High & Mighty

Seven miles below Ni­a­gara Falls, a co­hort of an­glers will­ing to tackle steep de­scents and rag­ing cur­rents is bust­ing steel­head and browns in a river that, by all ac­counts, no­body should be wad­ing

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY JIMMY FEE

An­gry steel­head and gi­ant browns wait for those will­ing to wade the churn­ing Ni­a­gara.

AAround the time Black Fri­day shop­pers are lin­ing up for “mid­night madness” sales, I pull into the empty Seneca travel plaza off I-90 in Vic­tor, New York. Caf­feine and tryp­to­phan have been at war in my blood­stream for most of the drive across New York State from my in-laws’ on Long Is­land, and I need to re­fill on the former to over­come the lat­ter. Four hours ear­lier, I’d pushed away from the Thanks­giv­ing din­ner ta­ble (“No pump­kin pie for me, thanks”) to head for the far western corner of New York. My fam­ily was unim­pressed but un­sur­prised, hav­ing grown ac­cus­tomed to my night­time de­par­tures, whether they be mid­week hunts for striped bass in June, off­shore marathons for tuna in Au­gust, or can­non­ball runs for steel­ies in the fall and win­ter months.

This mo­not­o­nous drive will ter­mi­nate in Lewis­ton, New York, a vil­lage 30 min­utes north of Buf­falo, where there are cof­fee shops, art gal­leries, and his­toric hotels, all set along the banks of the Lower Ni­a­gara River. Twelve-thou­sand years ago, Ni­a­gara Falls plum­meted over the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment here, but cen­turies of ero­sion have moved the 8th Won­der of the World 7 miles up­river. The falls con­tin­ued re­treat­ing 3 to 5 feet closer to Lake Erie each year, un­til water man­age­ment over the past cen­tury reduced that num­ber to about 1 foot. The hy­dro­elec­tric plants that di­vert the water from above the falls and de­posit it in the lower river generate one-quar­ter of the elec­tric­ity used in New York and On­tario, Canada. Even with some of its power har­nessed, Ni­a­gara Falls still pul­ver­izes enough lime­stone, shale, and sand­stone to give an aqua­ma­rine cast to the Lower Ni­a­gara’s waters.

The river takes the 750,000 gal­lons of water dumped over the falls each sec­ond and fun­nels it through the Ni­a­gara Gorge and into Lake On­tario. Cur­rents in the Lower Ni­a­gara have been clocked at 25 miles per hour in the Whirlpool Rapids, though they slow some­what near Devil’s Hole, the up­per

limit for the Lund-driv­ing lo­cal fish­er­men. I’m not fish­ing in a Lund, though. I’ll be look­ing for lake-run brown trout and steel­head in my waders.

Stak­ing Claims

I reach the Lewis­ton Art Park around 2:30 a.m. The park­ing lots at this sum­mer con­cert venue are close to trails and stairs where an­glers can access the river. My dash­board ther­mome­ter reads 19 de­grees. This is the part I’ve been dread­ing for the past seven hours—chang­ing into my ther­mal un­der­wear out­side. I take a deep breath, fling open the door, and layer up as fast as pos­si­ble so I can jump back into my truck and blast the heat to kill the chill be­fore get­ting out again to wader up.

On my first trip to the Ni­a­gara, I also ar­rived in the dark, and, not know­ing the river, took what I thought was a trail, only to end up slid­ing down a steep slope of slick mud and loose rocks on the seat of my waders. When the sun came up, I saw that if I’d walked just 100 feet far­ther, I would have found the stairs. This time, I take the easy way, and at the bot­tom of the steps I’m sur­prised to dis­cover that I’m not the first one here. There’s a fire burn­ing on the shore with a hud­dled trio of an­glers sip­ping cof­fee and pass­ing around a flask filled with some­thing stronger. They’re spot-sav­ing.

This prac­tice is a nec­es­sary part of the Lake On­tario trib­u­tary ex­pe­ri­ence—es­pe­cially when you con­sider that the rivers and creeks that host runs of salmon, steel­head, and browns are within driv­ing dis­tance of the most densely pop­u­lated parts of the coun­try. Claim-jumpers and Johnny-comelateli­es hop­ing to sleep in and still fish prime spots are usually dealt with quickly and loudly.

