Rod-In-Hand Kings

Chasing redemption (and salmon) on New York’s Lower Niagara River.

The lower portion of the 36-mile Niagara River between Lake Erie and Ontario draws myriad species, giving anglers a unique shot at Grand Slam personal bests—all in one day. Consider smallmouths reaching the 7-pound mark, 30-inch walleyes, muskies, even some big channel cats.

But during fall and winter months, trout and salmon reign supreme.

Leading the charge upriver are king (Chinook) salmon, with trophy hens reaching 30 pounds or more. “The best king salmon fishing starts in early September and lasts through mid-October,” says Niagara Charter’s Captain Frank Campbell.

The muscular chrome of steelhead follow in November, and later, the black, olive and mustard-mottled hues of brown trout, both of which offer action on lightweight gear winter through April or May.

On January 1st lake trout season opens and should not be overlooked. “Our average size fish are 10 to 12 pounds and we’ve caught fish up to 40,” he says.

Although anglers target specific species on the Lower Niagara, during fall and winter you could catch any variety of fish by drifting skein or pulling hard baits. “Some of our biggest muskies and walleyes are caught fishing salmon or trout,” says Campbell.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

This past September I was fortunate to sample the waters with North American Fisherman managing editor Thomas Allen, Cabela’s Outfitter Journal editor Chuck Smock and fellow NAF-contibutor Cory Schmidt.

And thanks to the expertise of captains Frank Campbell and Jeff Draper, I was introduced to a style of king salmon fishing that shares little in common with big-boat charter fishing I’d done.


Dance With The Devil

For two days we focused on the Lower Niagara’s aptly-named Devil’s Hole, a 3/4-mile stretch of river only two miles downstream from honeymoon hotspot Niagara Falls. Here, the water level can drop 10 feet over a 24-hour period and typical flows are measured between 750,000 and 1 million gallons per second.

Boat control is critical. Not only to get your drifts correct, but to avoid jagged lower-unit-eating geology and effluent from U.S. and Canadian hydroelectric plants that sit across river from each other, each displaying minimum distance restrictions.

There’s also the matter of playing well with anglers working similar drifts, not to mention fast-moving 40-foot jetboats that shuttle tourists up the rapids.

“What some anglers will do is trailer their boat out here, spend a few days with us, and then go out on their own. That generally works pretty well,” says Campbell.

Watching captains Jeff Draper and Frank Campbell motor, slip and slide the king-filled waters was nothing short of impressive. Their choreography was studied and precise, each drift a dance with the devil.

With medium-heavy baitcasting gear spooled with 17-pound test fluorocarbon, Campbell’s rod-in-hand program turns each hook-up into hand-to-hand combat. No copper, wire, lead core or downriggers here.

We learned pretty quickly that the kings hold court, so best to keep a loose drag and let the fish run when they want to run. Repeated rod pumps and reeling down to the fish on taut line is standard operating procedure. For anyone who’s fished saltwater, there are some similarities in what it takes to put a fish in the boat.

No Snagged, Zombie Fish Here

Every one of the fish we caught was impaled in the maw, fooled into the instinctive response to pounce by drifting Luhr-Jensen Kwikfish, Yakima Mag Lips or skein on three-ways rigs with pencil lead downstream in 15 to 30 feet.

Lake Ontario’s northerly winds had pushed a fresh run of king upriver, which displayed massive power in the equally brutal river current—as hard and intense as anything I’ve experienced in freshwater.

“Any time Lake Ontario gets really rough we’ll get a run of fresh fish. Could be northeasterly, northwesterly, even southerly winds,” says Campbell.

Accepting Defeat: Personal Best Goes Bye-Bye

The first afternoon on Devil’s Hole proved a lesson in accepting defeat, as a new personal-best king salmon went bye-bye.

As the action slowed the first afternoon, I began counting drifts, and somewhere around 12 or 13 I lost track. Probably 13. My mind began to wander back home where I knew a honey-do list grew with each passing hour away.

Then came the strike, like a sucker punch to the gut.

