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Steelhead Fishing in New York (A Helpful Guide)

Steelhead Fishing in New York (A Helpful Guide)

Upstate New York is famous for its exquisite steelhead fisheries, and every year, the steelhead runs of the Great Lakes tributaries attract thousands and thousands of anglers. 

The state has plenty of rivers, hot spots, fish, and beautiful sceneries to offer and isn’t short of trophy steelhead either! 

Finding all the necessary information and valuable tips for your NY steelhead fishing trip online isn’t the easiest of tasks, which is why I wrote up this complete guide on steelhead fishing in New York.  

It includes detailed and helpful information on the following topics:

  • Best steelhead rivers in New York
  • Best seasons to catch steelhead
  • Best steelhead fishing charters in New York
  • Fishing reports, record catches, regulations, and licenses 

Read on and get all the tips you need to get ready for your NY steelhead adventure! Tight lines!

Where Is the Best Steelhead Fishing in New York?

The Great Lakes tributaries of New York have incredible steelhead runs, and there are more than a few creeks and rivers to choose from!

I’ve narrowed it down to the five most popular and most productive waters in the state. 

Every year, these tribs are visited by thousands and thousands of steelhead enthusiasts who all want to hook up to a real Great Lakes monster! 

And if you’re fishing these rivers, chances are pretty good that you could land such a fish yourself! 

So, without further ado, here are New York’s five best steelhead rivers: 

Salmon River 

a young trout angler with a big steelhead from the Salmon River
Courtesy of Michael Deloia

The Salmon River is, without a doubt, the most popular and heavily fished Lake Ontario trib in upstate New York!

This river is 44 miles long and empties into Lake Ontario at Port Ontario in Oswego County. 

It might not be the longest of rivers, but it holds a ton of steelhead, and many of them can reach really good sizes of up to 20lb. 

Most of the Salmon’s steelhead action happens in mid-winter, but when the fish turn on, you can expect decent results throughout the entire season, which commonly stretches from October through April. 

Popular hot spots for steelhead include the Douglaston Salmon Run, the Schoolhouse Pool, and around Altmar (the latter is mostly flies only).

Those are solid spots to try out if you’ve never fished this river. You can also ask your guide to show you around if you wish to fish river stretches.

Recommended Steelhead Fishing Charter for the Salmon River: Dreams Come True – Drift Boat

Niagara River 

a fishing guide on his boat holding a giant Niagara River steelhead
Courtesy of FishingBooker

Up next is the Niagara River, which flows northward from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, making it another Lake Ontario tributary. 

The Niagara River typically has huge steelhead runs, even though the average fish will often be somewhat smaller than in other rivers.

The abundance of fish, and the therein resulting great catch rate, do, however, make it the perfect pick for beginners or anglers who are new to steelhead fishing.  

If the fish are on and you have a skilled guide by your side, catching 5 to 10 fish or more is nothing unusual at all! 

The lower stretch of the Niagara River, from Devil’s Hole to Niagara Bar, is considered best for steelhead fishing, as most of the fish will gather here over the winter. 

Some well-known and productive spots on the lower Niagara include Artpark in Lewiston, Fort Niagara State Park, and Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park. 

Ask your guide to bring you there if you want some of Niagara’s best steelhead action! 

Recommended Steelhead Fishing Charter for the Niagara River: Angler’s Obsession Charters

Oswego River

a trout angler on the oswego river with a nice steelhead
Courtesy of FishingBooker

The Oswego is another excellent NY steelhead fishing destination. 

It starts at the confluence of the Oneida and Seneca River in the Finger Lakes region and has its mouth on the southern shoreline of Lake Ontario.

This river has one of the state’s longest steelhead seasons, running from early October to May. 

In addition to the steelhead population that makes its runs upstream, the river is stocked annually with 20,000 steelhead, ensuring that you, the angler, can have a unique and unforgettable fishing experience. 

While the river’s upper stretches are best fished with spinning gear from the shoreline, the lower parts, upstream of the river mouth around the Route 104 bridge, are great for fly fishing. 

Be aware that varying water levels and strong currents can make wading fairly tricky at times! 

A popular hot spot can also be found below the Varick Street Dam.

Recommended Steelhead Fishing Charter for the Oswego River: Lake Run Fly & Guide

Genesee River 

a genesee river steelhead being released back into the water
Courtesy of FishingBooker

The Genesee River is yet another Lake Ontario trib with solid salmon and steelhead runs. 

