Niagara River Steelhead And Salmon

Niagara Falls is one tourist spot that is not over-hyped. The sheer force of a river flowing at a rate of 1-1/2-million gallons per second suddenly plunging 182 feet is awesome!

Even though it’s a long day’s drive from where I live, it draws my family to see it often. But I have to admit, there’s a second reason we make the trip: fishing!

Though it is only 36 miles long as it flows from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, the Niagara River may well be the single best fishing spot in the United States! That’s a bold statement, but few who have fished here extensively would dispute it. I’ve been visiting the Niagara for more than 20 years now, and on every trip I’m amazed at the quality of the sport it provides.

Unlike many seasonal fishing destinations, the Niagara River offers basically a 12-month a year smorgasbord of angling delights. During warm weather, the river dishes out superb smallmouth, walleye, yellow perch, white perch, white bass, muskie, and rock bass fishing. In the late fall and winter, though, it’s the cold-water species that are biting.

Starting in September and running right through April, steelhead, king salmon, brown trout, and lake trout are the species of choice for Niagara River anglers.

Joe Cinelli (left) admires a handsome steelhead from the Niagara caught by his brother, Chris.
Joe Cinelli (left) admires a handsome steelhead from the Niagara caught by his brother, Chris.

One of the best anglers to ever wet a line in the river is Joe Cinelli, a long-time guide on the Niagara and life long resident of Grand Island, which sits in the middle of the river. I’ve shared a boat with Cinelli many times, but a recent visit in mid-winter gave a good example of what you can expect on this fertile fishery.

Huge chunks of ice floated in the clear 32-degree F. river as we eased away from the dock. The air temperature was in the single digits, but no wind was blowing.

“Great day!” Joe shouted over the roar of the outboard.

And he meant it. There was no wind, no snow, and the temperature was above zero.

Shooting upstream in the Lund boat, we soon reached Devil’s Hole, the closest point below the famous falls that a person can reach in a fishing boat because of the danger and raw power of the rapids and plunging currents.

Cinelli’s brother, Chris, joined us and he was the first to strike pay dirt as we drifted with egg sacs kept on the bottom with pencil lead sinkers. His quarry fought hard, leaping once, but soon an 11-pound hen steelie, bright and silver, was in the boat. I connected next on an 8-pound male, and then Joe followed with a fish of his own, a mammoth migratory rainbow of 13 pounds.

We kept a couple of fish to eat, but released most of our fish as the morning wore on and the steelhead continued to bite. Later Joe took us downstream were we drifted for lake trout and added several of those brawlers to the catch, plus one plump brown trout. We even experimented with yarn egg flies instead of bait and took a number of steelhead on those offerings, but had to use spin gear instead of fly tackle because of the depth and speed of the current.

By quitting time, we had caught an incredible 30 steelhead, seven lake trout and one brown. In many areas, 30 steelhead would be a good catch for an entire season! Here we had done it in one eight-hour session! Admittedly, that was my best day ever for steelheading with Cinelli, but he says it’s typical to catch six- to 10 fish a day for the boat, with higher numbers definitely possible.

Steelhead fishing begins in October, heats up strong in November and peaks in late January or February. Fish can still be caught right into April, however, and lake trout come on strong in that month.

Prime drifts for steelhead include Stella, Jackson, Pine, Art Park, Fort Niagara, and Devil’s Hole. You can also catch some steelhead above the falls in the rapids along the Robert Moses Parkway and across from North Tonawanda. The lower water below the falls, however, offers the best fishing of all.

Author with a 20-pound king salmon taken on a trip in late August.
Author with a 20-pound king salmon taken on a trip in late August.

I was a bit late on the trip mentioned earlier for the salmon, but on previous trips in the fall we had hammered those big bruisers. From September through November, hordes of massive king salmon are in the river on their spawning run and will clobber big gobs of eggs or drifted plugs such as the Luhr Jensen K11 Kwikfish. Amazingly, these fish average more than 20 pounds apiece!

The Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole are the top spots for king salmon drifting with plugs or eggs. You need a 1- to 1-1/2- ounce sinker on a three-way rig to keep the bait right on the bottom as you drift in the current. It’s also important to control the speed of the boat with the electric motor so you don’t go too fast. The same technique applies for steelhead and lakers.

Trolling with Bomber Model A’s or J-Plugs is another tactic you can use for salmon, but it’s usually only possible early in the morning or you’ll interfere with the other boats that are drift fishing.

Fishing with a guide is definitely a good idea on the Niagara, since the waters can be dangerous and super cold. The best techniques are also specialized to this river and an experienced guide can help you pick them up more quickly than if you tried to figure them out on your own.

Some shore fishing is possible at various points along the river for steelhead and salmon. The Devil’s Hole, Art Park, Whirlpool State Park, and Fort Niagara as well as the New York Power Authority fishing platform are all good spots to try. Use eggs sacs or spoons and spinners such as the Acme K.O. Wobbler Spoon and Blue Fox Super Vibrax Classic Spinner.

Making The Trip
For more information on fishing the Niagara River, contact:

New York State Tourism Division: 800/CALL-NYS,

Niagara County Tourism, 800-338-7890.

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