Fly Fishing Niagara
As an avid angler, I know how lucky I am to live out West. I live where most folks plan their summer vacations, in a place that’s prettier than any Instagram post can adequately convey. The fishing here in my part of Wyoming is outstanding, especially for trout, and I’m within a day’s drive of most of Montana’s and Idaho’s best trout water, too. Other than annual trips to Alaska to visit friends (and, of course, to go fishing), I haven’t had much desire to travel far away to find new fly fishing opportunities.
My checking account is certainly grateful I don’t have a wandering eye for travel, but I’ve realized lately that I’m short-changing myself on opportunities to affordably explore the other fishy areas of the United States. The West is wonderful, yes, but it’s not the end-all be-all for trout fishing.
Case-in-point: my recent trip to Niagara Falls. I caught some of my most memorable fish ever (including a new personal best brown trout) and saw a wonderful part of the country.
I flew into Buffalo International Airport the night before Super Bowl Sunday, picked up a rental car, and within an hour checked into my hotel on the banks of the Niagara River. I was staying in the village of Lewiston, one of the many small towns that dot this corner of upstate New York.
The hotel was literally across the street from a public dock on the Niagara River, so I didn’t have far to walk Sunday morning when I met up to fish with Frank Campbell. We set off downriver, headed towards Lake Ontario. Other than halibut trips in the Gulf of Alaska, I’d never been on water that big before. It was intimidating, especially since the water conditions were far from ideal. The river and lake were turbid with minimal visibility. In classic guide fashion, Frank tried to under-promise the day’s fishing, but I wasn’t too worried. The thrill of being on such new, interesting water was enough to keep me engaged for our half-day of fishing.
What’s interesting about traveling to fish is that, once you get over the scenery and awe of being someplace new, fishing is still fishing. It’s remarkably easy to settle into a familiar, comfortable rhythm somewhere that’s about as far removed from rural Wyoming as one can get and still be fishing.
Frank steered the boat around the rocky shoreline on the Canadian side of the lake, near where the Niagara River dumps into Lake Ontario. We motored along the edge of big clouds of silt pushed out of the river, fishing the line between dirty river water and slightly-less-dirty lake water. The depth finder consistently showed us in 25 feet of water—not unmanageable for fly fishing.
The fishing was slow, as Frank predicted, but I landed my new personal best brown trout. Once the fish was in the net I told Frank I thought it was at least 25 inches long. Frank laughed. “We don’t measure fish in inches out here,” he said. It was a premonition for how fishing would shape up on Monday, after the Super Bowl.
We set out Monday morning (I still felt full from my first taste of authentic buffalo wings from the Anchor Bar the night before) upriver through the Niagara River Gorge in search of cleaner water and faster fishing. The Niagara River is massive with flows measured in hundreds of thousands of cubic feet per second. Those numbers positively dwarf my mountain creeks back home in Wyoming. Surprisingly, most of the river up through the Niagara River Gorge is publicly accessible, and this section from Lewiston up to the Falls offers some of the best fly fishing opportunities on the entire Niagara.
Frank pulled the boat into a big pool off the American side of the river. The depth finder showed we were fishing in just 10 feet of water. With a Clouser minnow and a sink tip line rigged up, the fishing felt an awful lot like a day on the Wind River back home.
To my surprise, I landed a half-dozen big lake trout from 10 feet of water (big to me, average to Frank and anyone else who regularly fishes the Niagara River). The bites were soft and subtle, thanks to the still-turbid water and low temps. Once hooked, though, the fish gave an impressive performance. I even managed to land a 10-pound Great Lakes steelhead—my first ever.
Even though we were in a boat, the places we were catching fish were easily within casting distance of the shore. Any competent fly angler would’ve had a field day horsing in these big trout. For a guy like me who’s used to small-mountain streams and fish, hauling in trout after trout over six or seven pounds was an entirely new, and fantastic, experience.
Apparently, my experience only scratched the surface of what the Niagara River offers. Muskie, smallmouth bass, and carp are all plentiful in the river along with the runs of salmon out of Lake Ontario. There’s no shortage of year-round fishing on the Niagara, and I’m aware of few other places that boast such variety in a fishery. Most of the fish you’ll catch are big, especially by Rocky Mountains standards.
Urban fishing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that. But the Niagara River felt less urban than other rivers I’ve fished through towns and cities. Other than the large dams—and the big bridge spanning the top of the Gorge—the Niagara felt more secluded than I expected. It’s certainly worth fishing, especially if you’re there to see the area’s biggest attraction—Niagara Falls.
More than fishing
As with most fishing locales, there’s certainly more to do in the Niagara Falls area than just fly fishing. I was lucky to have my trip revolve around fish, but most folks are probably visiting the area to see the Falls.
In addition to the Falls and the fishing, there’s some wonderful history in the Niagara area. I spent an afternoon at Old Fort Niagara, touring with Bob Emerson, the Fort’s executive director. The Fort was an important military installation that dates back to pre-revolution days. It’s older than Independence Hall and played a role during the Civil War, too. I was treated to a live weapons demonstration along with touring the centuries-old buildings.
If you’re the type of angler who enjoys a good meal after fishing, the Niagara area has you covered. On most fishing trips, I’m content with fast food or a greasy spoon diner. But I’m an enormous fan of buffalo wings, which meant I had to go to the Anchor Bar, where buffalo wings were invented. For those who prefer to not eat with their hands, the Niagara area offers plenty of upscale eateries, too.
In all, my trip to Niagara Falls opened my eyes to some of the fishing I’ve been missing out on here in the States. It’s a reasonably accessible area that’s not too cost-prohibitive to visit, and there’s plenty to do out there other than fish making it ideal for a family getaway.
And, if you do go fishing out in Niagara, bring your big net. Like Frank Campbell said—they don’t measure the fish in inches.