Jake and Mark Romanack of Fishing 411 TV have fished Lake Ontario often, but primarily at the Niagara Bar located many miles off shore. In 2020 the Fishing 411 crew was treated to world class fishing right at the mouth of the Niagara River for Chinook salmon with some lake trout and coho tossed in for good measure.
Avid readers of Great Lakes Angler will be very familiar with a piece of Great Lakes structure known as the Niagara Bar. Every year in April and May countless Chinook salmon converge on this iconic piece of off shore structure. Positioned perfectly to offer salmonids nutrient rich water from the Niagara River, endless balls of baitfish and enough structure to keep fish and bait hanging out in the same place for weeks, this may well be the single best salmon destination in the Great Lakes.
The only downside is this piece of structure is several miles off shore and small boat fishermen are often limited by the weather in terms of accessing this fishing hot spot. Luckily there is an “ace in the hole” for small boat fishermen that primarily only locals are aware of.
“A mixed bag of Chinook, coho, stud lakers and the occasional steelhead and brown trout can be caught literally at the mouth of the Niagara River in the spring,” says Captain Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service. “I charter from a small boat and there are many days I can’t get to the Niagara Bar, but most days the mouth of the Niagara River is fishable and holds good numbers of trout and salmon.”
Anglers who are interested in fishing the mouth of the Niagara River will find great access. A newly remodeled launch facility is located near the mouth of the river a little upstream of the US Coast Guard Station. A little further upstream at the town of Lewiston, New York the city maintains another excellent boat launch and also a nearby fish cleaning station complete with a fish grinder to get rid of the carcasses after fish are filleted.
One of the unique things about the Niagara River is the diversity of fish this tributary routinely yields. For anglers after cold water species, Chinook, coho, steelhead, brown trout and lake trout are all present in good to excellent numbers. All of these species except coho salmon are stocked annually by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Coho in Lake Ontario have not been stocked in recent years and are largely a naturally reproducing species.
In the warm water species category, the Niagara River is home to world class smallmouth bass fishing. Other noteworthy species including largemouth bass, walleye and musky that are present in excellent numbers.
All of these species find the mouth of the Niagara River ideal habitat. Some of the most nutrient rich water in the Great Lakes region dumps out of Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin and pours through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario. “The forage base in this region is as diverse as the game fish species found here,” explains Captain Campbell. “Just a few of the forage species that are abundant here include smelt, alewife, emerald shiners, gizzard shad and round goby.”
FORAGE, STRUCTURE AND WATER TEMPERATURE
The magic of the Niagara River mouth is the amount of forage and hard bottom structure that holds baitfish and game fish consistently. Just as importantly, in the spring of the year the Niagara River is dumping in slightly warmer water than Lake Ontario which is typically ice cold.
The bottom of the lower Niagara River and also the Lake Ontario delta at the mouth of the river is made up of shale. The shale bottom is part of the famed Niagara Escarpment. It would be hard to imagine better fish habitat that what is found at the mouth of the Niagara River.
THE PERFECT MIX
It’s the mixing of nutrient rich Niagara River water with the icy cold and relatively sterile Lake Ontario water that creates the perfect bouillabaisse (fish soup) of fish habitat so to speak! This perfect mix holds baitfish and game fish for weeks during April and May, setting up an exceptional near shore bite.
The best fishing starts at the Green Can and radiates out for several miles to west, east and north. The Green Can rests in US waters, but the Ontario border is very close. Many anglers purchase both the New York and Ontario fishing license.
The Niagara River has gouged a deep troth at the point where the river joins Lake Ontario. A little further out anglers will find water depths ranging from the mid teens to about 40 feet and miles of shale reefs stretch in every direction. Traditional salmon gear like downriggers and large diving planers are not needed to target these near shore fish.
When the Fishing 411 TV crew showed up last May to sample this fishery firsthand, we targeted a mixed bag using Mag Lip plugs fished three different ways. On our outside board lines we spooled up with 10-pound test monofilament and ran 3.5 size Mag Lip plugs 60-75 feet back. The Off Shore Tackle OR12 board was used to get those plugs out 75-100 feet to the side of the boat.
Anglers who have not visited Lake Ontario in the spring owe it to themselves to experience this fishery first hand. The Fishing 411 TV crew make several trips to Lake Ontario every year to cash in on what amounts to the best trout and salmon fishing in the Great Lakes.
On our inside board lines we ran the same Mag Lip plugs, but used the Precision Trolling Data 50 Plus 2 method that incorporates a two ounce Snap Weight to present our plugs a few feet off bottom.
To finish out our six rod spread, we took a page from the Niagara River charter captains and fished a 3.0 Mag Lip on a three way swivel rig. This rig consisted of 10-pound test monofilament main line tied to a standard three way swivel. A 12 inch monofilament dropper to a two ounce pencil weight was rigged to the bottom swivel and a 60-inch leader of 15-pound test fluorocarbon used at the terminal end to accept the Mag Lip.
This rig was simply lowered to the bottom and fished as a flat line using saddle style rod holders mounted near the back of the boat.
To say the fishing was amazing would be an understatement. It was difficult to keep six lines in the water. Catching big kings, lake trout and coho on “walleye class” tackle proved to be exciting and rewarding. It was common to have two or even three fish on at a time.
The locally popular Mag Lip colors produced well including the Double Trouble, Lemon Head, Grinch and Green Machine. We mixed it up a little and also took several fish on Metallic Gold Green Pirate, Metallic Gold Flame and Eradicator.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
The shallow hard bottom shoals are covered in a slimy green moss that fouls baits quickly if the plug comes in contact with the bottom. It was important to set the Snap Weight lines and three-way swivel lines slowly so as not to crash the bait to bottom and pick up moss.
Local captains remove the belly hook on their Mag Lip plugs when fishing in close proximity to the bottom. This trick helps to reduce snags without influencing negatively on the hook up ratio.
A growing number of anglers who fish the Mag Lip are using single Siwash style hooks in place of the factory treble hooks. The factory treble hook is removed and a small barrel swivel added to the factory provided split ring, then an open eye Siwash hook is crimped down on the swivel using a pair of pliers.
This single hook rigging reduces the chances of fouling and because the hook is free to rotate on the swivel, thrashing fish have a much harder time throwing the bait.
Because the Canadian waters were closed to non-residents in 2020, we had to pay very close attention to where we were fishing to insure we stayed exclusively in New York waters. The Ontario/New York line is well marked on most GPS mapping units, but there are no physical buoy markers that indicate the border.
The Yakima Bait Mag Lip plug has become a mainstream bait on Lake Ontario and also in the Niagara River because it catches everything including big Chinook like this one.
When the Covid situation eases up and the border eventually opens, the fishing on the Canadian side of the line is very good and many captains will avoid this water because their clients don’t have the necessary licenses.
With the prevailing winds coming from the west and southwest, it’s common for visiting anglers to set up in the Ontario waters and troll towards the New York waters roughly in the direction of Rumsey Shoal or northeast towards the Red Can that marks the edge of the Niagara Bar.
WRAPPING IT UP
Anyone who enjoys catching trout and salmon would be like a kid in a candy store fishing the mouth of the Niagara River. This unique small boat fishery pumps out amazing catches of Chinook and lake trout with plenty of coho, browns and steelhead to make things interesting.
When the weather allows, most anglers will run right over this near shore structure in route to making a B-Line to the offshore Niagara Bar. Even if the weather allows for offshore fishing, it never hurts to make a pass across these shallow water shoals. When the water temperatures are right, you never know what you’ll catch.