Falling for Fall Creek…

When it comes to fishing new water, I’m a believer in humbly paying my dues.  I grossly lower my expectations and fish with head bowed low, hoping the fly fishing gods take notice.  These first trips are more “recon” than fishing – an attempt to learn the water with eyes wide open.

Some of my loyal readership know I’ve been itching to take a trip to Fall Creek.  I had heard the fishing can be great in the fall, when lake-sized browns and landlocked salmon feel the ancestral urge to spawn, but I had also heard it was a place requiring tribute (read, many fish-less casts) before one could “bring home the Cayuga Lake bacon”.

Those who angle the tribs in the fall know that a big push of cold water is all it takes to signal the lake’s trout and salmon to make their annual spawning runs, so last week’s heavy rains and cool weather were just what I was waiting for…


The kind of chart for trib fishers love...

After spending a good chunk of Saturday “leaf-plowing”, I decided to give Fall Creek a try early Sunday morning.   I set up my gear the night before, turned back my Seiko Monster for Daylight Savings Time, and hit the sack.  I was up and on my way at “0” dark-thirty Sunday morning; it was still dark when I pulled into a local McDonald’s / Express Stop for an Egg McMuffin and a fill-up of petrol.  By the time I crossed the river bridge in Owego, it was just light enough to see a high and muddy Susquehanna, a river far different from the one I fished as summer transitioned to fall.  The trip up route 96B to Ithaca was relaxing – the Catatonk Valley’s mix of heavily forested hills, serpentine brooks, and bucolic farms made for a nice drive.

I arrived at the parking area off Lake Street and quickly rigged my rod and donned my gear to the roaring music of Ithaca Falls, the largest of the Finger Lakes falls at 150 feet in height and 175 feet in width.  It was a short hike down to the creek and the gorge pool…


Looking upstream from the tail of the gorge pool to the falls...

I fished the gorge pool using a sink tip line, a 1X tippet, and a weighted purple streamer.  As the sun rose and lit the morning, fishermen began to arrive in numbers I was not used to after fishing the Susquehanna in late summer / early fall.  I watched one angler below me expertly flipping a long orange bobber with what looked like a fly rod.  I spoke with him out of curiosity as he moved by me on his way upstream and found he was fishing a centerpin rig.  He had hooked a few small fish but was still in search of bigger fish, like the 27″ male landlocked salmon he reportedly caught on just such a rig the previous year.  For those not familiar with centerpin fishing, it’s a deadly way to fish a bait, typically an egg sack or worm, using a bobber for a drag-free drift.

I decided it was “recon” time after working the gorge pool and watching fishermen stack up above me.  I slowly waded downstream, swinging my streamer – an easy and enjoyable way to fly fish on such a beautiful fall morning.  Below the gorge pool was some fast deep water, and further below these runs the river broadened, slowed, and ran largely featureless, save a few deep pockets in isolated spots.  I fished all the water the same – exploring this delightful Finger Lake tributary one cast at a time.


The N. Cayuga Street and Rt 13/34 bridges, looking downstream...

I could see bridges below me and figured I’d fish downstream to them and then get out and hike upstream to fish the falls pool before heading home.  But as I closed the distance to the bridge pool, two things convinced me that this spot was worth a longer stay: 1) a fat and feisty rainbow nailed my streamer on a swing through a riffle, and 2) I almost stepped on a small landlocked salmon, holding mid-stream, as I got in position just above the bridge.

I changed my fly to an olive bead-head soft hackle wooly bugger, having read that olive was a good color for landlocked salmon.  I swung my streamer across and down, periodically wiggling my rod tip to give the fly some life.  The water appeared to deepen just above the bridge, and it was there, that a man scanning the water from the bridge above, spied two large shapes holding in the current.  “There”, he said, pointing just downstream and across from me.  “I’m not sure whether they’re browns or salmon, but they’re big fish”, he said.  “If I were you I’d move upstream a little and swing your fly just above that deep water”.  I thanked him for his advice, and did as he said.  A few casts across and down and my fly stopped dead as it swung.

I set the hook into solid head-shaking, and below me I could see the white of a big jaw, whipping angrily back and forth.  I stripped in my slack line and put the fish on the reel.  The fish, a nice landlocked salmon, held in the current, solid as a planer board trolling a spoon.

So unprepared was I for this early success, that my thoughts immediately turned to where the hell I’d land this fish.  I had no net, and the channelized banks on either side of the creek were fairly steep, so beaching was out of the question.  I let the fish hold upstream of me until I could find an area of slower water and, after two thrashing jumps, dragged him with side pressure to a slow water eddy along the bank.  I’d like to say I executed the perfect Lee Wulff atlantic salmon tailing, but in reality, I slipped as I moved shoreward, ending up flat on my back in the water with rod held high.  My salmon slipped under a tree branch hanging in the water, but I did manage to tail him.  A nearby angler helped me unhook my fish as I held him, and moments later was kind enough to photograph the evidence for posterity purposes…


Well worth a dunking...

The kype on this male was, well, garish, to say the least.  The kype is to salmon, like antlers to a buck, formed when the testosterone starts flowing for taking care of the competition.  This bad-ass had marks from scraps he had already undertaken in the quest for some lucky salmon maiden.  I released him back to the creek and watched him effortlessly swim away.

I had read the temp of the creek to be 46 – 48 degrees, so it wasn’t long before I was shivering cold.  I got out of the river, shed my soaking shirt layers, and walked back to my car in my t-shirt and waders, like some bass-fishing river rat on a summer’s day, an odd sight for the many anglers dressed in heavy wading jackets and topped with ski hats.


Fall Creek in late fall...

I left Fall Creek with mixed feelings.  I was delighted to land a truly magnificent fish – the original upstate version of the atlantic salmon that none other than Lee Wulff proclaimed to be the king of gamefish.  On the other hand, no angler likes beginner’s luck.  It often spells doom for subsequent outings until the fly fishing gods deem said angler is finally due again.  Better to get the lay of the water and work into good fishing than to start off with a bang and go fishless.

Racing back home with my car’s heater on high to fight the chill, I couldn’t help but stop to take this photo from a high point at the south end of Cayuga Lake…


"Far above Cayuga's waters, with its waves of blue..."

Beginner’s luck or not, I’d be back to this special place, where salmon once ran so thick, native Indians speared them by the hundreds on their fall spawning runs.  To hold the progeny of evolution just once was well worth the risk of never holding it again…

Tight lines…


6 Responses to “Falling for Fall Creek…”

  1. super post. Now I regret revolting against Gov. patterson’s increase of the NYS fishing license fees for non-residents.

    I may have to get one…. if you post anymore awesome stories like this one!

  2. stflyfisher Says:

    How about you get a NY license and I’ll get a PA license with both of our names on each one?

    Yes, the license fee increased significantly, but that one fish (and many more earlier this year) still makes it a bargain…

  3. I won’t tell any of the PA WCO’s about the dual names if you don’t tell the DEC wardens… heheheheh

  4. I am returning to Fall Creek this Thanksgiving morn to resume my annual Turkey Morning ritual. Until my best friend and fishing buddy moved to Missoula Montana ( my home away from home), we did fall creek with “buggers and white streamers every fall. Some years were better but always fun, especially if the day was overcast following a bit of runoff.
    Hope this T-day will allow me to send some pics back to Missoula.

  5. stflyfisher Says:

    Jeff – thanks for your comment and for checking out my blog! Good luck to you on Thanksgiving – enjoy your time out and have fun. Tight lines…

  6. Stephen Hopkins Says:

    Nice article and pictures!

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