Exclusively on Outdoors Niagara!

Introduction: Within these pages, lifelong resident, fisherman,  hunter and outdoorsman,  Mike Gillis will bring you true and daring stories of what he has experienced  or stories that have been handed down to him relating to the Niagara River Region. Fact or Fiction, you will find the stories on these pages interesting, some intriguing, and stories worthwhile sharing.

Mike Gillis

Email Mike Gillis

The River Heard Me Cry

Blue Pike Story
A remnant from the past?
Halloween in the
Outdoors of Niagara
The Old Fisherman
at the Landing
SMELT - Catch, Clean, Cook!
Niagara Critter Encounters The Lake Sturgeon Strange Tales of the Niagara I Remember Old Charlie
Niagara Coyote Story
[Turn your speakers on]
Varmints Around our House Fishing the Niagara River at Night  Adventures in Smelting Sounds of the Night

Smelt, Catching, Cleaning and Cooking


The smelt is an oily fish. Years ago people would catch them and use them like candles to light their shelters. The odor of the burning smelt was really bad, and thatís how they got their name. They smelt. Errr, just kidding. Actually smelt were introduced to Lake Superior around 1940 and spread through the Great Lakes reaching Lake Ontario in the late 40ís or early 50ís. I now believe that smelt are a large part of the reason that the blue pike disappeared, smelt eating their eggs and over fishing.

The smelt are stimulated to stage and run upstream from their winter habitat in the lake to spawn when the water temperature reaches about 42 degrees F. The most common method used for catching them is by using a stiff screened cone shaped net on the end of a long pole. The opening of the net is faced down stream and the stiff screen maintains the netís shape against the strong current. Smelt are netted mostly at night due to the much stronger run after dark. Netted smelt are then dumped into a bucket or other container. The limit in New York State is 8 quarts per person. And believe me, a DEC Officer may very well show up to check that you havenít gone over that and that you do have your fishing license on you.

After catching the smelt and keeping them fresh at a cold temperature the fish are cleaned using the following method. The easiest way to do this is with a sharp scissors. Cut the head off from the top down behind the gills at an angle so as to remove the pectoral fins also. Smelt do not need to be scaled or skinned. The dorsal fin and tail may be left on. Cut a slit down the belly to the anus. Using a spoon or your thumbnail scrape the innards out of the smelt and dispose. Make sure you also scrape the black stuff off which is clinging to the spine. Rinse thoroughly in water. The smelt may be frozen at this point if you are not going to cook them soon.

Some people make a batter using egg, milk, beer and flower to dip the cleaned smelt in for deep frying. I usually just dip the wet smelt in some flower with maybe some salt and pepper in it. Itís best to use oil with high smoke points like peanut, sunflower or canola oil. Heat the oil to ~375 degrees and carefully drop the smelt in and cook for around 3 minutes or until golden brown. Throw the cooked smelt in a bowl or on a plate with paper towels on it to absorb excess cooking oil. (Warning, you may smell up the house if doing this in your kitchen.)

And now the reward. Crack open a container of your favorite beverage. Some people like to dip them in catsup (ketchup) by I like to dip them in cocktail sauce which is ketchup, horseradish and a touch of lemon juice. Munch on out!


NOTE: There is no size limit on the net you use for dipping smelt in the NIAGARA RIVER or TRIBS. There is an 8 quart daily limit which is strictly enforced.

The Old Fisherman at the Landing

Iím not that young anymore, but I feel young. Today I got my fishing gear together and drove down to the Lewiston Landing.  I set up my chair and put some minnows on my rig in hopes of maybe catching  some perch for lunch.  Perch are the most delicious fish you can catch in the Niagara River.

               A Cadillac pulled up and parked in the handicapped parking spot. The door opened and there was a gray haired older guy trying to climb out of his car, so I went over and helped him. He had his chair and fishing gear. I got him settled on the dock and got his line in the water, and then we got to talking. When we started, he told me his wife is in a nursing home with Alzheimerís, then the conversation went from one thing to another.

               I fished the sand docks, now called the Lewiston Landing, when I was a young boy. Now Iím back doing it again. I brought my chair over and sat next to the elderly man, and being not so young myself, older people have a whole lot of good tales to tell. We got talking, and our conversation led to our time in the military. Me, being a Viet Nam era Navy man, he was a WWII Marine. He fought in Iwo Jima, and told me about going ashore from one of those landing crafts. He and his fellow Marines were extremely scared, as the enemy bullets were flying from their machine guns, only meant to kill our soldiers. Their fear was justified; several of his fellow Marines were cut down around him. He could see the bullets hit the sand around him as they rushed the beach.  The old Marine said that memory never leaves you, and now you wake up in a cold sweat just dreaming about it, hoping that youíre not still there. I think they call it shell shock, or maybe post stress traumatic syndrome.  After several of our young men died, the American Flag was lifted high on Iwo Jima. Youíve seen the pictures. War is hell.

               Our conversation drifted back to fishing, and how beautiful it is sitting on the shore of the Niagara River, even if the fish didnít cooperate. All the WWII Marine caught was a red finned sucker, and this Viet Nam Navy man  only caught a couple of those pesky gobies.  It was fun though.

               My dad died last year, a tanker, in the Army under General Patton and proudly, I have his medals on display on my living room wall, he was there when they blew the swastika off of Nuremberg Stadium.

               Iím trying to make a good habit of going fishing every weekend. I have a boat, but sometimes itís just fun to go shore fishing because you get to meet and talk with people. When the weather cooperates, and itís nice outside, shore fishing is like living in paradise and maybe the next time you go fishing and you see an elder sitting there, go shoot the breeze with him. You may be pleasantly surprised at how enriching an experience it could be, and next Memorial Day, remember the guys who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our country the free and wonderful place that it is. God bless America.