The rod doubled over and the king peeled line, as if sprinting to some far-off freedom. As the fish zigged, Captain Jeff Draper zagged, following the fish across river, upstream and back down. Then, in one last run, the fish took off to the most turbulent section of Devil’s Hole.

Draper spun the wheel like a squall-whipped sea captain, following the fish and keeping the boat away from whirlpools. All with a good-natured smile. Like any guide, Draper loves to see his guys catch fish.

Finally, after what seemed like hours of carefully fighting the fish through the matrix of cross-currents, I reeled down to the three-way and Draper readied the net to dip the fat hen.

“Snap!”

The fish retreated into darkness.

And it was over.

I fell into my seat and shook my head in disbelief.

A great silence filled the air.

Jeff grabbed my rod and scrutinized the rig to re-tie.

“The three-way broke,” he announced.

“What?”

Jeff’s revelation made it all that much worse. It’s one thing to screw-up your own personal best. I can live with that—wouldn’t have been the first time. But equipment failure? Now that one hurts.

Adding salt to the wound, there were three-way swivel jokes for the rest of the trip. Every time somebody hooked a fish: “Hope that three-way holds! Sorry, Jim.”

Day Two: Chasing Redemption

The loss of a personal best ignites a fire in the belly. And going into Day Two on the Lower Niagara, I felt it.

Or the indigestive aftermath of another night of real-McCoy Buffalo wings.

Probably both.

Still, on Day Two, each strike was another shot at redemption. Captain Draper escorted Schmidt and Smock while Allen and I fished with Captain Frank.

Allen was first on the board with a young jack, which sprayed milt all over his bibs. The humor wasn’t lost on any of us. There’s something about fishing trips that brings out fifth-grade humor. The Niagara trip was no exception.

Minutes later we caught sight of Draper’s boat as a fish led them close to the U.S. hydro dam platform. In a brilliant display of angling acumen, Schmidt’s hand and wrist went into blurry overdrive to pick-up slack line … like something from a Road Runner cartoon. The rod bend reappeared and a long silvery mass was extracted from the churning depths.

A couple dozen drifts later, I had boated a jack and a nice hen.

Captain Frank followed with a big jack.

Captain Frank then motored the Lund upstream to short, 20-meter stretch of shallower, 10-12 feet water behind a series of boulders called “The High Hole.”

Before Frank and I could even re-bait, Allen dropped his skein and hit paydirt. The mass on the end of his line turned the rod into a wicked parabola and the fish peeled fluoro, sprinting upstream at breakneck speed.

The next 15 minutes were a crossword puzzle of fish-following with Campbell’s Pro-V – like a musical recital without a missed note—rodmanship, boat control and equipment all performing in unison.

Allen boated a new PB, a mature, 3-4 year old hen, estimated in the neighborhood of 25 pounds.

There were high-fives all around and camera flashes.

Successive drifts were made, and I continued to chase personal redemption.

More layers of clothing went on as the temperature dropped and we fished through intermittent drizzle.

Then, nearing day’s end, my rod thumped.

Once again, the fish pumped toward the turbulence of Devil’s Hole. Minutes passed.

Finally, a quick scoop and silver was clutched in webbing. A gorgeous fish, no doubt, but not yesterday big. And not quite the size of Allen’s full-grown dog from earlier in the day. Still, I was elated. I had never experienced this kind of high-energy rod-in-hand king salmon action.

More high-fives.

Finally, as the sun inched closer to the horizon, Campbell announced we’d have to go in soon.

The last drift was a contemplative one.

The “snap” of a three-way swivel bounced around my skull like the eerie ear-worm melody of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”—and I imagined a larger, phantom fish jetting through the deep and dark of Devil’s Hole, fulfilling the end of her run, moving powerful jaws as if to speak.

I could have fished all night, repeating drifts ad infinitum, hour after hour, day after day, addicted to the sheer adrenaline of it all and still haunted by the phantom fish that got away.

And so, there’s the dream of fishing the idyllic Lower Niagara again next fall … another occasion for hope … another stop in one angler’s endless chase of redemption.

Admit defeat? Never.


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