Niagara River’s Simple Yet Deadly Rig by Paul Liikala

Boats New York Rivers & Lakes salmon fishing Steelhead Fishing trout fishing

I was fighting something that was whipping my butt.

niagara river fishing steelhead salmon walleye smallmouth It surged downstream, went skyward, and then raced upstream. It appeared to tire as it neared the boat. Wrong! It turned tail and ripped 50 feet of line from the reel’s spool. Finally, the exhausted salmon came to the boat where John DeLorenzo expertly netted it. She tipped the scales at 30 pounds, the biggest of the nine that I caught that day.

What a day for my first trip on the Niagara River!

A couple of months later, I returned to the Niagara. We fished the bar at the river’s mouth. We were catching lake trout after lake trout on emerald shiners. Suddenly, I hooked something with a great deal of power that fought differently. While the fish never jumped, it tested my skills and strength. When it came to the net, I could not believe my eyes. It was my first brown trout, and it was a monster. It weighed 18 lbs. 3 ounces.

Those two trips occurred a number of years ago, and every year I go back to fish the Niagara’s fantastic fishery.

“The Niagara River is one of the best if not “the” best, fisheries in North America,” said John DeLorenzo. “A lot of places have good fishing at one point in the season, often for only one species. For 12 months of the year, something is always hitting. For eight months we catch numbers of salmon and trout from September into May. It’s an amazing fishery because of the size, numbers and different species caught.”

For the first time Niagara angler, it truly is an unforgettable experience.

The fishing begins in Devil’s Hole, a few miles below Niagara Falls. The river flows eight miles downstream to where its mouth empties into Lake Ontario.

niagara river devils hole fishing

Devil’s Hole is a prime spot for salmon, steelhead and an occasional lake trout.

Not only is the power of the river and its escarpments unique but so is the method used to catch fish.

It is so simple, yet deadly.

That is if the angler knows what he is doing. So, what is the dynamite Niagara rig?

It’s a 3-way swivel with a hook, a sinker, and bait. Now, that’s simple.

3 way swivel steelhead stick weight

“The 3-way swivel rig is super effective on the Niagara River, if you do it right,” said DeLorenzo. “Boat control is critical. Correctly drifting the changing current patterns is a must. The fish hang tightly to these little current breaks. So, the bait must be presented right in front of them.”

The 3-way swivel rig is used on all Niagara River species, and by most if not all its guides. Wind and the river’s fast-moving waters present challenges to newcomers.

However, when properly done this rig lets the angler fish his bait with a vertical presentation. This verticality is critical.

If the line is allowed to drag behind the boat, the numerous rocks on the bottom will fray lines or snag the sinker or hook.

The sinker of choice is a one to two ounce, pencil lead. Current and boat speed determines the size of the sinker. When fished properly the tip of the lead just skims across the tops of the rocks. It’s thin shape allows it to slip between rocks, preventing snags.

DeLorenzo ties an 8- to 12-inch leader to the weight. This dropper leader is two pounds lighter than the mainline so it snaps first if the sinker snags.

With a current averaging 2 mph, the fish hug the bottom and duck behind rocks and ledges. The trick is to stay on the bottom without snagging. For first time Niagara River fishermen, this is easier said than done. Besides rocks, the bottom constantly rises and falls. When fished correctly the three-way rig gets the job done, even under these tough conditions.

Salmon

King salmon start heading into the Niagara River around early September. The run gets heavy about the third week of September and continues through the third week of October. In the fall, the vast majority are caught in Devil’s Hole. To get there the angler must run under the Queenston Bridge where the water depth is over 90 feet deep. From here to Devil’s Hole, the boat runs against a powerful current and waves, while navigating past occasional whirlpools. Once past the New York and Canadian power plants, the boat enters Devil’s Hole’s relatively calm waters. It’s not a good idea for a newcomer to run the waters leading to Devil’s Hole.

Once there the three-way is rigged for salmon.

egg skein salmon

Hunks of salmon skein are the go-to bait for the river’s fall salmon.

The mainline is 20-pound test, the sinker leader is 15 pound and the bait’s five-foot leader is 15-pound test fluorocarbon. It is tied to a size #1 or 2 Gamakatsu octopus hook. An egg-loop knot is used to hold a quarter-sized piece of salmon skein to the hook’s shaft. DeLorenzo treats his salmon skein with red Pro Cure. If the fish aren’t hitting, he often will add garlic, krill or anise scent to the eggs.

“The river’s strong current increases the power of these salmon,” said DeLorenzo . “I fish30 straight days during the salmon season. The kings average 20 to 25 pounds, with some in the 30 pound range. My biggest salmon was 37 pounds.”

The last couple weeks of the season, a few coho salmon are caught. Oh yes, at this time there’s a prehistoric fish that shows up in the lower river. DeLorenzo’s boat accidentally hooks a half dozen sturgeon, some exceeding six feet. These protected fish must be released at boat side.

Steelhead

At the beginning of November, steelhead start appearing in the river. However, there is a problem.