On the Ni­a­gara, how­ever, long de­scents to the water, and even more ar­du­ous climbs back up, make it a dif­fi­cult river to ca­su­ally fish. This weeds

out some of the crowds, but not all of them, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing so­cial me­dia has brought more at­ten­tion to the Ni­a­gara in re­cent years. Glory shots with the Lewis­ton-queen­ston Bridge to Canada in the background tipped off many an­glers (my­self in­cluded) that fish­ing on the edge of this beast of a river was not only pos­si­ble, but it was also very pro­duc­tive.

While I'm walk­ing along the bank, a boil close to shore catches my eye. In the beam of my head­lamp, I spot sev­eral large browns. The fish fade back into deeper water, look­ing more an­noyed by my pres­ence than spooked by it. I stop 100 feet down­river of the other fish­er­men’s fire, where a sharp cur­rent edge cre­ated by a point up­river is well within cast­ing range. I piece to­gether the two halves of my cen­ter­pin rod and pre­pare to make my first drift. On many On­tario trib­u­taries, it’s not le­gal to fish un­til sun­rise, but the Ni­a­gara isn’t one of them. I use elec­tri­cal tape to at­tach a glow stick to my float, rig up with a glow-in-the-dark bead, and cast into the black­ness. Three drifts in, the glow­ing float dis­ap­pears.

The fish feels heavy but not fast, which sug­gests that I’ve hooked a brown trout and not a steel­head. Af­ter a brief stale­mate 10 feet from shore, I steer it into the shal­lows where the sight of sweet-pota­to­col­ored sides and cran­berry-size spots con­firm my sus­pi­cion. The an­glers around the fire take no­tice, and by the time I re­lease the brown, I see a fleet of glow-stick-fit­ted floats bob­bing in the river.

Pins and Needles

I’m a re­cent con­vert to cen­ter­pin fish­ing, hav­ing joined the fast-grow­ing con­gre­ga­tion in 2014. Danny Coleville has been float-fish­ing with a cen­ter­pin for much longer. Coleville—who makes custom cen­ter­pin reels and owns Coleville Out­fit­ters, a spe­cialty steel­head and salmon shop—picked up the tech­nique in 1999, when he could count on two hands how many fish­er­men were us­ing cen­ter­pins in the U.S. The tech­nique had em­i­grated from Eng­land (where it was used on light-bit­ing fish such as bar­bel) to Canada. Cana­dian an­glers eventually brought the gear across the bor­der to United States steel­head waters, where lo­cal fish­er­men were blown away by the ef­fec­tive­ness of the long, lim­ber rods and free-spin­ning cir­cu­lar reels.

The key to a cen­ter­pin’s suc­cess is the drag-free drift al­lowed by the freely spin­ning spool. On the Ni­a­gara, where swirling cur­rents cause dif­fi­cul­ties for fly-fish­er­men and bot­tom-bounc­ers, the nat­u­ral drift cre­ated by a cen­ter­pin pro­vides a ma­jor ad­van­tage. But because the gear was ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult to find, it took years to catch on. Ac­cord­ing to Coleville, it wasn’t un­til Raven and Okuma en­tered the game that the tech­nique took off. “Be­fore those brands, fish­er­men had to pay $400 to $600 for a spe­cialty reel, and drive to Canada to get it,” he ex­plains. But when Okuma, with its wide dis­tri­bu­tion, be­gan mak­ing cen­ter­pin tackle, fish­er­men could put to­gether a full setup for $300 to $400 at area big-box stores. Once an­glers saw how many more fish they could catch with a cen­ter­pin, the pop­u­lar­ity ex­ploded.

“Fish­er­men of all ages are tak­ing up float-fish­ing,”

Coleville says, “but it re­ally ap­peals to the younger crowd.” The ap­peal, be­yond its ef­fec­tive­ness, is that fish­ing with a cen­ter­pin has a grass­roots feel—i know of few other fish­eries where you can cus­to­morder a reel from the guy who’s go­ing to make it. And cen­ter­pin fish­ing is only be­com­ing more pop­u­lar as fish­er­men bring the tech­nique from the Great Lakes trib­u­taries to their home streams and rivers, where smaller reels and lighter rods prove just as ef­fec­tive on “in­land” trout.