It doesn’t quite contain the same amount of fish as some of NY’s other steelhead rivers and doesn’t enjoy the same kind of recognition, but has, nonetheless, plenty to offer. 

The Genesee is 157 miles long and empties into Lake Ontario in Rochester at the Ontario Beach Park. 

Despite its length, all steelhead fishing will be done around Rochester, up to Lower Falls at the base of the Genesee River gorge. 

The lower stretch of the river offers plenty of good spots for shoreline fishing and wading. 

Recommended Steelhead Fishing Charter for the Genesee River: Lake Run Fly & Guide

Chautauqua Creek

The Chautauqua is a special tip and the only Lake Erie trib recommendation in this article. 

The creek is only 15 miles long but is considered one of New York’s absolute best steelhead spots by the locals! 

That’s because it has the state’s best catch rate of an incredible 1.2 to 1.4 steelhead/hour. That’s hard to beat if you ask me.

Chautauqua Creek is located in the very southwestern parts of New York. 

It flows through the town of Westfield and then empties into Lake Erie.

Most Chautauqua steelhead will weigh between 5 and 10lb and can be found in the lower sections of the creek. Most fish are caught on flies. 

The best time of year to target steelhead is in early fall and early winter, as the creek tends to ice over fairly early. 

When Is the Best Time to Fish for Steelhead in New York?

a new york angler on a river holding a really big steelhead
Courtesy of Michael Deloia

The steelhead season in New York typically stretches from September or October through April or early May. 

But there are certain differences between the seasons that you might want to be aware of when planning your NY steelhead adventure:

Fall

New York steelhead can start their runs as early as mid-September, even though the amount of fish is often still small, as the water temperatures this time of year are commonly still somewhat too high. 

This tends to have changed by early to mid-October. Now, the water gets colder and colder, and every day, more and more fish will enter the tributaries and start their journey upstream.

The period between October and November is considered one of the best times of year to target Washington steelhead (as the winter-run strains are called around here). 

The water is still warm enough for the fish to be considerably active, and it is now that they will go through frequent feeding frenzies. 

Make sure to hit the water if you want to experience New York’s finest steelhead action!

Winter

Steelhead fishing can be somewhat more challenging between late November and late February, even though plenty of fish are now in the rivers. 

This has mainly to do with the dropping temperatures and harsh conditions that anglers must endure when they’re out on the water. 

Lower water temperatures mean less active fish, so getting a bite is anything but easy this time of year. 

Additionally, smaller creeks and rivers are at risk of freezing over during the winter, making fishing for steelhead impossible until warmer weather moves in. 

But, if the river you’re targeting is still open, and you’re out fishing during a warming period, the fish can turn on very quickly! Because no matter how slow they get, they’ll always be hungry!

Spring

The period between March and early to mid-May is another excellent time to target steelhead. 

This is the time of their spawning, and while the fishing can be challenging during the spawn, it can be truly phenomenal right after the fish are done spawning. 

Post-spawn, or drop-back steelhead (as they’ll start to drop back downstream toward the Great Lakes after the spawning) are starving fish, and it is perhaps now that it’s the easiest time to catch them!

No matter how bad the water or weather conditions might be, those fish will almost always be turned on, and on a good day, who knows how many you’ll be able to hook up to!  

Can You Catch New York Steelhead in Summer?

a steelhead fishing charter boat on lake ontario
Courtesy of FishingBooker

Even though most anglers will fish for steelhead during the colder months of the year, targeting NY summer-run steelhead (Skamania) can actually be pretty rewarding.

The New York State DEC has been stocking the Salmon River with Skamania for decades, and during years with enough water in the river system, quite a few fish find their way upstream during high summer.

They will enter the river as early as May and can be targeted all the way through fall until the Washington steelhead runs begin.  

You can also fish for summer steelhead on Lake Ontario. Here, both winter and summer strains can be caught in the shallower areas of the lake and close to river mouths, where the fish will gather before they start their runs. 

Trolling for lake-run steelhead during the summer can be a lot of fun, and you always have the chance of landing a real Great Lakes trophy fish, especially if you’re fishing with a skilled guide. 

