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Pautzke Bait owner Casey Kelley wasn’t sure what to think.
Kelley’s size 13 Sorel boots stood atop two inches of ice on a slippery, gently sloped launch ramp in Upstate New York. Low clouds blanketed the 18-degree air, a 8-mph breeze pushed brisk temperatures through the Niagara River Canyon, solid ice clogged 100-yard sections of the Lower Niagara River and pizza box to canoe size icebergs bobbed through the 32 degree water.
“You going to stand there and stare at the river or you gunna hop in and catch some of the big steelies that are hanging around the edges of that ice,” said veteran guide Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service, smirking at Kelley. “Don’t worry. This is normal. We can break some of that ice with the boat and fish. Here, put on this float suit and let’s go.”
At 8 a.m., on this February morning, there wasn’t much life on the banks of one of the Great Lake’s best steelhead fisheries. Nonetheless, the Niagara awards unforgettable adventures to anglers willing to weave their monofilament line between icebergs, around football-field size slabs of ice and through frigid water.
“The steelhead don’t care how cold it is,” Campbell says. “In fact, 20 fish days are common when you see little blocks of ice like these floating downriver. I think the fish like it. There’s been times when you are flowing with the ice and hooking fish. I’ve had fish jump and land on the ice. To me, the ice adds some adventure and some excitement. That’s true winter steelhead fishing.”
Niagara’s steelhead are accustomed to wintry conditions – and to catch ‘em you’ll have to be too.
Mother Nature has the power to cast spells on the system; pushing ice downriver one week, blizzards the next and 50 degree temperatures days after. Being slapped between two of the five Great Lakes, several micro weather system play out and forecasts are rarely consistent.
On the other hand, one value remains dependable decade after decade; regardless of conditions the sheer volume of the Niagara is a steelhead magnet. At roughly 15 miles long, the Lower Niagara River forms the US/Canada border and also is responsible for carrying water between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
It’s a large, powerful river that has depths up to 170 feet, rapids as high as Class VI and flows clocked at 20 mph. It’s a half to one-mile wide in some areas and harbors one of the most notable steelhead populations east of the Rockies. Adding to its glamour, the fishery rests within sight of world-renowned Niagara Falls. In fact, while the area is un-fishable, steelhead migrate to the base of the falls, yet their path upriver is obviously impassable.
“People fly here from all over the world to see the falls and have no idea we have a world class steelhead fishery starting a few feet below the falls, too. The Niagara has the potential to yield good numbers and good size fish. On an average day we catch about 10-15 steelhead and a 10-15 pounder can be common,” notes Campbell. “The pressure is almost non-existent. Here, we have 9-10 miles of fishable water and you have a tendency to be alone in the winter.”
The Niagara mends Upstate NY’s pure wilderness with superb fishing.
While steelhead are the main attraction late fall through early spring, salmon, smallmouth, walleye, browns, lake trout, musky and several other species thrive. Most of the fishing takes place from Fort Niagara, at the uppermost point on Lake Ontario, on upriver through the edge of the town of Lewiston. Services are available, yet the river stands tall with a backwoods feeling. Other than a few bridges that carry vehicles into and from Canada, cottage size houses scattered on the bank and smoke elevating from chimneys, steelhead rule the colder months.
The Lower Niagara River’s famed steelhead run is an annual constant for US and Canadian residents. And, success on the Niagara isn’t a fluke. Charged with fresh, clean water and a plethora of food, the system’s a winner each steelhead season.
“There’s several reasons that likely contribute to an abundance of steelhead and domestic rainbow trout in the Lower Niagara River. While not necessarily in order of importance, the presence of migratory runs of Chinook salmon, lake trout and to a lesser degree, brown trout into the Lower Niagara River starting in fall play a part,” says Mike Wilkinson, a biologist with the NY Department of Environmental Conservation. “The steelhead/rainbows may be attracted to spawning Chinooks and lakers, taking advantage off a significant source of salmon and trout eggs.
The several large hydropower plants on the Lower Niagara River undoubtedly discharge large numbers of dead and injured baitfish, including emerald shiners, gizzard shad, and possibly alewives, that are passed through the facilities that take large quantities of water from the upper Niagara River. The steelhead/rainbows feed on these. Also, the lower Niagara River also has a very significant springtime run of smelt that come from Lake Ontario and are likely used as a food source by steelhead/rainbows.”
