Dream fishing destinations: New York’s Niagara River – USA TODAY
LEWISTON, N.Y. – By mid-morning a rising northeast wind had combined with the 40-degree temperature to add a razor’s edge nick to the pelting rain.
Brian McCarthy snugged up his raincoat, checked his bait and made another cast.
We’d landed and released a few football-size smallmouth bass from the Niagara River and missed the hookset on a couple more. But overall, fishing had been slow, almost certainly a byproduct of the challenging and unstable weather conditions. The 20-foot Lund swerved through the swirling currents. McCarthy’s rod bowed and for an instant he suspected another hang up.
Then the line moved. A bulldogged fight brought an arm’s length lake trout to hand.
“How big, you think?” McCarthy asked, happily holding the salmonid with an Original Fish Grip tool made by his Jackson, Miss.-based employer.
Capt. Joe Marra eyed the silvery and gray tinted fish.
“About 9 pounds. Maybe 10.”
We had been employing a tried-and-true approach: drifting bait (minnows and trout egg) from three-way swivel rigs along the rocky riverbed through the churning, roiling, cross currents that define a 300-yard stretch of the Niagara River known as Devil’s Hole. The area is located about six miles below Niagara Falls and immediately upstream from the imposing Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station and its Canadian counterpart, the equally formidable Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Station.
Marra, who fishes about 70 days a year around his day job as an inventory manager for a regional beer distributorship, decided to change tactics. He exchanged the bait rods for long-lined, deep-running crank-bait rigs.
Two drifts. Two steelhead, the largest about 15 pounds.
“That’s more like it,” said Marra, whose sunny, optimistic angling outlook came through even on the dreariest day.
The mighty Niagara
The Niagara River flows northward from Lake Erie for about 30 miles before emptying into Lake Ontario. It’s a powerful, productive and historic slice of water that forms the border between western New York and Ontario, Canada, and, of course, is primarily defined by the famous waterfalls that bear its name. But the river, along with the two Great Lakes that feed and receive it, form one of the most diverse and productive sport fisheries found anywhere.
Marra has been fishing these waters all his life, as has Capt. Frank Campbell, who owns and operates Niagara Region Charter Service and for whom Marra occasionally guides. Both men view the river above and below the falls as separate fisheries, equally productive but markedly different.
“Lake Erie and the upper river are generally thought of as a warm water, or cool water, species area and the lower river and Lake Ontario is more cold water species mixed with a few warm water species,” said Campbell, who has been guiding full-time on these waters for more than 20 years and enjoys a customer base that’s two generations deep.
“In the lower river and (Lake) Ontario it’s predominately steelhead, brown trout and lake trout,” he said. “Also salmon. And we do have some of the warm water species; smallmouth bass, muskellunge, walleye and a few others.”
For anglers plying the upper Niagara and Lake Erie, the predominant sportfish are smallmouth bass, walleye and muskellunge.
It’s a combination that provides year-round action.
“We fish for cold water species basically from November to the end of May and warm water species from May to November or December, depending on the weather,” Campbell said. “I really just like to fish and I’m kind of spoiled in that I can pick and choose what I want to fish for.”
So are his fishermen.
“This was my first time to fish this area,” McCarthy, who is business development manger for Jackson, Miss.-based United Plastic Molders, said after the near hypothermic morning that yielded smallmouth bass, steelhead and lake trout from the same patch of water. “I wasn’t fully aware of the very fertile fishing grounds in this area.
“But if you fish the Niagara, to enjoy this experience to the fullest, you should have an experienced guide that knows the quirks of the river,” he added. “It was crazy hooking that steelhead at Devil’s Hole and finally landing the fish as the boat spun like a top down at the power stations because of the strong currents. I couldn’t have done it without Capt. Joe.”
