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IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE FOR HUNTERS AND ANGLERS ON THE NIAGARA RIVER

Niagara River hunters and fishermen see that waterway as one giant Christmas candy cane.

Upper river duck hunting, with occasional flights of Canada geese, reopened a half-hour before sunrise Saturday with ice-free waters and lightly misted skies. This season, hunters can take geese along upper river waters; Canada geese season continues there until Jan. 23.

At sunrise Saturday morning, riverside roadways around all of Grand Island looked like Route 6 during the opener of deer season in Pennsylvania. And the results were much more numerous. Hunters along both the upper and lower river took the usual number of diver ducks, but fair numbers of gadwall and redheads showed up among the bluebills, blacks and buffleheads typical during the second season.

One group, in particular, met for the traditional upper river opener Saturday, with enjoyable and somewhat mixed results.

The majority of the duck-hunting crew hails from North Tonawanda: Ed, Robbie and Kyle Zuchowski, Thomas "Richie" Kramer and Ken Zuhr. Other party members include Mike Bamberg of Orchard Park, Andy Korzen of Cheektowaga and Brian Olin of Mendon. All took turns shooting from one of the largest private duck blinds on the upper river (state public blinds only allow up to four hunters per blind).

Robbie, as a matter of tradition, took the first pass shot of the day -- and the first bird, a merganser. The day continued with steady shooting and an assorted bag of whistlers, buffleheads and one merganser, which steadily came into Kyle's decoy sets and were retrieved with their trusty boat and motor after each kill.

Ron Kleiber relied on Hooch, a 7-year-old retriever, to bring in his birds taken off the Lake Ontario shoreline early Saturday morning.

Capt. Ernie Calandrelli motored out to drifting sites for pass shooting at old squaws off the lower Niagara River mouth. "Hunters have a hard time hitting these birds in rough water, but lots of guys think about having a mature (3-year-old) mounted once they get a clean shot," he said.

Tuesday morning, Calandrelli took out Craig Robbins and his camera assistant, Michelle Hagberg of Jamestown, to do a combined fishing and hunting video. They picked a good day for action but a rough day for filming. "The birds were coming by us most of the morning," Robbins said. Hagberg had enough video footage for a program before noon, but the close-up, easily filmed activity came when Calandrelli pulled out of the northwest chop off Fort Niagara and settled into the steelie drifts off Artpark and Devils Hole.

Steelhead trout fishing has been a steadily unwrapped Christmas present delivered more than a month ago, and warm weather blocked formation of ice floes that usually hamper river drifting during or before Christmas vacation until March or April.

The duck shooting can be unsteady but the steelie fishing is solid. Their first Artpark drift resulted in a 7-pound male steelie, while Bob Lucas of Reel Pleasures Charters was pinpointing the abundant yearling brown trout that took up much of the lower end of the drift.

Robbins' first hookup in Devils Hole was another male steelie. This one went a bit past 12 1/2 pounds. The morning leg ended with further proof of the bounty of Niagara's waters -- a two-pound sheepshead from the swift water off the power plant.

Calandrelli credits his new Quaker Boy squaw call for bringing in the open-water ducks, and he attributes his fishing successes to Stren's fluorocarbon lines as leader material in clear, lower-river waters. He runs 12-pound main lines with just 8-pound Stren on the leaders when hooking up his skein and single-egg terminal presentations. A green bead above a chunk of red skein gave Tuesday's baits a seasonal as well as successful look.

The duck hunting holiday continues until Jan. 4 (black duck -- the ones that look like mostly black, colorless mallards -- season ends on Dec. 31). Steelhead trout fishing continues throughout the winter, with lake trout season reopening in New York waters on Jan. 1.

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