The Great Lakes Provide A Great Opportunity for Winter Fishing
As the water from the upper four Great Lakes comes crashing down 200 feet over the Cataracts at Niagara Falls, the river of the same name is already starting to work its magic to attract winter fish in this lower section of waterway that extends some 15 miles to Lake Ontario. For anglers looking to catch open-water trout in the winter months, it just doesn’t get any better than winter fishing on the Niagara River.
DEC Stocking Programs
Rich in oxygen, the Niagara River receives a healthy dose of trout stockings from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. In 2009 alone, the river was the recipient of over 144,000 brown trout, 47,000 steelhead; and a bonus of 54,000 brook trout in addition to other stockings of nearly 200,000 Chinook salmon, 25,000 Coho salmon, and 25,000 walleye. These extensive DEC stocking programs makes for excellent fishing for winter fish species on the Niagara. The river is often the benefactor of bonus fish when other waters become too warm in the spring, adding to the river’s mystique.
A Plethora of Winter Fish Species
“One of the best things about this river is the fact you never know what you are going to catch,” says Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Falls. As the proprietor of Niagara Region Charters, he should know spending more than 200 days on the water every year. “It’s not unusual to catch steelhead, brown trout, lake trout, walleye and muskellunge all on the same day while winter fishing on the Niagara River.”
Western New York Access to the Niagara River
Because of the tumultuous current that rips through the gorge area, this water doesn’t freeze up – giving boaters access to some of the best fishing in the country. While access can be gained at Fort Niagara State Park and the Village of Youngstown through their boat launch sites, the best boat access occurs in the Village of Lewiston where the Public Works Department keeps the launch ramp open, no matter what conditions may be encountered for a Western New York winter.
“It can get pretty cold in January and February,” says Campbell, who serves as chairman of the Niagara County Fisheries Advisory Board. “We may have ice floes to contend with at the launch ramp and in the river, so it’s important to keep the launch area open. Lewiston does an excellent job in keeping the ramp open and maintained with sand or gravel on the incline.”
Baitfish and Oxygenation Levels
One of the reasons for these fish to be attracted to this lower stretch of river is the tremendous amount of baitfish. At various times, runs of smelt, alewives, gizzard shad, emerald shiners, and more can be found; enticing the larger predator fish into the system for a meal or two.
The oxygenation that these waters provide is another important factor. And with many of these fish being imprinted to the waters flowing down from Lake Erie, this is where these trout call home when it comes time to succumb to their spawning urges or look for a meal. Sometimes it really is like shooting – or catching – fish in a barrel, an excellent analogy given the daredevil antics associated with Niagara Falls over the years.
Pick the Right Gear
This is winter fishing on the Niagara. First and foremost, you have to be dressed for the part. Layers of clothing are the way to go; keeping that warmth in as much as possible. There are days when you can be overdressed, so being able to take off some of those clothes can be just as important. And no matter how cold it can get – remember that water flowing down through is pegged at 32 degrees – when you are catching fish, it just doesn’t seem to feel all that cold.
Thanks to a law that was enacted in 2009, all boaters are now required to wear a personal flotation device from November 1 through May 1 while you winter fish – unless you are on a charter boat. Charter vessels are exempt from this legislation. That said, it’s still not a bad idea either way. We do recommend fishing with a charter person your first time or two on the river to learn the ropes. Capt. Campbell actually provides survival suits for his customers as an added precaution – and to help keep his clients warm while winter fishing on the Niagara. It’s not a bad idea. His personal touches keep his customers coming back year after year.
For the fishing end of things, Campbell has some personal preferences that all contribute to his success. For example, his choice of rod allows him to catch more fish. He says, “I use a Quantum Tour Edition seven-and-a-half-foot medium action rod with a soft tip. I’ve found that the fish like to hang on to the bait for a period of time and the soft rod tip will help keep the fish available to customers longer. A stiffer tip will let the fish feel the resistance sooner, causing them to let go of the bait offering, whatever that may be – such as egg sacks, single eggs, egg imitations such as yarn balls, or live bait, like minnows.
There will be more on this a bit later. The rod also has slightly larger guides that will not freeze up as quickly in the cold.”
The next most important component for winter fishing on the Niagara is the reel. Campbell’s personal preference is a Quantum Energy Baitcasting reel, outfitted with an eight pound test Cajun fluorocarbon line. “I use fluorocarbon line for the visibility factor, especially when the water is clear,” insists Campbell. “I also don’t get as much line stretch, so it helps with the hook set. And when the water becomes super clear, I’ll drop my leader off the three-way down to six pound test and even extend the leader a foot or two.”
A three-way rig is the tried and true method for taking these trout in the winter. Using a three-way swivel, they will extend a leader off the trailing eye five to seven feet back before they attach the bait. Off the bottom eye is a foot of leader with some type of a weight attached.