The wonders of Devil’s Hole
Devil’s Hole is a stretch of the Niagara that’s as both as foreboding and tempting as its name. Difficult to reach and a challenge to fish, it can, depending on the season, serve up a smorgasbord of North American sportfish, a lineup that includes steelhead, salmon, lake trout, smallmouth bass, brown trout, an occasionally walleye and, rarely, a sturgeon. Double-digit weight fish are common.
At the cusp of the towering bluff is Devil’s Hole State Park, which includes a stairway that leads to the river’s edge, an access route for shore-bound anglers.
But it’s what you can’t see, according to Marra, that attracts the fish. Roughly 12,000 years ago, the falls were located here. In the ensuing centuries, they have eroded their way several miles upstream but the ancient footprint remains. This stretch of the riverbed is strewn with an unimaginable field of Ice Age-era boulders. It’s exactly they type of cover that attracts big, strong, brawny sportfish. It’s also a barrier to most boaters. Only shallow draft, jet boat-style rigs can navigate the shoals and surging whitewater above the hole.
“The Devil’s Hole is one of the toughest places in the world you’re ever going to fish because of the bottom you’re dealing with,” said Marra. “And you’ve got to be near or on the bottom to catch fish.
“But it’s a great fishery. And a year-round fishery,” he added. “It’s one of the few places where you can catch steelhead, brown trout, lake trout. And we have the (fall) salmon run. We also have a great smallmouth fishery. And we’ll get some walleyes. We do get some sturgeon in here, also, although they’re usually caught by mistake in the fall. But they are something to see.”
It isn’t, however, without risks.
The currents are always contentious, augmented and aggravated by fluctuating water releases from the twin power-generation stations.
Water levels on the river also fluctuate, a byproduct of a water control system and an agreement that dates to 1950 that allows the American and Canadian power generation stations to divert water from the river above the falls into reservoirs. But that diversion stops at 9 a.m. daily, so the full force of the river can pour across the falls during the time of day when tourism peaks.
“You really notice when they’re filling the reservoirs and not filling the reservoirs,” Marra explained. “They usually stop filling them at 9 (a.m.) because they want to show the falls in their full glory. So, when more water starts to come over the falls the water comes back up (downriver) and we usually get a bite going.”
Fishing can and often is phenomenal anytime but river and boating conditions are often tricky and occasionally treacherous.
Marra advises caution and, at the risk of sounding self-serving, strongly cautions inexperienced boaters against plying these waters.
“One thing (boaters) have to understand, especially in this Devil’s Hole area, is there are a lot of rocks and a lot of fluctuation in the water levels,” he said. “Until you come up here with a guide I really would not recommend someone trying it on their own. There’s just too much going on. There’s too much current. There’s too many things that can cause you problems.”
“A guide is the shortcut. Not only to catching fish. But staying safe and learning the waters,” he said. “A lot of the ways people fish other areas just don’t work here. And vice versa. A lot of our techniques have been developed over time just for the river.”
Catching local history
Even fishing guides and charter captains can’t control the weather. The next morning dawned dry, mild and calm but thunderstorms and a small boat advisory were in the forecast. We climbed into Campbell’s boat and headed downriver and were soon fishing the fringe of Lake Ontario, just off the point where Fort Niagara still stands guard.
The fort, which was established by the French in 1726 following two previous efforts (1679 and 1687-88) to stake a foothold in what was then the Iroquois Confederacy, later flew British and American flags. It is one of the must-see area attractions.
“Lewiston is a beautiful little town,” Campbell said after releasing the first of about two dozen smallmouth bass and one 20-pound lake trout that Charlie Puckett, Pat Duncan, Campbell and I caught and released before midday thunderstorms chased us back to the Lewiston Landing dock. “There is a lot of history in the area. The French and Indian War. The War of 1812. The Underground Railroad. The fort is something you don’t want to miss. And there’s also a lot of natural beauty. Hiking. Biking. Birding. And of course, Niagara Falls.”
For more information go to niagarafallsusa.com.
Contact Campbell at niagaracharter.com or 716-523-0013.