The River Heard Me Cry
By Mike Gillis

When I was about nine years old, I really wanted to go fishing. It was the beginning of Summer vacation. I didn't have a fishing pole and didn't have any money to buy one. My parents were on a tight budget and couldn't afford to buy me such things. My older brother had done some fishing with a really nice pole and reel he bought with his hard earned money from his paper route. It was one of those fiberglass poles with a bait casting reel on it. The reel had that strong black fishing line on it that must have been about 50 pound test. He was about 16 years old then. He didn't fish as much because of his interest in cars and horses. One day I got up the nerve to ask him if I could use his fishing pole. My brother really valued his possessions and took really good care of them. He said that I could use it, but I'd definitely have to be careful not to break it or lose it. I assured him that I would be very careful with it and return it to him when I was done.

I was really happy. I had a fishing pole to use and I was going to try some fishing. His pole already was bait rigged with a hook and a sinker. I didn't really know much about rigging a pole yet. That was something I learned as the years went on. I dug up some worms in the back yard and got some out from under some big rocks that were back there. I put my worms in an old soup can. I was ready to go fishing! I was excited.

Later that day, right after dinner, I was on my way down to the Lewiston Sand Docks. My mother and father told me to be careful down there. My older brother warned me again to be careful with his fishing pole. I grabbed the pole and worms and hopped on my bike. I was on my way!

I rode my bike down Oneida Street to the top of Suicide Hill as the local kids called it. I tore down the hill and hit my brakes at the bottom and took a sharp right. I coasted down the hill right down to the Sand Docks. I leaned my bike over against the silo. There were a few other people there fishing. I saw them pulling in an occasional small bass, perch, or a chub. I found a spot on the Northwest corner of the dock where nobody else was situated. I pulled a worm out of my bait can and impaled it on the fish hook. I tossed my line out into the water and let it sink to the bottom. I set my pole down on the dock so the tip was extended out over the edge. I anxiously waited for a bite. After a little while, I saw the tip of my pole jiggle. I had a nibble! I gently put my hand down on the pole and jerked it when it jiggled again, nothing. I missed it. I reeled my line in to find that my worm was gone. I put another worm on the hook and tossed my line off the corner of the dock and into the water once again. I set my pole down on the dock to await another bite.

Now, the current in the river going by the Sand Docks is kind of tricky. The current along the shoreline can be flowing north and the change to the back-current flowing south every several minutes. During this change the current varies in strength and direction.

While I was waiting for another bite, with my brother's pole set down on the dock, I heard a commotion behind me. One of the other fishermen had hooked into a decent sized fish and was reeling it in. I had to watch this! At the same time, the current was shifting from the back current to the northward current. I turned to look at my pole just in time to see it being dragged over the edge of the dock and into the water. The current was strong enough that I know it was going to be dragged quite a way into the river. My heart sank. I stood and stared at the water for I don't know how long, shattered.

It was starting to get dark and I knew that I had to go home. I was sad and dreaded the thought of returning home without my brother's fishing pole and having to tell him what happened. I was so heart broken I walked my bike to extend the time it took getting home, only to delay the inevitable. The darkness of the evening descended around me. Tears streamed down my face as I walked. This was the saddest day I ever had.

When I got home I just dropped my bike in the yard. I walked into the house, no fishing pole in hand. I had tears in my eyes. My parents and brother were sitting in the living room. I walked into the living room, crying. I told them what I happened. My brother, I could see, was angered. But he could see how upset I was, so said nothing. My parents could see how disappointed I was, but there was nothing to say that would have helped. The fishing pole was gone. I went to bed. Eventually, I fell asleep, knowing that my Summer of fishing was ruined.

The next day I slept in later than I normally did. I was awakened by my mother calling me. "Mike, your father wants to see you." I got up and went down stairs. My father was in the kitchen. He was holding this old broken down fishing outfit in his hands. "Here, as I was driving to work this morning I saw this in someone's garbage they were throwing out. You can use this. I had some old hooks and sinkers in my tool box, you can have these too."

I looked at it and quietly said thanks. It looked like something you'd expect to find in someone's garbage, garbage. It was one of those old black steel rods. It had a kink in it like it had gotten slammed in a door. The corroded reel had tangled black fishing line in it. I managed to straighten out the kink mostly. I oiled the reel and worked at getting it freed up so it would turn. I pulled a bunch of the string out and managed to get most of it untangled. It was nothing like my brother's nice pole and reel. I tied a sinker and a hook on the line like the ones had been on my brother's pole. I got a can out of the garbage and went into the back yard and found some worms. I hopped on my bike and headed back down to the river. My brother was working on his car in the driveway when I left.

When I arrived at the Sand Docks there were just a few people fishing. I leaned my bike against the silo. The spot where I had been fishing the evening before was vacant. I put a worm on my hook and heaved out my line. It went out quite a ways. I guess I had done a good job freeing up the reel. I didn't set the pole down this time. I held onto it. As I was waiting for a bite something pulled on my line. It was a slow pull, not like a bite. I yanked on my line and my pull bent really hard. Nuts! It was a snag. Something was snagged on the end of my line. I reeled and my line was coming in even though it was snagged onto something. I kept reeling and finally the object which I had hooked broke the surface. I couldn't believe it! It was my brother's fishing pole! I had gotten it back! I was stunned and gladdened at the same time. I took my brother's pole and the other old one and jumped on my bike. I rode home as fast as possible. My brother was still working on his car. "Look" I yelled. He looked up. "I got your pole back! Here." He looked at me and smiled and said "You can have it." I said "What?" "You can keep it, it's yours." He smiled and went back to work on his car. Wow, I couldn't believe it.

I spent a lot of time fishing with that pole that Summer. The mighty Niagara had seen my sadness and graciously returned it to me.


