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River of Plenty: The Lower Niagara River is a Mixed-Bag Marvel

It's the East's hottest multi-species fishery, even during the coldest months of the year. 

River of Plenty: The Lower Niagara River is a Mixed-Bag Marvel

Big, hard-fighting steelhead are the main attraction on the Lower Niagara in winter. (Photo by Matt Crawford) 

The weather forecast was remarkably consistent for western New York in midwinter. For a place that routinely makes headlines for snowfalls measured in feet instead of inches, it was surprising to not see a single flake in the extended outlook. Temperatures were hovering in the balmy mid-40s. Ten days out from my trip to the Lower Niagara River near Buffalo, the weather looked great. A week before departure it was still fine. Five days out, and all remained clear. I was stoked.

Remarkably, my midwinter fishing trip to Lewiston, N.Y., a small town about halfway between the base of Niagara Falls and the shores of Lake Ontario, went off without a blizzard, without iced-up rod tips and with enough fish to keep the blood pumping through my extremities. For somebody who's been conditioned to think of winter fishing as something that is done only on ice, even a few gray days on a flowing river was a welcome reprieve.

And what a river it is. Because of the sheer volume of water that flows through it, the 14-mile stretch of the Lower Niagara River is fishable 12 months a year. It's home to an impressive variety of sportfish, and when the cold weather hits, it becomes a destination spot for steelhead, brown trout and lake trout. Large fish, too, measured in pounds, not inches.

steelhead trout fishing
The Lower Niagara River is like multiple world-class fisheries wrapped into one. (Photo by Matt Crawford)

BIG AND FAST WATER

Upstream from Lewiston, one of the East's best fishing towns, is a series of world-famous waterfalls collectively known as Niagara Falls. Every minute, more than 3,100 tons of water flow over Horseshoe Falls (aka Canadian Falls), American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. That water surges past Lewiston on its way to Lake Ontario. The river is wide here; in places it's more than a mile from the Canadian side on the west to the U.S. side on the east. It's deep, too, with parts of the main channel dropping more than 150 feet. Think about this: the Niagara River supplies massive Lake Ontario with about 80 percent of its water.

Because of the sheer volume of water, the upper reaches of the Niagara River below the Falls are unfishable. But below New York's Whirlpool State Park down to the lake, the big water slows and offers remarkable fishing opportunities for shorebound anglers and those skilled enough to fish from boats.

"People can do pretty well from the banks of the river," says Frank Campbell, a Lower Niagara River charter captain who spends about 200 days a year on the water. "But because of the size of the river, it's best fished by boat."

Campbell says that with a caveat, of course, because all that fast water—flows can reach 20 mph—isn’t for skippers who are faint of heart. There is an international border, hydroelectric facilities on both sides of the river and water levels that change rather quickly to take into consideration. Bottom line: the big river can be treacherous.

"Below Lewiston, the river's run to the lake is fairly predictable and safe," says Campbell. "People fish it in smaller boats and kayaks. But as you get into the faster water above Lewiston, you have to know what you’re doing."

And Cambell knows what he's doing. On a good day, when the winter conditions are right, he'll average a couple dozen hook-ups on steelhead.

FOOD IS KEY

If you've never fished for winter steelhead in the Great Lakes, know that the river's bottom can be both your friend and your arch nemesis. Steelhead spend much of the winter months in the tributaries that flow into the lakes for one simple reason: That's where the food is. On the Lower Niagara, steelhead feast on eggs from chinook salmon, lake trout and brown trout. The brown trout and lakers join in for a seat at the never-ending buffet that includes countless tons of baitfish chewed up and spit out by the hydro facilities on the river.

Guide Joe Marra had put a live emerald shiner on a well-weighted hook and was demonstrating the best way to find the bottom and keep the bait in the optimal strike zone, when he suddenly hooked up on our trip last winter. Marra wasn't really planning on fishing with us. He was simply modeling proper technique as the boat drifted through one of his favorite runs. But just a few minutes into the demonstration, he was into a smaller steelhead.

"Fish don't have to expend a lot of energy in the cold water to find food in the Lower Niagara," Marra said as he fought the steelhead on his spinning rod. "So, it's important to put the bait right in their faces."