I catch one more brown trout in the dark, but spend most of the pre-dawn get­ting snagged and rerig­ging, quickly learn­ing that float-fish­ing at night re­quires a strong sense of where the snags are in the river and where the branches are over­head. With the sun comes the crowds, and soon the lonely banks of the Ni­a­gara are filled with fish­er­men en­joy­ing the first day of a three-day week­end. Most use spin­ning or cen­ter­pin out­fits, but there are a few fly rods in the mix.

A pair of fly-fish­er­men ar­rive just be­fore dawn and set up 100 feet below me. Af­ter sun­rise, a group of young cen­ter­pin­ners make camp be­tween me and the fly guys. They’re a bit close, but given there aren’t many open stretches of bank left, it doesn't bother me. The fly guys, how­ever, seem un­will­ing to brush it off.

When cen­ter­pin­ners were first show­ing up on U.S. trib­u­taries, they butted heads with fly-fish­er­men. Coleville says th­ese dis­agree­ments had more to do with dif­fer­ences in lo­cal eti­quette than dif­fer­ences in tech­nique. Because most of the first cen­ter­pin­ners on U.S. rivers were vis­it­ing Cana­di­ans who were com­ing from more crowded rivers across the bor­der, they had dif­fer­ent ideas of what con­sti­tuted a “re­spect­ful dis­tance,” says Coleville. And because cen­ter­pin­ners could ef­fec­tively fish a longer stretch of water and caught more fish as a re­sult, they drew the ire of the lo­cal fly crowd. While dis­putes be­tween the two types of an­glers have largely stopped, tem­pers still occasional­ly flare. Af­ter one of the young cen­ter­pin­ners hooks a fish, a fly-fish­er­man who’d yet to hook up be­gins throw­ing rocks at her float as it drifts past. When she tries to defuse the situation, the dis­grun­tled fly-fish­er­man says some­thing you might hear in a honky-tonk bar at mid­night on a Satur­day, and her boyfriend steps in. For a mo­ment, it looks like things might get physical. With all the fish­er­men down­river of me in­volved in the squab­ble, I ex­change a look with the clos­est fish­er­man up­river, and en­joy some ex­tra-long drifts be­fore ev­ery­one sim­mers down and gets back to fish­ing.

De­spite the aerial as­saults, the fish con­tinue to bite. I’m do­ing fine with browns, but by lunchtime, I’ve lost four large, cartwheel­ing steel­head that barely give me enough time to blink be­fore break­ing my leader. Clearly, there are more browns in the river now than steel­head, and the steel­ies that are here are fresh from the lake and an­gry.

Around 11 a.m., I move deeper into the gorge where the river nar­rows and the cur­rent in­creases. As I round a point, the river changes char­ac­ter, with the long, lazy eddy re­placed by a vi­o­lent rapid.

Na­tive Waters

De­spite the size, strength, and in­tim­i­dat­ing ap­pear­ance of the Ni­a­gara, wad­ing in the Art Park sec­tion below the power plants is rel­a­tively easy. The bro­ken rock and gravel pro­vide sure foot­ing, and there’s no need to wade past your knees. Some lo­cals even fish the river in deck boots. Get­ting down the gorge to the river is the most dan­ger­ous part, es­pe­cially in the win­ter, when snow and ice cover the trails. Fish­er­men tie ropes to trees above pop­u­lar spots, where they prac­ti­cally rap­pel down to the water.

Above the power plants, at the omi­nously named Devil’s Hole, the foot­ing is far more treach­er­ous. Faster-mov­ing water has carved a

steep shelf along the shore­line, and a wrong step off a boul­der into the deep, swirling cur­rent would most likely be your last.

Up­river, I find room in an eddy where a few an­glers are spaced out, one of whom is fight­ing a fish. When I take a place in the lineup, I see he’s hooked a lake trout, not a steel­head. Through­out the eddy, lak­ers are rolling on the surface.

