Destination – Buffalo-Niagara

Destination – Buffalo-Niagara

Jun 5, 2012

Mike’s Excellent Buffalo-Niagara Fishing & Dining Adventure

 Buffalo/Niagara, New York

By Mike Pehanich

Lake Erie’s smallmouth fishing is world-class and world renowned. But does its reputation eclipse the multi-species greatness and diversity of the region’s waters? Join me on my angling adventures through four seasons as we count coup on smallmouth, largemouth, salmon, steelhead, walleye and maybe even a musky from the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie through the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers and Lake Ontario…and eat like a king along the way!  — Mike Pehanich

Smallmouth bass in the five-pound-plus class are photogenic by nature. But when my first Lake Ontario smallmouth went airborne, the backdrop of 300-year-old Fort Niagara gave its modeling career a considerable boost.

The rod bucked, and the fish jumped on cue for the approaching boat of In-Fisherman senior editor Steve Quinn’s camera crew who had been filming nearby.

“Gotta love these Chamber of Commerce fish!” hollered Mark Davis, my angling partner and trip guide, as I coached the bronzeback through its few minutes of fame.

For a multitude of anglers, this would be the bass of a lifetime.

Here it proved to be but one big bass among many.

Quinn was shooting multiple segments on Great Lakes smallmouth and lake trout for In-Fisherman television. A day earlier, he had drifted an offshore hump on neighboring Lake Erie with Buffalo area guide Frank Campbell and set the hook on a smallmouth of seven pounds, five ounces — his personal best!

Lake Erie: “Hands down, the world’s greatest smallmouth fishery”

Trophy fish have a habit of showing off for the camera in the Buffalo-Niagara area, a region blessed with history, cultural character, stunning natural beauty, fine and distinctive cuisine, and three remarkable multi-species fisheries that produce bragging-sized fish in all four seasons.

 

httpvh://youtu.be/VFxDL46Qkg0

Buffalo’s front yard spans the extreme east end of Lake Erie and the Upper Niagara River up to Tonawanda. The neighboring communities of Lewiston, and Youngstown – just a ways north of a community spigot called “Niagara Falls” – overlook the multi-faceted fisheries of the Lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario.

Oh, what a comeback these waters have made since the “Dead Sea” years of the 1960s! Today, the wealth of angling and water sport opportunities in Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Lake Ontario make it one of America’s top angling destinations.

“Lake Erie is, hands down, the best smallmouth bass fishery in the world,” proclaims Mark Davis, host of “Big Water Adventures,” a Golden Moose Award-winning television series. “And (Lake) Ontario is coming on, getting better every year. The average size is getting better every year. The lake doesn’t get the notoriety of Lake Erie, and that works to its advantage because it is flying under the radar.”

Yet, for all its acclaim, relatively few anglers truly appreciate the quality and diversity of this freshwater fishing Mecca.

Never in my wildest dreams did I envision as many big smallmouth bass as I have caught and witnessed in the Buffalo area of Lake Erie, an expanse of water roughly defined as the region running eastward from the mouth of Cattaraugus Creek to Erie’s Upper Niagara River outlet.

Follow the river north along the U.S /Canadian border to Youngstown and Lake Ontario, and all you get are more smallmouth along with even better species variety as steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon, walleye, perch, musky, lake trout, brown trout and more add to the mix.

Niagara USA offers world class fishing opportunities throughout the year and boasts a long list of freshwater fish available year-round.

But the bronzeback has been the magnet for anglers drawn by the eastern Erie basin’s well-earned reputation as a “world class” or even “best-in-the-world” smallmouth fishery. The size of the smallmouth seems to get bigger every year, if that is possible, thanks to the forage bounty and widely respected practice of “catch and release.” Smallmouth – and good pocket populations of largemouth, too – gorge themselves on emerald shiners and round gobies, an exotic species that has propagated throughout the Great Lakes.

 

So how good is the smallmouth fishing?

Well, the second smallmouth bass I witnessed on my inaugural spring trip to Erie was a six-pound, 12-ounce fish. My personal best is a 7-pound, one-ouncer – compliments of guide Frank Campbell. Our annual angling parties have taken so many fours, fives, and sixes that they’ve more or less blended into a phantasmagoria of smallmouth memories.

On each of three consecutive trips there in the month of May, multiple members our party caught 7-pounders.

Time to eat

Mark Davis and I tallied roughly 60 bass by 1:00 P.M. when a front pushed in suddenly and slowed the action. Several brownies approached the six-pound mark. Not a bad tally for a first visit to the fort’s shores!