“Usually, around the beginning of November the lake trout are coming in to spawn,” said DeLorenzo. “The steelhead follow the lakers to feed on their eggs. By mid-November, steelhead fishing starts getting good. However, while fishing for steelhead it’s hard to avoid catching lake trout, that are out of season. Sometimes, you catch 20 lake trout in a day. You can’t target lake trout at this time, and they must be released.”

The steelhead season continues all winter and ends around May.

Actually, the most consistent steelhead fishing is in mid-winter. Since Lake Erie feeds the Niagara River, the lake’s water clarity impacts the river. So, when Lake Erie freezes over, the river’s waters are clear. This is very important because a dirty river turns the fish off.

A word of caution when fishing the Niagara during any season, take more clothing than you think is needed. This is especially true in winter. Even in April, when it’s 70 degrees in the parking lot, the water temperature may be in the 40’s. Thus, the air temperature on the river is cold.

Once again, the three-way swivel is the centerpiece rig.

Fresh eggs are the go-to bait for DeLorenzo. In stained water, he fishes larger sacks containing 14 or 15 steelhead eggs. This is slightly larger than a dime. In really clear water he only puts 6 or 7 steelhead eggs in the sack. In November yellow and chartreuse sacks work best because the laker eggs are yellow. The steelhead are feeding on lake trout spawn. During the winter, pink sacks work best. In April, he will try slightly larger yellow sacks first. All his steelhead sacks have one or two pink or fluorescent orange Styrofoam floats.

steelhead fishing niagara

This nice steelhead fell for a pink spawn sack of steelhead eggs.

His typical steelhead leader is a six-foot piece of eight-pound test fluorocarbon.

In super clear winter waters, he may switch to a six-pound test leader that is seven foot long. He uses a size 10 Gamakatsu octopus hook when fishing steelhead spawn sacks.

In the warmer waters of fall and spring, when the fish are more aggressive he may also try 8 mm Trout Beads in yellow and chartreuse mottled colors. At times, Glo Bug yarns work. He likes Niagara Gold and or Oregon cheese colors. He cuts off a one-inch piece of yarn and splits it in two lengthwise. Next, he ties and egg loop knot onto a size 12 Gamakatsu octopus hook. He slides the yarn piece through the knot’s loop. After snugging the yarn and knot firmly, he trims the yarn until it’s pea sized. On a good day, 20 steelhead are caught. My personal best was 36 inches.

Again, all the these steelhead baits are on a three-way swivel. However, as all good fishermen do, DeLorenzo is always experimenting for better results. He now uses a T-Turn three-way swivel. It’s design reduces line tangles because the weight hangs straight down.

 

The Bar

Where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, there is a unique geologic feature. It’s called the bar. Made up of a mixture of sand and rock, it is located about 3/8 of a mile from the river’s mouth. Starting in approximately 70 feet, it rises at a 30 to 35-degree angle until it becomes flat with 18 to 20-foot depths. From here it goes out into the lake for about five miles. Then it drops off into 60 feet of water before it descending a couple of hundred feet.

The bar’s unusual configuration, along with an oxygen loaded current, attracts large schools of baitfish. These, in turn, pull in loads of salmonids. Starting in November brown trout start cruising the bar and also roam a couple of miles upriver. The bar is prime, because a good guide zeroes in on hot spots that hold numbers of these battling brown trout. And some are big. Browns up to 30 pounds have been taken here. 

“I have been guiding on the bar and the Niagara River for 30 years,” said Ted Kessler. “When there’s bait on the bar, there’s fish. Starting in November and continuing into early December the brown trout are concentrated on and near the bar.”

To catch trout on the bar, Kessler uses the same three-way swivel rig that is used upriver, for steelhead and salmon. However, his bait leader is only four feet long. The fish on the bar are not shy, and the shorter leader tends to hang-up less.

His go-to baits for browns are live emerald shiners, spot tail shiners, and smelt.

brown trout fishing fort new york

This brown trout was caught off the bar, within view of Fort Niagara.

If these baitfish aren’t available, golden shiners from a bait shop will catch fish. The minnows are lip hooked on size 6 or 8 Gamakatsu octopus hooks. Pencil lead sizes are determined by the speed of the drifting boat. The lightest size is preferred. The lead should just be ticking, not dragging the bottom. Slow currents get one-ounce sinkers and a fast drift may need 1 ¾ ounce leads.

Again, the trick to fishing the bar is putting the bait in front of the fish, which often are on the bottom. Kessler fishes the ledge on the river side of the bar. When he marks fish, he moves towards the river mouth until the boat is over 70 feet of water.

All the fishing lines are readied and lowered to 40 feet. In just a few minutes the boat drifts up the ledge until it is over the critical depth of 40 feet. The sweet spot is in the 30 to 40 feet depths. As the boat moves up the slope, the angler slowly cranks his reel’s handle to keep the sinker ticking, not dragging the bottom.

The drift continues until the boat is on top of the ledge. It is allowed to drift for a few minutes to determine if fish are chasing minnows on the 18- to 20-foot deep flat. It’s not unusual to catch browns over 10 pounds.

Oh yes, while fishing for fall browns numbers of big lake trout also inhale the baits on the bar. On the American side, they must be released during the closed fall lake trout season.

