The fishing is hot for steelhead, lake trout and the occasional brown trout shows up.
Although Captain Ernie Calandrelli has been chartering for more than 30 years, he is well known to many hunters for his association with Quaker Boy game calls.
On a January day, long after most anglers had packed up their tackle for the year, I met Niagara River guide Captain Ernie Calandrelli in quest of some of the river’s fabled trout.
A small restaurant in Lewiston was the designated spot to fuel up with food to keep us warm for the day on the water. My wife Karen joins us for breakfast, but will be heading off shopping, say-ing, “It’s too cold for fishing”.
Calandrelli has 32 years of chartering on the river and grew up fishing it. The stretch we fished that day was below Niagara Falls, in the waters below the whirlpool. This was the transition area between the deep gorge below the falls to the more gentle slopes along the river as it nears Lake Ontario.
“There was no trout or salmon here then,” Calandrelli said of the time he grew up on the river. “First time I was on the river, I was probably three. Once salmon and trout rolled in, it changed everything.”
The appearance of trout and salmon was due to stocking, or re-stocking in the case of lake trout, along with efforts by both the Canadian and American government to clean up the water.
In January, the fishing is hot for steelhead, lake trout and the occasional brown trout shows up.
“They spend all winter here,” Calandrelli said, “The oxygenated water coming over the falls has lots of food in it for them and eventually they’ll spawn in here.”
Although Calandrelli has been chartering for more than 30 years, he is well known to many hunters for his association with Quaker Boy game calls. He recalls meeting company founder Dick Kirby at a turkey calling contest 40 years ago.
“He didn’t know anybody and neither did I so it was a good match,” he laughed.
Calandrelli became the company’s director of public relations and advertising. He was featured on the company’s instructional CDs, and DVDs. Somewhere along the line, he earned the nick-name “Big Ern.” He retired from the company in the last year, and plans on spending more time on the river. He will still help out Quaker Boy at trade shows in the spring, though.
We launch Calandrelli’s 19-foot Lund from the Lewiston public launch downstream from the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge at about 8 a.m. Although it’s January, it’s not bitterly cold with the temperature just above the freezing mark, although it was windy. Fishing the river in January isn’t as much about air temperatures as precipitation. Too much snow or rain will make the water cloudy and the fishing won’t be good. So too will wind on Lake Erie.
“You get a bad southwest wind on Lake Erie and it dirties the river up,” Calandrelli said. “Steelhead, lake trout and brown trout won’t bite in that.”
Our first stop wasn’t too far from the launch ramp, pulling up to fish near a handful of boats trying for a little winter silver. Calandrelli uses Mag Lip lures by Yakima. Sometimes he will use eggs if the bite is hot on them, but prefers to use Mag Lips if he can. His go-to color is silver with green scales and he will also use gold or straight silver.
“You will catch some on them, no matter what they are biting on,” he said of Mag Lips.
Fishing the river in January isn’t as much about air temperatures as precipitation. Too much snow or rain will make the water cloudy and the fishing won’t be good. So too will wind on Lake Erie.
His outfit consists of 10-pound test tied to a three-way swivel. A six-foot fluorocarbon leader connects the mainline to the lure. A dropper line off the swivel eight to ten inches long goes to a pencil sinker. The idea is if the sinker catches on the rocky bottom, it should break off, leaving the rest of the tackle intact, and not lose the lure.
Sinker weight varies between 1/2–ounce to 1 ¾-ounce, dependent on the current and wind. That day we were using 1 ¾ ounce.
Calandrelli prefers baitcasters using Citrix reels and 7’2” Okuma CSX rods.
“It’s easier to control to keep contact with the bottom, their drag works better and you don’t have to worry about people twisting the line,” he explained as the reason for using baitcasters.
Thinking of when I used a baitcaster and some of the bird’s nests that resulted, I questioned in my mind how these couldn’t be a headache for Calandrelli with sometimes inexperienced anglers. When we started to fish, I understood his logic. His technique is drift fishing and he instructed me to let the line over the side, open the bail and use my thumb to prevent line from feeding out too fast. When I felt bottom, I let out another 10 to 15 feet of line.
“You want to feel that that bottom from the weight tapping the rocks,” he instructed. “Not beating them up, but just tapping.”
Although there are deep holes in the river, most of the spots we fished were 12 to 20 feet deep. Calandrelli explained water levels could really vary depending on the outflow from the power plants.
Calandrelli landed the first fish, one he estimated at six to seven pounds. Then, a couple of drifts later, I felt some resistance, set the hook and the fight was on. The fish gave a good fight on the light tackle and Calandrelli netted it as it came up beside the boat.
The next drift, I wasn’t too far into it and thought I had caught bottom before I realized I had a fish.
“This is a big one,” I said, thinking there was a lot more resistance but not the same fight.