Halloween in the Outdoors of Niagara
By Mike Gillis


Halloween GraphicsThe clouds are dark. It is a dark and scary night. We see weird shapes in the sky. Ghosts ghouls and goblins are flying amongst the dark clouds in the sky. It is October and Halloween is coming. Bats are fluttering over our houses. Niagara ghosts are remembered. We hear the dark hooting of the owl and the distant haunting cry of the coyotes. It is the Halloween season in the Outdoors of Niagara!

The leaves are starting to change color. The browns and oranges and gold of autumn are starting to express themselves.

The wind howls and the drizzle comes down. And thoughts of the upcoming hunting season dominate our minds.  We take down our guns from the racks and clean and polish them. Soon we will take them out and shoot them to make sure they are properly sighted in. We make sure that we have enough ammo for the upcoming hunting season. We make sure that we are ready to make that scary walk out into the woods on that cold November morn in anticipation of pulling the trigger.

We are stocking up our woodpiles for our wood burning stoves. Or dreading the arrival of heating bills in the mail.

Many of us are hopefully enjoying the victories of the Bills, and the upcoming Sabres season.

The trout and salmon are running upstream. The nets are busy. Boaters are hauling in huge fish. Shore fishermen are bringing the big ones ashore. It is the harvest season.

The autumn brings on a certain feeling of melancholy. We have just raced through the joy of the warmth and sunshine of summer. It seems to go by faster and faster every year as we age. Now the flowers are starting to wilt. The leaves are turning and shall soon be falling leaving the haunting skeletal shapes of trees. Fall is a type of death. Summer is going through its death throes. Frost shall cover the pumpkins and the plants soon and kill them. The dead of winter will visit us soon. Snow shall bury the wild flowers which flourished during the past summer. And we know that we now shall endure a long winter. We shall endure a very long winter in which we once again look forward to the thaw and resurrection of life in the spring. We may see a snowy owl, which has ventured this far southward. Or maybe even a great gray owl which has come south from the Boreal Forest.

This is why I believe that Halloween has so many symbols of death and all that they represent. Because in the autumn, we are living with death. The death of the summer.

The animals feed more now to build up their fat reserves. They must survive the lack of food which winter brings. Like some ancient rite we hunters and fishermen enter the hunting and fishing harvest season to stock up food to survive the winter, as our ancestors did.

We of the Niagara area are hardy souls. We have survived many winters, some harsh, some not so harsh. Unlike bears, we do not hibernate. We keep warm. We heroically fight the snow. After Halloween comes the celebration of the harvest, Thanksgiving. We enjoy the fruits of the season. We celebrate.


Sounds Of The Night
By Mike Gillis

Snow Owl Photo by Kaitlyn Gillis....... Photo is of a snow owl photographed in Wilson NY at Camouflage Acres, and is a rare sight in Western New York

Click to enlarge

After a too long hard winter, a sound, which I welcome, is the sound of the spring peeper. When you hear that sound in late March or April, you know that nature is reawakening and spring is not far away. Soon the snow will melt and the clear water will flow down the streams and brooks towards the lake Those creatures that have been sleeping all winter will begin to awake. The honking sound of Canadian Geese is also a welcome sound. They are passing overhead on their long migration headed north to their breeding grounds for another warm season. Of course, many Canadian Geese will nest right here in the Niagara area.

Spring, summer and fall evenings are filled with the many sounds of the wildlife of our Niagara area. Winter nights are comparatively quiet. Although even on dark winter evenings there are animals out there being active.

One activity, which I enjoy during the warmer seasons is going outside when it is dark and listening to the sounds of the night. Turn off the TV and the stereo. Eliminate as many man made sounds as you can and go outside and have a seat. As you listen you will hear that there is a symphony going on, natureís symphony. Sometimes there are some really strange sounds that cannot be identified. Itís cool to know that there is some creature out there making this sound.

You can hear the sounds of many creatures. Listen closely, you may hear the eerie sound of the howling of a pack of coyotes. You may hear the chirps of bats as they fly over you consuming insects. You may hear some horrible sounds, like the squealing sound of a rabbit being killed by a predator, or the screaming sound of raccoons fighting. The night can be filled with the symphony of nature.

Mostly you will hear the sounds of frogs and insects. Thereís a really great website to identify the night sounds of frogs which you may hear. Hereís the web address: http://www.exploratorium.edu/frogs/tracker/index.html  Check it out, itís really fun. With your mouse you get to flash a flashlight out into the dark and when your bean hits a frog or a toad you will hear its sound. I havenít found any websites that are very good at identifying night insect sounds. If you know of any let me know. Most of the sounds that you hear at night are from insects, mostly crickets.

Of course, one type of creature, which is really intriguing, is the owl. These are truly incredible creatures. A really good website for identifying owl sounds is: http://www.owlpages.com/sounds.php  There are several owls which inhabit the Niagara area: the great horned owl, the barn owl, the screech owl, the saw whet owl and it has been reported that the great gray owl are among many of our area owls.


Niagara Critter Encounters

By Mike Gillis
Click on Pictures

One April night back in 1986 a couple of guys whom I worked with and I decided to go smelting after the 3-11 shift. We arrived at Artpark at around midnight. The parking lot was empty so nobody else was there. We put our waders on and got the nets and buckets and lantern out of the panther web.jpg (32227 bytes)back of the truck. As we proceeded towards the stairway we looked down over the bank to the shoreline. I shined my powerful flashlight to see if anything was down there. There was. I donít know what it was, but it resembled a Black Panther. It was scavenging along the shoreline. Probably eating dead smelt. Suddenly it looked up at us with itís glowing eyes. Then it let out this blood-curdling scream that echoed off the gorge walls. Then it ran northward down the river and out of our sight. We all looked at each other and almost in unison said, "ďWhat the hell was that?" I know what youíre thinking. Iím sure that there arenít any black panthers wandering the gorge. I didnít hear of any escaping from any regional zoos. Probably the nearest thing to a panther that has been in the gorge in the past hundred years is a puma. 

