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Lower Niagara River Fishing Tips  For Newbies [And tough guys too]

Back to "Niagara River Winter Steelhead"

Pick the Right Gear - Attention Steelheaders! Bill Hilts Jr.

Beginning of winter in Niagara. First and foremost, you have to be dressed for the part. Layers of clothing are the way to go, keeping that warmth in as much as possible. There are days when you can be overdressed, so being able to take off some of those clothes can be just as important. And no matter how cold it can get – remember that water flowing down through is pegged at 32 degrees – when you are catching fish, it just doesn’t seem to feel all that cold.

Thanks to a new law that was enacted in 2009, all boaters (21 feet or less) are now required to wear a personal flotation device from November 1 through May 1 – unless you are on a charter boat. Charter vessels are exempt from this new legislation. That said, it’s still not a bad idea either way. We do recommend fishing with a charter person your first time or two on the river to learn the ropes. Capt. Frank Campbell actually provides survival suits for his customers as an added precaution – and to help keep his clients warm. It’s food for thought. If you are uncomfortable, you won’t have a good “total experience.” His personal touches keep his customers coming back year after year.

For the fishing end of things, Campbell has some personal preferences that all contribute to his success. For example, his choice of rod allows him to catch more fish. “I use a Quantum Tour Edition seven and a half foot medium action rod with a soft tip. I’ve found that the fish will like to hang on to a bait for a period of time and the soft rod tip will help keep the fish available to customers longer. A stiffer tip will let the fish feel the resistance sooner, causing them to let go of the bait offering, whatever that may be – such as egg sacks, single eggs, egg imitations like yarn balls, or live bait like minnows. More on that a bit later. The rod also has slightly larger guides that will not freeze up as quickly in the cold.

The next most important component is the reel. Campbell’s personal preference is a Quantum Energy baitcasting reel, outfitted with eight pound test Cajun fluorocarbon line. “I use fluorocarbon line for the visibility factor, especially when the water is clear,” insists Campbell. “I also don’t get as much line stretch, so it helps with the hook set. And when the water becomes super clear, I’ll drop my leader off the three-way down to six pound test and even extend the leader a foot or two.

A three-way rig is the tried and true method for taking these trout in the winter. Using a three-way swivel, they will extend a leader off the trailing eye five to seven feet back before they attach the bait. Off the bottom eye is a foot of leader with some type of a weight attached. For winter fishing, Campbell prefers starting out with a one ounce pencil lead. If the water is really clear and he needs to get the bait away from the boat, he’ll trim that lead down – sometimes in half – to get the presentation required to catch fish. He may have to add weight if he’s fishing in deeper water, again another consideration when facing clear conditions.

“In the winter, when the ice bridge forms below Niagara Falls and Lake Erie has frozen over, water clarity becomes an issue,” says Campbell, who also serves as co-chairman of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation’s Board of Directors. “We have to adapt to those clear conditions by downsizing our bait, lightening up our line and fishing a bit deeper water. My hook size could be as small as a No. 12, down from the normal No. 6 or 8 that I will use. Last year, one of my best baits when the water was clear was a single salmon egg treated with Pautzke natural cure*. It gave the egg a nice orange tint to it and I would put that single egg into a sack. It seemed to make a difference for me.” Knowing what the fish want on any given day seems to be an intuition that Campbell has. Then again, being on the water almost every single day doesn’t hurt either. “Keep a good supply of different baits on your boat,” reflects Campbell, “from minnows and yarn balls to egg sacks and Kwikfish. I can’t be caught without something that will work on any given day.”



Niagara River Tips and Tactics Continued .......

Presenting your fish offerings in a way that’s appealing to the fish is critical for consistent success. “You have to figure out what the fish want based on the conditions – be it clear water or wind direction,” says Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charters. “Often it’s both. Boat control is essential for catching fish.” Boat control is one of the biggest “secrets” to catching fish when drifting the Niagara River for trout – how fast you drift, what it’s doing to your bait, whether your boat needs to be turned sideways or into the current, to name but a few. One of the hot lures on the river is a Kwikfish. Similar to a flatfish, these banana-type baits give a wobbling motion that trigger trout to hit. Last year, with quite a bit of wind from the south or southwest, those baits were on fire for all trout – steelhead, browns and lake trout. Wind from these directions will push you down the river and give these baits the motion required to make them most effective. However, every one of the boats (Campbell operates a 21-foot deep V aluminum Lund boat, the preferred choice on the Niagara) that fish these waters for hire have a bow-mount trolling motor. If a northerly wind is holding you up, you can always pull yourself along and increase your speed to adjust and make just about any bait work for you.