While the river is stocked by NY State, the Niagara sees an influx of migratory steelhead and rainbows from systems above and below Niagara Falls. Rainbows and steelhead planted in Canada, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania use canals and rivers to find a home in the Niagara.
“The river has a tremendous attraction flow for steelhead. It attracts way more steelhead than a normal system because of its size. I don’t know how many fish move from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, but when Pennsylvania was stocking Palomino trout we had many of those fish enter into the Niagara River,” notes Wilkinson.
“We attribute the coming of these migratory fish to its big flow. We do stock the Niagara with good numbers of steelhead, but they likely come from tributaries within 50 miles of there, too.”
All planted steelhead are reared at the Salmon River Hatchery, on the east end of Lake Ontario. However, recently, private volunteer organizations have been helping some of the steelhead acclimate to the Niagara by placing them in holding pens for three weeks prior to being released. According to Wilkinson, this process keeps the steelhead safe while they are imprinting to the Niagara, while also keeping them immune from predators, thus increasing survival rates. During the three-week stay, they also grow substantially, become more aware of potential predators and gain valuable strength.
“We stock the steelhead as yearlings and most of their growth occurs during the summertime when the steelhead are out in the lake,” adds Wilkinson. “These fish are coming out of Lake Ontario with its’ alewives forage base. They don’t grow in the Niagara because they don’t get to rest much due to the current. And, they aren’t going to put on a lot of weight in that 45 degree water.”
Consistent flows and adequate temperatures supply steelhead to the river beginning in October. The NYDEC stocks 47,000 Washington strain steelhead annually. These fish remain in the system and are joined by reinforcements through early June. Natural spawning occurs, too. Traditionally, after entering the river, steelhead commence by feeding on salmon eggs in October and November, before switching over to baitfish and gobies through February and back to steelhead eggs in March.
Unlike many systems in the Great Lakes which have shorter seasons, the Niagara shines from October through early May. While other tributaries to these vast freshwater sources are dependant on seasonal flows, releases and water temperatures, the Niagara’s consistency keeps it in the top percentile in all major categories three-quarters of the year and allows it to harbor an enormous steelhead population during portions of three seasons.
“There’s not a lot of places you can go and find the consistency you have here, but that’s a testament to the volume the Niagara carries,” says guide Ted Kessler of Rivermaster Fishing Charters. “Our clients can conceivably catch steelhead up to nine months out of the year.”
For as much as the Niagara has in its corner, there is one culprit: dirty water. Historically, the Niagara is a clear system. Meanwhile, prior to late January, dirty water can be an issue.
“Dirty water is our one and only enemy. We can fish up to 80 percent ice coverage because we can break it with out boats, but until Lake Erie freezes over we are at the mercy of the wind, but once Lake Erie freezes we are good to go,” adds Kessler.
Prior to Erie freezing, which normally happens between late December and late January, Lake Erie is susceptible to high winds. Winds churn up 7-10 foot waves, at times, which crash on the shore, dislodge mud and dirt and cloud up Erie. That water flows over Niagara Falls and muddies the Lower Niagara River. Steelhead don’t bite well when the river muddies.
Once mud arrives, it takes at least three days to clear.
Fortunately, as winter approaches, the Niagara Power Authority, coupled with the Ontario Power Generation (Canada), link up an 8,800-foot long ice boom, designed to prevent ice from impeding power production. Once this occurs the river remains clear as the eastern end of Lake Ontario is covered in ice and unable to manufacture dirty water. The boom isn’t removed until mid April. Ice, however, which forms in bays, is still common when fishing the Niagara, but the amount varies. Some weeks the river is overwhelmed with ice. Others it’s ice free.
Current and sheer size can be intimidating for first time anglers. Fortunately, miles of access are available on the US and Canadian side, but learning the river, without a guide, can take time. Unlike western US rivers, almost the entire river harbors steelhead. “Dead water” per say doesn’t reside here.
