F&S Adventure: The Cold Truth About Niagara Steelhead

The Hill-Vue Cafe in Lewiston, New York, was the author's last taste of warmth before chasing steelhead on the Niagara River in 8-below wind chills. If Captain Ernie Calandrelli was thinking it was too cold to fish, he never said it out loud. He just kept toying with the throttle on his boat at the ramp, waiting for something to happen. "We don't have any gears right now," he said. "I think it needs to warm up some more." Less than an hour earlier, Calandrelli, my uncle Bud Wooley and I had been enjoying hot pancakes, even hotter coffee and the warmth of the Hill-Vue Cafe. Now Wooley and I gripped the dock lines of Calandrelli's Lund that were frozen solid as crowbars. The idea of motoring into the ice-laden Niagara River in a boat that may lose it's forward and reverse at any time was slightly unsettling. "One thing's for sure," Calandrelli said. "If we can get out, we will catch steelhead."Joe Cermele
Getting out of the boat ramp and into the river required a bit of chopping. Luckily the ice was only an inch thick. Winter steelhead was a quarry I had been meaning to chase for years and never actually made the commitment. Now I was here in February. It was 6 degrees, and the wind chill felt like 8-below. But Calandrelli has been guiding in such extreme conditions for over 40 years. The Niagara River is an old friend to him. He knows it as well as his trusted boat, which, after 15 minutes of warm up, had working gears just like he said it would. Departing the boat launch, Wooley stood on the bow, banging away at an inch of solid ice with the handle of the landing net. We cleared a large enough hole for Calandrelli to spin the bow and plow through the rest, cracking and popping the frozen sheet as we revved towards the murky green moving water.Joe Cermele
Captain Ernie Calandrelli's onboard policy. "Don't let your rod tip touch the water," Calandrelli advised during our first drift. "You hook a 20-pound fish and have a frozen tip guide, you'll have problems." The warning didn't help much. Dropping an egg sack to the bottom was easy, but as soon as you reeled in a few inches to adjust your depth, the wet line running through the guides froze them all. Every once in a while, between breathing on the guides to thaw them, you could actually fish. Calandrelli worked the trolling motor to slow our drift as the weighted baits gently bounced across the boulders below. "The fish may be a bit sluggish because it's so cold," Calandrelli warned. "The hit may be pretty subtle."Joe Cermele
Bud Wooley with the first steelhead of the morning. It fell to an egg sack in 15 feet of water. Wooley was the first to connect. There was nothing subtle about the fight. Battling a big, pissed-off steelhead on light tackle is tough enough, but maneuvering the line around sharp chunks of floating ice to stop from breaking off makes things that much harder. Wooley's fish dogged under the boat, and then just when we saw the leader, anticipating a silver flash, down the steelie would go again. If nothing else, we all forgot about our numb faces as I danced around with a camera and Calandrelli readied the net. When the fish was finally brought into the boat, the water on its body froze faster than any blast-chiller on the market could accomplish. Had it not been for dunking the steelhead to thaw it out for pictures, you'd swear we imported it direct from the morning shipment at the fish market.Joe Cermele
A fresh egg sack on a 10-pound leader that's been out of the water for less than a minute. While the Niagara River holds loads of steelhead, fishing it has advantages and disadvantages depending on the time of year. According to Calandrelli, the bite gets underway by late October when the fish begin swimming upriver from Lake Ontario (about 7 miles downstream from Lewiston). The weather is more favorable to anglers then, but the fish can be spread out and mostly hold right at the river mouth. Competition for prime spots can be fierce at that time of year. By late December, anglers can expect the steelies to be more concentrated upstream, but they've got to bust out the parkas, face masks and heavy gloves. February can be an especially brutal month to fish, but the location of the steelhead is very predictable. They generally gather along the banks in 10 to 30 feet of water. Whether or not they bite depends on fronts and weather conditions that are unpredictable in late winter. But if you can brave the ice and the chill, you'll often catch 20-pound steelhead not far from the boat ramp.Joe Cermele
Captain Ernie Calandrelli shows off an average-size steelie for a late winter trip. "We actually catch these fish through June," said Calandrelli. "They spawn in the spring, but some stick around later than others." Egg sacks are effective - so much so that you can often get a fish per drop on some days - but trolling is the go-to method most of the steelhead season. By mid-morning the ice had cleared just enough for us to switch gears and tow some lines. Calandrelli broke out two spinning rods and moved us closer to the bank to run one of his favorite stretches.Joe Cermele
A box of Luhr Jensen Kwikfish is all you need on the Niagara when it comes to fooling trophy steelies on the troll. The trick to trolling over the craggy bottom is letting out just enough line to keep the weight tapping the rocks. It's effective, but don't fall in love with your lures: you kiss plenty goodbye. "Do these fish feed up?" Wooley asked. The answer was quick. "Nope," said Calandrelli. "You're either on the bottom or you've got nothing." Within five minutes of the first run, my rod bowed and the line began zigzagging through what remained of the dwindling ice clusters. The headshakes were severe, as was the snap of the line as it raked across a nearly invisible sheet of ice. One lure down.Joe Cermele
A male steelhead comes to the boat. A few seconds later, Wooley was in. He took his time while Calandrelli set up my rod with a fresh Kwikfish. We landed the Wooley's steelie, then we both cast out again and had doubles on as soon as the lures touched down. "Trolling like this is best when you've got just a couple guys onboard," said Calandrelli, pointing to a few other charters on the river packed with clients. "If those guys all put rods out to troll, it would be chaos with a fish on." Our double proved that point. Perhaps we were too busy hooting and hollering to pay attention to our wild fish that tangled both our lines together as they ran back and forth across the bow.Joe Cermele
A steelhead taken out of the water just moments before this photo was taken begins to freeze up. To make things easier, Calandrelli netted both fish at once, stripped off his gloves and began working as quickly as possible to free the steelhead. I wasn't envious watching him pick through the frozen net. If you plan to try your hand at steelheading on the Niagara in February, be sure your hand is covered with some waterproof insulated gloves. At 8-below with wet rods and fish, neoprene gloves didn't do much good. I switched to sheepskin and they worked. Also, make absolutely certain you¿ve got boots that are designed to keep your feet warm when you're standing still in extremely cold temperatures. Those old work boots in the garage won't cut it.Joe Cermele
Calandrelli's landing net froze after we boated a few steelhead. A windproof jacket is also a must, as the north wind will blow straight up the river. Wooley and I wore Under Armour Cold Gear base layers with a couple of sweatshirts on top under our jackets. Should you decide to trailer your own boat up to Lewiston, be sure to pack some medium-action conventional rods spooled with 15-pound braid for dunking egg sacks, and some medium-action spinning gear loaded with 10-pound mono for pulling plugs. Braid can be affective on the troll, but because it won't stretch, you run the risk of ripping the lure out of the fish's mouth.Joe Cermele
The author hoists a 14-pound steelhead he caught on a silver Kwikfish. In just over four hours of fishing, we fought 15 steelies, boating 11. That suited Calandrelli just fine, as he considers 10 fish on a February day - especially one this cold - excellent. February steelhead: Check.Bud Wooley
Check out this video of the February steelhead trip on the Niagara River.Field & Stream Online Editors