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This week's Feature Blog

Trout Three Ways

By: Mark Romanack

On a recent visit to the Niagara River, Fishing 411 TV Executive Producer Mark Romanack teamed up with Captain Frank Campbell targeting steelhead using live minnows fished on a three way swivel rig.

My fascination with river trout and steelhead fishing goes back more than 30 years. There is just something special about flowing water and the many species of salmonids that are attracted to it like moths to the flame.

At one time I rarely strayed from the Great Lakes State to get my fix of steelhead, browns and lake trout. These days, I find myself spending more and more time making the pilgrimage to New York and the Niagara River. It’s the Lower Niagara River that I find consistently excellent fishing for steelhead, brown trout and river run lakers. Some days I’m pleased to report, a fisherman can expect to catch all three in the same day!

Because the Niagara River is deep and the current swift, fishing methods are somewhat different than river fishermen might experience in other parts of the Great Lakes region. On the Niagara River there are three popular ways to fill a limit and all three of these presentations are based on the same fundamental river set up known as the three-way swivel rig.


Wobbling plugs like the Yakima Bait 3.0 Mag Lip are one of the most popular choices for fishing with a three way swivel rig. A main line of 10 pound test fluorocarbon or 10 pound test super braid is tied to one of the swivels on the three way. On a second swivel, a 24-36 inch dropper of 8 pound test is tied on and an one to 1.5 ounce pencil sinker added. At the business end, a five foot leader of 10 pound test fluorocarbon line is added to the third swivel and terminated with a small snap. This snap is in turn attached to the snap on the 3.0 Mag Lip completing the rig. The belly hook on the Mag Lip is typically removed to reduce snagging.

A seven foot medium action baitcasting combo is the perfect choice for fishing plugs on a three way swivel rig. In conditions when the wind is blowing the same direction as the current, simply turn the boat sideways to the current and let the boat dead drift naturally. On the upstream side of the boat, lower the plug and three way swivel set up until the sinker can be felt ticking the bottom.

If the wind is blowing opposite the direction of the current, point the boat downstream and use the electric motor to pull the boat downstream a little faster than the current.

You should be able to feel the plug wobbling and also the sinker making occasional contact with the bottom. Strikes generally feel like the rig suddenly got much heavier. Plugs are universal in that they do a good job of catching steelhead, lake trout and brown trout. Some of the top colors on the Niagara River include Double Trouble, Green Machine and Grinch.

When targeting steelhead in the Lower Niagara River, bonus fish like this beautiful buck brown trout are frequently in the mix. Plugs such as this 3.0 Mag Lip are one of the popular baits that catches brown trout, steelhead and lake trout consistently.


A modified version of the three way rig described for plug fishing is also commonly used to fish spawn sacks. The dropper is shortened to 8-12 inches long and at the business end of the leader an octopus style hook is used to attach the spawn sack. In clear water conditions a small No. 10 or 12 octopus hook is best. If the water is stained or murky, a No. 6 or 8 hook works nicely with spawn sacks.

Fishing spawn on a three way rig is done a little different than plugs. The rig is lowered to the bottom and the electric motor is used to keep the boat moving at the same speed of the current. The sinker should be positioned straight below the boat or slightly upstream as the boat drifts naturally.

Simply lower the rig until the sinker can be felt hitting the bottom and then hold the rod tip still as the boat drifts. This creates a natural drift that drops the spawn sack down on waiting fish.

Spawn produces fall, winter and spring on steelhead and it also works well in the fall on browns and lake trout when these fish are actively spawning.


The Niagara River attracts a huge population of emerald shiners, smelt and gizzard shad. As these baitfish are sucked over Niagara Falls, they become killed and/or disoriented. As this bonanza of bait drifts downstream, steelhead, lakers and brown trout gorge themselves on these easy meals.

The power house at Devil’s Hole also sucks up and spits out lots of baitfish, further setting up the ideal situation for fishing minnows on a three way rig.

For fishing minnows, the same set up and vertical presentation used for fishing spawn sacks is employed. A No. 6 or 8 octopus hook is ideal for fishing minnows.

Emerald shiners and also golden shiners are the local bait of choice. The emerald shiner does a great job of imitating smelt and the golden shiner is a close second to the gizzard shad in the river. Because all three species of trout in the Niagara River feed heavily on minnows, this three way option is one of the most popular choices among local guides. When you have minnows in the water, it’s a forgone conclusion that steelhead, brown trout and lakers will all come to net.

Both spawn and minnow rigs are best fished on a seven foot medium to medium-light spinning rod with 10 pound test fluorocarbon or super braid as the main line.


The prime times for targeting trout in the Niagara River are November to May. During this time frame fish are constantly coming and going from the system. Brown trout and lake trout numbers peak in the late fall when they are spawning. Steelhead numbers build in the fall and reach a peak in late winter prior to their spring spawning efforts.


Because the Niagara is deep, the best fish holding spots are not easy to identify. Fishing a few days with a local guide is the best way to figure out the places that routinely hold fish.

Also, navigating the rapids at the famed Devil’s Hole is something you will want to experience first with a knowledgeable guide who knows the safest routes. Once you’ve run the rapids a few times, taking your own boat up to Devil’s Hole is not a big deal.

Over the years I’ve fished many times with two different guides on the Niagara River including Captain Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charters, and Captain Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Charters, Both of these captains have decades of experience on the Niagara River and the surrounding fisheries.

Captain Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Charters explains to Fishing 411 TV viewers how to catch Niagara River steelhead using a three way swivel rig.


The Niagara River is border water. It’s a good idea to have both a New York and Ontario fishing license to open up the maximum amount of fishing opportunities.

After spending more than 30 years chasing steelhead and trout in flowing water, I’ve settled on the Niagara River as my destination of choice. There is simply no other place that consistently delivers world class fishing opportunities for steelhead, brown trout and lake trout. It’s that simple.


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