For winter fishing on the Niagara River, Campbell prefers starting out with a one-ounce pencil lead. If the water is really clear and he needs to get the bait away from the boat, he’ll trim that lead down – sometimes in half – to get the presentation required to catch fish. He may have to add weight if he’s fishing in deeper water; again, another consideration when facing clear conditions.
“In the winter, when the ice bridge forms below Niagara Falls, and Lake Erie has frozen over, water clarity becomes an issue,” says Campbell, who also serves as co-chairman of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation’s Board of Directors.
“We have to adapt to those clear conditions by downsizing our bait, lightening up our line, and fishing in a bit deeper water. My hook size could be as small as a No. 12, down from the normal No. 6 or 8 that I normally use. Last year, one of my best baits when the water was clear was a single salmon egg treated with Pautzke natural cure. It gave the egg a nice orange tint to it and I would put that single egg into a sack. It seemed to make a difference for me,”
The Best Winter Fishing Bait
Knowing what the fish want on any given day seems to be an intuition that Campbell has. Then again, being on the water every single day doesn’t hurt either. “Keep a good supply of different baits on your boat,” reflects Campbell, “From minnows and yarn balls, to egg sacks and Kwikfish, I can’t be caught without something that will work on any given day.”
Boat Control is Key
Presenting your fish offerings of the best winter fishing lures in a way that’s appealing to them is critical for consistent success.
“You have to figure out what winter fishing baits the fish want based on the conditions – be it clear water or wind direction. Often it’s both. Boat control is essential for catching fish while winter fishing on the Niagara,” Campbell says.
One of the best winter fishing lures on the river is a Kwikfish. Similar to a flatfish, this banana-type bait gives a wobbling motion that triggers trout to hit. Last year, with quite a bit of wind from the south or southwest, those baits were on fire for all trout – steelhead, brown, and lake trout.
Wind from these directions will push you down the river and give these winter fishing baits the motion required to make them most effective. However, every one of the boats (Campbell operates a 21-foot deep V aluminum Lund boat, the preferred choice on the Niagara) that fish these waters for hire have a bow-mount trolling motor. If a northerly wind is holding you up, you can always pull yourself along and increase your speed to adjust and make just about any of your winter fishing baits work for you.
Winter Fishing Lures
Among the best winter fishing lures is the Kwikfish. The best size for winter fishing on the Niagara are K-8 and K-9. Top colors are silver, silver-blue, silver-green, silver-pink, silver-chartreuse and gold, again, depending on the conditions of the water. Most of the guides will remove the set of treble hooks on the belly of the lure, especially if catch-and-release is practiced. And like the other baits, a three-way rig is used with a slightly shorter leader. Maintaining contact with the bottom is important to keep your offerings in the prime fish zone on all accounts.
When wind isn’t as much of a factor, the trolling motor can be used to keep your boat sideways. Egg presentations are normally the same speed as the current or slightly faster, so keeping your line perpendicular to the bottom can be a factor – but not always.
Forge Your Own Path
“Stay away from the pack of boats and find active fish on your own,” says Campbell. “If you can find active fish, you can stay on them all day and not be bothered by anyone else. You can also find fish throughout the river, from Lewiston all the way down to the mouth on the Niagara Bar and all points in between.
Because this is a shared resource with the Province of Ontario, having a Canadian fishing license is a bonus; opening up new waters when the conditions require flexibility. However, you can get away with just a New York license just fine when you are winter fishing on the Niagara.”
For more information about winter fishing on the Niagara River contact Frank Campbell at 716-523-0013 or check the website www.NiagaraCharter.com.
Another good source for information is through the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation at www.niagara-usa.com, or 877-FALLS US. A Greater Niagara Fishing Map is available free of charge for anyone interested in learning more about the river. In addition, a weekly fishing hotline is available at the same phone number. That information can also be found at www.outdoorsniagara.com.
The Niagara River offers anglers the complete package. One aspect that we didn’t even touch upon is the fact that some excellent shore fishing also exists, and the Hotspot Fishing Map, mentioned earlier, is a good source for access points. DEC also has information on its website at www.dec.ny.gov.
The gorge area is the place to be, along Artpark, Devil’s Hole, and the Whirlpool – all state parks with respectable access to the river shoreline. Pay this river a great deal of respect while you winter fish – it deserves a lot. Not only is it a great year-round fishery, but it’s also one of the most scenic rivers on the planet.
While the name “Niagara” may mean “thundering waters” to the Native Americans, modern fishermen would argue that it could also mean “great fishing” – especially for winter fish species like trout. Give winter fishing on the Niagara a try; you won’t be disappointed. And if the winter is just a bit too cold for you, many of these trout will remain in the river into the early part of June.
About The Author
Bill Hilts, Jr. is Niagara County Sportfishing Promotion Chair and Outdoor Sports Specialist for Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. He is currently president of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers and a past president of NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association. He currently serves as president of Lake Ontario Sportfishing Council and is an active member of OWAA, POMA, and NRA.