The nearest known wild puma around here inhabit the hilly woods in the southernmost southern tier and Pennsylvania . I thought maybe a wolverine? I think that wolverines let out a scream like that. And they are very clever and sly. They do predate at night. But I doubt that there is any known wolverine around the Niagara Area. I think the nearest wild wolverines are in the northern part of Ontario . It wasnít a fox or a coyote, though there are several of these predating along the Niagara River , because it didnít have a bushy tail. To this day, I donít know what that creature was.

We filled our buckets with smelt that night. We stayed pretty close together. No one wanted to go wandering off into the quiet and mysterious darkness.

Another creature encounter I had was also back in the mid eighties. Daryl and Kevin Balcolm and I put Darylís boat in at Fort Niagara early one Sunday morning. As we headed out toward Lake Ontario , we noticed what seemed to be a huge tree branch floating in the middle of the river. Upon closer inspection we saw that it was a huge whitetail buck. It must have been an eight pointer. So if anyone questions whether deer swim across the river between the states and Canada , I can assure you that I have witnessed it.

One scary critter encounter I had was on a hot summer day back in the mid sixties. My family was having a picnic at Whirlpool State Park . I wandered off by myself to walk down and look at the gorge. I found a nice grassy spot down near the railing to sit down. As I leaned back to take in timber rattler.jpg (35040 bytes)some sun I glanced over to the left of me. About five feet away there were two fat timber rattlesnakes coiled. They were taking in some sun too.  Needless to say, I didnít stick around there for very long. Of course, they probably disliked my company as much as I disliked theirs. Ií sure that there are still some rattlers and copperheads living in the more inaccessible parts of the gorge. They donít like to be where people are. But there is plenty of food for them, including river rats.

When I was a kid I used to walk down to the Lewiston Sand dock to go fishing. I would take and old railroad lantern with me because the fish and eels bit really well after dark. My black dog Butch would accompany me. Back then the dock was quite eroded and the Coloured cartoon of irate rat paddling a canoewater had created chambers beneath the concrete. These chambers made ideal homes for rats. In the shadows created by my lantern along the shoreline I would notice these black creatures sneaking out from beneath the dock and grabbing dead shiners from the waterís edge. Some of these rats were as big as cats, and Iím not exaggerating. My dog was a pretty big dog and a hunter. I felt safe, fishing there, as my protective dog scared away any rats that got too close to me. I live near the lake now. One day my cat dragged a rat as big as itself up to my yard from the shoreline.

The Niagara River and gorge is a beautiful life filled natural phenomenon. There are many kinds of amazing critters along its waters. Possibly some that nobody has ever encountered live there, successfully avoiding any detection by man.

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The Lake Sturgeon 
Mike Gillis

There are 25 species of sturgeon. Some of these species reach a length of 13 feet. Occasionally rumors of even larger ones are heard. The Atlantic Sturgeon, found along the coasts and in the rivers of the northeastern USA have been known to weight as much as 500 lb. Fossil remains of this prehistoric fish have been found dating from 54 to 40 million years ago, some of these have been up to 25 feet long.

The Lake Sturgeon were once very abundant in the Great Lakes. During the 1880's, however, their population was severely diminished by the high demand of the market. Through the years dam construction and habitat degradation have also had a severe effect.

Thanks to the classification as a protected species by New York State, strong public support for endangered species and environmental improvement of water purity and habitat conditions, the sturgeon is now making a comeback in the Great Lakes. More and more frequently, over the past few yers, I hear of sturgeon sightings by shore fishermen along the Niagara River.

The sturgeon is a bony fish, its skeleton is made up of cartilage, like sharks, skates and lampreys. It's mouth is a sucker-like projectile structure which can be retracted when the fish is not feeding. The fish spawns in May and June in clean shallow water, such as along the rivershore. A fifty pound fish can lay between 200,000 and 300,000 eggs, a 300-pounder up to 2 million. The growth rate is quite slow, a 25 pound fish taking 19 or 20 years.

According to outdoor columnist Joe Ognibene, around the turn of the century, a common way to catch sturgeon was to place a trot-line of several baited hooks just off the river shore overnight. The next day the lines would frequently have to be towed out of the water by using mules, the fish were so heavy. Often, the fish were transported to the market in Buffalo to be sold. Ron, of Mark's Tackle in Niagara Falls.

An old River Rat tells of his grandfather spearing sturgeon six and seven feet long in the Niagara gorge years ago. Of course, there's the tale of the fisherman being pulled in and drowned by a sturgeon, as I wrote about in the story below.

More recently, Joe Ognibene told me of two sturgeon which were pulled from the trash racks of the Power Authority Niagara Reservoir, each five to six feet long, about 14 years ago. They were both then displayed at Mark's Tackle when Mark Daul had the store on Whirlpool Street. Most recently, in mid September of this year, John DeLorenzo of the Niagara River Guide Service caught and released a sturgeon at Devil's Hole estimated to weigh around 150 pounds.

Hopefully, we will continue to protect this magnificent fish and it's habitat and let it reestablish it's historic population so that in the future it will no longer be necessary to classify it as a protected species, and may be enjoyed by future generations as it once was by past generations.

References: "Methusaleh of Fresh Water Fishes-The Lake Sturgeon," The Conservationist, Nov-Dec., 1986; William A. Pierce

STURGEON, Microsoft Incarta, copyright 1994. Microsoft Corp. copyright 1994, Funk and Wagnall Corp.

