Knapp 6-23-20

Frank Campbell, with Old Fort Niagara in the background, displayed one the big smallmouth bass during a recent spring outing.

I’m not one to put much significance in “personal best” catches — weight-based milestones of a particular species — preferring rather to appreciate the qualities of all fish brought to hand or net. I do, however, recall my biggest smallmouth bass, a 7½-pounder.

The sounds of battle re-enactments issued from nearby Old Fort Niagara as veteran guide Captain Frank Campbell slid the net under the massive fish, one of several 5-pound-plus brown bass we caught and released that spring day. The setting was appropriate, as few places can boast such diversity of quality fishing options, ones combined with nearby cultural, historical, family fun-packed attractions that are found in the shadows of the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls region.

Many of the attractions such as Old Fort Niagara, Aquarium of Niagara, and the Castellani Art Museum remained closed due to COVID-19, a status that could change as restrictions are lightened. However, Niagara Falls State Park (www.niagarafallsstatepark.com) is open, and within it are enough activities and attractions alone to keep a family busy during non-fishing hours.

Speaking of fishing, let’s take a quick rundown of what major waters exist within a 20-mile radius of Niagara Falls, N.Y. There’s the eastern end of Lake Erie, readily accessible from the protected harbor found at Buffalo. Lake Erie drains into the Niagara River, which runs for 36 miles — including a 176-foot drop in elevation at Niagara Falls — before adding its tremendous flow to Lake Ontario near Youngstown, N.Y. Eastern Lake Erie, the upper Niagara (above the falls), the lower Niagara (below the falls) and western Lake Ontario are all potential fishing hotspots, depending on the season.

Frank Campbell (www.niagaracharter.com) guides folks of varying levels of angling skill, including ones with limited (or non-existent) fishing experience. The varied opportunities the area offers suits this situation well, as he can tailor things to the weather conditions at hand, keeping boat rides do a minimum, while upping the chances clients will enjoy plenty of action.

One of the area’s best summer fishing options, he says, is the fine walleye fishing found in eastern Lake Erie near Buffalo. By mid-summer eastern Lake Erie is loaded with walleyes, largely migratory fish that make their way from waters to the west to the Buffalo area. Walleye charters commonly target fish via trolling, a tactic where the boat catches the fish. If the angler can follow the directions of the captain in regarding winding in the fish, chances are excellent everyone aboard with have an enjoyable, productive day. Campbell typically presents baits for clients via drifting (when the wind is right) or pulling with the electric motor, a boat control tactic that allows for a more hands-on experience for the client but is still quite simple.

“If the walleyes aren’t cooperating, we have some pretty good smallmouth bass fishing in eastern Lake Erie,” Campbell noted. “Not only good numbers of fish, but quality fish as well, and not far from the harbor.”

Whereas most bass fishing is strictly done with artificials, if the situation calls for it, Campbell will rig up with live minnows. Even finicky smallmouth have a tough time refusing a lake shiner.

Big wind and big water — and the resulting big waves — is not a combination likely to suit a family fishing excursion. But the assortment of venues provides options.

“Usually when Lake Erie is rough, the lower Niagara is perfect,” Campbell noted. “We jump back and forth, based on the weather. During July and August, we have excellent smallmouth bass fishing on the oxygen-rich lower Niagara.”

Though it’s reliant on the weather of the summer, which directly influences water temperatures and fish movement, it’s common for king salmon action to kick in on the lower Niagara around the third week in August. Campbell said the late-summer king salmon fishing can be spotty, but trips can also target smallmouth bass and walleyes, increasing the changes for an action-packed day.

Not surprisingly, the great fishing in the Niagara Falls region continues into the fall and beyond, with steelhead and lake trout becoming part of the mix.

While there is no escaping the realities of COVID-19 and how it’s affecting travel-related angling, the varied nature of the Niagara Falls region provides families with some great options this summer.