Green pumpkin and watermelon tube jigs with different mixes of purple and gold fleck accounted for nearly all of the fish. The Yum Mardi Gras tubes topped all baits.

That evening, we dined in Lewiston, a river town with an abundance of history, charm and dining alternatives.

Davis would have settled for a massive platter of the area specialty, Buffalo-style wings. But Frank Campbell and Bill Hilts, local outdoor writer and historian, urged us to sample a mix of area cuisine – still with a side order of Buffalo wings, of course.

We opted for the Brickyard restaurant and its down-home barbecue cuisine, ranging from ribs and smoked brisket to the western New York-style chicken wings that have earned it renown.

“The whole Buffalo Wings phenomenon began in nearby Buffalo at Main Street, Frank & Teressa’s Anchor Bar,” explained guide Terry Jones. Terry was one of the first professional guides to dedicate his work to Erie smallmouth. This night, however, he was moonlighting as local food historian. “The story goes that Teressa had a bunch of chicken wings left over when her kids were looking for something to chow down on. She didn’t have much else, so she put some of her hot sauce on the wings – and history was made! Pretty soon, everybody wanted them.”

Many an angler has brought home bottles of Frank & Teressa’s Original Anchor Bar Buffalo Wing Sauce out of either guilt or gratitude. Even if you can’t share your fishing experiences directly, you can bring part of the taste experience home!

“The Brickyard has a great home wing recipe,” explained Hilts. “The guy who owns Brickyard also owns Tin Pan Alley, which is another fisherman hangout, with great chicken wings and another local favorite Beef on Weck. It’s almost as popular as chicken wings!”

“Weck” refers to the kummelweck (a.k.a. kimmelweck or kummelweck), a Kaiser roll with caraway seeds, topped with chunky kosher salt. Restaurants serve the thinly sliced and usually rare roast beef, with horseradish, a kosher dill pickle, and a cup of au jus.

 

For information on restaurants, lodging and fishing guides, see the Buffalo-Niagara Vacation Resource Guide

Spring smallmouth fling

Within the Eastern Basin of Erie is Buffalo Harbor. The harbor and adjacent breakwalls create “the gaps,” openings between walls where current and baitfish draw concentrations of smallmouth, especially in spring.

But the smallmouth are likely to be spread from shallow to deep, and it is not unusual to catch bass roaming a six-foot flat and lying belly-to-bottom in 36- to 44-foot mud on the same day.

Tube jigs are, without doubt, the artificial lure of choice on Erie through most of the season. Keep your colors in the green pumpkin and crawfish families, though it helps to have some sparkle and purple and gold flecks in the mix. Bring a color assortment of tubes, and let the fish tell you what they want!

Drag those tubes. Don’t overwork them!

Dropshotting soft plastic goby baits will work as well, as will football head jigs with some type of craw trailer.

Many anglers thrive on the spring jerkbait bite, and it can, indeed, be spectacular in water three- to 10-feet deep. But it often produces smaller males rather than the thick-bodied females of five and six pounds and up that are the big attraction in the Eastern Basin, especially in May prime time.

And when riding the big waves of Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin gets too tough, keep in mind the nearby Upper Niagara River, which can provide not only sanctuary from a wicked blow but great fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, as well as other species.

Watch this exclusive Small Waters Fishing video of bass fishing on the Upper Niagara River with guide Terry Jones.

httpvh://youtu.be/fIn2d-Z-dMw

Niagara’s piscatorial paradise

Lake Erie bounced back with a vengeance once the clean-up effort gave her waters and fishery a fighting chance. Clean water made it a marvelous outdoor playground for sportsmen, outdoor recreationists, and family travelers.

Booming walleye and perch populations first returned anglers to Erie. But it didn’t take long for fishermen to stumble upon a burgeoning smallmouth population as well, particularly on the east end of the lake. That fishery has grown annually, and larger and larger bronzebacks are reported every season.

Jumbo perch are another prime Lake Erie-Niagara River attraction, as James Therrell discovered when fishing outside Buffalo Harbor.

Same goes for the mighty muskellunge, the toothy predator of lore and legend, which has thrived, too in these resurrected waters. Today Erie and the Upper Niagara River are world-class fisheries for musky, the king of North American freshwater fish, along with fair numbers of northern pike. Buffalo Harbor alone might qualify as one of the nation’s top musky fisheries.