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Strange Tales of the Niagara 
Mike Gillis

Back in the 1940's and 50's, it was quite common for spear fishermen to catch sturgeon under what was the old Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

fish spear.jpg (50963 bytes)The type of spear which the fishermen used consisted of a very long pole with a detachable pronged spearhead at the end. Part of the spearhead was an iron loop to which a strong line could be attached. The other end of the line would be tied to a rock or a tree. Upon spearing the fish, the spearhead would detach and as soon as the large fish tired, it could be retrieved by pulling in the hand line. [see spear note below] 

There's a tale of a spear fisherman who went fishing down below the bridge one night. Instead of tying the line to a rock or a tree, he tied it around his waist. Well, he happened to spot a huge sturgeon coming along the shore. He jabbed his spear at it and hit his target. If the fisherman is accurate enough, he can spear the sturgeon at a spot where its spine will be injured and it will be paralyzed, thus disabling the fish from putting up a fight and making it easier for catching. This fisherman was not so fortunate. His spear stuck in the fish, but when the huge fish headed out for deeper water, it still had its full strength. It pulled the man in after it. The body of this unfortunate fisherman was found about a week later on the shoreline of Lake Ontario. The line and the spearhead was stilled attached to the fisherman, but the fish had managed to shake the spearhead loose.

Nobody knows if the sturgeon dragged him all the way down the river to the lake, or if the sturgeon shook him loose up in the river and the current took his body down to the lake.

This is one of many strange stories I've heard about our Niagara River. In future issues, I'll tell you some additional strange tales which I've heard about fishing on the Niagara River. For example, there's the one about John Long catching an alligator while fishing near the Wagon Wheel drift; or the one about Tony Mang being attacked by a llama while shorefishing near Four Mile Creek.

Spear Note: The spear picture above is  typical of spear points used in the 40's & 50's.  Most were handmade by fishermen at home or some were made in the local factories by the men at their jobs. The time was during and just after the Second World War.

The most popular spears were made at the old Bell-Aircraft plant on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Niagara Falls, NY. Some were fabricated at the old Hooker Chemical Company in Niagara Falls too. 

Notice the barbs on this particular spear. They are stationary while the "Cadillac" of fish spears were made with what they called "fly-barbs"  The fly barbs would fold in as the fish was hit, then the barb would embed itself and open in the flesh making it impossible for a huge fish to escape. These spears were made by skilled craftsmen and the worked great! Be sure to enlarge the spear picture.

Perhaps you have some strange tales about fishing on the Niagara which you'd like to tell. If so, give me a call or email your tale in writing to Mike or send to this website. You will be given full credit if we use your story.

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Mike Gillis

Where Artpark now sits in Lewiston , used to be Joe Kolanoís Dock. There was a wooden stairway going down to a wooden dock. Up at the top, Joe had a combination hot dog/bait and tackle stand. We kids used to ride our bikes down Fourth Street to go fishing there or just to hang out.

Just north of there, maybe a half of a mile, if youíre drifting by on the river you used to be able to see the remnants of what used to be that dock, and a broken down wooden tram-way going up the bank to the road above. That used to be Charlie Lonsdaleís dock. Those are the remnants of what used to be Charlieís Boat Rental, bait and tackle business. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to spend a lot of time down there. The world was younger then and so were we, much, much younger.

We used to fish down there. We were occasionally obnoxious, but old Charlie never said a word. He would let us use a boat occasionally without charging us. We kids didnít have much money, and Charlie knew that. Sometimes we would just hang out there, having an occasional verbal war with the Canadian kids on the Queenston Sand docks. Charlie, with his wise old eyes, behind which held a great wisdom of the lower river, and we were then too young to appreciate, just went on with his work.

From time to time, Charlie would take one of his boats and go off fishing by himself. He would leave us kids there to watch over the place. We never stole anything from his tackle shack. There was something sacred and wordless there which never would even allow us kids to think about stealing from Charlie. I think it was probably the fact that he trusted us, and we would never cross the line of that trust.

Almost every time that Charlie came back from one of his solo fishing trips, he would have at least one walleye. The other kids told me that he caught most of his fish in the Queenston drift. Souvenirs of his catches could be seen on the wall of his tackle shed on the north end of his dock. The shed no longer stands there. There were several of the heads of the many walleye that he caught nailed up there.

Charlie always used the rest of the fish for sustenance. As a kid, I didnít think about it much, but Charlie couldnít have made much money from that business down on the riverbank.

During the smelt season in April, some of the other kids and me would go up to Charlieís two-room dwelling on South First Street , which has since been torn down and replaced by a large modern home. We would ask Charlie if we could borrow his smelt net. He never said no. That was back in the early sixties when you could catch a garbage can full of smelt in less than a half an hour. We would always bring Charlie back some smelt along with his net. We were in our early teens then. It was okay to stay out late at night next to a bonfire on the riverbank

I can remember his tough wrinkled hands, hands that had tied many a rig, and hauled in many a fish. I can remember Charlieís wrinkled face, a face that had felt many a wind, both warm and cold, blowing across the lower Niagara . Mostly, I can remember Charlie Lonsdaleís eyes. They were eyes that had a great patience and tolerance, eyes that had some kind of great wisdom, eyes behind which held a great knowledge of river history and lore. Charlie had a calm voice. A voice, which I wish, could now, in these later years, tell me of some of his fishing and river knowledge.

The years passed. I grew older. My interests changed some, as they do with teenagers. Eventually I went away to college. I heard that Old Charlie died. I didnít go to his funeral. I donít know many people that did.

I was too young to fully appreciate Charlie back then, I donít really know if he knew my name. Maybe I was just one of the kidsí who hung out at his dock. But all the kids, ďRiver RatsĒ we were called, knew Charlie, wise, quiet, great lower river fisherman, Charlie.