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Like Campbell, Marra, who runs Niagara Rainbow Charters, grew up on the Lower Niagara River. The intimate knowledge of favorite steelhead lies that provide a break from the relentless current and deliver a steady flow of food is invaluable.

"This is a tremendous fishery, but there are a lot of places on the river where you can't reliably find fish," Marra said. "Steelhead are creatures of habit, and we generally find them in the same spots year after year."

The downside of fishing so closely to the bottom, of course, is that hooks often get snagged. Marra laughed off my many hang-ups as part of the game but did mention that anybody fishing for steelhead should be properly equipped with plenty of tackle and be prepared to lose some of it.

The most common way to fish here is with a three-way rig, with the hook about a foot above a heavy sinker. Salmon eggs or live bait is used most often. Typical fly-fishing setups, with egg patterns and shooting heads to get deep, can also be used.

Niagara River fishing
The Lower Niagara is not without challenges, including fast water with fluctuating levels, hydroelectric facilities and, of course, the international border with Canada. (Photo by Matt Crawford)

MORE THAN JUST STEEL

While steelhead are the most targeted species in the Lower Niagara River in the winter months, they are far from the only fish there. Muskies swim these waters year-round, although if caught, they must be released.

Lakers and brown trout are in the river, too, and will often be caught in the best steelhead runs. While lakers don't offer the fight that steelhead do, anglers routinely catch specimens that weigh more than 10 pounds.

My most memorable hook-up on the Lower Niagara was a decent-sized laker that bit as we drifted in the same hole where Marra caught the steelhead the day before. It was chunky and plenty feisty and put up a great fight on the medium-weight spinning rod I was using.

For an hour or so, my boatmate and I tried to entice a steelhead to bite on a fly rod, much to the amusement of Marra who deftly maneuvered the boat as we drifted. We caught a few more fish on the bait-and-sinker setup and tried drifting and trolling with Kwikfish to no avail.

The river was stained and dirty on the final day of our two-day trip, and Marra attributed a decline in bites to the deteriorating conditions. While the snowless weather was great for anglers, the warm temps had led to a rapid snow-melt. Turns out, being too warm on the Lower Niagara River in the middle of winter comes with a downside.

INSIDER INTEL

  • All the need-to-know before you go.
Fort Niagara
Fort Niagara, at the mouth of Lake Ontario, is a must-see place for history buffs. (Shutterstock image)

The Lower Niagara River is a world-class fishery all year long, with the spring and summer months prime time for football-shaped smallmouths that have made Lake Ontario a favorite stop on bass tournament trails. From November through March, it's all about steelhead, lake trout and brown trout.

Lewiston, N.Y., is very angler-friendly. An excellent lodging choice is the Niagara Crossing Hotel and Spa, right on the river. Just a few yards from the hotel is The Griffon Brewery and Gastropub, where you can duck in for lunch or an early dinner during the middle of a fishing trip. As with most restaurants in the area, you'll find excellent buffalo wings on the menu.

Before launching the boat, pick up a sub sandwich from the deli at the Tops Friendly Market in Lewiston. The subs are massive, and Tops also makes early morning breakfast sandwiches.

There are three public boat launches close to Lewiston, the one located near the Niagara Crossing Hotel and Spa is extremely accessible. The lowest launch on the river is located at Fort Niagara State Park. Oh yeah, one more thing: Dress warmly.

PROFESSIONAL HELP

  • Not keen to navigate the big water on your own? These guides will put you on the fish.

With three boat launches and several public shore-access points, fishing on the Lower Niagara River can be a DIY affair. Remember, a New York fishing license is required, and additional licenses and identification are required if you’'e fishing the Canadian side. If you’'e looking for a guided charter trip, you cannot go wrong with one of these three services.

  • Niagara Rainbow Charters: Capt. Joe Marra | 716-754-0951
  • Niagara Region Charter Service: Capt. Frank Campbell | 716-523-0013 niagaracharter.com
  • Calandrelli's Guide Service: Capt. Nick Calandrelli | 716-799-9108 ncalandrelli@gmail.com



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