Frank Campbell has spent the last 14 years as a full-time charter captain on the lower Niagara River, so it still surprises him that some neighbors have no clue that the river is famous for more than its waterfall.
There are times when he's cleaning the day's catch at the filleting station by the Village of Lewiston docks "and people would ask me, 'Where'd you get that?' "
"Right across the street," he shoots back, pointing at the river that's hard to miss from the shoreline spot.
"They'll say, 'I've lived here my whole life, and I didn't know we had trout and salmon in there, or walleye.' "
The Niagara Falls native, 37, who runs the Niagara Region Charter Service, is used to Western New Yorkers being oblivious to the fish his industry depends on.
"I'd say the general public is pretty undereducated about the world-class sport fishing that we do have here," Campbell said.
Between anglers, outdoor writers and television shows, he said, "I'm probably fishing between 225 and 250 days a year some years."
A member of the Niagara River Anglers Association board of directors, he has been working with other sport fishing officials on a proposal for a fish hatchery along the Niagara River. It could improve the sport fishing industry and become a tourist attraction in its own right, Campbell said.
But first, local officials have to be convinced that it makes sense to invest in fish.
Did you spend a lot of time on the river as a kid?
Not tons. I used to enjoy fishing quite a bit, not on the river but other areas, local streams and creeks. Worked at a tackle shop when I was in high school. From there I went on to become a charter captain, part time, while I was in college. I've been doing chartering full time for about 14 years now.
What's your specialty?
I guess I'd have to say lower river fishing, because I'm down there 12 months a year.
Where are your customers coming from?
I'd have people fish with me from Argentina and England. In the States, California, Washington, Alaska. I'd say I get most of my business from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the rubber tire market.
But we do get everything, from guys who scrape and save all year to people who own multimillion-dollar companies. We're seeing more of the corporate business, where companies will offer incentives to employees or customers, and we take employees or customers out fishing for the day or for a couple days. Make it a package weekend, where they stay in Niagara Falls or Lewiston, go out to dinner and come fishing the next day, have an in-company tournament. Things of that nature.
What does the local sport fishing industry need to do to take the next step?
Probably the biggest thing is educating the local population in what we have to offer, and that goes for the whole tourism industry. . . . There's a lot of people who don't know what happens in their back yards, and they are probably the biggest advocates or ambassadors of the fishery and what we have to offer in the area.
You go out of town and you talk about it. And, if you're knowledgeable, people will take note of that and say, 'Hey I'll try to go up there.' As opposed to people who say, 'Come to see Niagara Falls,' that's it.
There's a lot more to offer. So I'd say that would be step one, educating the locals.
So what are the main species you're fishing for on the river?
Right now, we're fishing for brown trout, steelhead and lake trout. During the fall, we fish for salmon and muskie, and all summer long, we bass fish.
How much of the popular fishing species is the result of stocking?
Basically, our whole trout and salmon fishery is the result of stocking. We do have some naturally reproducing fish in smallmouth bass and a very small percentage of lake trout. But the trout and salmon in the river itself, the conditions that exist down there are not right for their reproduction.
Where do the hatchery fish come from?
The majority of the fish come out of the Salmon River Hatchery, which is in Altmar, at the east end of Lake Ontario. We do get some fish from the federal hatchery in the lake trout program, out of the Allegheny hatchery in Pennsylvania.
How do they come in?
We get a couple hundred thousand salmon, probably in the neighborhood of 300,000 fish a year. They come in aerated trucks and are stocked off the Lewiston Sand Docks. It takes place in the spring and in the fall, depending on the species.
How important is the stocking program to the overall sport fishing program?
Basically, the biggest draw here by far is the trout and salmon fishery. Probably 90 percent of the people that come here not only for charters, but fishing, are looking for trout and salmon. So I would say that without trout and salmon, we'd be pretty much behind the eight ball. We'd be a pretty big loser in this area.
There's talk of trying to establish a hatchery here.
If we could get these fish to what we call smolt here, we get them back here. Then we don't beat up the fish in the transportation. The lake trout raised in the federal hatchery are a native species, so it would make sense for a hatchery here for lake trout.
The Allegheny hatchery had a disease problem, and needs $10 [million] to $12 million in repairs. So they really don't want to do it. We have a need for a hatchery here on the Niagara River.
How much would that cost?
The most recent figures that we could come up with are out of Michigan, where they raise brown trout. That hatchery was about $12 million, two years ago. The thing is, at the federal hatchery right now, they're looking at about $12 million in costs to clean it, sanitize it and repair it. So we're saying, why wouldn't you just build a new one? You're building something state-of-the-art, and you need it anyways.
So the question is patching or new build.
What we would like to see is the federal government to work with the state and maybe raise fish that are normally state-raised along with fish that are federally raised, such as sturgeon.
The State of New York has 12 hatcheries on line that need about $27 million worth of repairs. Some of the hatcheries are so old that the pipes are still wood.
Probably four or five are in desperate need of repairs. So are they going to put $27 million into them, are are they going to build something state-of-the-art, with the Power Authority funding it?
You mean the Niagara River Greenway money?
It isn't only that we're going to improve fishing, and through improving fishing get more people here fishing, and the businesses are going to benefit. There's also the economic benefit from tourism. The salmon hatchery in Altmar gets half a million visitors a year, and that's in the middle of nowhere.
Niagara Falls, we already have a captive audience of 16 million people a year. If we give them a reason to stay another day for a family-friendly attraction, you're going to see some of that money back. Then there's the educational value, for schools, and there's already an aquaculture program at Buff State.
So the benefits aren't just for the sport fishery.
Then there's the Power Project's effects on the river, which is what the Greenway money is supposed to fix in the first place.
The lower Niagara River is probably more impacted by the physical power plant than anyplace else. When the Power Authority takes water to fill up its reservoirs, it affects the water level in the river. That would be affecting the natural reproduction of these fish.
We have some endangered fish such as the sturgeon that spawn in the river. This water fluctuation, where it occurs, I've seen fish up there. Are we affecting the fish that would be spawning up there?
Maybe a hatchery would atone for some of that.