November 14, 2023
Tracing its formation to glacial dynamics of yesteryear, the Niagara River’s swift current funnels Lake Erie’s outflow in Lake Ontario and thereby creates some of the region’s most incredible smallmouth bass opportunities.
“We’re spoiled in this area,” Capt. David Scipione said of the area’s world-class smallmouth fishery. “I think Lake Ontario and the Lower Niagara is an overlooked fishery. It’s often overshadowed by Lake Erie, but I have caught dozens of 5- to 6-pounders her.
“We caught a 7-3 in May. That was a monster.”
Where It Happens
Launching his 21-foot Lund Pro V 2025 at either Fort Niagara or the Lewiston Launch in in Youngstown, N.Y., he often fishes outside the river mouth on the famous Niagara Bar. Extending approximately 5 miles into the lake, this ancient formation serves as a very big stump in a very big pond, with plenty of room for giant smallies.
Formed by centuries of silt and sand flowing downriver and depositing into Lake Ontario, this bar ranges from about 15 to 80 feet deep on top and plunges with a 150-foot drop-off. Under the stoic watch of historic Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario’s southwest shore, this bar’s magnetic appeal gathers a buffet of smelt, shiners, crayfish, alewife, and goby that predators cannot resist.
He said the spring prespawn period and fall the fall feeding typically produce the best smallmouth action. He catches bass throughout the season and that’s not always intentional.
“A lot of times, we’re out there trolling for trout and these bass will smash our lures,” he said. “We’ll get the occasional 6-pound smallmouth bass while we’re steelhead fishing in November.”
In the river, he looks for rocky shoals and embankments in 15 to 20 feet. With the Lower Niagara offering several established drifts, he fishes various sections of an 8-mile stretch from near the mouth, upstream to Devil’s Hole, past the power generating stations.
As he explained, daily conditions dictate where he’ll fish. For the Niagara Bar, he wants a south or southwest wind. Anything from the north or east favors protected areas in the river.
“The farther upriver you go, the higher the gorge walls get, so it’s more protected from the wind,” Scipione said. “Also, if we get a lot of rain, we’ll fish farther upriver, past Devil’s Hole, because the (power stations) muddy the rest of the river. A lot of times, it will be clearer the farther upriver you go.”
He finds that drifting a crayfish, shiner, or a Berkley Powerbait Minnow on a 3-way rig fools plenty of smallmouth. His standard setup comprises a 10-pound main line tied to the top of a 3-way swivel. The bottom ring holds an 8- to 10-inch dropper suspending a 1- to 2-ounce pencil weight below, while the center ring trails a 6- to 8-foot leader of 8-pound fluoro with a 1/0 dropshot hook and live bait.
Once the summer bottom moss grows thick, he’ll use a dropshot rig to keep his bait above the clutter. Working Ned rigs, swimbaits and crankbaits along the drift also produces.
Hold On Tightly
Now, the offerings may vary, but smallmouth aggression does not. His advice: Don’t get caught napping.
“They hit like a freight train; they’ll rip the rod out of your hand if you’re not paying attention,” he said. “They say pound for pound, they’re the hardest fighting fish and I believe it.
“We always say the Lower Niagara smallmouth fight better because they’re working out in the current all the time.”
Describing the smallmouth fight, he said: “I listen to each fish individually. If they’re running hard, I let them run, but I try not to let them get on top too long because that’s where they tend to shake the hook.
“Also, if you bring them in too quickly, then they have too much energy and they’ll shake loose at the boat.”
He said the Lower Niagara and Lake Ontario smallmouth average about 2 pounds with plenty of 4- and 5-pounders. A 6-pound smallmouth could find its way into the mix, but anglers will enjoy plenty of opportunities to set the hook.
“Most of the time, 20 to 30 fish a day is good, but when the bite is on, I’ve had 40- to 50-fish days,” he said.
Along with the stellar smallmouth action, Lake Ontario and the Lower Niagara offer a tapestry of species from trout and salmon to walleye, pike and muskies. While Scipione said he rarely fishes specifically for the latter, incidental catches definitely liven up the day.
Targeted efforts usually find anglers drifting through 15- to 20-foot depths along weed edges in the Youngstown area. Drifting 3-way rigs on 15-pound main line with suckers will tempt muskies along the vegetation edges. As Scipione said, a little patience goes a long way.
“Let them take the bait for a little while to make sure it’s a good bite on the fish,” he said. “They’re a little tricky. I can’t tell you how many (muskies) have come right up the boat and they’re not even hooked; they’re just holding on to the bait and they’ll just let go and swim away.”
Do it right and you can expect a tenacious fight that’s less about the runs and more about the hard headshaking. Essential to engaging this contest is a light drag that allows a muskies to take the bait without an alarming level of resistance.
Scipione said 15- to 20-pounders are pretty common and while it’s mostly a catch-and-release fishery, these big toothy fish make great bragging photos.
Capt. David Scipione
Scipione’s Fishing Charters LLC