“One of the biggest challenges for a boater is boat control. Boat Control enables you to fish the river properly. If you don’t have your boat under control you aren’t going to be able to present your bait properly and won’t be able to catch fish and with such strong current boat control can be a challenge,” explains Campbell. “But, the entire river has the ability to hold fish and that’s the neat thing about it. The biggest thing in being successful is being on the water. These fish can be anywhere and they move daily.”
Weather, clarity, water temperature, wind direction and other factors contribute to where the steelhead will be during the particular time you are fishing.
“We have probably a dozen named drifts on the river that can be a mile long, but in those drifts are drop-offs, underwater points, shelves and other topography. Every drift is almost a system in itself,” says Campbell. “This river is so complex.”
Complex, yes, nevertheless, success can be found when you take current into account, says Kessler.
“The size of the river could be a negative, because there is a lot of water to fish, but I’m basically looking for current breaks, eddies and areas where the fish are going to tuck into to rest,” Kessler adds. “The current is so heavy in the Niagara that you’ll always find the fish in resting areas, sitting in an attack position, waiting for baitfish and eggs to come by.”
Kessler and Campbell fish bait, almost exclusively. Fresh lake trout, brown trout and steelhead eggs always come in handy, however, when those eggs are tough to capture late in the fall, Kessler turns to Pautzke Orange Deluxe and Yellow Jacket salmon eggs for their natural characteristics.
“I like using the Yellow Jackets in late fall because there’s a lot of eggs in the water. The kings and lake trout spawn in fall and early winter and both look pale and yellowish,” explains Kessler. “In late winter and spring I’ll use the Orange Deluxe and tie them into spawn sacks when there’s a shortage of loose eggs around.”
For anglers who can find fresh brown, steelhead and trout eggs, they’ll be effective, too. Nonetheless, many anglers are often forced to turn to jarred Balls O Fire eggs, Atlas jarred spawn sacks and store bought, pre-tied spawn sacks, which are available locally.
“The best aspect of Orange Deluxe and Yellow Jackets is those eggs hold color beyond belief. If you get loose eggs out of a fish, you may only get one drift out of them before they lose color,” says Kessler. “I don’t use them all the time, but when there’s a tough bite you can work them in drift after drift.”
Historically, the Niagara is dominated by anglers drifting cured and uncured steelhead eggs.
Some are fished in traditional egg loops, but most fish them tied in spawn sacks.
“A lot of guys will use fresh eggs, but personally, I like curing them. I’ll shake them in natural BorX O Fire, but sometimes I’ll add a little pink BorX O Fire,” adds Kessler. “Our water is gin clear, so everything has to be so natural or the fish won’t grab them. I’ll use the natural because I’m trying to keep the original color of the egg when it came out. I like them better than fresh eggs because when you cure them it toughens up the egg, especially in the heavy current. If you get a delicate egg it isn’t going to last up here with the current we have.”
Natural, nonetheless, isn’t the only way to go. Yarn, trout beads and egg imitations are popular with most, yet still take a back seat to fresh and cured eggs. On the other hand, Campbell reminds anglers that plugs do work, too. He uses a silver or gold based K-9 Kwik Fish on 8 or 10 pound Cajun Fluorocarbon and trolls it upriver of the boat.
“The plug is actually upstream of us and it’s actually being pulled down,” explains Campbell. “Because of the flow and or wind, we are going faster than the current and the plug is actually upriver of us, but it allows us to cover more ground. It’s almost like a search bait where you find active fish.”
From the bank, eggs keep pace as the top bait. However, it’s a good idea to bring a variation of Super Vibrax spinners and Little Cleos, say Campbell.
- written by Chris Shaffer
Guides: Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service Ted Kessler of Rivermaster Fishing Charters
Where To Stay: For the most wide range in services and amenities many anglers choose to stay in Niagara, NY. However, to stay in smaller, non-chain hotels closer to the river the towns of Lewiston and Youngstown are ideal.
License Info: A valid NY State fishing license is required.
Things To Do: Niagara Falls, (Bring a passport if you want to visit the Canadian side, too, Fort Niagara. Keep in mind; you are in hockey country. The NHL Buffalo Sabres and Niagara University (Division I college hockey) are popular local events in the winter.