By Will Elliott
NEWS OUTDOORS WRITER
The number 13 proved lucky for the winners in this year’s Niagara River Anglers Association Roger Tobey Memorial Steelhead Contest held last weekend.
The contest, for all open waters of Lake Ontario, its tributaries and the lower Niagara River, drew 52 entrants. A prolonged deep freeze closed most feeder streams. All steelhead trout catches came from the lower river during this sunrise to 2 p.m. Saturday competition.
Few places in North America offer winter steelhead trout catching at which a boat party could hook and measure at least five steelies weighing over 10 pounds and not win a place on a top-three entry board.
Virtually all entrants in the NRAA contest did well on both sizes and numbers of steelies that Saturday on the lower river.
Capt. Jim Rores of Big Greek Niagara River Charters guided clients into first- and third-place, boating 30 fish in the process. “We got all our fish on eggs and minnows, and the big winner was the last steelie caught,” Rores said of the 13.6-pound trout Jim Sayer of North Canton, Ohio lured with a pink egg sack.
Norm Dietrich of Philadelphia took third-place with a 10.64-pound entry that went for an emerald shiner strung on a drift rig. Both fish were fooled with fluorocarbon leaders tied to Gamakatsu hooks.
Bob Hubler of Niagara Falls, the only recreational angler with a prize-winning catch in the contest, finished second with a 10.86-pound steelie he tricked with a smaller emerald shiner run off a three-way rig.
All three top winners came from drifts along the Devils Hole shoreline above the power plants.
Water levels remained low throughout the day, but just a slight stain allowed boaters to drift over shallow areas and not spook fish along the way.
In this competition, entrants can opt for a Biggest Brown prize given for the heaviest brown trout weighed in during the contest. By noon, the brown board was white — not a fish was weighed in and the talk was of none caught.
Shortly after noon a couple smaller browns were entered and then Paul “Hammer” Czarnecki of Erie, Pa., fishing with Capt. Jim Taylor, hooked into a bruiser down current near Fort Niagara.
Czarnecki’s brown tipped the scales at 13.24 and won that prize without a close second. All the regulars and charter captains who routinely work the river knew the brown trout concentration in the lower river would be better down current and closer to Lake Ontario and the fort.
Weather was a factor in this contest. Predictions of an overcast chill and ice-coated creek and river banks cooled entry numbers, but the day turned out to be mainly sunny with not much wind to add to the 20-degree chill.
A northwest breeze slowed the drift for boaters working Kwikfish and other action lures. These banana-shaped lure bodies need some boat movement to give off a nice, down-current wobble.
Most boaters use front-mount trolling motors, which provide that needed wobble and help to steer the boat over ledge structures along shore in the mighty Niagara’s eddy currents.
That was the program for our crew fishing Devils Hole. Partners John DeLong travels from Auburn and John Keeler heads up from Stanley near Seneca Lake to fish the lower river and Lake Ontario throughout the year. DeLong, Keeler and I have fished this contest in recent years with Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charters. Winnings or not, we have fun. This year, we had one entry in the money for a while and finished four one-hundreths of a pound behind the third-place winner.
Like other charter boaters such as Capt. Chris Cinelli, who boated 27 fish that day, we finished with a respectable 21 trout caught — 20 steelies and one lake trout.
DeLong took top honors with 11 fish boated, including the first fish caught and the laker. Keeler looks forward to next year’s contest.
This contest has sparked individual competitions as well as tourney results since NRAA held its First Annual Winter Steelhead Contest on Feb. 22, 1986.
All 21 entrants caught fish that day. The winter steelhead bite continues as strong in the lower river today as it did 28 years ago — with a few big brown trout and an occasional coho salmon and lake trout added to the mix.
For more details on the contest, NRAA’s other activities and its history, go to niagarariveranglers.com.