My dad and I were on the rocky bank of Sandy Creek when I saw the first salmon close enough to catch. Like a phantom, it glided against the current, its rhythm just a beat slower than the water around it. Two decades of fishing experience vanished the moment its body — three feet long, at least — swam in front of me.
I was as anxious and clumsy as a child. I was also not in Alaska, the assumed home of this prized fish; I was an hour north of Syracuse, N.Y.
Every fisherman or woman has a catch they dream of landing. King salmon, with its signature pink streak and hooked jaw, is almost certainly on any angler’s list. Its very mention brings fantasies of deep woods and roaring streams, dammed by hordes of slick green backs begging to be hooked.
That fishermen wish for salmon is no surprise. The twist in that fantasy is that such visions are not pipe dreams restricted to the West. Thousands of coho and king salmon swim inland every autumn just five hours northwest of New York City, pouring out of Lake Ontario and into dozens of tributaries across Oswego County to spawn and die upstream.
They are joined by throngs of hopeful anglers who aim to arrive in Oswego County just as the salmon begin their annual “run,” when the fish leave the lake’s relative safety and begin their doomed mission upstream.
My dad and I were two of those hopefuls this fall, trekking upstate with my uncle and cousins one October weekend to bring home a fish of our own. Both of us had fished in countless states and waterways, but never had either of us landed one of those coveted trophies. My uncle, who has pulled salmon from these waters for years, predicted the week’s early rain would spur the fish upstream, toward us.
The salmon run itself is its own ambiguous fish tale. It occurs every year, sometime between September and the end of November, and is usually spurred by the first frost. A handful of blogs and fishing reports keep tabs on its status, as does the region’s whisper network of tackle shops and fishing lodges.
Some say Oswego County’s major run is almost always on Columbus Day, and any other weekend is a waste. Others say it can happen as late as Halloween. The fisherman on your right might say it happened last week, as the one on your left says it hasn’t happened yet.
Whichever angler you choose to believe, if you venture to an Oswego County waterway sometime between September and November, you are likely to see a salmon or one of their trout cousins, the equally coveted steelhead.
If you see them, you may be able to catch them, which is what brought us to this marshy waterway 15 miles outside Pulaski, N.Y.
I still remember the first fish I caught with my dad. I was 7, and we hooked a foot-long catfish off Lake Ontelaunee, in the middle of a Pennsylvania summer. We nailed it to a board and gutted it. Then, according to my father, I paraded around the neighborhood with a bloody fish skeleton on a two-by-four.
The debacle was the start of our own chapter in a family heritage, passed down by my grandfather who often joined our excursions. When he died, my father inherited his poles, tokens reminding us to keep that tradition alive.
Growing up and moving out has made that difficult, but still, fishing is our long-distance communion. I send my dad pictures of the trout I pull from Colorado mountain lakes, and he regales me with stories from his foray into fly fishing. To miss a weekend fishing together for king salmon would be sacrilege.
For years, my dad and my uncle have traveled to Pulaski, a tiny fishing hamlet just east of the Canadian border on Lake Ontario. The area is an angler’s Promised Land, brimming with trout, bass and pike year round.
But it is the coveted salmon and steelhead that make these streams a sort of angling Mecca for the East Coast fisherman.
If fishing requires luck, salmon fishing takes twice as much. By the time they begin their trip inland to spawn, the salmon are no longer eating. Bait is useless. Instead, a hopeful fisher must scan the waterways, look for a stray fin and cast, hoping to land their tiny hook on a fish or annoy one so much that it strikes.
Autumn anglers in these waterways are treated to double the odds. As the salmon run wanes, it is followed by a flood of steelhead trout making their own biannual trek to spawn upriver, feeding on the flesh of dying salmon as they go.
A town built for fish
That salmon even exist today to traverse these waters is a wonder. After centuries as a reliable food source for the Iroquois, the native Atlantic salmon of Lake Ontario were demolished by anglers and invasive species at the turn of the 19th century. Attempts to revitalize the fish faltered for decades until stocked king (referred more frequently as chinook in Pulaski) and coho salmon finally made their way inland to spawn in the late 1960s.