If youíre down on the river someday when itís not too crowded, sit still. If you listen very closely you may hear the ghostly echoes of kids yelling and having a good time. Thatís the sound of my childhood. Through the seagullsí yells and the currents whirlpools, and back eddies water splashing, you may hear the faint ghostly sound of a boat motor cruising towards the Queenston drift. Thatís Charlie Lonsdale, his spirit still fishes the lower river.

I remember you Charlie.  

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Mike Gillis


             Folklore is filled with stories of elves, pixies, trolls, ogres and mischievous gremlins. I will not contest there existence here. But I think that some of the true culprits behind these stories are varmints.

My wife and I and our infant daughter moved to Youngstown from the city in 1983. We bought a house a few hundred feet from the shore of Lake Ontario with woods behind it.

Little did we know that there were eyes upon us as we settled into our new home. Mischievous little eyes staring from the trees of the woods and the boulders of the lakeshore.

Racoon in tree.jpg (151171 bytes)I enjoy feeding and identifying wild birds. In our bathroom, there was a window at the top of the wall that was located directly in front of the toilet. While sitting on the throne one could look up and out the window to see the sky. I placed a bird feeder there to improve the view while one was in the position of such solemn contemplation. It soon proved to attract all kinds of wild birds which could be observed. One evening I was sitting there and glanced up at the window. The light emanating from the room showed an interesting sight. There was a raccoon hanging upside down from the gutter feasting on the seed in the birdfeeder. That was one of the first indications of a population of little rascals living in our area.

We brought three cats with us when we moved into the house. Willis, Phyllis and Alice Gillis were there names. We have the laundry room in the back of the house. Between our kitchen and the laundry room is a door with a window in it. In the kitchen, just inside this door, is a switch which turns the light on and off in the laundry room. So one can look through the window from the kitchen into the laundry room and turn on the light to see in there. On the other side of the laundry room is a storm door going into the backyard. It is just held shut with a spring. We used to leave it unlocked so that the cats could go in and out of the house as they please. They would merely just have to push or pull the light door open and it would shut behind them.

We fed our cats in the laundry room. We kept there cat dishes with water and food on the floor in front of the sink between our washer and dryer.

I worked shift then. One evening when I got home from work at about midnight, I went into the kitchen and turned on the light to look into the back room. All three cats were sitting on top of the washing machine.  They were looking down watching two huge raccoons devour their food. A cat knows better than to mess with a raccoon. An adult raccoon can weigh from seven to 35 pounds and be from 25 to 36 inches long. Northern raccoons tend to be larger than their smaller relatives down south. These two looked like 30 pounders. They can be quite vicious when challenged or cornered. The largest raccoon on record was 50 pounds.

I banged on the door and the not so little masked bandits went rushing out the back door.

 The following summer, during the month of August was my daughterís first birthday. I was still working shift so I was on the midnight shift that week. We liked to keep our storm windows open during the summer nights to get the lake breeze blowing through the screens and into the house. The evening before my daughterís birthday, my wife, Janet, baked a birthday cake and left it on the kitchen table in front of the screen window to cool. In the middle of the night, she was awakened by a strange noise coming from the kitchen. She got out of bed and went into the kitchen to see a disturbing sight. There was a raccoon on the kitchen table eating the birthday cake. It had actually ripped the screen out of the storm window, climbed into the kitchen and jumped up on the table to get at the cake. Now this could have been a dangerous situation. A raccoon can be a nasty foe when cornered. The raccoon looked at my wife and bared its teeth with a nasty snarl. I guess my wife was thinking, ďYou arenít going to mess with that cake that I worked so hard on and get away with it!Ē She grabbed a broom and swatted the intruder. Fortunately, it turned around and scooted off the table and back out the window. She had to discard the cake and make another one the next day. We didnít want to eat any raccoon germs from our birthday cake.

BabyBrushtailPossum.jpg (12474 bytes)One morning, before going to work, I took a bag of garbage out to throw into our garbage can. We had one of those big rubber cans and one of the old-fashioned metal galvanized garbage cans left over from the previous owner. When I went to put the bag of garbage in the big rubber can, I noticed that the lid was off and on the ground. I looked down into the can and there was a big ugly opossum staring up at me. I donít know what your opinion is, but I think that opossums are really an ugly animal. I kicked over the garbage can and the creature went rolling out onto the grass. It laid there like it was dead. Opossums actually do Ďplay possum.í It is an involuntary physiological response when threatened or harmed. They will actually stiffen up and appear dead for minutes or even hours. Some will emit a foul odor to smell like they are dead. I went back into the house and had a cup of coffee. About twenty minutes later I went back outside and the opossum was gone.

Opossums are the only North American marsupial. They carry their young in a pouch like a kangaroo does.

When you live near the shoreline body of freshwater, like Lake Ontario , there are going to be varmints, and other wildlife living near you. A few years after moving into our home, my son was born. A few years after that, of course, we got a puppy. A black lab named Cubby. My two children adored, and still do adore, our dog.

One varmint, that I personally fear encountering the most, is the skunk. And yes, these potentially odorous fellows do inhabit the general area where I live. Some of you folks, Iím sure, know the feeling when your walking out to your deer hunting spot before the sun rises. Itís dark, youíre in the woods and alone, and what the hell do you do if you encounter a bear? Well, thatís how I feel sometimes during the summer when Iím walking down to the lake after dark. I know theyíre around, Iíve seen them. Just beware if they raise that tail, believe me, that babyís locked and loaded and ready to ruin your week.

Well, Cubby was still pretty much a puppy then. He didnít beware and his week definitely got ruined. And it didnít do much good for my week either. We had been up to Toronto all day with the kids having fun. We got home, exhausted from a busy day, at about ten in the evening. Cubby had been in the house all day. So we let him out to go water the trees. He encountered a skunk. Not knowing just what a skunk was, he went right after it. That skunk let him have it with both barrels. He came yelping back to the house and when we opened the door, he ran right through the whole house spreading that horrible odor behind him. Oh what to do now.

