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Winter Fishing On The Niagara River

Story By Bud Cole–Photos By Bud Cole, Doug Muthard and Matt Yablonsky

You won’t see couch potatoes out fishing in the northeast at this time of the year. No, the faint of heart do not go ice fishing or fishing in open waters in winter. These activities attract only the hardiest individuals.

While most outdoor sports require expending plenty of energy, thus building up body heat, ice fishing, winter stream bank fishing or fishing from a boat in open waters does not require much physical activity. Once the holes are drilled and tip-ups are set on a frozen water impoundment the activity settles down and the chills can begin although a fish at the end of the line tends to eliminate the cold temperatures for a short period.

Family ice fishing on a farm pond.
Family ice fishing on a farm pond.


Dressing properly for cold weather necessitates wearing waterproof boots and socks no matter what winter outdoor activity one may pursue. Dressing in layers wearing wicking undergarments next to the skin, followed by a fleece layer and finally a wind and rain protecting outer layer will reduce the chances of becoming cold. Never wear cotton! Cotton absorbs moisture and moisture cools the body. Wearing a hat or hood to cover the top of the head is also important.  About 80 per cent of body heat is lost from uncovered skin areas, especially the top of the head. Commercial hand warmers and toe warmers are also very helpful. Outdoor enthusiasts need to be cognizant of carrying and drinking enough water to prevent dehydration. The cold temperatures increase moisture loss.

Most of the northeastern water resources are totally covered with ice by mid-winter. Only a few rivers and streams with fast moving currents remain open at this time. One waterway that rarely freezes is the lower section of the Niagara River in New York.

Ice build-up along the sides of the Niagara River
Ice build-up along the sides of the Niagara River


The plunging waters of Niagara Falls assists in keeping the lower river open.  Niagara’s River region includes the Niagara River flowing from Lake Erie to the falls, the area downstream from the falls to the river’s mouth at Fort Niagara and a portion of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. This area is world famous for fishing due to its year round open waters and the rivers abundant variety of game fish.

Anglers have the opportunity to catch many different game fish species including brown trout, lake trout, king salmon (chinook), smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, steelhead (migrating rainbow trout)  and a variety of panfish species.

Steelheads are the targeted species in the lower Niagara River during the winter. Most guides and individuals with their own boats drift for steelhead in the fast moving river current. This fast moving water is not a safe for boats under 18 feet.

Guide and Captain, Matt Yablonsky of WetNet Charters, is on the river throughout the year guiding from his StarCraft Fishmaster 2100 boat. Yablonsky focuses on making each angler’s trip a successful one. The StarCraft’s 150 horsepower Mercury Optimax outboard engine transports anglers from ramp to prime fishing areas in quick order.

Captain/guide Matt Yablonsky.
Captain/guide Matt Yablonsky.

Devil’s Hole, just upstream from the New York and Canadian power plants, and the Artpark area upstream from the Lewiston, New York boat launch are prime areas for catching steelhead.

The main baits used to bring steelhead from the depths of the river to the boat in winter are egg sacs and minnows. Both baits are presented in the same way using a three-way swivel.

Doug Muthard and author Bud Cole show off their double catch !
Doug Muthard and author Bud Cole show off their double catch !


Yablonsky recommends and uses a 1 3/4 ounce lead pencil sinker. The sinker is attached to a 12 inch leader. A size #12 hook is tied to the end of an eight foot eight pound test P-Line Floroclear leader. The reel’s 10 pound test braided Tuf-Line XP line is tied to the third swivel eye.  Yablonsky uses seven foot Fenwick medium extra fast fishing rods and Shimano Sahara 2500 reels for steelhead.
The majority of the guides make their own mesh egg sacs using brown trout or salmon eggs. Chartreuse or other bright color beads serve as attracters. The bead is placed a short distance up from the egg sac and or attached to the egg sac.

A bow-mounted Minn Kota power drive/auto pilot trolling motor allows the guide to keep the boat flowing along with the current with the bow pointed upstream. Yablonsky is adept at keeping his boat in perfect alignment and rhythm with the quickly moving river current.

Bait presentation, as in all fishing situations, is of prime importance. The line must run perpendicular with the river from the rod tip’s eyelet to the river bottom. This allows the bait to flow naturally. The weight is reeled up about six inches from the riverbed once the weight hits the bottom. This natural bait presentation is more likely to attract feeding steelhead to the bait. Do not jig the line! The bait should drift downstream from the swivel and weight.

Author Bud Cole with a
Author Bud Cole with a cold water steelhead


Yablonsky advises his clients to hesitate a short time before setting the hook when they feel a bite. Steelhead do not hit as hard in the extremely cold water. They tend to nibble at the bait rather than grabbing it and producing a heavy running strike. Waiting a few seconds allows the fish to engulf the bait and generates a much better chance of wetting the net and bringing a steelhead onboard. Returning home with 45 pounds of steelhead filets for the grill and smoker makes the cold weather trip well worthwhile.

For more information contact Captain Matt at Wet Net Charters, or call 716-550-0413. You won’t be disappointed.

A great lodging facility, located right by the Lewiston boat ramp, is the Barton Hill Hotel and Spa. They have fishermen rates. Call 716-754-9070 or check their website

The Barton Hill Hotel and Spa near Lewiston,  New York
The Barton Hill Hotel and Spa near Lewiston, New York





Bill Hilts Jr., Director of Outdoor Promotions for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation, is another valuable contact. Call the toll-free number 1-877-FALLS-US or check out the website at

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