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Michael Pepi Makes a Strong Case for East Coast Steelhead
Posted on December 19, 2014

Steelhead in New York State. Oh yeah! Michael Pepi lands another.

On our home turf of the Pacific Northwest, the steelhead fishing is legendary. But as Eddie Bauer Sport Shop guide and New York State resident Michael Pepi reminded us, steelheading is not just a West Coast sport. Pepi provided a rundown on one of his favorite upstate spots on the 18-mile-long Salmon River, and its tributaries, near Lake Ontario, where he has been known to land some really big fish in the catch-and-release upper and lower fly zones of this treasured river. —LYA Editor

Steelhead habitat.

Words and Images by Michael Pepi

As long as there has been Great Lakes steelheading, there has been a rift between East Coast and West Coast anglers. From the West, these majestic fish are often called “lake-run rainbows,” though us East Coast anglers, referring back to their origins in the McLeod River, call them steelhead. Today, the population of steelhead in the Great Lakes survives due to the aid of hatcheries. However, with great work from avid anglers and supporting government agencies, the number of wild steelhead is markedly increasing.

My home steelhead waters are the tributaries of Lake Ontario, the most well known river being the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY. This river receives a great number of steelhead, as well as Skamania, in the fall runs. Not only do these tributaries get a good run of salmon and steelhead, but they also hold world-class lake-run brown trout, reaching up to twenty-plus pounds.

For East Coast anglers and guides alike, it is great having these fish so close to home. Even with my love for steelhead, there are several differences in the fisheries. Guiding and doing fisheries research in the Lake Ontario tributaries, I’ve seen a lot of great fishing, but I have also seen a lot of chaos as well. On the West Coast, there are miles and miles of river for anglers to get lost in, creating some separation from other fishermen. East Coast anglers, contrarily, have been declared “combat fishermen,” especially during the salmon run. Anglers will line the rivers to fish select notable holes, sometimes with only feet between them.


Steelhead season is different. It is during this time, with fewer anglers, that I have spent a lot of time on the water. The result has been countless days with classic steelhead runs to myself, watching steelhead dance across the water to a pool with no other angler in sight.

Like most steelhead fanatics, I dream about them 365 days a year. The East Coast satisfies this urge because you can find them in close proximity all year. In the summer, you will practically have the entire river to yourself, searching for Skamania as well as Atlantic salmon. While you can find sections of the river to call your own on the West Coast, they cannot boast the same claim–that steelhead are always there, dancing for you. It’s important to be cautious about water temperature during the summer to ensure you don’t put too much strain on the fish, as the water temperature can range quite a bit. But they can be found throughout Eastern tributaries year-round, regardless.

There are also different fishing techniques from coast to coast. Many East Coast anglers swing flies for steelhead, just like the West Coast; however, we also drift flies like we are fishing for trout in your local brook. I do enjoy swinging flies, but you can have considerable success drifting egg flies, nymphs, and wet flies. One of my fishing mentors designed a special egg pattern, which has allowed me to hook fish over twenty pounds – both steelhead and brown trout. This has become my go-to pattern, having tied hundreds of these eggs, and filling boxes of them in all ranges of sizes and colors. The East Coast technique of drifting, in my opinion, provides the optimal results.

There is a ton of gear that can be used when steelheading on the East Coast. I prefer a seven or an eight weight rod, at a minimum of nine feet. I prefer a long rod if you have one, switch rods are ideal to drift and swing flies. You can also use a spey rod, but at some sections it might be a bit too long. As for flies, you can use traditional spey flies but my go-to patterns are egg style flies, stoneflies, copper Johns, pheasant tails, and a good egg sucking leach. Many anglers on the Salmon River use heavy tippet to force fish in, but you will hook for fish with a good drift and a light fluorocarbon leader. Whenever I’m steelheading I always have my Eddie Bauer Immersion Wading Jacket. It’s a great jacket for any weather, has great pockets to hold whatever you need, and amazing waterproof cuffs to help keep you dry while tailing fish all day.

Steelhead being steelhead, there is a cult following of anglers who travel to find new locations and techniques to land these elusive fish. No matter where you find them, either on the East Coast or West Coast, they can be extremely difficult to catch. However, trying not to be biased, I believe that Great Lakes steelhead on the East Coast provide anglers with the best opportunity to catch them.

Sport Shop guide Michael Pepi snagging a beautiful Skamania on the Salmon River of upstate New York

Some final guide knowledge from Michael Pepi: The Salmon River Hatchery, where I did a ton of research work as a fisheries student, is a great place to visit both online and in person for regulations and maps. There is a private stretch of river right at the mouth of the lake called Douglaston Salmon Run; they have a great site with weather condition and links to USGS water flows and when they will change, as well as reports from anglers on the river that are updated almost every day. 

Author: - Friday, December 19th, 2014

  1. Jess Cosentino

    Pulaski is a short drive to the Eastview Mall Eddie Bauer! Come visit us Michael and we can talk steelhead, salmon, and more of our favorite fishing spots in the area!!
    -Jess, ASM Eastview EB

  2. John Trousdale

    Wow, Jess. It’s rare that an angler is willing to share their favorite fishing spots…

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