By Bob McNally
Fish the Trifecta
Erie, Ontario, Niagara offer year-round success
Few places in America offer as good or as varied freshwater fishing as that found near the city of Buffalo, New York. Within just a few minutes drive of the bustle of downtown, fishermen can be working sprawling Lake Erie for smallmouth bass and walleyes; fishing in the picturesque and world-renowned Niagara River for bass, walleyes, trout and salmon; or, farther east, tapping nearby Lake Ontario for the same species.
The close proximity of these three greatly different waters (Erie, Niagara, Ontario) allows Buffalo-area anglers to fish in virtually any weather 12 months of the year. (Yes, even in the dead of winter, steelhead action is outstanding on the Niagara).
This, plus the remarkable accommodations and recreational facilities offered in Buffalo, and in the tourist-Mecca town of Niagara Falls, makes fishing in the area unique and an outstanding trip for family-oriented outdoorsmen.
Eastern Lake Erie
Lake Erie is best-known for its fishing in the so-called Western Basin, along the Ohio border near the well-known Bass Islands. However, eastern Lake Erie, on Buffalo’s doorstep, has equally good smallmouth fishing, perhaps even better fishing for average-size bronzebacks of 3 to 5 pounds. Walleye fishing also is superb, with fish commonly weighing 5 to 8 pounds.
Bass action heats up in early June, during a special trophy bass season. Bass are comparatively shallow, spawning, and are commonly caught in water 12- to 20-feet deep around rocky submerged islands. Drifting with live shiners, leeches and crayfish is deadly, particularly when Lindy rattling “No-Snagg” sinkers are employed, according to long-time guide Terry Jones.
Jones says the sinkers allow baits to “walk” over bottom snags without fouling, and their built-in rattle is an important fish call. Tube lures and grub jigs also are very effective on bass, as well as walleyes.
After Lake Erie bass spawn in June, they move deep. But Jones still can consistently catch them, though sometimes down to 40 feet.
In September, bass again move shallow. By October and early November autumn smallmouth action peaks; same for walleyes.
During summer, when Erie and Lake Ontario smallmouths are deep, many
anglers, including Jones, head for the Niagara River, which offers
consistently good fishing for bass, walleyes, and especially trout. The
Niagara also is a haven for fishermen in strong wind, common on the Great
Lakes in any season. A strong north or west wind drives anglers to the
river, or to the western shore of Lake Ontario near the Niagara River mouth.
An east or northeast wind makes Ontario rough. But the west shore of Lake Erie near the town of Buffalo will be calm, as will the river, which connects the two Great Lakes.
The Niagara River is famous for its falls at the town of Niagara Falls. However, for anglers, the phenomenal trout and salmon fishing available there is much more awe inspiring.
From Thanksgiving to tax time, remarkable numbers of giant rainbow, lake trout, coho and Chinook salmon jam in the river, running in from nearby Lake Ontario. Heavyweight brown trout also are caught regularly, though they’re far outnumbered by high-leaping ‘bows and bottom-hugging lakers.
It’s all drift fishing, in water 10- to 35-feet deep, primarily with spinning or light bait-casting gear — sort of West Coast steelhead style — with big trout action as good as it gets.
“On a nice, average day, we’ll catch 10 rainbows — steelhead actually because they run in from the lake to spawn — and they’ll average 9 pounds,” explained long-time river guide Ernie Calandrelli of Lewiston. “On a great day we’ll get over 30 fish, some pushing 20 pounds. We also catch a few odd brown weighing 10 to 18 pounds, and the river is coated with lake trout averaging 11 pounds, some over 20 pounds. You can just hammer lakers when they’re in the river, same with salmon.”
Ernie says trout mass in the lower Niagara River as they “winter” from Lake Ontario. Salmon action is mostly a fall fling, running September into November.
It’s usually cold-weather fishing, particularly for winter trout, with air temperatures running from 5 to 55 degrees. Fish can be caught casting, but the best technique is simply to drift in the river’s clear, deep, powerful current using Luhr-Jensen Kwik Fish lures (silver, gold or copper) with weights that bump bottom. Spawn sacks and yarn-ball rigs also work well, as do live shiner minnows, which can be especially deadly for lakers.
This remarkable fishing is just 15 miles from the city of Buffalo. The
quaint town of Lewiston is a good place to stay right on the river, and boat launch access is excellent.
Lake Ontario, where the Niagara River flows in on the west shore, is a hot spot for bass, walleyes, salmon and trout. Smallmouth fishing is great, but the average size isn’t as large as on Erie.
Ontario also offers hot walleye action, as well as salmon and trout fishing. Much of the best angling is right at the mouth of the Niagara River. A series of sandbars hold baitfish and sportfish almost year round. Farther offshore and along lake beaches south and north of the river mouth, trollers score well on salmon, trout, walleyes and bass.
The area is steeped in history, and visitors should take in some of the sites, such as Fort Niagara at the river mouth on the shores of Lake
Ontario, where some of the region’s best fishing is found. Tourist
attractions and activities abound in the area, including some exciting
watersports, like charter runs up to churning whitewater below Niagara Falls in jet-drive boats. It’s wet, wild and exhilarating in 50-degree class V rapids; and a nice mid-day, boat-ride break from serious fishing.
While fishing Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River is not difficult to do on your own, it speeds up the learning curve to hire a guide, at least the first day or two. Ernie Calandrelli (Ernie’s Guide Service, (716) 284-2335) and Terry Jones (First Class Bass Charters, (716) 875-4946; www.plantel.com/1stclass/index.htm) are highly recommended. They tap all three waters according to wind, weather and the whims of fish.
Both work from high-sided, seaworthy boats: a 19-foot Lund for Ernie; 20-foot Ranger walleye hull for Terry.
You’ll also find great restaurants — don’t forget where “Buffalo” wings got their start — motels and resorts. Bill Hilts Jr. at Niagara County Tourism, (716) 439-7300, is a wealth of help and information.
For more on the fishing, contact the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Bureau of Fisheries, 50 Wolf Rd., Rm. 552, Albany, NY 12233-4653; www.dec.state.ny.us. An indispensable fishing aid for the area is the “Hot Spot Fishing Map, Buffalo & Erie County Fishing Guide,” from the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, (716) 858-8390.
Non-resident New York fishing licenses are $11 for one-day; $20 for 5-days; $35 per season.