July 23, 2020
By Jeff Knapp
I’m not one to place much significance on "personal best" catches, preferring instead to appreciate the qualities of all fish brought to hand or net. That said, I do vividly recall my biggest smallmouth bass, a seven-and-a-half pounder.
The sounds of battle reenactments rang out from nearby Old Fort Niagara as veteran guide Captain Frank Campbell slid the net under the massive fish, one of several five-pound-plus brown bass we caught and released that day. The setting was appropriate, as few places can boast such diverse, high-quality fishing options and nearby cultural, historical, family-fun-packed attractions as the Niagara Falls region.
At the time of this writing, some of the attractions, such as Old Fort Niagara and the Castellani Art Museum, remain closed due to COVID-19, a status that could change as restrictions are lightened. However, the Aquarium of Niagara re-opened its doors at the end of June and Niagara Falls State Park remains open, and both offer enough activities and attractions to keep a family busy during non-fishing hours.
Speaking of fishing, let’s take a quick look at the major waters that exist within a 20-mile radius of Niagara Falls, N.Y. First, there’s the eastern end of Lake Erie, readily accessible from the protected harbor found at Buffalo. Lake Erie drains into the Niagara River, which runs for 36 miles—including a 176-foot drop in elevation at Niagara Falls—before adding its tremendous flow to Lake Ontario near Youngstown, N.Y. Eastern Lake Erie, the upper Niagara (above the falls), the lower Niagara (below the falls) and western Lake Ontario all are fishing hotspots, depending on the season.
Campbell welcomes anglers of varying skill levels, including ones with limited or non-existent fishing experience. The varied opportunities the region offers suits this situation well, as he can tailor things to the weather conditions on a given day and keep boat rides to a minimum (if need be) while maximizing the enjoyment of the experience.
Loaded with Walleyes
One of the area’s best summer fishing options, he says, is the fine walleye fishing found in eastern Lake Erie near Buffalo. By mid-summer, eastern Lake Erie is loaded with walleyes, largely migratory fish that make their way from waters to the west. Walleye charters commonly target fish via trolling, a tactic where the boat catches the fish. If the angler can follow the directions of the captain with regards to winding in the fish, chances are excellent everyone aboard with have an enjoyable, productive day. Campbell typically presents baits for clients via drifting (when the wind is right) or pulling with the electric motor, a boat control tactic that allows for a more hands-on experience for the client but is still quite simple.
"If the walleyes aren't cooperating, we have some pretty good smallmouth bass fishing in eastern Lake Erie," Campbell says. "Not only good numbers of fish, but quality fish as well, and not far from the harbor."
Whereas most bass fishing is done with artificials, Campbell will rig up with live minnows if the situation allows. Even finicky smallmouths have a tough time refusing a lake shiner.
Smallmouth and Salmon, Too
Big wind and big water—and the resulting big waves—is a combination not likely to suited to a family fishing excursion. But the assortment of venues provides plenty of options.
"Usually when Lake Erie is rough, the lower Niagara is perfect," Campbell says. "We jump back and forth, based on the weather. During July and August, we have excellent smallmouth bass fishing on the oxygen-rich lower Niagara."
Though it's reliant on the weather of the summer, which directly influences water temperatures and fish movement, it's common for king salmon action to kick in on the lower Niagara around the third week in August. Campbell says the late-summer king fishing can be spotty, but trips can also target smallmouth bass and walleyes, increasing the chances for an action-packed day.
Not surprisingly, the great fishing in the Niagara Falls region continues into autumn and beyond, with steelhead and lake trout becoming part of the mix.
While there is no escaping the realities of COVID-19 and how it's affecting travel-related angling, the varied nature of the Niagara Falls region can provide families with some great fishing options this summer.