Now, when the baitfish stack up on the bar, and Lake Ontario is fishable, brown and lake trout are caught in numbers during the winter and spring. Interestingly, steelhead are not common on the bar.

From the end of April through the third week of May, it can be smorgasbord time. Browns and numerous lakers are very active. Some years, coho and king salmon also show up on the bar, with an occasional Atlantic salmon. Once again, all these fish are caught on the three-way swivel rig.

Luring Niagara Salmonids

While salmonid eggs, minnows and egg imitators the first choice for Niagara River guides, there is one lure that has been used since the 1980’s to catch salmonids. And guess what? It too, is fished on the three-way swivel rig.

“If we are not picking up fish on eggs or minnows, we will switch to a Kwikfish,” said veteran Niagara River guide, Chris Cinelli. “I will tie a size K-8 or K-9 Kwikfish onto my four- or five-foot fluorocarbon leader. If the fish are feeding on smaller emerald shiners, a K-8 size is used. If larger baitfish, such as shad or smelt are in the river, or the water is turbid, a K-9 model is fished.”plugs salmon three way 3 way rig niagara

Key components to the Niagara River’s 3 way rig: top- pencil lead, middle- (L-R) Kwikfish, Mag Lip, hooks, bottom- 3 swivel.

Now, the desired drift speed is a tad faster when running Kwikfish. The correct boat speed causes the lure to make the rod tip to go thump, thump, thump. This indicates the lure is making the correct, fish-attracting, wobble. Again, the pencil lead size is just heavy enough to tick the tops of the rocks. The strikes on these banana-shaped lures are aggressive. No finesse fishing is needed. Just hold onto the rod.

If the correct drift speed is being hindered by a north wind, Cinelli will use his electric trolling motor to move faster. Kwikfish and spawn are not fished at the same time. Eggs need a slightly slower drift speed than Kwikfish.

fishing niagara salmon boat

An angler battling a Niagara River king salmon.

Now, if there are no baitfish in the river, Kwikfish are not recommended. However, when the gulls are diving into the water for baitfish, they can be dynamite.

In fact, Cinelli catches some nice fall salmon in Devil’s Hole and spring salmon on the bar with Kwikfish. For these, he breaks out a size K-11 model. If fishing for lake trout, or brown trout on the bar, he will use a size K-9.

When fishing the bar, he will use the current to drift the Kwikfish up the bar’s ledge.

In the spring, when the fish are on the bar’s flat, he often uses he electric motor to troll the Kwikfish, If the fish are suspended, he may only use a ½-ounce pencil lead sinker, and may increase the boat’s speed to get the lure higher in the water column.

 

Productive colors on all species are straight silver, and silver/chartreuse Kwikfish. Somedays, especially when its cloudy, gold works. Finally, steelhead also have days that they want a silver/pink lure.

While the Kwikfish has been the go-to lure for many years, there is a new kid on the block or river. Yakima’s Mag Lip size 3.0 is also making its presence known. It wobbles at a slower drift rate, and its longer bill gets the bait down to the desired depth with less weight. The same hot Kwikfish colors work with Mag Lips.

All three guides, make their living guiding on the Niagara River. They book almost every fishable day because the fishing is so good.

When asked if he advertises much? Cinelli said, “No, because the great Niagara River’s fishery sells itself.”

net trout salmon

It takes a good sized net to land some of Niagara’s larger trout.

As May approaches, Cinelli starts moving his operation to the upper Niagara River, near Buffalo. He and some of the other lower river guides are gearing up for New York’s trophy smallmouth season. During this time only on smallmouth bass over 20 inches is allowed to be kept. However, Cinelli books every day of the trophy season.

Why do all these people come to only keep one fish? That’s because it’s not unusual to catch several smallmouth over five pounds, with the biggest approaching seven. Once again, the same three-way swivel rig is used. In the beginning of the smallmouth season, emerald, spot tail and golden shiners are used. As the waters warm, crayfish also are fished. Smallmouth will hit all summer into fall. Forty fish days are common, with a few exceptional 100 fish days.

A leading publication rated the Niagara River as one of the top four destinations for numbers and trophy-sized bronzebacks.

great lakes fishing muskie lake troutIn June, Cinelli also starts fishing for walleye. In the upper river he has an in-shore program where he runs spinner/crawler combinations off the three-way rig. He drifts and slow trolls with his electric motor. While the average size walleye are 17 to 21 inches, some 8 and 10 pounders are also caught in June and early July. Limits are common. A trip can be set up to catch both walleye and smallmouth.

Now, the upper river is seeing a come back with a true trophy species. In the last two weeks of October and extending to November 30 Cinelli also guides for muskie. During the past few years, these water wolves have made a tremendous comeback from red spot.

“On a good day we catch two to three muskie,” said Cinelli. “A really good day would be six to eight muskie. Our biggest was 51 inches and weighed 40 pounds.”

What’s his muskie rig? Once again, it’s a 3-way swivel rig. To the end of his 17 lb. test fluorocarbon leader, he attaches a quick strike wire leader. He hooks 9 to 12 live suckers onto the rig. On the Niagara muskies are not a fish of 10,000 casts.

 - written by Paul Liikala



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