Dan Bylsma played in more than 400 National Hockey League games. He followed that up by becoming head coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins and winning the Stanley Cup in his first year at the helm. But now that he’s in Buffalo, and coaching a Sabres franchise that's been rebuilding for several years, he’s also able to take advantage of some of the finest freshwater fishing in the world … when he’s not on the ice or behind the bench.
Bylsma, born in 1970 in Grand Haven, Mich., is no stranger to the outdoors. Fishing has been a big part of his life ever since he was a kid casting on the Pere Marquette River in his native state.
“I love fly fishing,” he reflected as he reeled in a hefty trout from the Niagara River during the team’s February break. “I’ve got a place in Ludington and I’ve spent a lot of time fishing the Betsie River in northern Michigan.”
His baptism into the local fishing scene was through Capt. Jim Hanley of Angola, former television show host of Northeast Outdoors. Hanley spends his spring, summer and fall on Lake Erie and surrounding waters chartering customers. His first angling experience with Bylsma showed the coach’s true colors.
“Conditions were tough on the lake,” Hanley said. “The mud line had moved out and we were trying to catch smallmouth bass. We managed to catch one nice one but we really had to work for it. It seemed futile. Bylsma didn’t want to quit. He kept saying ‘One more cast’ or ‘One more drift.’ He was a real diehard.”
Hanley was along for this particular angling adventure on the Lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario, too. As a cameraman for the Buffalo Sabres home games, he sees the coach regularly and quite often they talk fishing. In fact, Bylsma admitted he knew Hanley well before he ever coached a game in Buffalo thanks to interactions when he was coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“When I came to Buffalo to coach, I went through my stack of business cards,” said Bylsma. “I found that I had seven cards from Hanley. He was one of the first guys I called.”
Cracking the coach’s schedule during the season isn’t easy. We’d been trying for months, attempting to mesh the schedules of Bylsma, Hanley and lower river captain Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service. Throw in the flyer of a mild winter and a wide open Lake Erie – leaving the conditions in the hands of Mother Nature – it was difficult to plan well in advance. High winds and/or rain could muddy the water above Niagara Falls and Lake Erie, creating water too stained to fish … and catch. All of that had to be taken into consideration. Finally, it all came together during the Sabres bye week.
Actually, we didn’t know how good the fishing was going to be this time around either. The day before, anglers struggled to catch a few fish and last Thursday appeared to be a repeat performance. Early in the morning, Hanley and Bylsma traded off trout – a nice lake trout and a steelhead. It was a slow start in the first period but a couple scores in the net kept it interesting.
Then there was a dry spell of a couple of hours as the crew looked for active fish. The Niagara Bar and Artpark came up empty. You could say there was no scoring in the second period of action.
It was in the afternoon during a beautiful February day drifting Devil’s Hole when the icing on the cake day was applied. Bylsma and Hanley both connected with several nice steelhead, the coach reeling in a couple fish over 12 pounds.
“I’m always amazed at this fishery in Western New York,” said Bylsma. “The diversity is incredible. You never know what you are going to catch.”
On this day, it was steelhead and lake trout, but it’s not unusual to catch four or five species of fish in the lower river, if not more. Bylsma pulled out his phone during a lull in the action and showed off a dandy steelhead he caught along Canadaway Creek just two days before.
“Caught it on an egg sac,” he said. “That’s what I’m talking about. We have great fishing here.”
He said “we” like he is one of the locals now, in tune with an incredible water resource that’s second to none.
On the final drift of the day, as we soaked in more of the sun and bounced bottom with Pautzke-treated egg sacs off three-way rigs, Bylsma set the hook on a dandy. It first ran up-river and he held his rod high to absorb the shock of the fight. He didn’t touch the drag or the reel as it stripped line effortlessly. As he battled him back to the boat, the fish took another run out into the main current of the river. All the while, we were nearing the end of the drift and the turbulent water near the power plants. As the boat started to spin, Campbell tried to maintain control.
The hefty chromer appeared to tire but when it saw the boat, it took off again under the trolling motor. “Disco” Dan bowed to the fish and allowed it to steer free of any sharp objects. That was the last run as it was finally netted amidst whirlpools and whitewater. This wasn’t Bylsma’s first dance.
We still needed some pictures so Campbell threw the fish in the live-well and we ran down to Artpark for a few quick photos.
It was the end of a great trip. Bylsma was thankful for the great day on the water, knowing that it was back to business the next day when the team was going to be headed on the road again. The third period of this particular outing was filled with scoring. While there was no red light, the net was sure kept busy.