On a day when many of us are giving thanks for what we have, Gary Laidman of South Wales is giving thanks for what he had two weeks ago when he caught a magical musky in the upper Niagara River. It was a personal best that by all estimations, and tipped the scale around 54 pounds. It was a fish of a lifetime and he knows it.
It started with a scheduled trip with Capt. Chris Cinelli of Grand Island, a veteran captain of 23 years.
“I’ve been chartering Chris for six years,” said Laidman. “We (with Dan Ettipio of Tonawanda) usually drift the lower Niagara River for trout and walleye in the winter and for trout in the spring. It’s just easier than running my own boat.”
Three years ago, Laidman started fishing for muskellunge with Cinelli, an elusive river monster that tends to get into your blood once you catch one. On Oct. 30 of this year, Laidman caught a personal-best 48-inch fish that was estimated at 40 pounds. He was proud of the trophy, a special fish that made it into the Catch of the Week Online Gallery for this paper. The story didn’t end there.
The morning of Nov. 14 was a near-perfect musky fishing day. Launching out of Blue Water Marina on Grand Island, Cinelli was excited to be on the water. Conditions were near perfect, which is not always the case in November. As we pulled away from the dock, a flock of swans erupted from the adjacent bay, a spectacular sight. We tried to catch up with them for a photo, but they were too fast.
As we set up for the first drift, Cinelli explained how we were going to fish for the musky. Letting a slight breeze out of the southwest move us along with the river current, we had three rods that bounced bottom with 3-way rigs. We were fishing live bait through a Quick Strike rig that Cinelli made. His hooks are Gamakatsu worm hooks in size 1/0. His leader is 20-pound test Seaguar fluorocarbon and his main line is 20-pound test Berkley Big Game monofilament. A trailing blade acts as an attractor.
The bait really made a difference on this trip. Two of the rods were rigged with large common shiners or rudd that Cinelli catches in the river. One rod was set up with a sucker that he purchased through a local bait dealer at $4 each from North Dakota. That can get a little pricey, but he knows what works when this bait is available with over two decades of musky fishing experience.
Within five minutes, Laidman had his first fish on. Yes, it was on the sucker. He fought the fish for five minutes and managed to get a glimpse of it when it was near the boat as Cinelli waited with net in hand. As quick as the fish was on, it was off again, swimming away to one of its local hangouts. Cinelli and Laidman looked at each other and shrugged. “That’s fishing.”
We hadn’t seen another boat on the water as we took drift after drift. Nearby diver ducks were flying the river all around us. The wind had died and Cinelli said to reel in – we were going to a different spot.
Many muskies will move into the river this time of year to winter over and seek food sources. His next spot was near Strawberry Island. As we pulled into the spot, we could see a bald eagle sitting in the trees, watching us. It was near an established nest on the island, but earlier reports said that the birds evacuated due to pressure from cormorants. Let’s hope the eagles stick around and re-inhabit the nest this spring.
After a couple of drifts, the majestic bird flew across the river and we all stopped what we were doing. We were blessed to be able to fish under the watchful eye of our national symbol.
On the next drift, Laidman watched the sucker rod take a hit. He quickly grabbed the rod and when the time was right, set the hook. “Fish on.”
This fish was no slouch. He battled the lunker all around the boat as Cinelli readied the net. At one point, Cinelli had to grab the bow mount trolling motor because the line was perilously close. In fact, as he pulled the motor up, the line was starting to wrap around the shaft of the motor. It quickly became untangled.
The fish was under the boat now and Laidman was extending his rod out as far as he could to keep the line away from the side of the aluminum Lund. One nick and the line would break. Cinelli shoved the trolling motor back into the water and maneuvered to safety again. We still hadn’t seen the fish.
Slowly, the fish (and Laidman) began to tire. It was coming to the surface and the side of the boat.
“Honestly, I was in disbelief when I saw the fish,” insisted Cinelli. “I thought it was going to be longer, but I was not disappointed by any means. It was the heaviest fish that I’ve personally ever seen.”
The fish was in the net and they let out a cheer. When they hauled the fish into the boat, their first reaction was a big hug of jubilation and excitement. A quick measurement showed that it was 48 inches long, which was the same length Laidman caught two weeks before. However, the girth on this fish was 30 inches. This was a big fish.
We took a couple quick photos and got the fish right back in the water. Laidman was shaking he was so excited. It took him a couple of minutes to calm down.
In the meantime, Cinelli punched in the Musky Hunter website on his phone and plugged in the dimensions of the fish into the formula to determine fish size. “It says 54 pounds,” he shouted.
“I can’t beat that fish,” said Laidman. “Let’s go bass fishing.”
Cinelli switched his rods around and pulled out the light bass tackle with 8-pound test line. He motored back to where we started in the morning. Laidman immediately hit a fish on the first drift. “This is a nice bass,” he insisted.
Only it wasn’t a bass. He was excited again when it saw it was another big musky. Not as big as the one he caught earlier, but still respectable. He fought the fish until it was close enough for Cinelli to net. This one was 36 inches long and hooked perfectly in the front of the mouth so that the line was away from the sharp teeth of the fish. What a day it was for both Laidman and Cinelli.
If you would like more information on Cinelli, call 479-2812. If you would like to find out more information about muskellunge and musky fishing, join the Niagara Musky Association. This dedicated group meets the first Tuesday of the month (Dec. 3) at the Eldredge Club, 17 Broad Street, Tonawanda, starting at 7 p.m.
Start your own magical musky tour on the Niagara.