Recommended Steelhead Fishing Charter for Lake Ontario: Fishlander Charters

Best Steelhead Fishing Charters in New York

Fishing Charter

Target Location

Dreams Come True – Drift Boat

(New York 13, Pulaski, NY 13142)

Salmon River

Angler's Obsession Charters 

(115 North Water Street, Lewiston, NY 14092)

Niagara River

Lake Run Fly & Guide

(East Bridge Street, Oswego, NY 13126)

Oswego River, Genesee River

Fishlander Charters

(Sodus Point, NY)

Lake Ontario

How to Catch Steelhead in New York?

a young angler fighting a steelhead on a new york river
Courtesy of FishingBooker

There are three main fishing techniques to catch New York steelhead. All three have proven highly effective, and if you master all of these methods, you will always be able to adjust your fishing to current river conditions and catch more fish. 

Fly fishing

Fly fishing is probably the most popular way of catching steelhead in New York and works well on most rivers. 

The following four types of flies are considered most effective for steelhead in the NT tributaries:

  • streamers
  • nymphs
  • egg imitation patterns
  • attractor patterns

Make sure to bring all four types with you in your tackle box so that you can always vary your presentations! 

Spin Fishing

Most spin fishing is done with longer light to medium action rods, which will allow you to drift fish your lures. 

Drift fishing is a highly effective technique in the NY tribs, as it allows for very delicate presentations of small baits on light tackle. 

When it comes to steelhead in cold and clear water conditions, fishing as stealthily as possible is always a good idea! 

Artificial egg sacks, plastic worms, and maggots are the number one choices for most anglers who spin fishing for steelhead. 

Float Fishing

Float fishing can be deadly for steelhead when conditions on the river are more challenging, and currents are getting too strong for fly or spin fishing.

Once again, long rods are the key to success here, as they allow for long drifts and perfect hook sets with a lot of line out.

A float, or bobber rig, also allows you to present your bait close to the river bottom, which is where the fish will often be found in cold water. 

Popular baits include trout and salmon eggs in differently colored nylon sacks, smaller worms, corn, or smaller minnows.

Can You Fish Steelhead at Night in New York?

Night fishing for steelhead and salmon is not allowed in any of the Lake Erie or Lake Ontario tributaries.

The NY fishing regulations clearly state that “fishing from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise is prohibited.”

You can find more information on fishing hours at fishsalmonriver.com.

Steelhead Fishing Reports for New York

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation releases up-to-date fishing reports for Lake Erie and Lake Ontario Tributaries via its Fishing Hotline. 

You can find the Fishing Hotline’s latest report here.

There are a few other websites and communities that publish NY steelhead fishing reports that can be worth checking out:

New York Steelhead Fishing Regulations

The state of New York has special fishing regulations for all of its Great Lakes tributaries.

Please read them carefully before your trip to ensure that you follow protocol. 

You can find the current tributary regulations in the New York State DEC’s Freshwater Fishing Regulations Guide.

You can read the NY Guide to Steelhead Fishing in the Great Lakes Tributaries for additional information.

Do You Need a Fishing License in New York?

All resident and nonresident anglers age 16 and above need to purchase a valid fishing license for the state of New York. 

You can find more detailed information about rules, fees, and different types of licenses via the New York State DEC’s Fishing License section

How Big Do New York Steelhead Get?

a trout angler from new york holding a fat fall steelhead
Courtesy of Michael Deloia

Great Lakes steelhead are both abundant and often well-sized. 

Lake Ontario steelhead tend to grow somewhat bigger than Lake Erie fish, but generally, the average weight in both lakes (and their respective tributaries) is around 5 to 10lb. 

That said, bigger fish between 10 and 20lb are fairly common as well, and every year, real trophy steelhead that weigh well over 20lb are landed in the state’s various rivers.  

What Is the Biggest Steelhead Ever Caught in New York?

The official New York State steelhead record is a giant fish of 31lb 3oz that was caught on August 14th, 2004, on Lake Ontario by angler Robert Wilson. 

Mind you that this was a lake-run summer fish that would probably have weighed even more during the spawning season. 

Imagine hooking up to a beast like that while fishing on a river! Game on! 

Are Steelhead Native to New York?

None of the steelhead that are found in the Great Lakes are native to that habitat but were stocked in the lakes more than 100 years ago.

The reason for those stockings, both back then and today are primarily for recreational and commercial fishing purposes. 

And even though they are not true natives, the Great Lakes steelhead have managed to adapt to their environment and create sustainable populations pretty well. 

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Featured image courtesy of Justin Kass

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