New York Fly Fishing 10 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Salmon River in New York

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

November 15, 2010

Salmon River in New York in the fall

The Salmon River is the most well-known salmon and steelhead river in Eastern United States. The river flows through the City of Pulaski to Lake Ontario, near Selkirk State Park, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. 

Anglers come to fish for the 20-pound steelhead or King and Coho Salmon that run up the river each year. The river is also home to huge lake-run brown trout that migrate from Lake Ontario. Occasionally, Atlantic Salmon can also be caught.

Upstate New York is a fly fishing magnet in the fall and winter months. You don’t have to go all the way to Alaska for some impressive steelhead and salmon fishing thanks to the tributaries of Lake Ontario such as the Salmon River 

Planning your own trip? Well, you’re in the right place. We’ve got a different kind of guide to help you learn the area and find out everything you need to know so you can plan a great fly fishing excursion.

About Salmon River

Winter steelhead fishing on the Salmon River near Pulaski, New York

The Salmon River is stocked yearly with around 300,000 Chinook salmon, 80,000 Coho salmon, 120,000 Washington strain steelhead, 40,000 Skamania strain steelhead and 30,000 Atlantic salmon.It is a tailwater fishery that flows from the Lower Reservoir and the Salmon River Reservoir, which operate to generate electrical power. The discharge rates and water levels are subject to change but are relatively stable.Depending on water flows and temperatures late August marks the beginning of the fall King Salmon run. This huge run of fish continues until late October, when steelhead begin their annual jaunt. Water levels and other factors determine when they start and stop their runs. 

Salmon Fishing Tips

There three salmon species that make annual spawning runs up the Salmon River, including Chinook (King), Coho (Silver) and Atlantic salmon. King salmon are the big draw every year, but the Coho and Atlantic salmon provide great fishing action as well.

King (Chinook) Salmon Fishing Tips

Fly fishing the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York for King and Coho salmon plus monster lake-run brown trout

King Salmon, also known as Chinook Salmon, can weigh in at 15 to 30 pounds, averaging around 18 pounds. It’s not uncommon to catch fish up to 40 pounds during the salmon run. King salmon start staging at the mouth of the river in late August and start running up the river in September, usually around Labor Day. This run of large fish continues until mid-October.

Chinook salmon enter the Salmon river for one reason, to spawn. Kings do not eat while spawning and when done they die in the river. While Kings do not eat for food they are aggressive and territorial. They tend to become less aggressive the longer they stay in the river until is it time to spawn. Fish that are spawning, especially the males, can become very aggressive and will strike most streamers swung past their spawning redds.

If you do elect to fish for King salmon bear in mind you won’t be alone. During salmon season, anglers often line up on the banks in uncomfortable proximity to each other. Some refer to the this as ‘combat fishing’ and you should expect to get tangled up with other anglers periodically.

Coho (Silver) Salmon Fishing Tips

Some awesome Coho and King Salmon fishing on the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York (love the part where the guy thinks he’s hooked on the bottom!)

Coho salmon (also known as Silver salmon) can also be found in the Salmon River, usually between September and December. Coho Salmon are much smaller than King salmon, ranging from 3 to 10 pounds, with an average of 8 pounds. While smaller, they are more aggressive than the Kings and easier to catch. The Coho salmon are also very willing to take flies and provide better fly fishing opportunities than the Kings.

Although the Salmon River is not as a popular destination for Coho Salmon, they provide plenty of action. They are active and can jump like steelhead making them a blast to target with a fly rod.

Atlantic Salmon Fishing Tips

Helpful tips on how to tell the difference between salmon (King, Coho and Atlantic), steelhead and brown trout in Lake Ontario tributaries such as the Salmon River.

Atlantic salmon were native to Lake Ontario and are stocked annually. They spawn in the fall and start their spawning run as early as July. Atlantic salmon can range from 5 to 20 pounds. Fishing techniques are similar to steelhead fishing methods.

Steelhead Fishing Tips

The Salmon River’s main attraction are steelhead trout, which is why most fly anglers visit it. They are usually between eight and ten pounds in weight, but you may catch larger fish. They can be found in the Salmon River between late September and May the year after.

