Despite a dozen or more days wandering its banks, New York's Salmon River is no more familiar to me than it was at the beginning. I don’t think it’s me. I know how to find my way about a river as good as the next guy. Yet this place remains foreign. Pulaski is more distant culturally from my hometown than the odometer can explain.
Remnants of a bygone era—blank storefronts, boarded farmhouses, a crossroads filled with empty buildings—are still fresh enough that you can see the ghosts of former plenty and the sorrow of decline. Its people have memories and a legacy that I cannot know. My clothes are the least of what marks me as an outsider. Despite the differences, the out-of-place nature, I still stalk its predawn hours.
Shrouded in the smoke of another Arturo Fuente, I participate in the kind of small talk that people make in the hours before sunrise on the banks of a good river. During pauses, we look upstream for the bobbing headlamps of two stragglers who, if they’ve honored their end of the bargain, will be granted shoreline privileges unmerited by their late arrival. McMuffins and rapidly cooling coffee are the price of entry. So procured, there will be no ribbing about their lack of fortitude in the face of Pulaski's winter reality. Actually, that's not true—there'll be ribbing either way. But at least it won't be shameful ribbing. Our yearning is premature. It will be hours before they arrive.
When the cigar is a nub and the talk is out of us we each retreat to ponder tackle, re-tie leaders, and tend to those inner conversations that meander through the mind when it's dark and cold and water runs nearby. I find a tree to lean against and wait, half asleep, for the lightening sky. This is a perfect zone for fly anglers. Though groups gather for trips both epic and mundane, our art is a solitary one. We know how to pass time.
This trip turned out to be a good one. The fish were all gathered in one stretch of water and while the anglers were stacked up there as well, a determined sport could get a spot. We were up early and stayed late and froze most of the time. We hooked our fill and landed enough to make it seem worthwhile even though every lost fish was an opportunity for vented frustration both real and feigned.
The last time I was on this water, winter was waning and there was hope for spring. The trip was more boondoggle than anything else. While I'd heard early-spring fishing could be good, creating visions of backing spinning off the reel, this wasn't the real goal. Life had gotten too damn busy. I suppose those burdens are better than a life without the joys of family, friends, and a worthy trade, but sometimes they logjam themselves in such a way that only a bit of dynamite will unlock them. Strong fish in strong water are just such a catalyst.
Late winter in Pulaski is still far more winter than spring. Five hours south we were wondering when the forsythia would bloom, heralding a run of stripers. Here I watched the snow, not in any forecast, erase the dashed white line ticking time north from Syracuse. In Fat Nancy's parking lot, wet snow spilled into my shoes. A half hour later, suiting up at the pull-off, I wondered if the plows were going to lock me in till spring.
I hadn't counted on the accumulated depth of snow at the trailhead. Living outside the lake-effect zone, we expect our snow to come and go; rinse and repeat. Not so here, especially because I was taking a route un-walked since the last storm. I post-holed for more than hour, making my way toward braids that yield fish often enough to make the walk worthwhile. Peeling off a layer, steaming in the five-degree air, I yearned for snowshoes hung in the rafters above the garage. At least the falling snow had ebbed.
I am a novice at steelhead yet I have my moments. A few months ago I stood and dead-drifted a McCheese egg with strong mojo. I hooked enough fish in a brief period that I was sure I was going to be accused by my buddies of running bait. The only blessing is that I didn't land any of them. It would have been uncomfortable to grip and grin too often through another’s dry spell. Besides, shared frustration binds better than unbalanced good fortune. More often than not I'm drifting and hoping, not sure exactly what I'm doing and expecting results anyway.
Receding water from the previous day’s flows had left a gravel bar exposed, snowless just below a likely run. A small tributary, with a reputation for being a good spot during salmon season, created a juicy seam downstream. I sat and cooled off while the Jetboil manifested coffee with a deep roar. Two rods, one strung with a sink tip and a bright streamer, the other with split shot and Crystal Meth, begged for attention.
On my first trip here I had hooked a monster king in the slot in front of me. King season was weeks in the past and this dark horse should have been upstream and spawned out. For some reason this buck had lingered and taken a large black stonefly. To see a fish that large and dark come out of the water is disorienting when you're expecting sleek, nickel-bright steel. I was able to retrieve my fly a short while later from a stump across the stream. I suppose you don't survive long as a fish in a river like the salmon without learning a few tricks.
I worked the run down to the little trib swinging a large tuft of marabou, and then worked up ticking bottom. I changed flies often enough to make if feel as though I was bettering my odds, though it likely didn't matter. If the fish were there they were going to get on with it. I packed and moved.
Up and around the top of the island, past the perpetual logjam, a dark hole spun. It too was fishless to me. I cast down the far bank sacrificing a few flies to overhanging branches. The only tug was from the largest sculpin I'd ever seen. Upon release he sat on the bottom just off my boot. I stood there gazing at him for many minutes, perhaps as mesmerized as he was. I moved again.
Upstream was unfamiliar water with enough familiar structure that it could be decoded and worked. I was done swinging, the rod returned to its tube, and now it became a game of BB split shot and just the right color of dead egg or steelhead hammer. The metronomic rhythm of chuck, duck, drift, and repeat helped keep my head away from all the stuff I was trying to lose. By the time I had worked the run enough to convince myself it was fruitless, the sun was over the ridge and the day waning.
I was well beyond where less determined souls tread, so the walk back felt longer without the benefit of snow pounded into passable path. By the time I got to the car I had my headlamp on and was adding layers, despite the heat generated from walking. After kicking aside a few of the larger snow boulders at the road's edge, I was able to drive out.
Darkness came too early for my fishing brain, but later than my fingertips would have liked. Sitting eating second-string pizza and syrupy buffalo wings, I savor Budweiser on tap. Real people, humbly packed into booths enjoy a weeknight out. This is not my place, but it's growing on me.