One certain sign of spring comes when anglers enter the Niagara River Anglers Association's (NRAA) Steelhead Contest.
Held in late February each year since 1986, the Roger Tobey Memorial event continually draws diehard trout anglers no matter what the weather. In more than two decades, contest officials canceled the competition just once: Ice was jamming the lower Niagara River and all Lake Ontario feeder streams were frozen over one Saturday morning.
Like participants in the St. Patrick's Day parade in mid-March, steelie contest entrants show up no matter what weather greets them at the sunrise start.
The sun shined brightly over the embankment at Lewiston Landing on Feb. 21 as anglers filled out last-minute registrations before heading to a boat or feeder stream.
Anyone not familiar with ice conditions in the lower river might look out from what once was a sand dock at Lewiston and think that these guys launching boats into floe-dotted waters might not be all that stable.
High winds across Lake Erie ice the previous Thursday and Friday had pushed massive chunks of ice over the ice boom that retains surface and shove ice on a span between Buffalo and Fort Erie.
Most floes are flat chunks ground to small pieces when passing over Niagara Falls. But some monsters retain their 2- to 3-foot diameter and have enough substance to move boats and big outboard motors sideways.
Those big floes gave us bump-and-grind rides everywhere from the cliffs above Stella Niagara up to the drifts in Devils Hole. Capt. Frank Campbell has been a regular in this NRAA contest and in recent years I've gone along to see how they run.
The quest is to catch the biggest steelhead trout that can be weighed in at Lewiston Landing before 2 p.m. that day, but it's the camaraderie that counts more when Campbell books these annual trips with Bob Lerch and John DeLong, two guys from the Seneca Falls area who fish the river and Lake Ontario with Campbell throughout the season.
Lerch and DeLong conduct the most spirited intramural competition ever seen on the water. Both can find ways to outscore the other. From first-caught fish, to most in the boat, and finally the heaviest (on the contest board or in our boat), competition patter is the matter.
Lerch won the contest a couple of years back, but he had to pass this year because his daughter was getting married that day. DeLong saw it as a "likely excuse."
In place of Lerch, DeLong invited John Keeler of Hector as the fourth member of our four-corner follies.
Campbell is good at finding and catching fish, and the fish (mostly steelies) showed just about everywhere in the lower river that morning. He started our drifts just below the landing along the cliffs that eventually settle into the embayment at Stella Niagara.
Fish came fast, and so did other boaters. We had three fish on the first drift and two on the second. Trouble was, all the fish weighed in between four and eight pounds -- nothing worthy of a weigh-in -- and the catches drew steady boat traffic, which turned off the bite.
We worked various drifts up river, mainly in Devils Hole, netting 18-20 trout, including a brown and a laker, and kept five for filleting. The biggest fish may have nudged nine pounds, but all three of the winning steelies passed the 12-pound mark.
And all the winners came later in the day from the same drifts we worked and left earlier that morning. Fishing guru Gary Roach says, "You don't leave fish to find fish." Our problem was getting over fish willing to bite the minnows, egg sacks and Kwikfish we sent down through surface ice floes.
It was a good day for catch numbers. At the cleaning station, I chatted with many anglers. All boaters I met had at least a few fish and the charter guys averaged 10-20 fish totals.
Top two honors went to a crew of regulars from southeastern New York; most of these anglers have fished the NRAA contest regularly since 2000.
Mike Reeves of Warwick took first with a 12-pound, 10-ounce steelie. Reeves, fishing with Capt. Ted Kessler of Rivermaster Charters, hooked his prize fish a half-hour before the contest's end.
Robert Grant, from Morro, fished with Capt. Chris Cinelli and came in a close second with a 12-pound, 6-ounce entry.
Shannon Santee of Avon, Ohio, landed a close third-place finisher at 12 pounds, 3 ounces.
March may come in like a lion or a lamb, the St. Patty's Day Parade weather may be delightful or dank, but the steelie tournament marks a rite of winter's passage and the start of springtime fishing fun -- with or without an ongoing competition and a boat full of pranksters.