The Amazing Niagara River: Unbeatable Year-Round Angling

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

Looking for that special fishing trip of a lifetime? New York’s mighty Niagara River delivers world-class angling for bass, salmon, trout and much more, and it’s available 12 months a year.

Niagara9 900It’s early December in chilly western New York, and signs of winter are everywhere. And despite what has turned into a seriously biting, steady early morning gale, a wide smile has begun forming on my half-frozen face. I’m just a few minutes into a long-awaited fishing trip on the wide and strong-flowing Niagara River, a few miles downstream from the famous Falls, and my hands already smell of fish slime. But more important than that, many of my long-held beliefs about angling in the Great Lakes are being shattered. And that’s a good thing.Niagara1 900If you’re a bit confused, I’m right there with you. You see, I grew up in southeast Wisconsin on the western shore of Lake Michigan, and believed no Great Lake could compare to the amazing angling mecca I found there in my youth. But as I will be reminded—time and again—during the next few days in New York, while angling along the shore of sprawling Lake Ontario and its most-stellar tributary, the wide, deep and fish-filled Niagara, I was wrong. Dead wrong. Niagara4 900Well before my too-brief three-day New York adventure would come to its close, I’d boat no less than four different species of gamefish (including the fine buck steelhead above), each of which we would find displaying impressive trophy size, more than worthy of a graphite reproduction or two for the den wall. And through it all, I’d actually lose count of the dozens of fish we’d boat during a typical day. This was blazing some seriously new territory for an angler accustomed to stowing his Great Lakes open-water angling gear by the end of a typically frigid November, when my still-raging angling energies had to be funneled elsewhere. Maybe it was tying new steelhead flies, reading angling literature, or otherwise dreaming of better (read warmer) days to come. In New York, with rod in hand in December, I was like a kid in a candy store.Niagara5 900“Out here we’re fishing 12 months a year, and all of them are pretty darn good; two of my absolute favorite times are early December and early April,” explained guide Frank Campbell, sensing my disbelief as we motored out to the mouth of the Niagara, where we’d begin our adventure drifting live emerald shiners along a series of Lake Ontario humps, all of them within a quarter mile of the Niagara’s mouth.Niagara2 900“There’s one!” I hissed as I reared back on my medium-action spinning rig just minutes into our first drift, then held on as the 7-foot rod bent with the weight of a heavy fish. Thinking I’d hung a solid lake trout, I was amazed when the spirited battle finally neared its close and a pot-bellied five-pound walleye slashed to the surface. Plenty of Lakers would also be boated and quickly released on those fish-packed Lake Ontario bars, but soon it was time for a run back into the Niagara, and a break from the tearing-inducing winds. Thankfully, one of the major goals of this trip was to field-test some of the latest and greatest fishing gear available at Cabela’s, and some of the most critical—our clothing—had already passed a serious test.

Niagara3 900Any extreme-weather open water angler, including those who make early-season pilgrimages up to Canada with family or friends, would be wise to don the smart layering system we used in New York. For insulation I tapped merino wool socks and Cabela’s Men’s Thermal Zone Standhunter 1/2-Zip Tops and Bottoms, which effectively turned back the cold on even our most-bitter mornings. Up top we also made use of insulating, polyester zip-up hoodies and for outerwear, Cabela’s Guidewear Men’s Angler Jackets and Pants with Gore-Tex. These proved just the ticket for not only stopping the wind, but turning back our regular battle with lake and river spray as we made our way from spot to spot with our speedy 19- and 20-foot Lund and AlumaCraft deep-v rigs. Kicking up spray wasn’t hard with our powerful 150- to 200-horsepower Yamaha and Honda outboards. Niagara14 900Back inside the wind-breaking confines of the river banks it was time to jig for world-class smallmouths. This was accomplished in 30- to 40-foot depths using the same relatively light tackle, including sensitive-but-strong Cabela’s Prodigy Walleye Series spinning rods spooled with virtually invisible Seaguar fluorocarbon line that Campbell believes is critical to success in the gin-clear Niagara River.NiagaraBASS 900And the hard-fighting, 3- to 5-plus-pound smallies we encountered gave both rods and line a serious test. One of the most-consistent lures during our trip was a silver Hopkins spoon fished with a simple vertical jigging action; the key to consistent strikes was letting the spoon hit bottom then violently ripping it up a few feet before letting it flutter back down. Niagara16 900Campbell uses both Seaguar InvizX and AbrazX fluorocarbon main lines and leaders while drifting spawn rigs or shiners for steelhead, brown trout, walleyes and lake trout, and also while pulling plugs for lake trout, steelhead and browns. And the fluoro line seemed a natural for vertical-jigging spoons and light-colored swimbaits for smallmouths. We certainly couldn’t argue with the results.Niagara10 900Fishing with Campbell and his guides on the Niagara was a constant game of “What species next?,” and maybe some of the most-productive (and most exciting) fishing was pulling plugs on bottom-bouncing rigs. During our trip both lakers and big steelhead were hammering a wide variety of fluorescent models like the Kwikfish pictured above, and Flatfish, especially if you could keep your plug of choice vibrating just above bottom, ticking the tops of the abundant rocks in the swirling boulder-strewn runs. Suddenly a rod tip would jerk down and the fight would be on. It was glorious. Niagara7 900So our breakdown of boated gamefish included walleyes, smallmouths, lake trout and steelhead (including the author’s bright hen pictured above), and Campbell was surprised we never touched a big brown trout, which are typically in good supply in the river during early December.

Niagara13It should be noted that the week before our trip one of Campbell’s clients boated a beautiful muskie, and one member of our group, using fly gear, was certain he was bitten off by a toothy northern pike or muskie. As noted on the sign above, posted at our boat launch, the river features a 54-inch size limit on those big predators and during our December trip, we witnessed a few hardy souls specifically targeting those river monsters, pitching huge jerkbaits along the river banks.

Niagara8 900If all of the above sounds like a cornucopia of angling possibility, Campbell says the variety of species can actually improve in March, April, and May.


During this incredible three-month stretch, it’s possible to take brown trout, lake trout, king and coho (silver) salmon up to 30 pounds, steelhead (like the beautiful specimen above) weighing up to 20 pounds, and May brings some of the largest smallmouths of the year. These are world-class bronzebacks that can push to that magical 7-pound mark.NiagaraLast2 900Are you ready for an incredible open-water angling adventure with true year-round accessibility? Get yourself geared up with help from the World’s Foremost Outfitter, then check into the amazing fishery that is the Niagara River and the nearby stretches of Lake Ontario. Frank Campbell (pictured above with a sweet December lake trout) and his crack guide staff come highly recommended.



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