We had heard of the tomato juice remedy for skunk spray and we happened to have some cans of tomato juice on the shelf. We dragged our stinking puppy outside and gave him a tomato juice bath and sprayed him down with the garden hose. He still stunk, maybe 30% less, but he still stunk, and so did the house by that time. I went to my computer, got on Google, and searched for skunk odor remedies. About 10,000 websites popped up. I found what looked like a good recipe which included dilute peroxide and dish soap. I mixed up a batch of this and we proceeded to give Cubby another bath. This helped to eliminate about 95% of the odor. But, believe me, that other 5% still lingered for days and slowly faded away. If you ever use this recipe, go easy on the peroxide or you will turn your dog from being a black lab into a golden lab. We also boiled a pot of this concoction on the stove and with the help of some open windows and fans flushed most of the odor out of the house. Cubby learned a hard lesson that night: ďDonít go chasing the black kitty cat with the white stripes!Ē

Early on, we had had problems with varmints getting into our garbage cans and spreading the stuff all over the yard. I attached bungee cords to the tops of the cans to try to keep the raiders out. One day during a very hot week in July, I took a bag of garbage out to deposit in our large rubber garbage can. I removed the bungee cord from the top of the can and took the lid off. When I looked down into the garbage can there was a hot, exhausted raccoon staring up at me. It had actually managed to pry its way under the bungee held lid and into the can. I hadnít opened the can in a few days so I donít have any idea how long that poor creature had been suffering in that hotbox. I tipped the can over. Normally a raccoon would run away like a bat out of hell. This one just looked up at me with its weary eyes and stumbled off into the woods.

Elves, pixies, gremlins and trolls? There may be a few of those wandering around my yard too. However, so far I havenít encountered any.

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Fishing The River at Night
Mike Gillis

Make sure you read the "eel facts" at the end of this article.

     I think that the best times to catch fish from shore are just before sunrise, and just after sunset. That is, for panfish, walleye, and bass. Of course, the best time for catching catfish is in the middle of the night. 

    When I was a boy, I used to hop on my bike just before sunset and head down to the Sand Docks in Lewiston. My big black dog, Butch, would accompany me. I took a kerosene railroad lantern with me. Armed with my fishing pole, a bucket and some worms I situated myself on the north corner of the dock for some night fishing. 

     Looking back, there were several reasons why I enjoyed fishing from the dock at night. One was the serenity. The occasional sound of gulls or a duck blended with the swishing of the rivers current. You could hear the occasional splash of a fish feeding on the surface. 

     As night gently spread its darkness across the scenery, an air of mystery would settle in. One by one, lights would go on along the rivers shoreline. One observation that I made was that when you're outdoors and its getting late, it still seems light out to you for quite awhile. But if you went into a lit room and looked out the window it would be totally dark out. Eventually, the darkness of the night would overcome the ability of my eyes to adjust and it would become dark. I would light my kerosene lantern. 

     There I would sit alone in the darkness, except for the company of my dog. Occasionally, I would see a river rat scurry between the shadows cast by my lantern. Rats thrive along the shorelines of any waterway where dead fish can be found. Dead fish are prime food for a river rat. That must be why they grow so big. Also, they are quite dark in color, they look black in the light cast by a lantern. I have no fondness for rats, they seem to epitomize filth and disease carrying rodents to me. While I was having a good time fishing, my dog was having a good time chasing these rats, keeping them away from me.

      One of the things I really liked about it was the fact that you didn't know what you were going to catch next. There was this lady who lived down the street from us who just loved gardening. She had a little garden pool next to her house. She knew that I went fishing a lot. So she told me to put anything that I catch into her garden pool. That evening, Butch and I headed down to the Sand Docks. During the course of the evening I tied into something huge. Man did it put up a fight. I managed to land it. It was an American Eel. The biggest one I ever caught. That thing had to be at least three feet long. I put it in my bucket. I was around twelve years old then. I grabbed my fishing gear and my bucket with the huge eel in it and headed for the lady's house. After all, she said that she wanted me to put anything that I caught into her garden pool. It was between ten and eleven in the evening when I got to her house. I banged on the door, but neither she nor her husband were home. So I just went ahead and dumped the eel into her garden pool. It wasn't a very big pool. The size of it was really more appropriate for goldfish. The pool was situated right outside of their bedroom window. As her husband relates the story, after they arrived home late that night they went to bed. It was summer, so they kept their bedroom window open. In the middle of the night, she awoke to a strange splashing sound coming from her garden pool. She got up, put a robe on, and went outside to investigate. As she was standing, with her slippers on, next to her pool to see what was splashing, the eel popped out of the pool and wrapped around her ankle. She ran into the house screaming "There's a monster on me! There's a monster on me!"

       Her husband heroically unwrapped the slimy beast from his distraught wife's ankle and slew it with a kitchen knife. She did not sleep well for the rest of the night, probably for fear of dreams about sea serpents. But there's a pleasant ending to that story. 

      The eel made great fertilizer for her garden. She made no further requests for fish for her garden pool.

      Fishing the Niagara in the evening is a great way to pass the time. You never know just what you might catch.

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Every Autumn, American eels descend the St. Lawrence  river on a journey toward the warm waters of the Sargasso Sea* to spawn and die, returning to a birthplace they left as many as 30 years earlier. We do not know their path nor do we understand how they navigate vast distances. The moon, stars, magnetism and an exceptional homing ability may guide them through the dark waters.

Eels have not revealed their spawning secrets; scientists do not know exactly where eels spawn, at what depth or how they behave when reunited at the spawning area. All eels from throughout their range, Greenland to Central America, converge on the spawning waters at about the same time. This is remarkable considering the vastly different distances they must travel. Northern fish leave much sooner to arrive ďon time.Ē Despite the enormous geographic range of the species, all American eels comprise a single breeding population.

