Few places in America offer as good or as varied freshwater fishing as that found near the city of Buffalo, New York, just a short cast from famed Niagara Falls.
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-renown 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 isoutstanding 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, on Buffalo’s doorstep, has spectacular smallmouth fishing with bronzebacks commonly weighing 3 to 5 pounds. In truth, it’s some of the best in America. Walleye fishing also is superb, with fish weighing 5 to 8 pounds not unusual.
Bass action heats up in early June, when fish 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. 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 anglers 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 head for the deep, swirling and picturesque 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 has phenomenal trout and salmon fishing. From Thanksgiving to IRS-pay-up 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, 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 good average day anglers catch 10 rainbows—-steelhead actually, because they run in from the lake to spawn—-and they’ll average 9 pounds. Some big brown trout also are caught, and lake trout averaging 10 pounds are thick.
One trip in late summer with veteran area guide Frank Campbell shows just how sensational river fishing can be.
After launching his 22-foot Lund aluminum boat, Campbell fired the 200-horsepower Yamaha and quickly headed upriver into the turbulent and powerful Niagara River gorge. The tight confines of the river deepens to over 200 feet between the high-bluff sides of the Ontario-U.S. border. In it lake trout and steelhead jam at that time of year.
“Steelies” and “lakers” push into the swirling depths of the Niagara for spawning, having left the open water of Lake Ontario 10 miles or so downstream. The fish stack along sheer rock ledges, and feed on spent eggs – spawn – from others of their kind. In time all the fish spawn, but as they await their turns, anglers have their way with the gamefish.
And the fishing is great by any measure, plus easy to do.
By drifting with fish egg spawn sacks off 3-way swivel rigs using one-ounce pencil weights, we tallied eight lakers and steelhead in a pleasant day of fishing. The lakers ran 8 to 12 pounds, steelhead 4 to 8 pounds.
The fishing wasn’t crowded, as only a dozen or so other boats with drifting anglers worked the water near the “Art Park” area – a famous trout spot. Plenty of shoreline fishermen also cast drift rigs for trout, and they caught lakers and steelhead, too, as did Canadians from their side of the river.
Trout fishing remains good in the lower Niagara through winter. In addition to lakers and steelhead, brown trout to 10 pounds and larger are caught with regularity, and smallmouth bass and even muskies (big ones) occasionally strike.
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.
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.
Great restaurants (don’t forget where “Buffalo” wings got their start), motels and resorts abound. Niagara County Tourism (www.niagara-usa.com) is a wealth of help and information.
Frank Campbell (phone 716-284-8546;www.niagaracharter.com) guides year-round for all gamefish found in the Niagara River and adjacent lakes Erie and Ontario. We headquartered at the Riverside Motel (phone 716-754-4101), which overlooks the Niagara River and the distant scenic shore of Ontario.