Because lake trout are na­tive to the Ni­a­gara and it’s one of only a few known rivers where lak­ers spawn, lake trout sea­son is closed, even to tar­geted catch-and-re­lease fish­ing, be­tween Oc­to­ber and Jan­uary. But they are much more ag­gres­sive than the steel­head and browns, and will strike ev­ery­thing from tiny egg im­i­ta­tions to large jigs, which makes them im­pos­si­ble to avoid.

It takes six drifts in the eddy be­fore my float dis­ap­pears and I’m tied into a lake trout. Most Ni­a­gara lak­ers run be­tween 24 and 32 inches, and while they lack the fire of a hooked steel­head, the fights tend to be drawn-out slugfests, where hay­maker head shakes are their pre­ferred strat­egy.

I hook a half-dozen more be­fore I set into a high­speed bul­let train bound for Lake On­tario. I stop the fish be­fore it breaks through the eddy and into the main cur­rent, and when I land the steel­head, I see only a faint pink stripe form­ing on its blind­ingly sil­ver sides—a clear in­di­ca­tion this fish has not been in the river for long.

By now it’s been 36 hours since I’ve slept, and I’m feel­ing run down, but each float drop gives me enough en­ergy to keep cast­ing. The sun’s set­ting, and I’m tap­ing a fresh glow stick to my float for an­other round of night-fish­ing when my friend Joe Dio­rio calls to let me know he’s checked into the ho­tel.

Dio­rio is a char­ter cap­tain out of Con­necti­cut whose spe­cialty is big striped bass. Like me, his lo­cal salt­wa­ter op­tions had waned by Thanks­giv­ing, and he’s ready to swap stripers and blues for steel­head and browns. Also like me, he’d left his fam­ily a cou­ple of hours af­ter Thanks­giv­ing din­ner to drive through the night to western New York. That morn­ing, he’d stopped short of the Ni­a­gara, fish­ing Oak Orchard Creek and Burt Dam, be­fore con­tin­u­ing west to Lewis­ton.

We set a meet­ing time for din­ner, but I’m 30 min­utes late because as soon as dark­ness de­scends on the gorge, the Ni­a­gara’s rav­en­ous browns and lake trout won’t let me leave. Dio­rio un­der­stands my tar­di­ness per­fectly.

Run­ning on Empty

Dio­rio and I are the first to the river on Satur­day morn­ing. Though the 2 a.m. alarm was tough to answer, see­ing the light of my glow stick wink out on my sec­ond drift does more to wake me up than a fresh cup of Tim Hor­tons—the re­gion’s cof­fee of choice. We have quick suc­cess with brown trout and lak­ers, but are still un­sure about whether steel­head feed at night when Dio­rio’s float drops at 4 a.m. Fol­low­ing his call of “fish on,” I see a shad­owy shape vault out of the water.

“I think it’s a steel­head,” Dio­rio says, and a few min­utes later, our head­lamps are glint­ing off bright sil­ver sides.

Like most of the tal­ented fish­er­men I know, Dio­rio has mas­tered the art of hav­ing fun while fish­ing. He takes his fish­ing se­ri­ously, but never so se­ri­ously that he loses sight of why he’s there. He eas­ily strikes up con­ver­sa­tions with other fish­er­men and makes new friends through the morn­ing. He’s so friendly and so en­joy­able to fish with, you al­most for­get he’s out-fish­ing you.

Dio­rio has been us­ing a cen­ter­pin for more than a decade, hav­ing picked it up

on the Salmon River in Pu­laski, New York, while he was in col­lege. He hones his skill with the cen­ter­pin ev­ery chance he gets, not only on the Lake On­tario trib­u­taries, but much closer to home on the Farm­ing­ton River in Con­necti­cut. While my cen­ter­pin might see eight days of use in a good year, Dio­rio’s hits the water a few dozen times. The difference in ex­pe­ri­ence shows in how quickly he di­als in the right depth and feed­ing lanes of the fish. He plucks sev­eral steel­head from be­tween the lak­ers and browns, and de­spite copy­ing his float depth, bead color, and drift lanes, I can’t sift out the steel. Still, I’m not com­plain­ing. The browns and lak­ers keep me busy un­til late morn­ing, when the ris­ing sun sends the fish deep, right into the lane of the conga line of boats work­ing the shore­line.

