How to catch steelhead – and the breakers

My fellow patrollers and I gather for morning briefing in late October before heading out to begin our shift on the river. Leading the pack is our manager Garrett, the leader of the Douglaston Salmon Run (DSR) river patrol team in Pulaski, New York. It’s 4 a.m. and my friend Max and I drove to work from our apartment in Syracuse 40 minutes south of the famous Salmon River. The door closes behind us. “I need everyone’s attention,” Garrett says, “We received a tip that there will be counterfeiters on the river today and we need everyone to prepare.”

We are sophomores in college and we got this job for a reason—so we can fish the best steelhead water for free. Every fall, New York’s Salmon River receives large numbers of salmon and steelhead. Anglers from all over the country flock here to get a piece of the action. The first two miles of the river are privately owned by the Douglaston Salmon Run, which charges a fee to fish their water. The benefits are fewer crowds, fresher fish and some of the most scenic spots on the entire river. The only issue is that the price of admission — $60 a day — is too high for broke college kids. But if you’re willing to stand up to anglers to enforce state regulations and DSR-mandated rules as a river patroller, you get a free season pass.

“There’s an instruction sheet going around the room in case you run into guys with fake wristbands,” Garrett says. “State police and conservation officers have already been alerted.”

Max and I glance at each other and know exactly what the other is thinking: We don’t get paid enough for this shit.


In late August, when the salmon usually start moving upriver from Lake Ontario, I was assigned to patrol Beats 1 and 5 – also known as the north and south property line. I patrolled Beat 1 on foot where I had the pleasure of dealing with angry fishermen who would sneak into the DSR from the north, I didn’t like being told they couldn’t fish without a permit and quickly blaming a 19-year-old kid for ruining the their journey.

On my first afternoon, I found myself surrounded by three angry New Englanders. The fact that they got angry so quickly was the first tip off that they weren’t supposed to be there. I had a fluorescent hat on my head, a remote control in my hand and a backpack. In other words, I was a walking punching bag with a brightly colored target.

They called me every name in the book and I let them know that if they didn’t leave, the state game wardens would make sure they left.

After that, I backed off a bit, putting about 20 meters between me and the group so that the sound of the river would no longer drown out the communication between us. Panicking inwardly, I raised the remote to my mouth without ever engaging the call button. I started talking (to no one) and kept my poker face on while bluffing. In a few seconds, the New Englanders picked up their rods and headed back the other way. This was the first time I used the radio trick, but far from the last.

coho salmon fisherman
An early September coho salmon caught in the Douglaston Salmon Run. Ryan Chellius

Border Patrol

In early October, when the salmon run is in full swing, I started to see who was breaking the rules before I even got them on the river, as was the case at Coho Hole one evening. Coho Hole is the northern boundary of the property. After a quiet day, I came around the bend and saw two men in the hole acting like children who couldn’t contain their excitement at the amount of salmon moving upstream.

I approached the men and asked how the fishing was. They seemed skeptical about my fluorescent hat, but told me it “will get a lot better.” I gave them a smile and asked to see their permits. That did it. They started waving their arms and arguing that they had fished that place for 20 years, and that it was public water. While it’s true that DSR had previously given anyone access to this site, after constant contamination and abuse of the resource, they posted it for the first time that season.

I showed the property map to the older anglers and gave them information about the regulations before kindly asking them to leave. The younger fisherman obliged, but the older one continued the fight. After another remote show, I watched it finally go public.

I sat on the limit for a bit but had a feeling that once I resumed my patrol the anglers would be right back to fishing the Coho hole. I made my way downstream and just before I was out of sight I looked back to see them watching me. I walked another 100 meters downstream and cut into the woods to return upstream under cover. As I approached the edge of the forest and looked up, I could see the older fisherman already fishing in the hole. He motioned for his friend to come as he simultaneously checked down the river where he last saw me.

At first I laughed and sat down to watch them. I imagined how he felt in an episode of the movie Law of the North Woods during an action. I sneaked down the bank and used a small island in the river as cover. Looking around the bend, I saw the older fisherman only 40 yards away. With his back to me, he motioned for his friend to come over, just as I got out and started walking towards him. The friend saw me and started shaking his head and moving his bud that I was right behind him. When the man finally returned, I was standing 20 feet away. He was startled, quickly apologized and left the river and returned to the road.

By sunset, I was the only one left in the hole. I made my way out to the river to retrieve an empty plastic water bottle as several kings and kohos burst ahead of me to continue their journey upstream.