Best sizes for Kwikfish are K-8 and K-9. Top colors are silver, silver-blue, silver-green, silver-pink, silver-chartreuse and gold, again depending on the conditions of the water. Most of the guides will remove the set of treble hooks on the belly of the lure, especially if catch and release is practiced. And like the other baits, a three-way rig is used with a slightly shorter leader. Maintaining contact with the bottom is important to keep your offerings in the prime fish zone on all accounts.

When wind isn’t as much of a factor, the trolling motor can be used to keep your boat sideways. Egg presentations are normally the same speed as the current or slightly faster, so keeping your line perpendicular to the bottom can be a factor – but not always. “Stay away from the pack of boats and find active fish on your own,” says Campbell. “If you can find active fish, you can stay on them all day and not be bothered by anyone else. And you can find fish throughout the river, from Lewiston all the way down to the mouth on the Niagara Bar and all points in between. Because this is a shared resource with the Province of Ontario, having a Canadian fishing license is a bonus, opening up new waters when the conditions require flexibility. However, you can get away with just a New York license just fine.”

So just how good is the Niagara? Like with any kind of fishing, there are no guarantees. On the Niagara, an average day for Campbell is to expect at least double digit hook-ups. You won’t catch that many every time out, but you should have that opportunity all things considered. There are days when you can catch two or three times that. The average size for a steelhead trout is six to eight pounds, but Campbell sees a good number of fish over 10 pounds. His biggest steelhead to date was a 22 pound lunker. Brown trout average four to six pounds and his biggest fish to date was a 30 pound monster. Lake trout average eight to ten pounds and his biggest so far has been a 35 pound behemoth.


Hope this guideline helps the ones just getting started!

This article with the following tips may help some fishermen and yet there are others that use their own methods quite successfully. This is meant as a general guideline to help “newbies” get started. The riggings here have proved to be quite successful with many seasoned Niagara River fishermen. There are more tips on this page so be sure to read them all! There are other articles and pages on this website that offer some great inside information on fishing the Mighty Niagara. Lines and leaders depend on whom you are asking. Most everyone fishes something similar. 

For Chinook [Kings] a good generalization would be 14 to 17 pound line from your rod, and some even use 20# line. Remember the heavier the line, the more water resistance and more weight required. Leader off the 3-way swivel to the bait would run 8 to 9 feet depending on the length of your fishing rod and if you are using egg sacks or skein. That will allow your bait to move freely and more natural. If using the favorite hard bait like Kwikfish lures, shorten up on the leader maybe to 5 to 7 feet. The leader line weight should be 14-15# or less depending on your rod length etc. clear mono, or a lot of river fishermen are using the new, thinner, stronger fluorocarbon lines. The line off your drop pencil sinker should be 8 to 10 inches and 8 or 10 pound test mono so you can break off easily in case of a snag. Sinker weight varies with the wind and the current. Generally start around 1 to 1 1/2 ounce, Pencil sinker. Pencil sinkers can be cut to size the way you want with a pair of side cutters or most needle-nose pliers have a cutter on them.

Tips on Steelhead, Lakers, Browns, etc.

Basically, rigging the same way you would for Kings will provide super results but DO lower your line poundage tests on your rod line, [suggest 8-10#] leader line [6-8#] and your drop sinker leader [6-8#] accordingly. Pencil sinkers can start at 1 ounce or less. In all cases, make sure you are either on the bottom or just inches above it.  Niagara River Winter Steelhead offers some of the most fabulous steelie fishing in the United States.