On Fri­day, I’d kept pace with the boaters, but on Satur­day, the boats run up the score. By 9 a.m., two out of ev­ery three boats drift­ing past have some­one fight­ing a fish, and the third has some­one tak­ing pic­tures of their catch. On the Ni­a­gara, the cleaner the water, the bet­ter the boat fish­ing. Strong winds on Lake Erie on Thanks­giv­ing had clouded the water, driv­ing the browns and steel­head close to the banks, giv­ing shore fish­er­men an edge. By Satur­day, the water had cleared enough for the fish to re­turn to the deeper water at the end of our cast­ing range.

Af­ter a cou­ple of hours of watch­ing the boats catch, Dio­rio and I hike a half-mile up­river to the eddy I’d fished Fri­day night. There, the out-of­sea­son lake trout are just as thick and ag­gres­sive as they’d been the night be­fore, but we strug­gle to stick steel­head. I get my shot in midafter­noon. Just as I won­der how many more casts to make be­fore leav­ing, I see my float for the last time.

I watch it drift lazily through the eddy when it drops out of sight. I set the hook, and the fish at the other end bucks wildly be­fore bolt­ing for the mid­dle of the river. I put as much pres­sure as I dare on the 8-pound leader, but the fish breaks into the main cur­rent. This is no brown trout. And it’s no laker. It has the fire of a big steel­head, and I want very badly to land it.

With the full force of Ni­a­gara Falls at its back, the fish screams down­river. I’m alarmed at the quickly grow­ing gap be­tween me and what must be the big­gest steel­head I’ve ever hooked, so I be­gin an awkward chase af­ter it along the rocky shore­line. I move as fast as I can, but the steel­head moves faster, and as I round a point, my eyes on my foot­ing, I hear my back­ing knot click through the guides.

Go­ing into the back­ing on a fly reel is no big deal. When your back­ing knot goes through the guides, there is, at most, 100 feet be­tween you and your fish. But with my cen­ter­pin, I had more than 100 yards be­tween me and my steel­head. I clamp down on the spool and gain enough to put the monofil­a­ment back on the reel. I was adding even more line when I no­tice I am only feel­ing dead weight. No more head shakes, no fran­tic tail beats, just the steady thrum of the river cur­rent over a tight fish­ing line.

The steel­head had wrapped a rock. When the line tight­ened around the boul­der, the fish had bro­ken off, leav­ing me with 100 yards of line to work back through the snag. I get back most of my line, but it’s too shredded to fish. I re­turn to Dio­rio, and he shows sym­pa­thy in the way that a good fish­ing buddy does—by laugh­ing and tak­ing my pic­ture.

I ar­rive home on Cape Cod around 3 a.m., 55 hours af­ter pass­ing on dessert at Thanks­giv­ing. I’ve spent 14 hours driv­ing, six hours sleep­ing, three hours eat­ing, and 32 hours fish­ing. I climb right into bed—but I’m wired. Dio­rio is still in Lewis­ton, and I’m won­der­ing about the bite. I text Dio­rio to see if he’s up and on the river. He is. Lucky bas­tard, I think be­fore fi­nally shut­ting my eyes.

The bot­tom of the Ni­a­gara Gorge at Lewis­ton, N.Y. Op­po­site: A Lake On­tario steelie.

The au­thor at­tempts to put the brakes on a Lower Ni­a­gara steel­head.

Joe Dio­rio grips-and­grins a steel­head be­fore send­ing it home.

A heavy hook-jawed brown trout in the net.

From left: A brown trout ready for re­lease; the Lewis­ton­queen­ston Bridge.

From top: The au­thor takes a break af­ter drop­ping a nice steel­head; here with a late-night laker— un­avoid­able by­catch on the Lower Ni­a­gara.

A down­stream view of the Lower Ni­a­gara River in late fall.

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