New York Steelheading

In the August 2006 Issue of Angling Report, an international publication that caters to anglers who travel. By Arnold Markowitz

Until a guide in northwestern New York, Alberto Rey, donated a day’s steelhead fishing to the IGFA’s annual January auction, I thought I’d have to go from Miami to Oregon for that pleasure — and use up a year’s travel budget on one trip. Sure, I knew about the Salmon River, a Lake Ontario tributary at Pulaski in eastern New York, but I dislike fishing in crowds.

Rey fishes the spawning creeks of Lake Erie, around the towns of Fredonia and Dunkirk, less than an hour’s drive southwest of Buffalo International Airport via I-90, the New York Thruway. Although the towns are hardly wilderness outposts, they are the only things I saw standing elbow to elbow in those parts other than vineyards grown for Welch’s grape juice and jelly.

Rivers and creeks flow to the lake through gorges cut about 15,000 years ago by a Wisconsin glacier. Some of the best fishing waters of the area’s best known stream, Cattaraugus Creek, are on an Indian reservation where you have to buy an extra $10 license. There are other waters, ranging from little-known to almost secret, holding fish that will cause a bulging sensation in your eyes.

If I can’t have wilderness, I want the feeling of remoteness that it gives me. Alberto Rey’s waters, mostly in Chautauqua County, are good examples.

“I try to elevate the sport of guiding by researching and finding unpressured productive waters that will make my clients experiences as aesthetic and memorable as possible,” he wrote in an e-mail and proved on the streams.

In three days fishing with him on four creeks (Five? Six? I lost count), Dave Risberg and I saw no other human waving a stick over a stream. If anyone had told me about a bald eagle’s nest overlooking Cattaraugus Creek I’d have doubted it — but I saw an eagle with a hefty fish in its grip, flying upstream and settling into the nest.


It bothers me not a bit that I caught just one steelhead in three days because I also gained the experience and earned the confidence needed to catch more next time.

We spent the nights at a Best Western in Dunkirk, just off the Thruway exit, and ate our dinners in Fredonia. Alberto recommended the White Inn (also a very nice hotel), Rocco’s and the Ellicottville Brewing Co. — all very good, all reasonably priced.

The town is home to a State University of New York campus where Rey, an Orvis-endorsed guide, is a professor of art. He’s the only guide in the territory who can make you a watercolor ($350) or oil painting ($1,500 to $3,000) of your trophy fish, which he insists on releasing in good condition.

That made sense to me. Those fish are big. You can whup one in a fair fight, but you’d hate for a crowd of its kinfish to posse up on you if you try to take it off the premises.

There are other guides in the area, none of them doing it full time, in part because of the steelhead season’s prime window from mid-October to early May.

One is Vince Tobia, a combination guide and travel agent. The Angling Report in April 2006 reported on his guide-yourself bonefish trips to the Bahamas.

Rey told me guide services also are offered, direct or by referral, from three fly shops in the Buffalo area: An Orvis store in the Eastern Hills Mall at Clarence, the Oak Orchard Fly Shop in Amherst and Buffalo Outfitters, also in Amherst.

Rey’s rates are $325 a day for one angler, $400 for a pair. I got his one-day IGFA donation for $180. That’s cheap (and the $180 is tax-deductible), but the IGFA auction is no sure thing for bargain hunters. After about a month of online and write-in bidding, the highest bids become starting bids during IGFA’s annual banquet at the very pricey Breakers resort in Palm Beach.

I lack the references to get hired as a Breakers busboy, so I couldn’t go. I was surprised to learn later that nobody there outbid me.

It seemed silly to fly to Buffalo and drive to Fredonia for one day’s fishing, so I booked with Rey for a three-day weekend, April 21-23. Dave Risberg, a fellow member of the South Florida Fly Fishing Club, was delighted to share the expenses of the two added days. I fished with Alberto alone on Friday, and Dave joined us for Saturday and Sunday.

We both liked Rey right away. He is a master of his avocation, has written about the steelhead creeks and painted their fish for magazines (Gray’s Sporting Journal, Fish & Fly, Art of Angling), enjoys talking about stalking fish and runs a non-profit youth flyfishing program. Even though he’s been up north for years, he’s one of our Florida homeboys — born in Cuba, got out with his folks early in the Castro revolution, lived in Miami as a child and grew up in Pennsylvania coal mining territory where his dad taught Spanish in the public schools, learning English as he went along. Alberto, his wife and two children dwell in an antique house on a bluff above Canadaway Creek, which runs through Fredonia. If you’re fishing Canadaway or other close-by streams he takes you home for a lunch as good or better than any you could buy downtown.

Flycasting klutzes will like this guy a lot. Not once did he criticize our technique, or interrupt fishing to correct our flailing, but instead made the most of the skills we brought. He’s also a good guide for those who like to travel light. Just bring your waders, boots, hat and rain jacket, he advised in advance.

Rey has a good supply of fly tackle, all by Orvis. He set us up with 9-foot 6-weight mid-flex rods, with soft-action tips and midsections to absorb a steelhead strike on leader tippets as light as five-pound test. He used a rigging technique I’d never seen — tippet fastened to leader butt with a tiny barrel swivel. If he had come to me as a stranger, asking if that was okay, I’d have laughed and offered him a lesson.

