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…