I was right on the size category as this fish weighed 12 pounds. It was a lake trout though, which explained the different fight.
“Okay, we are going to the hole upriver from the power dam,” Calandrelli said.
We zipped under the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge. This is the first time I had seen this busy border crossing from the under side. Next was the large power dam that was part of the huge Ontario Power Generation hydroelectric project. I had always been amazed at this structure, which stretches from the river about 300 feet into the air to the edge of the gorge.
Queenston is where the Niagara Escarpment ends. It’s also where Niagara Falls was 12,500 years ago before eroding the rock to its present position.
Just past the power dam, we were definitely on the Niagara Escarpment, with the rugged rocks reaching 300 feet into the sky. This was one of the most scenic spots along the river and the scenery alone was worth the trip. It also has some of the fastest moving water downstream of the Whirlpool. We stopped close to the American shore to try “the hole.”
Fishing on the Niagara River in the winter months can be cold, but there are ways to beat it.
Calandrelli said the challenge was to find actively feeding fish, coaxing them with a “Come on fish,” as we dropped our lines. He explained this was one of the better-producing holes on the river. That day, at that time, it was not.
We returned to the spot by the dock. I caught a three-pound steelhead. The limit on the American side of the Niagara is three fish of any combination of trout species, with all more than 21-inches in length.
“Look who has the hot rod today,” Calandrelli joked as he lets the under-sized fish go.
Since both of us had an Ontario license, we tried fishing along the Canadian side close to shore. This area didn’t produce and we moved further downstream. Calandrelli said he had a recent report of this being a hot spot. The ice flows were piling up here and we had to fish between them. The first drift didn’t produce and we threaded our way through the flows back upstream.
“Those big pieces could really damage my motor,” Calandrelli said.
The next drift didn’t produce either. Calandrelli was telling me things get exciting when the bite is hot.
“When it’s really good, you get a fish every run, sometimes double headers. It’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Most days, Calandrelli catches his limit.
“You may hit a tough day here and there but generally limits aren’t a problem,” he said.
Steelhead fishing is good from No-vember until the end of May, when the fish return to the river. The salmon are hot in the river from mid-May to mid-October. Lake trout and brown trout fishing are good during a similar time period, but the browns bite best in the end of November and early December. He also fishes Lake Erie for smallmouth bass and walleye.
Calandrelli uses Mag Lip lures by Yakima. Sometimes he will use eggs if the bite is hot on them, but prefers to use Mag Lips if he can.
Asked his favorite, Calandrelli answered, “Steelhead when the water is cold. The fighting, leaping, cart-wheeling acrobatics are incredible.”
One thing about the Niagara is the wide diversity of fish. “The thing about this river is you never know what you’ll catch,” Calandrelli said. “There’s muskie here, sturgeon—I’ve caught sturgeon in February.” The largest sturgeon he has heard of was 6.5 feet in length, although he personally never landed one that big, and he pointed out, anglers aren’t supposed to even take the sturgeon out of the water.
Leery of the ice, especially with no fish, Calandrelli headed back to the hole. On the second drift I again felt the resistance I knew had to be a fish. When it cleared the water on the way in, there was no doubt it was a steelhead. This one was a little skinnier, but longer, with Calandrelli estimating it at 10 pounds. Two more drifts and I had my limit, this one about eight pounds. He suggested a couple more drifts to see what we catch.
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Then, on the last drift, Ernie’s rod loaded up and the arc in it is bigger. I was envisioning this could be a sturgeon, or a muskie, when Calandrelli called it as a lake trout as I readied the net.
We were back at the dock by 11 a.m. with a limit of trout and memories of a unique experience.
Fishing on the Niagara River in the winter months can be cold, but there are ways to beat it. I had read using stick-on heating back pain packs on the lower back can keep the body’s organs warm, and in turn, keep the angler warmer. It worked well and I did stay warm.
Hot packs for your hands and feet, or electric socks can also help to keep the extremities warm. I find fishing with gloves can work with the right pair. That day I used Rapala neoprene gloves and my fingers, which are more prone to get cold than some people’s, stayed warm. Or, consider fishing gloves with no fingertips if it isn’t bitterly cold.
Calandrelli’s secret to staying warm is ensuring you bring enough clothes and warm boots.
“As long as you bring enough clothes, you can take them off in the boat,” he said. “If you don’t have them on, you can get in trouble. I have had guys in February with steel-toe boots—they didn’t last three drifts.”
Contact: Ernie’s Guide Service at 716-609-3064
A FAMILY TRIP
Niagara Falls is the perfect destination for a family, or couple, trip. Calandrelli welcomes husbands and wives and families on his charters. Or, if only the husband wants to fish, there are tons of options to keep the wife busy. Many hotels have pools and spas. There is shopping, many tourist attractions and a casino.