The American eel is a very unusual species:

  • There is only one spawning location (in the Atlantic Ocean) [Sargasso Sea]
  • Eel larvae are distributed by ocean currents along the eastern coast of North America
  • Young eel enter fresh waters (such as the St. Lawrence River) where they grow for up to 25 years
  • Mature eels migrate back to the ocean to spawn and die
  • American eel is often confused with lamprey because of its appearance. In fact, the lamprey is not an eel but a parasite fish that preys on other large-bodied fish.

From the Encyclopedia Wikipedia:

"The *Sargasso Sea is an elongated region in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by ocean currents. On the west it is bounded by the Gulf Stream. On the north, by the North Atlantic Current; on the east, by the Canary Current; and on the south, by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. It is roughly 700 statute miles wide and 2,000 statute miles long (1,100 km wide and 3,200 km long). It stretches from roughly 70 degrees west to 40 degrees west, and from 25 degrees north to 35 degrees north. Bermuda is near the western fringes of the sea. *The Sargasso Sea is the only sea without shores."

"The very salty Sargasso Sea is often regarded as being lifeless, though it is home to some seaweed of the genus Saragassum. This seaweed floats en masse on the surface there. The Sargasso Sea also plays a major role in the migration of the European eel and the American eel. The larvae of both species hatch there and go to Europe and/or the East Coast of North America. Later in life, they try to return to the Sargasso Sea to lay eggs"

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American Smelt

I got down to the river to try my luck several times but I didn't have much success this year. I figured that the warm winter and spring that we had might cause the smelt to run early this year. So I first went down to Artpark in the middle of March with my Tuscarora friend, Shorty. We didn't have any success. While we were fishing down there in the darkness (Shorty said that the lantern light would scare the fish away) we noticed the shadow of two large winged creatures flying up river directly in front of us. "What are those?" I asked Shorty. 'Pterodactyls!" he replied. We soon realized that what we were actually seeing was a pair of great blue herons. The moonlight was bright enough to allow us to see them land on a large rock on the shoreline. They too were trying their luck at smelting, in the middle of the night. I never realized until that night that blue herons fish at night. What amazing fishing creatures they are.

The next time I went was with Tony Mang about the 1st of April. It was wet and cold outside. We hiked through the woods down to the mouth of Four-Mile Creek. It had been raining so much that the creek was really high and the mouth was really wide, no success.

I drove down to the Lewiston sand docks about a week later, and there was some smelt running. I managed to put a few in my bucket. I went down there again a few days later and I could see the smelt running off and on.

A few days later Tony and I went down to Artpark with our waders. Several people were taking smelt. John Tromontano caught a 12-inch mud puppy in his smelt net. There were probably about forty or fifty down at the dock that night. I was standing on the south corner of the dock when someone yelled "Hey, what's that?" There was this black object floating in the water about the size of a medium sized dog. It swam right up close to me. It was a beaver swimming down river. I grew up near the river and this was the first time that I'd ever seen a beaver in the lower Niagara River.

When I was a kid, about 50 years ago, there were so many smelt that from the top of the river bank at what is now Artpark, and back then was Kolano's, you could see a thick black swaying line parallel to the river shore. There was no limit on the number of smelt you could take. People would actually fill garbage cans full of smelt to take home. On the cars of the smelters you could see many out of state license plates from places as far away as West Virginia. I actually saw pickup trucks with their backs loaded with smelt. I recall asking one guy what he planned to do with an entire load of smelt on his pickup truck. He told me that he used them to feed the mink on his mink farm down in the Finger Lakes region. We kids used to go over to Charlie Lonsdale's house and he would loan us a smelt net. We would go down to the shoreline and you could fill your net up in a matter of minutes.

Smelt is a quite an oily fish. Someone once told me that the Indians of this area dried the smelt and burned them for light, like candles. When they burned them they smelled really bad, and hence the word 'smelt'. (Please don't quote me on that].

What is a smelt? It's actually related to trout. I've never seen any more than eight or nine inches long. Around the beginning of April every year they run up the Niagara River and the tributaries of Lake Ontario to spawn. There used to be many more years ago than there are now.

So why aren't there as many now as there used to be? According to Bill Hilts Jr. one of the main reasons that there are fewer smelt is because there are fewer nutrients. The reason that there are now fewer nutrients is because of stringent environmental laws that resulted in lower concentrations of phosphorous in the water. This element is a basic part of the bottom of the food chain. The result is less plankton and thus fewer smelt.

Another reason is over fishing. Hilts relates the story of when a fisherman was telling him that he used to fill his boat with blue pike frequently. Then in the next breath asks, "Where did they all go?"

Of course, the Niagara Rivers history has its unfortunate periods of serious pollution. This didn't help any fish populations. Another big factor is the predators. Those big twenty to forty pound salmon and trout out there have to eat a lot of smelt, alewives and shad to get to be that big. Bill Hilts Sr. told me of a recently caught lake trout that had 99 smelt and alewives in its belly.

Unlike the blue pike, which are believed to be gone forever (See our articles on blue pike on this Outdoors Niagara website) we still have the smelt. Maybe the recent limit set by the DEC is a step in the right direction. Managed correctly, we can insure that future generations enjoy this fish us much as we have.

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Back to the Niagara Coyote Story



Go to Hilts Weekend Fish Locator
Go to Bill Hilts Outdoors Sunday Column / 
Go to Joe Ognibene's "Outdoor Scene"/
Go to Will Elliott's "Fishing Line"  / 
Go To Bill Josephs "Straight From the Field"
Go to Mike Gillis "Outdoors in Niagara Experiences"
Bob Confer's Outdoors


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