Since then, they have carried the area’s industry on their glistening backs, tracing a route every fall from Lake Ontario back to the Salmon River and their nascent fish hatchery in Altmar, just a few miles east of Pulaski. Thousands of hopeful anglers descend on the lake’s various tributaries every fall for the fishes’ annual pilgrimage, bringing rods, trophy hopes and around $19 million in annual profit.
To partake in the endeavor requires a small investment. A state license can be purchased for a single day, a week or a year, and in-state residents can get a seven-day permit for $12, purchased online or at any of the town’s tackle shops. Fly fishing is most popular, but few tackle shops in the area rent gear. The better option, for hobbyists, is to book a trip with any of the region’s various guides, easily scheduled in Pulaski.
The town, right on the Salmon River, is the modest metropolis of the premiere fishing zone, and it exists for little else. Taverns double as gutting stations and fish storage lockers, and almost every view contains a tackle shop.
In-town lodging consists of drive-in motels and antiquated lodges. For those inclined toward comfort, the 1880 House is in the center of town on the banks of the river — the inn’s smart, professorial décor evokes a more elegant sporting weekend. (Fun fact: The inn has a “unfishable water cancellation policy” if the river is too cold or too high.)
While convenience is Pulaski’s benefit, the crowds may be what push so many fishermen and women to venture beyond. In town, anglers swarm the river, which can be so packed during the salmon run that it is difficult to find a spot to cast.
Instead, many hopefuls venture northwest toward Sandy Creek and other streams like it, where the crowds are smaller and the fish, having just left the lake, are fresher.
Phantoms and fish in Sandy Creek
We arrived in Pulaski and stopped at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop, conveniently situated immediately off the highway’s exit ramp toward town. It was the morning rush, with more than a dozen anglers in waders and camouflage stocking up on flies and bait. In the aisle, a clerk tied dime-size packs of salmon eggs together in delicate mesh, tempting bait for resident steelhead.
Loaded with hardware, we drove to the aptly named Up the Creek campground and set up camp, anxious to join our crew and head for the water. As we began our trek through the brush, my dad passed me my grandfather’s Ugly Stik, the iconic casting rod manufactured by Shakespeare since 1976.
The evening current was swift, the water murky, and the fish elusive. Hopeful for better conditions, we turned in early and woke around 5 a.m. for a full day on the creek (according to state regulations, fishing is permitted a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset).
The sunrise illuminated the fall trees, splashing the valley in golden light. We were delighted to find the cloudy water had transformed into a transparent crystal.
Fishing is a sport of patience in a world that has little. To love it is to love the excuse to slow down and focus on a singular goal, surrounded by nature’s stereo: the babble of a wooded creek, or the definitive smack of a fin on the water’s surface. For me, the sport is a harbor, and I treasure it as much for the act itself as the memories that come to life with it — the steady hand of my grandfather, or the quiet company of my dad.
A mile into our morning trek upstream, we saw the first emerald body flop its way up a shallow chute. Anglers, like soldiers staged at the bank for battle, began furiously casting and chasing the fish, hoping their hook would be the one that snagged. My dad and I watched in awe.
A half-mile up the creek, a man jogged past us, furiously reeling a fly rod. My uncle followed and charitably offered our net — the lucky fisher pulled a stunning, 28-inch steelhead from the water.
On the dawn of the final morning, our six-person group had landed one salmon and hooked into a dozen. The temptation to find our own trumped any urgency to return home.
We strapped on waders and gathered our tools, my grandfather’s cherry-handled hunting knife tucked in my vest. For three hours, we stood near a shallow pool and watched half a dozen fish merge toward the bank, resting briefly after their journey through the white water.
I was waist deep near that bank when I saw a sluggish silhouette at my boots. My pulse quickened and I shrieked with delight, momentarily losing the ghostly outline. Frantically, I searched the water while my father, chuckling, crept through the reeds, pole at the ready.
It could have been a fish, or one of the river’s endless illusions. But we were chasing it, together.
IF YOU GO The trip is a manageable five hours from the city by car, or a six-hour train ride to Syracuse, where you can rent a car and drive the last hour to Pulaski. Stay at the 1880 House, where you can arrange a guided fishing tour and warm up with the inn’s hearty soups (rates are $74 per person, minimum double occupancy).
Ali Watkins is a Metro reporter for the Times.