Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

April 12th, 2004

By Dave Micus

I usually don't travel or pay to fish - mostly because I'm too cheap but also because I have a near-world-class-fishery right out of my front door so there is really no need. I recently made an exception when, caught in the doldrums of a too-long and too-cold winter, I booked a guided drift boat trip down the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York. The guides, two brothers, assured us that a trip in the early spring would provide ample opportunities to catch steelhead, big fish that have been described as 'rainbow trout on steroids.'

A drift boat trip is one of the few situations where you can almost be assured that a guide earns his money. I've seen too many shore guides with clients at bridge pools on well traveled roads with abundant parking-places that a novice fly-fisher could easily find without paying $300. And I actually once heard two guides gleefully discussing how they had chased the stocking truck, allowing their clients to catch numerous trout straight from the hatchery. Productive, yes, but hardly the sporting experience one would expect when shelling out a few c-notes for a guide's expertise. But drift boat guides spend eight long hours rowing a boat, maneuvering into likely fish habitat, holding the boat against the current to give sports a shot at fish. Or so I thought.

After a too-long ride on secondary roads (there are no east-west interstates in New Hampshire or Vermont), we arrived in Pulaski, a town on the shores of Lake Ontario whose very survival depends on its fishery. Pulaski likely has more bait and tackle shops per square mile than any town in the world, and everything (not just the tackle shops) is named "salmon" this and "steelhead" that, which was charming in a Branson, Missouri kind of way. There were even these Coke-type vending machines that actually dispensed live bait. Really.

It had rained the entire trip, and continued raining throughout the night. Todd, our guide, called our hotel to tell us that we wouldn't be able to fish the Salmon River in the drift boat; the water, which usually ran at 1750 cfs was running at over 3500, much too high to fish. He suggested instead that we fish along the shore of Lake Ontario from his powerboat. We were disappointed, but what choice did we have? Plus it meant an extra half hour sleep, and, as we had been up since 4 am the day before, we agreed.

When Todd arrived we noticed the boat was rigged with spinning gear. "We'd like to bring our fly rods," I told him. He looked at me for a bit, then said, "Well, that's your choice, but you won't catch anything. What we'll do is troll for fish, and it doesn't work well with fly gear." I wasn't too enthused about the spinning gear and trolling. It's not just that I'm a snobby fly fisherman (though I am); it's just that I felt like a grouse hunter being told to hunt rabbits instead. But that was the option, and, being amicable sorts, we decided to go with the flow (a painful cliché in this case).

When we got to the boat launch the water was much too rough. We tried another spot with the same result. "Let's drop the boat off and I'll take you to some streams that might be fishable," Todd said. We dropped off the boat and then hit one stream then another, then another, and yet another. All were too high and too fast to fish, and we didn't even throw a cast. Todd mentioned that if something didn't turn up we'd "work something out," which I took to mean a rescheduled float trip.

After five hours we pulled into a lot where we could spot a stream in the distance. "This should be good," Todd said. "Rig up your rods." As we walked down to the water we passed three fishermen heading back to the lot. They were noticeably empty-handed. Todd took us right to the very first fishable spot, a place that had no doubt been hammered by the fishermen we saw leaving, and had us drift egg patterns for about 15 minutes. The water was high and fast, it was freezing cold, and the rain continued to fall. "Well, guess there's nothing here," he said. "We might as well go."

As we were driving back to the hotel I asked, "So, what can we work out?" naively thinking that we could credit our deposit toward a future trip. I trust realtors, bankers, and lawyers, too. "I won't charge you for the rest of the day," he said magnanimously, meaning that he was kind enough to only charge us $135 for riding in his truck for 5 hours and fishing in a swollen river in the freezing rain for 15 minutes. And now I understood his persistence in finding a place to fish even though it was obvious that conditions were a good bit less than optimal. Once we had wetted a line, he considered his obligations met.

He dropped us at our hotel, and, adding insult to injury, had the cajones to loiter, making small talk and waiting for a tip. Feeling that $30 an hour for driving us around was adequate compensation, we ignored him and he finally left. But before he did he said, "If you ever come up again, you should plan on later in April, when there isn't so much runoff," good advice that would have been great advice if he had shared it when we originally booked the trip.

We had reserved the room for two nights, planning to spend one day on the drift boat and another on our own, but given the conditions, we decided to leave early and surprise our wives--pleasantly, we hoped. All told, we had driven over a 1000 miles through two snow storms in about 36 hours to fish an unfishable stream for fifteen minutes in the freezing rain at the cost of a few hundred dollars each. Enron stock would have been a better investment.

"All a steelheader needs," the old saying goes," is a big arm and a small brain," two attributes I possess. I'd add two more conditions: good weather and an ethical guide. Without the last two, you'll get soaked. Like we did. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

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