It proves the value of keeping one’s mind open. That kind of rig seems to blow off any pretense of natural presentation, and it might even get a laugh from steelhead elsewhere, but not on these Erie creeks. We usually stood so near that they couldn’t miss seeing us. They paid no attention. They’re much more likely to be spooked by sounds than by sights.

Alberto and I began on Cattaraugus Creek. I had never fished for steelhead, so I had low first-day expectations that included having to learn difficult specialized techniques. Alberto assured me that it isn’t as tricky as I’d been led to think, and he was right. If you’ve fly-fished for trout, you can do this too.

Even so, the fishing is easier than the catching. My only certain steelhead bite on Cattaraugus was a pickup-and-drop strike by a fish I didn’t see or even feel. “A pretty big one,” said Alberto, who saw the swirl it made. A steelhead, he taught me, can pick up a fly and then drop it without changing the feel of the rod or line in your hands. He can see that happening in the water, but a novice like me can’t, so I learned to watch my flyline for any change in its drift. That’s when to set the hook. It’s easier to say it than do it.

The Cattaraugus was infested that morning with husky yellow suckers. I caught one on a bead-head black wooly bugger. After lunch, which Alberto carried in a backpack, we switched to Clear Creek, a much smaller run through woods with lots of exposed gravel bars, short-and-shallow rapids and small, moderately deep pools.

Alberto, walking ahead, stopped beside one of those pools. He peered through shadow and foam to the opposite bank, no more than 15 feet away, and wigwagged. “Come up here,” he said softly, pointing to the pool with a flyrod.

“Look over there.”

The pool held at least six steelhead larger than any fish I’d ever caught in fresh water. I heard myself gasp when one of them darted out from the undercut bank, threatening the others that hovered in a rough semicircle. ”

He’s got a female back in there, and he comes out to chase away the other males,” Alberto explained.

“That one looks at least a yard long, but it can’t be,” I said.

“Yes it is,” Alberto said. “The one you missed this morning was bigger.” One of the places they ducked for cover was a fallen tree to our left. One of my many casts over there was yanked sharply. The leader tippet, 12 pound test, broke.

The next day on Canadaway Creek, another 12-pound leader was broken by a fish. Again I got several other bites but set the hook too late.

On the third day I caught one at last. We measured it against one of the flyrods — about 28 inches. By that time, Dave had two. One was a junior, caught in a deep pool where it could challenge the 6-weight rod. His second, a three-footer easily, was caught in shallow water. So was mine.

We had been wondering how we could control such big fish on 6-weight rods. Once we hooked them, it became obvious: Hook ’em in the shallows and keep the battle there. Before getting to that point, we had plenty of practice sighting fish and trying to entice them to bite. Fish are hardest to see where the bottom is gravelly or cobbled and the current is bubbly, even in water barely ankle deep. Alberto always saw those first. Dave and I saw them as vague, shadowy forms, except that once in a while they moved a little bit sideways.

The flat shape of shale makes sighting easier. Water flowing over it isn’t too bubbly. Each slab has a distinct shaded edge. If you see a slab with the shadow on this side when all the others are shaded on that side, this one’s a fish. With the other shadows, you just stare at it a while. If one of them wags its tail, it isn’t shale.

Pools usually held several fish, milling around. In the shallows they were more likely to be loners or spawning pairs. Sometimes behind the spawners, there would be a crowd of moochers waiting to pick off eggs drifting off the redd.

We baited them primarily with lightly-weighted white streamers on 12-pound tippets, mending to keep the leader behind the fly as it drifted downstream straight to the fishes’ faces so they’d see the fly first, not the leader. That’s how Dave caught his big one, setting the hook with a strip strike.

When that didn’t work, Alberto had us drift our flies across the steelheads’ field of view on five-pound tippets. By the time we found the big steelhead that would become mine, I’d had plenty of practice with that technique. “The other thing I want you to do, instead of strip-setting, is just lift your rod,” Alberto said. That would set the hook more gently. The rod, with soft action down through the middle of its length, would absorb enough energy to prevent the fragile tippet from breaking — at least on the strike. Afterward, with not much line in play, I could fight the fish from the reel, using its drag instead of finger-pressing the line against the rod grip with the risk of a breakoff.

I didn’t feel the strike, but as my line drifted by the fish I saw it stop and I lifted. There was a splash. All three of us yelled, “Got him!” Catching only one trophy-size fish in three days would leave some of us grumpy. It didn’t bother me a bit. I quit keeping score decades ago, content with the aesthetic and emotional satisfactions of fishing even without a thrill on every other cast. All the same, I think Alberto Rey was relieved when I got mine on the third day.

“I realize that any trip has the potential of providing my clients with the most memorable fishing opportunity of their lives,” he told me, “and I try to have them realize that potential.”

Dave and I enjoyed our time fishing with Rey immensely. We wouldn’t bother checking out other guides if we could get him again, but he tends to get booked up early. He can be contacted through his contact page. If we had to look elsewhere in the Buffalo area for a guide, we’d start with this short list: