Want to catch a big steelhead trout this winter? Drift on down to the lower Niagara River and check out the remarkable run of steelies from either shore or from a boat hefty enough to handle lower river currents.
That's what charter captain Frank Campbell does almost every morning this time of the year. Exceptionally warm early-winter weather has made trips comfortable as well as bountiful.
Holiday vacation anglers enjoyed above-freezing weather between Christmas and New Year's Day. Muddied waters began clearing, which added to the fishing fun as steelhead trout moved into the Devil's Hole area above the New York and Canadian power plants.
Niagara Falls angler Gary Hall, one of Campbell's frequent clients, and I spent a morning in "the hole" on the Thursday before New Year's Day; we three set out from Lewiston Landing to get in on the steelie run.
By 8:30 a.m., eight other boaters were set up for drifting the New York side of Devil's Hole and another dozen-plus shore anglers took up positions on and around the rocks that lined the hole.
Hall set up at the bow of Campbell's big Lund Pro-V, an open craft ideal for these river drifts. It took him just a few minutes to hook up with a nice steelie, a female in the 7- to 8-pound class. Light lines and shiny Kwikfish lures have been a major attractor on these early-winter drift outings.
As Campbell released the fish, Hall gave this one a "nice" nod, the term used for an "average" steelie at this time. Minutes later, Hall showed why the first fish was only average; his next fish ran from the middle of the river back toward shore close to lines anglers were casting from the bank.
After a fight lasting nearly the length of the drift, he brought in a 33-inch male that probably would weigh in at about 15 pounds -- the big fish of the day.
"I'll average about 225 days on the water," Campbell said as we headed up current for another drift.
Hall, whose office overlooks the water at Lewiston, gets out every day he can get free from business needs. This holiday week allowed for kids to get in a morning of fishing. There were 14 boats in the area by 10 a.m. -- one with an Ontario registry stood out. It was a Princecraft with two dads and two sons who were doing well. Rich Brouwer of Fonthill took son Jordan, 11, and Rod Harlock and son Roderick, 17, of St. Catharines, out for what became a busy morning on the steelies.
Rich, Jordan and Roderick got in on some nice (average) steelies, but it was Jordan's "catch" that became the fish tale of the day.
Dad had hooked a steelie as he manned the electric trolling motor at the bow of the boat. Most of these fish caught in strong river currents take runs away from boat hulls; this one streaked straight for their boat.
Steelies often jump when hooked, and this one did just that. But instead of a nice leap away from the boat, this 8-pounder jumped over the gunwale and, as Rod Harlock describes it, "the fish hit [Jordan] smack in the face."
Jordan then reached over, picked up the fish and held it aloft for the other boaters to see.
Many a visitors bureau would like to truthfully boast about having so many fish they're jumping into the boat. In this case, about a dozen boaters witnessed Jordan facing up to the catch that morning. Talk about hammering steelhead.
The hammering averages about 10-20 fish a morning at this time of year. Our trio logged just seven fish hitting on this morning, with four netted and brought into the boat for photos -- but size matters. Two of the four tipped the scale well above 10 pounds.
"We don't keep any fish," Campbell said of trips out with Hall. On the day before, they hooked 20 and boated 13 steelies.
"The fishing will only get better when Lake Erie freezes and the waters become more clear," Campbell said.
"I like it when the water goes light green," Hall said of winter steelie runs.
"Other clients have caught on to catch-and-release," Campbell noted, saying the catch-to-keep ratio is about 50-50 now.
For a good view of Campbell's winter steelie successes, go to: www.niagaracharter.com.