The Salmon River offers the opportunity to fish for two strains of steelhead, the Washington strain and the Skamania strain. The Washington, or winter run, begin entering the Salmon River in late October and continue through Spring. 

Summer run Skamania steelhead begin entering the river around June. They tend to run during periods of increased flow. Your best chance to encounter fish is after a heavy rain or planned water release from the hydro plant. The fish remain in the river until they spawn the following spring.

Fall Steelhead Fishing Tips

Fish that entered the river in the fall will hold over in the deeper pools of the river throughout the winter. Fishing the deeper pools with egg imitating flies or nymphs works well this time of year.

They feed aggressively on the abundant salmon eggs in the Fall, thus making it a very good time to go steelhead fishing. Using egg imitating flies are your best options.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Tips

If you are able to tolerate cold temperatures, winter steelhead fishing in December, January and February can be extremely productive. 

However, the weather is often very cold with deep snow on the banks. Because of ice, the lower portion of the river is often closed. These winter fish aren’t nearly as aggressive. In the winter, they can become almost sedentary in cold water. It is better to fish the slower moving streams in deeper pools and smaller holes when the water is cold. 

Warming periods during the winter may bring new fish into the river. Spawning usually takes place during mid-March and through early April.

Spring Steelhead Fishing Tips

After spawning the fish begin to drop back to Lake Ontario. These fish can be very aggressive. These fish feed heavily because they are hungry and finished spawning. Fishing can be excellent during April and May for this reason.

You can catch them on many different types of flies but egg patterns and streamers are always a safe bet.

Brown Trout Fishing Tips

The Steelhead and lake-run brown trout often share the river. Brown trout fishing in the river is usually best between September and December. These lake-run browns typically weigh between five and eight pounds, but they can be larger. 

Salmon River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Prior to making my first trip to the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY to fish for steelhead I asked myself the obvious question – where to fish? Access points to fish the Salmon River are well documented and no secret so I took what I learned and put together the map below to help me find my way and figured you’d find it useful too.

map of fishing access spots on the Salmon River  in New York

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

If you frequent this website you probably know I love digital maps. Digital maps are a great way to scout new fishing locations even if they are well known fisheries like the famous Salmon River. Using the ‘Satellite’ and ‘Terrain’ allow you to view satellite imagery and USGS style topo-maps of the area and to zoom in to see amazing detail, including places to park and trails to the river.

The Salmon River fishing access points on the map were provided courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The DEC provides the GPS coordinates for all DEC designated parking areas for all trout streams in New York state via the DEC Mapping Gateway, which is a phenomenal resources for us map junkies.

Best Places to Fish the Salmon River

The lower Salmon River consists of ~ 13 miles of world famous salmon, steelhead and brown trout water stemming from the Lower Reservoir to Lake Ontario.

The upper reaches, from Lower Reservoir to Altmar contain two fly fishing only sections each with a DEC designated parking area. Special fishing regulations apply in these fly fishing only sections.

Salmon River Fly Fishing Only Zones

The Lower Fly Zone is located between Beaverdam Brook and the County Route 52 Bridge in Altmar and is open September 15 – May 15.

The Upper Fly Zone is just downstream of the Light House Hill Reservoir tailrace, which runs above the Salmon River Fish Hatchery. The Upper Fly Zone is available for angling between April 1 and November 30. These dates can change without notice. 

You can access the river from several excellent locations. You can park in designated areas, fish from many places, and you will find State-maintained parking areas at major pools and holes. Access is provided by several roads, including routes 11, 13 and 81. Other roads lead to the river, as well as other roads. 

The river runs parallel to private property. However, there is easy access along its entire length. There are well-worn paths that run both ways. This river can get crowded during salmon season, as you might expect. 

Salmon River All Tackle Areas

Below Altmar to Pulaski are numerous DEC parking areas and public access points to the Salmon River. This reach of the river is open to all approved forms of fishing including spin fishing, center pin and fly fishing and is heavily pressured, especially during the height of the Salmon Season from early September to mid-October.

Below Pulaski is the Douglaston Salmon Run (DSR), a private 2.5 mile stretch of some of the best salmon and steelhead water on the river. The daily rod fee to fish the DSR is $45 (at the time of this writing), and from what I understand, well worth it.

