendl’s flies including the Lithuanian Prince, the Margo Smelt, and Ed’s Special.  Spoons and plugs that resemble smelt and are trolled near the surface also work.

If you are wading a stream like the Bouquet, streamers also work on fresh run fish because the fish are often quite aggressive when they enter a stream from the lake. Once the salmon have been in the stream for awhile, they become much more finicky and harder to catch. Fly anglers that are successful usually downsize to wet fly patterns or nymphs that they would use on any trout stream. Spin-tackle anglers also have to tone down their presentations.

For stream fishing, there are some ethics involved because these streams are not completely covered by public fishing rights.  It is very important to respect private property.  On streams where there are anglers fishing a pool, the salmon fishing tradition is that you start at the head of the pool and work your way downstream.  Once you have fished the pool, you go back to the head of the pool and wait your turn again.  That way everyone gets a chance to fish.

To get a real flavor for the hundreds of years of tradition in fishing for Atlantic salmon, you need to read some of the history of this fishing.  Fortunately, today we still have the chance to catch these salmon in the fall in their landlocked form, and can get a taste of what catching Atlantics must have been like.  The landlocked salmon restoration work continues to yield better and better results, and hopefully this will be an excellent season for these great fish!  Just maybe, someday their ocean bound cousins will return to our rivers as well.

Rob Streeter enjoys fly fishing for many species, especially trout and salmon in the Lake Ontario tributaries. He is the outdoor columnist for the Albany Times Union and freelances for several publications. He is a member of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America.

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