My Fall follows trespassers, counterfeiters and cronies
The most historic run in the Douglaston Salmon Run-The meadows— is perfect for swinging flies for salmon and steelhead. Ryan Chellius

The good with the bad

There were a few regulars that I got to know well during the season. We talked about fishing, gear, tactics and they tried to find the inside box of where the fish were that day. Anthony, a lucky guy, was always ready to chat, pour me a soda, and flip me a burger. grill of his boat during my patrol.

I first met him in early October while patrolling the southern border – known as the estuary – from a canoe. This area contains sufficient water for motor boats to access, anchor and fish. After I informed a boater that he was not allowed to fish from his pontoon boat in DSR water without a permit, he attempted to sink my float before returning to the lake. I held on to my guns for dear life and when the canoe finally stopped rocking I made my way to the other boat.

I saw a season pass on a rope around a man’s neck as I approached. “There’s no way they’re paying you enough money to deal with this,” the man yelled from afar. “Here, have a soda.”

At first I refused. He seemed almost too happy to see me – something I wasn’t used to – and it had me on edge. “Come on, relax and have a soda with me,” he said. I finally agreed and Antoni began to tell me his life story. Before I knew it, he had a burger on the Coleman grill and was asking me how I liked it cooked. I filled Anthony in on my recent fishing adventures, but pulled the line when he handed me a rod to use.

“If I take that, I’ll be fired,” I said.

“Oh please, nobody cares,” he replied.

I laughed and thanked him for the lunch as I continued.

“Same time tomorrow, Ryan?”

I gave him a thumbs up above my head as I walked away.

It’s worth the work

I felt the toes on my boots come off as I started to lose control at the bottom. I was speeding downstream while Max fought a steelhead. The fish finally got tired and I picked it up to see a giant chrome at the bottom of the net. This was what we lived for.

The group today consisted of Nick, Max, Jeff, Christian and myself. We were all part of the river patrol team, except for Jeff, who slapped a free guest on one of us. All of our schedules lined up on that cool fall day in mid-October to fish together.

However, I couldn’t rest. First, my line snapped on a rock while fighting a fish, then the hook was pulled out of the mouth of another, and then my friend lost another with the net. In it went. I realized it just wasn’t my morning. At lunch, I took a nap on the bench to rest from my 0-for-16 start.

I was startled to wake up to Nick yelling for me to get my butt downstream because a fresh batch of fish had just come up. I grabbed my stick and headed down the river, trying not to lose my balance on the smooth rocks. When I reached Nick, he pointed to a seam 50 yards away. “Hurry right there!” he shouted. On my first cast, the fly line immediately tightened and a chromer shot out of the water.

“Get the net,” Nick shouted. I looked downstream to see all my friends (who had caught many fish by then) with nets and cameras, set to help me land this fish. The steelhead was halfway across the river when it turned and crashed into me. I turned back and stood on the bank to try to keep the tension on the line. When I looked up, I saw Max holding the net and smiling as a gorgeous steelhead lay in the bag.

We proceeded to land 15 steelhead between the five of us before the sun went down, and then we all went back to our condo for beers, fast food, and jokes about how it took five guys for me to catch a fish.

My Fall follows trespassers, counterfeiters and cronies
Steelhead auto after going 0 for 16 that morning. Ryan Chellius

false alarm

I am concerned about the possibility of running into counterfeiters. The situation looks more dire than anything we’ve encountered so far this season. I’ve learned that fish, especially big fish, can make anglers do crazy things. A month ago, I saw a guy dive into the freezing cold river for a salmon that came off his feet. If counterfeiters are willing to make fake passes just to fish here, who knows what they’re up to.

The fact that the game wardens are waiting for our call made me even more nervous. I don’t have a sidearm or anything to defend myself with. All I have is this stupid remote control. I’m sure the counterfeiters don’t want to see the cops or the guards, but I’m the one they mostly try to avoid. To be honest, I’m trying to avoid them too. The work doesn’t seem worth it now.

I’m patrolling the estuary from the canoe and it’s cold. Fall is starting to turn to winter and there are no anglers except for one who is alone in the first run you can cast on foot. I looked up to see his rod doubled over. I walk up to him and see the bright flash of chrome in the shallows, just before his line snaps. “They’re in!” The man yells before turning to the top of the run to throw again.

Suddenly, I didn’t feel so nervous anymore. The sight of that steelhead answered all my questions and doubts. It’s worth it. I remember why I got this job in the first place—to fish the best steelhead on the entire river. Even if it means catching counterfeiters like it’s the wild west.

Max’s voice comes over the radio saying that he found the accused fishermen upriver and that they are legit. It was all a false alarm. Then, I see a text from Max.

“Thank god that’s over, let’s go catch some steelhead.”

“I’m way ahead of you,” I reply. “I have our place for tomorrow morning.”

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