Below the DSR is the Salmon River Estuary which is essentially a stillwater fishery and best fished by boat.

Best Time to Fish the Salmon River

The best time to fish the Salmon River depends on whether you are after salmon or steelhead.

King and Coho Salmon start staging in the estuary in late August and begin running up the river in early September.  The spawning run is usually over by mid to late-October. Atlantic Salmon and lake-run brown trout can also be seen in the river during this time.

Steelhead begin their spawning run in late September and drop back down to Lake Ontario in late April or early May. The month of November is the best time to fly fish the Salmon River for steelhead.

What Triggers Salmon and Steelhead Runs

Randy Jones of Yankee Angler reviews conditions that trigger runs of salmon and steelhead up the Salmon River near Pulaski, New York

Stream flow and water temperature are two of the biggest factors that trigger when salmon and steelhead start running up the Salmon River to spawn. Water flows in the Salmon River are control by hydroelectric dams and releases from the dam will influence when fish enter the river.  Run-off from storm events will also trigger fish to make a run.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish Salmon River. The USGS stream gauge at Pineville, NY provide a good indication of current conditions.

The graph below shows the stream flow (discharge) for the past 7-days. If flows are considerably above or below historical norms (yellow triangles on the chart) then fishing conditions maybe not be ideal.


  • Streamflow: 310 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 5.55 ft
Streamflow GraphGage height Graph

Best Flies for the Salmon River

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Salmon River:

  • Glo Bug (#8 – 16)
  • Sucker Spawn (#8 – 12)
  • Nuclear Roe (#10 – 16)
  • Black Stonefly (#12 -18) 
  • Brown Stonefly (#12 -14)
  • Hare’s Ear (#10 – 12)
  • Woolly Bugger (#6 – 10)
  • Muddler Minnow (#6 – 10)
  • Pink Panther (#6 – 10)
  • White Bunny Spey (#6 – 10)
  • Pot Bellied Pig
  • M.C. Hammer (#4)
  • Spawntruder (#4)

Essential Fly Fishing Gear

A single-hand 10-foot, 6- or 7-wt fly rod with a weight-forward floating line is perfect for fishing nymphs and small streamers on the Salmon River.  

Similar weight switch rods 10 and 11.5 feet in length are also popular. If you like to swing flies, a 12-foot-6, 6- or 7-weight rod is all you need for steelhead and trout.

If you come for the salmon run you’ll need need to size up your gear to at least an 8- or 9-weight rod. 

A 9- to 14-foot leader, tapered down to 12- or 10-pound-test is pretty standard.  In super clear water conditions you may need to taper down to 8-pound-test.

A standard leader configuration for use with a floating or intermediate line is:

  • 2 feet, 25-lb monofilament (mono)
  • 2 feet, 20-lb mono
  • 2 feet, 15-lb mono
  • 2 feet, 12-lb fluorocarbon (fluoro)
  • 2 feet, 10-lb fluoro
  • 2 feet, 8-lb fluoro

A standard heavy sink-tip leader is:

  • 2- to 5-feet straight 15-pound Maxima
  • 2-feet straight 12-pound Maxima

Salmon River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Salmon River fly fishing report and update on current conditions are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The Salmon River follows Lake Ontario tributary rules and regulations, which can be found in the New York Freshwater Fishing Regulations Guide. 

The gap between hooks must not exceed one-half inch. The leader’s maximum length is 15 feet. Weighted flies can be used, but the maximum distance between the fly’s body and the leader is only 4 feet. Only one hook is allowed. 

The state of New York requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available.

To fish the Douglaston salmon run, you will need a permit. $30 per day for a daily pass. It is located along the mouth of the river for two and a quarter miles.

You can purchase a New York State fishing license and learn about the most current regulations through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Salmon River Trip Planning Tips

Pulaski, New York is Salmon River headquarters so to speak.

Located just minutes from the Salmon River, Pulaski is home to several hotels and motels, and just off I-81, offering convenient access even for those who aren’t from the area. 

If you’re visiting between September and March, beware of busier waters and special regulations.

So now that you know where and when to go fishing on the Salmon River – go and enjoy!

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in New York