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Winter Fishing Doesn’t Have to be Ice Fishing

By: Mark Romanack


Captain Matt Yablonsky fishes the Niagara River all winter catching his clients limits of fish like this day in and day out.


​ For me fishing is a year around activity. When most anglers are putting away their boats for the winter, I’m busy getting mine outfitted to extend the fishing enjoyment throughout the winter months.


​ Ice fishing is a good option and I enjoy that too, but I’m just more comfortable (literally) finding open water fishing opportunities to scratch that itch. Thankfully, open water fishing warms the soul all winter long on the Niagara River in Western New York.


​ The Niagara River is at the top of my list for winter open water fishing destinations and has been for many years. From December through April, the Niagara River produces the most consistently excellent steelhead and trout fishing in the Great Lakes region. Visiting anglers can expect to find steelhead and lake trout in good numbers every year and bonus brown trout most years.


​ While brown trout numbers in the Niagara River vary from year to year, you can set your watch by the steelhead and lake trout. Numerous times over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to catch all three species on the same day!


The Mag Lip 3.0 catches just about everything that swims. In the Niagara River browns, lake trout and steelhead are all routinely taken on this plug.


​ All three species are targeted in similar ways. The 3.0 Mag Lip plug fished with the help of a three-way swivel rig catches steelhead, lake trout and brows when conditions are conducive to fishing plugs. The 10 pound test main line to the three-way swivel can be fluorocarbon, monofilament or super braid. The leader to the plug should be about five feet long and tied using 8-12 pound test fluorocarbon line. The dropper line to a 1.5 ounce sinker should be 18-24 inches long and tied using eight pound test.


​ This simple rig is deadly effective for fishing plugs, live shiner minnows or spawn bags on the Niagara River.


​ “When the Niagara River has a slight green stain to the water, plug fishing conditions are ideal,” says Captain Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Charters. “Three colors of the Mag Lip dominate on the Niagara River including Double Trouble, Grinch and Green Machine. While other colors produce, most of the captains keep a good supply of these three colors on board all the time.”


​ Plugs are fished by turning the boat sideways and letting the boat drift naturally with the current. Let out just enough line that the sinker can be felt ticking the bottom and hold on! Double digit sized steelhead and browns are common and don’t be surprised if you tie into a lake trout north of 20 pounds!


​ If the wind blows opposite the current, an electric motor is used to pull the boat downstream a little faster than the current. The key to plug fishing success is making sure the boat moves a little faster than the current and staying in contact with the bottom.


​ Plugs work all winter long, but there are conditions when a slightly different approach is called for. In the fall and early winter when lake trout, salmon and brown trout are all spawning in the river, a three-way swivel rig baited with a spawn sac is deadly effective.


​ Spawn is fished by lowering the sinker to bottom, holding the rod still and allowing the boat and bait to dead drift with the current. Similar to vertical jigging for walleye, the biggest difference is the rod tip is held steady to keep the spawn sac drifting naturally with the current.


​ A slightly shorter dropper is used when fishing spawn and at the end of the leader a small egg hook is used to insure the spawn drifts naturally. Hooks as small as No. 10 or No. 12 are considered ideal for drifting with spawn.


​ Spawn works best when there are fish in the river actively spawning. During the middle of the winter when no fish are spawning, another three-way set up kicks into gear. Instead of using a spawn sac at the terminal end, using a larger No. 4 or No. 6 octopus hook and a three inch shiner minnow is money on the Niagara River.


Captain Frank Campbell holds a typical winter steelhead caught on the Niagara River in mid winter.


​ “The Niagara River is full of shiner minnows, so fishing live minnows makes a lot of sense,” says Captain Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charters. “Minnows produce best when the river is clear to lightly stained. Steelhead, lake trout and brown trout will all eagerly eat shiner minnows, making this presentation important in the dead of winter.”


​ Like fishing a three-way swivel with spawn, a three-way rig with minnows is lowered to the bottom and held steady as the boat drifts downstream naturally. The trick is to find bottom with the sinker and keep the rig close to, but not constantly on the bottom. This strategy reduces snags and makes fishing the three-way rig more efficient.


​ Most anglers who fish spawn and minnows on three-way rigs use a seven foot medium action spinning rod. Plugs are generally fished using a seven foot medium action bait casting outfit. In extreme cold conditions fluorocarbon and monofilament main lines are easier to keep ice free than braid. In milder conditions, braid provides more sensitivity and makes it easier especially for beginners to tick the bottom without dragging the sinker and risking snags.


​ The Niagara River remains open water in all but the most extreme cold. On occasion the river will fill up with slush making fishing impossible, but usually within a few days the river is flowing freely again and the bite is back on.


​ For those anglers who prefer open water to ice fishing, the Niagara River is a little slice of heaven. For me it makes winter literally fly by.

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