Like Lake Erie bass and Lake Ontario salmon runs, lower Niagara River steelhead trout fishing have gotten local and national attention.
Steelies move into the lower river in the fall and can hold in water currents into June for boaters and shore anglers alike.
While most streams, ponds and inland lakes are frozen over, anglers can access open-water trout fishing in the lower river virtually throughout the cold-water fishing season.
Thursday was just one of those golden days for midwinter steelhead fishing. Charter Captain Frank Campbell and three other guides key on these fish throughout the hunting and fishing seasons along the Devil's Hole to Fort Niagara drifts.
Campbell had been planning a drift trip with Niagara Gazette outdoor scribe Bill Hilts Jr. and me for a few weeks now, but murky waters muddied our plans. Until Lake Erie freezes over, river waters can be riled. Salmon and trout move into the river, but fish won't bite what they can't see.
Finally, on Wednesday afternoon Campbell called to put together an iffy-maybe trip to see if we could get somewhere over the rainbows.
Duck season, which goes until today, has many guides and hunters working lower river waters. By the time I got to the Lewiston launch ramp, six trailer rigs were parked and a couple of more were about to launch.
With a wind chill of 3 degrees at sunrise, cold could be a factor, but a slight south wind and direct sunlight made this outing a comfortable run, with good clothes layering and warm boots and headgear.
As many times as I've fished the lower river in a boat, I continue to marvel at the dexterity and determination of shore casters. Not the adventurous shore-caster type, I watch shore anglers as we drift down current.
Just two casters took up positions on the high side of Devil's Hole as we motored into good drift lanes in the hole. Other guides as well as Campbell had noticed that morning trips pick up as the morning progresses.
"I didn't do well until about 10 [a.m.]," said Capt. Jeff Draper of a Sunday morning trip in waters about as stained as we were seeing Thursday morning.
Draper, using mainly Kwikfish, ended up with more than 18 fish that morning, counting steelies and lake trout.
Capt. Chris Cinelli has been doing the same thing with egg sacks after noon. "We usually duck hunt early mornings and then hit the hole later in the day," Cinelli said of charters booked for both hunting and fishing.
Capt. Ted Kessler, another regular on winter steelie runs, mixes his lure offerings (egg sacks, minnows, and Kwikfish) to take nice numbers of trout.
The hit count for Campbell, Hilts and me started out slowly that morning. Hilts hooked the first steelie and Campbell landed the first trout just before the stroke of 10 a.m., what seemed a preferred feeding time for trout.
For file photo storage, Hilts got shots of all three trout species we hooked during that hour: steelhead, brown and lake trout. Given the water-clarity conditions, Campbell was pleased to finish off at noon with 10 fish on the line, eight or nine brought to a net that -- when out of the water 30 seconds -- froze into a bird cage-like ball.
Most of these fish weighed in at and above 5 pounds; none hit double figures on the scale. But when hooked they put up a fun fight. Steelies would make surface runs and leaps akin to a bonefish caught in some tropical flats. The lakers and browns would sound and try to pull hook, line and anglers straight to the bottom.
But no matter which fish hit, detecting that "strike" was more subtle than the suck-bite of a perch, crappie or other panfish. "Sometimes they just hang on the line and you will pick up their moves with the rod tip," Campbell said. So they did.
Except for the brown trout, which whacked an emerald shiner like some hungry smallmouth bass, all the fish Hilts and Campbell hooked and netted showed nothing more than a hang bite -- until a good hook set had them headed up or down stream.
This fishery continues through the winter and well into spring. As waters clear, the lower river steelie run, which also includes browns and lakers, will get even better.
"A good day will have 20-30 fish on the line; this was an above-average day for water conditions," Campbell said of our three-hour tour.
For a fishing update and charter-fishing options, check with Capt. Campbell, Niagara Region Charter Service, at 523-0013; Capt. Chris Cinelli, Cinelli's Niagara Fishing Guides, at 479-2819; Capt. Jeff Draper, Draper Sport Fishing, at 479-2634; or Capt. Ted Kessler, Rivermaster Charters, at 725-8955.