Salmonids – that’s the biologists’ word for the trout and salmon family – swim throughout the Erie/Niagara/Lake Ontario system. Wading anglers stalk steelhead, hard-fighting migratory rainbow trout, during spring and fall runs up Lake Erie tributary streams. In the Lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario is an equally brilliant steelhead fishery of different character. It is primarily enjoyed by boat fishermen. Both Erie and Ontario host lake trout and brown trout as well.

Lake O’s laker fishing can be particularly outstanding in spring when the fish take up residence on relatively shallow structure and become gluttons for lures presented on light tackle.

Niagara salmon

As Niagara Falls is a genuine wonder of the natural world, so is the Niagara River and its surrounding region a wonder of the angling world.

The Niagara River hosts every species offered by Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Both upper and lower portions of the river are beautifully and sometimes hauntingly scenic, particularly when fog and mist blend with roaring water and bucking current and the throb of your lure is interrupted by the freight-train rush of a Chinook salmon.

The previous fall, I had witnessed both wonders in full splendor while fishing with Dave Mull, then editor of Great Lakes Angler magazine.

Early morning boat failure during a down-river run had dry-docked our angling plans. We spent the day in coffee houses and the Lewiston Public Library and had just about written off our fishing prospects for the day when word came from our friend and guide Frank Campbell that his boat was back up and running. If we hurried, we still had time to catch king salmon before nightfall.

We made a beeline to the Lewiston launch.

Few places excite a fisherman like the Lower Niagara River from the surreal setting of Niagara Falls through the Niagara Gorge at Queenston. Over 6 million cubic feet of water plummet over the falls every minute during peak daytime tourist hours. Hiking the Niagara Gorge Trail system provides breathtaking views, but a boat ride up the gorge with its towering walls and rocking, boiling waters is an experience on another level altogether.

Fish on!

Mist hung in the canyon, and the river’s current bulged with current swells and white-capped rockers as we entered the Upper Great Gorge of the Lower Niagara. The rock walls climbed hundreds of feet straight up. Lamps from the electrical power station bore halos in the mist, and the river rocked and roared and bucked like a herd of stallions, then curled nervously into side eddies before rejoining the down river rampage.

The power plant cast a haunting light through the mist as we ascended the river to Devil's Hole.

After guiding for most of each season on Lake Erie, Frank Campbelll welcomes the autumn run of kings. Running the river alone is electrifying, and knowing that you might be only minutes away from fighting a double-digit king in double-digit current heightens the senses with indescribable intensity.

Moving upstream with us were king salmon, the mighty Chinook, the largest salmonid of North America, on, quite literally, the spawning run of a lifetime. Ascending the Niagara from Lake Ontario, these long and full-bodied fish porpoised at the surface over the 60 to 80-foot depths of the rushing Niagara. Most wore a transition hue between their silvery lake sheen and dark spawning colors.

A score or more of shore anglers lined the ramp at the power plant. Other boats navigated the run and set up for what they hoped would be a productive drift. At Frank’s behest, we cautiously gave our Luhr Jensen Kwikfish to the current. Our rod tips throbbed with the lure’s steady vibration, occasionally interrupted when the lure bumped bottom.

Dave contacted a small walleye on our second pass, then a smallmouth bass. Nothing wrong with these, but we had bigger prey in mind for the evening.

There was no mistaking the bump I felt on our third drift. The fight was all “king” from the moment my rod arced, through the balletic leaps and bulldog runs of the muscular salmon. Frank jockeyed for boat position, simultaneously fighting for advantage against current and fish.

Battling salmon on this wild river ride is a rare and exhilarating experience. You are in Nature’s hands all the way, infinitely small and vulnerable. Yet at times you feel supernaturally capable, buoyed by the hand of God.

Fighting a king salmon like this fish of nearly 29 pounds in the Devil's Pool canyon offers pure adventure and angling thrills.

By the time the short evening had ended, I had boated two kings, including a giant of 28 pounds, 10 ounces, and had lost a third.

The next day, Bill Hilts, Jr., one of the leading authorities on the area’s history and outdoor sports, got a particular jolt out of hearing me, a “bass guy,” bragging more about the salmon, trout, musky and walleye than about the endless parade of giant smallmouth that had passed over our gunwales that week. It reminded him of when my fellow Bassmaster senior writer Louie Stout first came to fish the area about 15 years ago.

“Louie had everything he needed for his Bassmaster article so he asked if we could fish for other species,” recalls Hilts. “We decided to fish for walleye with worm harnesses. We started out right across from the launch ramp in Lewiston then ran to the Queenston Drifts. Louie hooked into a fish that he fought for over an hour. Walleye? No way! It was a 36-pound king salmon.”

Fort Fish

But this was May, and another game was afoot now on the opposite end of the Lower Niagara.

