June 16, 2022
As the fish started to run, I could tell it wasn’t a bass. Even in the stiff current, the fight was a bit lacking. The distinctive snout and dorsal fin became visible as it rose toward the surface and my suspicion was confirmed.
We might not have been targeting walleyes, but that didn’t stop them from biting. It also didn’t dissuade the lake trout or salmon for that matter. But the big story was the outsize smallmouths we were catching.
Prior to this trip, I had lucked into only two smallies greater than 5 pounds in my lifetime. But, incredibly, in the span of less than a week, I landed five more. I also lost one at the surface that guide Jeff Draper estimated at just over 6 pounds. With the number of large smallmouths he regularly boats, I have to trust his estimate even if it gives me a knot in my stomach every time I think of it.
The hotel in Lewiston, N.Y., where I was staying put me within driving distance of several excellent fisheries. Lakes Ontario and Erie are known for world-class salmon and trout fishing, but they’re also home to some of the best smallmouths, walleyes, yellow perch, crappies and bluegills you’ll find anywhere. The Niagara River connects the two and holds a mix of warm- and cold-water favorites throughout its 36-mile run.
THE MIGHTY NIAGARA
The Niagara River moves unbelievably quickly, or at least it seems that way to someone accustomed to the slower pace of tidal movements and tiny mountain streams. The average flow is about 200,000 cubic feet of water per second, which helps fuel the spectacular falls. It also supplies Lake Ontario with about 80 percent of its water, which is even more shocking when you consider the size of that waterway.
The mighty Niagara can be broken into two sections: the Upper and the Lower. The Lower is host to a wide variety of salmonids. Depending on the season, you can expect Chinooks, cohos, steelhead, brown trout and lakers. Smallmouths, walleyes, yellow perch, smelt and even muskies can also be found. The Upper reaches are much shallower and hold more warmwater species. You can expect to find largemouths, pike and various panfish there.
We fished the Lower, focusing our efforts just upstream of our base in Lewiston all the way down to Lake Ontario. With the cool temps of early May and the smallmouths in pre-spawn mode, we primarily used blade baits fished deep to connect with the hefty bronzebacks. With the intense current and somewhat lethargic fish, you had to be right on the money to coax a strike.
I got to fish with "Big Water Adventures" host Mark Davis one day, and got schooled on the finer points of fishing blade baits. We racked up nearly 100 smallies on the boat before we turned back to the ramp around 3 p.m. We also caught a number of other species, such as lake trout and walleyes. I joined Jay Feimster of PointClickFish.com another day, and we also got into a handful of different species. Davis loves the fishing here so much he has been coming for more than a decade. Feimster hasn’t frequented the Lewiston area for as long, but he knows the fishing is worth trailering his boat all the way up from North Carolina.
With so many choices, it can be hard to know when to hit the Niagara. If you’d like to battle with chinooks and cohos, September, October and November are the months to do it. Steelhead are present from November through May. The best time for lakers and brown trout is January through April. June through October are typically best for walleyes. Smallmouths can be had from May through October, offering both size and numbers.
ONTARIO GRAB BAG
Fort Niagara is the gateway to the big water of Lake Ontario from the Niagara River. It’s also a great place to work a tube bait, toss a fly or swim a jig if you’re after giant smallmouths. From there, you can head farther offshore to find even more fertile fishing grounds loaded with chinooks, cohos, Atlantic salmon, lakers, brown trout, walleyes and more.
We started at the centuries-old stronghold with guide Jeff Draper of Draper Sportfishing (niagaraguides.com) at the helm. He had us throwing a variety of swimbaits along the riprap and connecting with some very impressive smallies. We worked our way through a handful of different techniques to keep the bite going throughout the day, including finesse techniques like hair jigs. Using the lightweight jigs in depths from 20 to 40 feet produced smallmouths up to 6 pounds, with many double-headers occurring on the boat throughout the day.
You can find plenty more to get after on Ontario if bass aren’t your thing. Lake Ontario is one of the finest trout and salmon fisheries of the Great Lakes, and Draper says that a hot bite typically occurs in the spring. Water temps seem to be the big driver. Cohos, Chinooks and rainbows bite best when the water is right around 53 degrees, while Atlantics and brown trout like it closer to 60. If you are there in the colder months, lake trout are your best bet, as they are most active when the water is around 48 degrees.
Lake Erie may be known as the "Walleye Capital of the World," but there’s certainly more to catch in the giant pond. We were targeting big smallies right off the eastern shore where the lake butts up against Buffalo. With colder water temps, Joe Fonzi of Thumbs Up Guide Service (716-438-2366) had us fishing deep. We targeted bars in the 40- to 50-foot depths with small silver and gold spoons, and we were rewarded with some outsized bass.
Other anglers in the group I was with turned their attention to trout and salmon on Erie, and took many great specimens on the troll. If you want to target these, the shoulder seasons of spring and fall are a pretty safe bet. I was told that water temperature had the greatest effect on the bite; timing a trip to coincide with temps around 55 degrees should usually be productive. Lake trout aren’t as temperature-sensitive and can be caught near the bottom at just about any time.
If you want to target walleyes on Erie, plan your visit for summer. While they can be caught as early as April (sometimes near the surface), the most productive months are usually June through September. The walleye’s smaller cousin, the yellow perch, can be found here in great numbers. You can take them year-round, even through the ice, but late summer and early fall are the most productive. Fonzi says you can fill a cooler in a couple hours when the yellow perch bite is on.
The diversity of species present means there’s never a wrong time to fish the Niagara region, but certain periods are better for certain species. Consider what you’d like to catch and plan your trip around when that species is most active. You can certainly fish on your own, but the big water of the Niagara River and the Great Lakes is best navigated by those who know the area. Consider hiring a guide to keep you safe and put you on the bite. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time for sightseeing, as the area is filled with numerous attractions beyond the magnificent falls.
Niagara Trip Planner
Eats, drinks, accommodations and attractions in Western New York.
- WHERE TO STAY: Lewiston is everything you could want in a fishing town, complete with a public fish-cleaning station. But it offers so much more than the world-class angling, with sights, food and amenities the entire family can enjoy. If you’re looking for top-notch accommodations (and maybe even a spa day), book your stay at the Niagara Crossing (niagaracrossinghotelandspa.com). This classy hotel is within walking distance of Lewiston Landing Park and boat ramp. If you want the fish camp experience, check into the Riverside Motel (riverside.vpweb.com). The Riverside is also conveniently located near the boat ramp and offers trailer parking for those bringing their own boats.
- WHAT TO EAT: There’s no better place to get Buffalo wings than the region that created them, and it’s hard to beat Brickyard Pub & BBQ’s (brickyardpub.com) take on the classic, in dry-rubbed and traditional varieties. But be sure to save some room for their smoked meats. If pizza is your thing, be sure to hit up Vincenzo’s Pizza House (716-754-7383). And for some of the best donuts and subs around, stop by Top’s Market in Lewiston. Yes, it’s the local supermarket, but you won’t find a better sandwich—or service—around.
- WHAT TO SEE: Of course, you’ll want to see the falls. On the U.S. side, that means a visit to Niagara Falls State Park. The majesty of the giant falls led to the creation of America’s first state park way back in 1885, and it still draws millions of visitors each year. Fort Niagara is also a must-see for history buffs.
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