Niagara River Trout Action

Doyle Dietz

On the return trip home to Pennsylvania, we never stopped talking about the late winter lake trout that had been the highlight of the two-day trip with Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service. For anglers who target browns on Lake Ontario, there are ports from Henderson Harbor to Oak Orchard where one can book charter trips. For those whose obsession is catching river-run brown trout, however, there is the Niagara River and everywhere else.

One truly has to experience the joy of battling browns that average 8-10 pounds in the lower Niagara, otherwise it is difficult to describe the action without it sounding like just another fish tale. Suffice it to say, first trips are seldom – if ever -- last trips; and if ever that old advertising slogan “try it, you’ll like it” described a fishing destination, that place would be the Niagara River.

For more than two decades, Capt. Frank Campbell has operated Niagara Region Charter Service, fishing the waters of western New York including Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Depending on the time of year, he targets every fish species the Niagara River has to offer, including all the trout and salmon species as well as walleye, perch, smallmouth bass and musky.

Campbell’s charters depart from the Water Street Dock in the quaint village of Lewistown, which is located north of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Many anglers find it most convenient to stay at the Riverside Motel located across the street from the dock and minutes away from a variety of restaurants. While each species can stand on its own merits, there is something special about making an annual spring trip from early March through the end of May to the Niagara for brown trout. For many anglers, these trips are a rite of passage as much as signalling the beginning of another fishing year. Inarecent national poll of trout and salmon anglers , brown trout were voted the most popular of all the trout species targeted by spin and fly fishermen. On the Niagara River, however, most anglers choose baitcasting and level-wind reels to handle heavy browns whose ability to challenge tackle is increased two and three-fold by the strong, swift current.

To this day, many anglers refer to these beautiful, multi-colored speckled fish as “German browns” because the fish are natives to the cold, clear mountain waters found throughout Europe. Brown trout were introduced to New York streams in the early 1880s; and after more than 130 years have become permanently established not only in all of the Great Lakes and their tributaries but in waters from Maine to California. Just as every smallmouth bass puts up a battle of a fish more than three times its size, many consider brown trout the most sporting fish of the trout family because of its strength and ability to fight. Browns, however, can be challenging to entice into biting, and it is the combination of these qualities that make them so challenging on light tackle. “

What makes fishing for brown trout so enjoyable in the spring is that as the water temperature rise, they become more active and are aggressive feeders,” Campbell said. “Browns can be found throughout the lower Niagara from Devil’s Hole at the power plant to the mouth of Lake Ontario off the point at Old Fort Niagara. I think to truly appreciate fighting a brown trout, they have to be caught on a rod and reel rather than cranking them up on a trolling rod. That’s why I have each of my clients fish with their own rod and use light tackle.” Campbell supplies all bait and tackle on the charters aboard his 21-foot Lund deep-V fishing boat. He rigs his rods with a drop rig that allows anglers to fish minnows just off the bottom, and his bait-casting reels are spooled with 6-pound test mainline. On this particular trip we were fishing egg sacks while targeting browns and steelhead trout. Compared to some trout species, the habits of these brown trout are relatively unaffected by bright sunlight – and a warm sun is welcome during the early spring on the Niagara River, which seemingly clings to winter as long as possible. What does trigger increased activity by browns on the Niagara is melting snow flowing into the river and the slush ice that is carried over Niagara Falls.

“I don’t believe there’s another fishery that has the diversity, size and numbers of freshwater species of gamefish that can be found right here,” Campbell said. “We fish what can truly be described as “big waters,” and these waters produce big fish.” Sometimes the big fish caught, however, are not always the species an angler may expect. That is exactly what happened on the second morning of this fishing trip.

Conditions had been so good the day before that Campbell was able to overcome the “jinx” of having two outdoors writers on his boat, and he put us on plenty of quality steelhead and brown trout. His plan for the morning was to travel upriver, south of the launch at Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park, and search for browns in the area of the hydropower plants on the New York and Ontario sides of the river. There are some prime locations in this section of the Niagara, but water release from the plants can affect water flows and levels and make for potentially dangerous boating. For this reason, warnings are posted advising that only experienced boaters with properly equipped craft navigate the area.

When we arrived, the only other boats fishing the holes were those operated by licensed charter captains; and the brown trout were cooperating. So, breaking out the light tackle, Campbell began working the water and waited for his plan to come together. Then, the unexpected happened when a fish absolutely hammered my bait and had the reel screaming as it stripped line and sped off into deeper water. This was no brownie, and it was all I could do to keep the fish out of the current and winning the battle before it began.

As I kept pressure on what was obviously a very large fish, Campbell made sure the drag would hold and then he and my companion sat back and enjoyed the action. This fish had to be boated no matter what it took; and as I worked my way from bow to stern and back again several times anglers in several of the closest boats had become aware of the battle.

Finally, after more than 10 minutes, but what seemed like a half an hour of playing the fish, Campbell was able to net it and scoop it into the boat. What we had was one of the largest lake trout I had ever caught – including those on Lake Ontario. This 19-pound, 35-inch laker was clearly the lunker catch of the trip and served as a reminder that there is no comparison between catching an aggressive river-run laker and cranking one up from the depths on the lake. It also proved that memories of a lifetime are as close as one’s next cast when fishing the Niagara River.

For information about
fishing with Capt. Frank
Campbell, contact Niagara
Region Guide Service
by calling (716) 284-8546,
emailing frank@niagaracharter.
com or accessing his
website at www.niagaracharter.
For information
about the Riverside Motel,
call (716) 754-4101, email or access
the website at www.riverside.

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