My Fall Chasing Trespassers, Counterfeiters, and Chromers
A job as a river patrolman on New York’s famous Salmon River comes with angry confrontations but pays off with plenty of fresh steelhead in the net
MY FELLOW PATROLMEN and I gather around for the morning briefing in late October before heading down to start our shift on the river. At the front of the group is our manager Garrett, the leader of the Douglaston Salmon Run (DSR) river patrol team in Pulaski, New York. It is 4 a.m., and my buddy Max and I made the drive to work from our Syracuse apartment 40 minutes south of the famous Salmon River. The door shuts behind us. “I need everyone’s attention,” says Garrett, “We got a tip that there will be counterfeiters on the river today, and we need everyone to be prepared.”
We are sophomores in college and took this job for one reason—so we can fish the best stretch of steelhead water for free. Every fall, New York’s Salmon River gets a tremendous run of salmon and steelies. 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 Douglaston Salmon Run, which charges a fee to fish their water. The benefits are fewer crowds, fresh fish, and some of the most scenic spots on the entire river. The only issue is that the price of admission—$60 for the day—is too high for broke college kids. But if you’re willing to confront anglers to enforce state regulations and DSR-mandated rules as a river patrolman, you get a free season pass.
“A sheet of instructions is being passed around the room in case you run into the guys with fake wristbands,” Garrett says. “The state police and conservation officers have already been alerted.”
Max and I give each other a look, and we know exactly what the other is thinking: We don’t get paid enough for this shit.
In late August, when salmon typically begin moving up the river from Lake Ontario, I was assigned to patrol Beats 1 and 5—also known as the north and south property border. I patrolled Beat 1 by foot, where I had the pleasure of dealing with angry anglers who would sneak into the DSR from the north, didn’t like being told they can’t fish without a pass, and were quick to blame a 19-year-old kid for ruining their trip.
On my first afternoon, I found myself surrounded by three pissed-off New Englanders. That they were so quick to anger was the first tipoff that they should not have been there. I had a bright fluorescent hat on my head, a walkie-talkie 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 informed them that if they didn’t leave, the state game wardens would make sure they did.
After that, I backed off a little, putting roughly 20 yards between me and the group so that the sound of the river deafened any more communication between us. Panicking on the inside, I lifted the walkie-talkie to my mouth without ever engaging the call button. I started talking (to nobody) and kept my poker face during the bluff. In a matter of seconds, the New Englanders picked up their rods and headed back the other way. That was the first time I used the walkie-talkie trick, but far from the last.
By early October, when the salmon run is in full swing, I began to get a sense of who was breaking the rules before I even reached them on the river, which was the case at Coho Hole one evening. Coho Hole is the northern border of the property. After a quiet day, I came around the bend and saw two men in the hole acting like kids that couldn’t hold their excitement because of the amount of salmon moving upstream.
I approached the men and asked how the fishing was. They seemed skeptical of my fluorescent hat but told me “it’s about to get a lot better.” I gave them a smile and asked to see their passes. That did it. They started waving their arms and arguing they’d been fishing the spot for 20 years, and that it was public water. While true that the DSR had previously given anyone access to this spot, after continuous pollution and mistreatment of the resource, they posted it for the first time that season.
I showed the property map to the older fishermen and gave my spiel about the regulations before I kindly asked them to leave. The younger angler obliged, but the elder kept up the fight. After another performance with the walkie-talkie, I watched him finally cross back over to the public side.
I sat on the border for a bit but had the feeling that as soon as I resumed my patrol, the anglers would immediately return to fish the Coho Hole. I made my way downstream, and right before I was out of sight, I looked back to see them watching me. I walked another 100 yards downstream and cut into the woods to loop back upstream under concealment. As I approached the edge of the woods and peeked over the rise, I could see the older angler already fishing in the hole. He waved to his friend to come over while he simultaneously checked downriver to where he last saw me.
I laughed at first and sat down to watch them. I imagined this is how it felt on an episode of North Woods Law during a stakeout. I sneaked down the bank and used a small island in the river as cover. Peering around the bend, I spotted the older angler just 40 yards away. With his back to me, he motioned for his buddy to come over, just as I stepped out and began walking toward him. The friend saw me and began to shake his head and motion to his bud that I was right behind him. When the man finally turned around, I was standing 20 yards away. He startled, apologized quickly, and headed off the river and back to the road.
As the sun set, I was the only one left at the hole. I made my way out into the river to pick up an empty plastic water bottle as several kings and cohos burst past me to continue their journey upstream.