West winds wailed on Erie that morning. I hated to leave the Big E’s mammoth smallmouth, but an embarrassment of piscatorial riches remained. I opted to play out our hot smallmouth hand on Lake Ontario once again.

Niagara USA offers world class fishing opportunities throughout the year and boasts a long list of freshwater fish available year-round.

We put in at the Fort Niagara launch on the Niagara River, and it wasn’t long before Davis was posing with our first fish of the day, a beautifully marked five-pound smallmouth, framed before the Fort Niagara walls.

It was an awe-inspiring backdrop. Fort Niagara is an imposing fortress that has flown under French, British and American flags during its 332-year history. The French built the first outpost – Fort Conti — on the site in 1679, and, during the colonial wars, it controlled access to the Great Lakes. A 19-day siege gave the British control of Fort Niagara during the French and Indian War in 1759. They held control through the American Revolution and beyond, finally ceding it to the United States in a 1796 treaty. But they recaptured it during the War of 1812. We got her back at war’s end in 1815, and the fort has served as a peaceful border sentry since.

Mark Davis of "Big Water Adventures" TV fame, battles another smallmouth bass against the backdrop of Fort Niagara.

But big bass kept interrupting the cavalcade of fort history running through my head. Davis’s smallmouth was but the first of many. The smallmouth had ideal habitat at the river mouth with the current edge bordering a boulder flat that tapered gradually from the walls of the fort. A mud-line had formed 50 to 150 feet from shore, and the bass held to its edge as if it were their primrose path.

“That mudline only goes down about two feet,” Davis explained. “The mudline we see is just a canopy for the fish. There is so much current here, the water flow will come back and undercut it and disperse it. But for now, that darker water is holding sun and warming the water quickly.”

The bite cooled with a sudden 15-degree temperature drop in early afternoon, but by then we had already boated more than 50 smallmouth on tube jigs. Several hovered near or above the six-pound mark.

Gooooood dog!

The Buffalo-Niagara area thrives on the appetites of tourist families and, of course, rabid sportsmen. That often means quick and casual dining, then on to the next attraction or fishin’ hole.

Sub shops and bakeries abound in Buffalo and the river communities. Count DeCamillo’s among the favorite bakeries of Lewiston. “People want to take back DeCamillo’s biscotti and little loaves of bread,” said Hilts. “It’s one of several local favorites.”

The Silo offers a unique setting for a fast bite. True to title, it is an actual silo overlooking the lower Niagara River near the Lewiston boat launch. Its menu offers traditional fast food, but you can also get beef on wick and hot wings to go with the burgers and dogs.

Speaking of hot dogs…Western New York is famous for fabulous and distinctive hot dogs. Two of the region’s signature brands are Sahlen’s and Wardynsky’s. Both are made in Buffalo. Ask the locals what makes their native dogs so special, and they just look at you strangely.

“They taste good!!!!,” said Hilts, who gets downright chauvinistic about the cuisine he’s grown up with. “I’ve had hot dogs all over the world, but these are goooood hot dogs. When I go deer hunting to Ohio, we always have to take Sahlen’s hot dogs, Weber’s horseradish mustard (another local favorite), chicken wings with some Frank’s red hot sauce and some Anchor Wing Bar Sauce. There are so many local favorites people who have been here want us to bring them when we travel that we have to bring a separate suitcase just to haul the stuff!”

 

 

Click here for more information about the Niagara USA Visitor Center

 

Get a Guide!

Finding trophy smallmouth with the kind of consistency I have enjoyed is a credit to my Buffalo-Niagara area guides and fishing partners. They include outstanding guides like Frank Campbell, Terry Jones, Jim Hanley and Tim Braun.

Some of the local guides offer not only bass fishing but trout, salmon, musky and walleye outings as well.

Frank Campbell, Niagara Region Charter Service, 1-716-523-0013, www.niagaracharter.com

Terry Jones, First Class Bass Charters, 1-716-875-4946, www.1stclass-bass.com

Jim Hanley, Jim Hanley’s Fishing Charters, 1-716-316-3567 www.northeastoutdoors.com

Tim Braun, Braun’s Outdoors Bass Charters, 1-716-837-5649 www.braunsoutdoors.com

2 comments

  1. Hi Mike sign up for e mail loved the video of you Bob and me

  2. Mike it was so great to see you again as all ways . I like your web site the video of you Bob and me was great . Thanks for hooking me up with Noel great guy we had a good converation . We have to do something during the summer bring your wife we can sample some of Buffalo’s best dinning

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