Pay Attention:

  • Always use good line and good knots; especially pay attention to the fluorocarbon line knots.
  • The fluorocarbon lines are good but it lacks the elasticity required sometimes that is needed with big fish and light lines, light rods, and strong currents. Using it for leaders to your bait is a real asset because of its thinness. But make sure you go light.
  • A good trolling motor can be a great asset by helping you control your drifts.
  • Pencil sinkers help reduce the loss of conventional sinkers, therefore reducing the need to keep tying another rig every time you lose a weight. Especially in cold weather! Pencil sinkers come in different sizes and weights. Start with 1 ounce or 1 1/2 ounce and work from there.
  • In cold weather most fishermen will have their rigs all rigged to go BEFORE getting on the water
  • Always remember: Practice Safe Catch and Release!

Shore Fishermen Tips;

  • There are many shore fishing opportunities, and number one would be at the New York Power Authority fishing dock/pier. A long walk down to the dock but you can drive down and have someone drop you off or pick you up. DO NOT park your car there. There is parking provided at the top. You could be in for a heap of stink by parking below. There is very limited handicap parking below for those that need it. Always be courteous to the boat fishermen drifting by, even though some of them don’t seem to reciprocate, they are busy too.
  • Devil’s Hole State Park allows for a great fishing experience but is for the hardy and young at heart. There is a long climb down a set of stairs cut into the rock shale. Hauling a 25-pound salmon up is no fun either. But the fishing can be the greatest of all. By all means, do not go there without a camera. The scenery is just beautiful and trying to explain what you saw is not as good as the picture. Even a picture of your catch and release fish with the background of the river is worth framing. Fall is really exciting.
  • In Lewiston, go to the Artpark parking lot [free for fishermen] and walk towards the river. [Follow signs] There is access that will take you to some really nifty shore fishing. A long trail and well worth the price you pay for the walk. You will see the favorite spots to fish on the trail by the way the area looks along the shore. Some will be really beaten down from others using those spots. Again, don’t forget the camera.

OK. Shore fishermen. What baits do you use? Tough question. Everybody has their own favorite but some true, long-standing favorites are heavy spoons, spinners and egg sacks or skein. NOTE: all these lures and methods work super if fishing off Olcott Pier and up stream from there.

[See Photos Below]  Spoons could be Little Cleos, mostly silver with a blue stripe 2/5 ounce or K.O. Wobbler Spoons. Spinners, could be Super Vibrax in sizes 4 or 5. Blade colors used are mostly silver, the body colors vary, but silver, florescent green, or chartreuse are good choices. Florescent red has been known to be a potent color on some days. Egg Sacks and/or Skeins are tough to beat some days and at certain times in the Fall. They can be bought at your local independent tackle dealer. Your independent tackle dealer KNOWS what is hot. Your clerk in the big box stores are there to draw a paycheck and need a sale to justify their job. Always support your local tackle dealer, there are only a few left!

Spoons and spinners are best if used without snap swivels but we suppose you could if you are into changing your lure sizes and colors frequently. Tie directly on the end of your line and cast up river, about at the 10 o’clock direction and allow the bait to drift down to about the 2 o’clock angle and reel ‘er in, hopefully with that big fish! Do the same with egg sacks/skein or single eggs sometimes. But now you need weight. Three-way swivels rigged like the boat fishermen will work or better yet, use a split shot of suitable weight pinched up the line. The split shot should be up the line far enough to allow the eggs to drift naturally.

K.O. Wobbler Spoon     3/4 ounce

Super Vibrax Spinner Use #4's or #5's


Acme's Little Cleo ~ Use 2/5 ounce in this color or the ever popular NNB color [Nickel Neon Blue]

Kwikfish  ~ A "Banana Bait" used just like the other popular "Flatfish"

Typical # K-9 Kwikfish used for drift fishing the Niagara - This is the popular Silver color - It is available in all kinds of colors & patterns. Popular colors are silver with blue scale sides, silver/pink, silver/green, silver/chartreuse. In many sizes but sizes K8, K9, K11, the good sizes with K9 being the most popular. Kwikfish rigging is done basically just like rigging a Yellow Sally or egg sack/skein presentation with the 3-way swivel and drop sinker. Wind, wind direction and current are critical for proper presentation. 

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