The Good With the Bad
There were a few regulars I got to know well through the season. We talked about fishing, gear, tactics, and they tried to get the inside scoop on where the fish were that day. Anthony, a happy-go-lucky type, was always ready to chat, toss me a soda, and throw a burger on his boat’s grill during my patrol.
I first came across him in early October while patrolling the south border—known as the estuary—from a canoe. This area holds enough water for motorboats to come in, anchor, and fish. After I informed a boater that he wasn’t allowed to fish out of his pontoon boat in DSR water without a pass, he tried to swamp my canoe before making his way back to the lake. I held on to the gunnels for dear life, and when the canoe finally stopped rocking, I made my way over to the next boat.
I saw a season pass on a lanyard around a man’s neck as I approached. “There’s no way they pay you enough money to deal with that,” the man yelled from a distance. “Here, have a soda.”
I initially declined. 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 eventually accepted, and Anthony began telling me his life story. Before I knew it, he had a burger on the Coleman grill and was asking how I liked it cooked. I filled in Anthony on my latest fishing adventures, but drew the line when he held out a rod for me to use.
“If I pick that up, I’ll get fired,” I said.
“Oh please, nobody cares,” he replied.
I laughed and thanked him for the lunch as I moved on.
“Same time tomorrow, Ryan?”
I gave a thumbs up over my head as I paddled away.
Worth the Work
I could feel the studs on my boots popping out as I started to lose my grip on the bottom. I was sprinting my way downstream as Max fought a steelhead. The fish finally tired, and I scooped it up to see a giant chromer at the bottom of the net. This was what we lived for.
The group today included Nick, Max, Jeff, Christian, and me. We were all part of the river patrol team, except Jeff, who bummed a free guest pass off of one of us. All of our schedules lined up on that cool, fall day in mid-October to fish together.
I couldn’t catch a break, though. First, my line snapped on a rock as I fought one fish, then the hook pulled out of another’s mouth, and next my buddy missed yet another one with the net. On it went. I figured it just wasn’t my morning. At lunch, I took a nap on the bank to rest from my 0 for 16 start.
I was startled awake by Nick yelling for me to get my butt downstream because a fresh group of fish had just pushed up. I grabbed my rod and headed downriver, trying not to lose my balance on the slick rocks. When I reached Nick, he pointed to a seam 50 feet out. “Cast right there!” he shouted. On my first cast, the fly line instantly came tight and a chromer shot out of the water.
“Get the net,” Nick yelled. I looked downstream to see all of my buddies (who’d all caught multiple fish by then) with nets and cameras, determined to help me land this fish. The steelie was halfway across the river when it turned and bolted directly at me. I backpedaled and tripped on the bank in an effort to keep 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 went on to land 15 steelhead between the five of us before the sun set, and then we all headed back to our apartment for beers, fast food, and jokes about how it took five guys for me to catch one fish.
I am on edge about the possibility of running into the counterfeiters. The situation seems more serious than anything we’ve encountered so far this season. I’ve come to learn that fish, especially big fish, can make fishermen do crazy things. A month earlier, I watched a guy dive into the freezing-cold river for a salmon that broke off at his feet. If the counterfeiters are willing to make fake passes just to fish here, who knows what they are capable of.
The fact that the game wardens are waiting for our call has me even more nervous. I don’t have a sidearm or anything to protect myself with. All I have is this stupid walkie-talkie. I’m sure the counterfeiters don’t want to see the cops or the wardens, but I’m the one they are primarily trying to avoid. To be honest, I am trying to avoid them too. The job doesn’t seem worth it right now.
I am patrolling the estuary from the canoe, and it’s cold. Fall is starting to turn to winter, and there are no anglers, except one, who is by himself in the first run that you can actually wade. I look up to see his rod doubled over. I make my way towards him and see the bright chrome flash in the shallows just before his line snaps. “They’re in!” The man yells before making his way back to the top of the run to cast again.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so nervous any more. The sight of that steelhead answered all of my questions and doubts. It is worth it. I remember why I took this job in the first place—to fish the best steelhead water on the entire river. Even if that means catching counterfeiters like it’s the wild west.
Max’s voice comes over the radio saying that he found the accused anglers in the upper section of the river, and that they are legal. The whole thing was a false alarm. Then, I see a text from Max.
“Thank god that’s over, let’s go catch some steelhead.”
“I am way ahead of you,” I respond. “ I’ve got our spot for tomorrow morning.”