Contestants saw many impressive brown trout, and they hooked into steelhead trout during the Niagara River Anglers Association Steelhead Contest.
The contest held on the lower Niagara River, Lake Ontario and its tributaries began at sunrise on Feb. 18 with the surprises typical of each year's contest day.
For more than 25 years, NRAA has staged this one-day contest, and each one presents entrants with a different view of the river and lake when the sun rises over the east bank at Lewiston.
In years past, anglers have seen packed ice floes, gin-clear waters, harsh winds, snow and rainfall. This year, the Friday run had been good for charter captains and recreational anglers fishing in clear waters and logging nice catches of steelies and browns.
The fall and winter trout season, in general, has been exceptional in the lower river for both steelies and browns. The brown trout fishery has improved so much that NRAA officials this year wisely added an additional brown trout winner-take-all pot along with an entry for catching one of the three heaviest steelhead that day. Good thing.
This year's sunrise surprise came in the form of stained waters river wide. High winds crossing Lake Erie the day before stirred up waters that eventually reached the lower river and stayed stained on the river and out onto the Niagara Bar all that day.
Usually, when river waters are muddied, the top three NRAA winning fish come from Lake Ontario tributaries. The steelie run -- and increased numbers of brown trout -- has been up and down in the tribs this year, and that Saturday stream waders just did not bring on the bite.
Neither did most boaters fishing the lower river. In fact, shore anglers casting a bobber/float often saw more steelies than boaters able to work the width of the river from Devil's Hole down current to Fort Niagara and out onto the bar.
"When the water gets dirty, the fish [trout and salmon] tend to hug the edges and shoreline anglers often do better than the boaters," said charter Captain Chris Cinelli at the Lewiston Landing fish cleaning station after the competitions.
Cinelli's clients took a half dozen steelies -- more than most boaters that day -- with none in the money. But one client on board, Tom Hippler of Sloatsburg, hooked into a nice 8.70-pound brown at midmorning and that fish finished first among the 66 entrants vying for the $320 brown trout pot.
Stiff northwesterly breezes slowed the drift, but promised rain and snowfall held off throughout the day. Anglers could not blame the elements -- wind, rain and snow -- this time. Stained waters muddied things for the 88 anglers signed up for this contest.
For several years now, we have made a routine run with Capt. Frank Campbell and two good friends from the Seneca-Cayuga lakes region. John DeLong regularly fishes the river with Campbell; John Keeler, president of Hazlitt Vineyards in Hector, also fishes area and Finger Lakes streams and lakes when he is not bow hunting for area deer or South Africa plains game.
In years past we have had contest days with 20 or more fish caught and released. One year a member of Campbell's boat crew took first place. This year, we did not boat a single steelie.
Two lake trout up in Devil's Hole and a most unusual catch near the Ontario power plant -- Campbell hooked and released a four-pound smallmouth bass -- constituted our morning's catch. One respectable brown trout in the five-pound range took a minnow about a half hour before the contest ended.
Many boaters offered similar reports. Paul Jackson, NRAA president, noted after the awards dinner, "The fishing was tough in the river and streams, with many top fishermen going empty handed." Nonetheless, the dinner at the 3-F Club in Lewiston and the catches seen earlier this season had many entrants commenting that they would be back for next year's contest.
Dan Wise of West Seneca fished from shore at Devil's Hole to bring in the first-place fish, a 10.08-pound steelie. Norm Deitrick of Haverford, Pa., finished second with a 10-pound entry. Dan Collville from West Seneca was third with a 9.74-pound trout.
Curiously, the stain continued on Sunday, the day after the contest. But by Monday and Tuesday the bite was back in the river and so-so in the streams. Campbell and other charter captains had clients hook into several steelies weighing in well above winning entry pounds.
Same stories have been heard this past week of the brown trout bite in the river and out on the bar. For recreational anglers, this lower river trout run -- when waters clear -- will be continued fun. For steelie contest entrants, next year?