Somewhere on a tributary of the Great Lakes, snow builds on the horizontal branches of phantom trees, not to mention forearms, hands and shoulders. Squalls curtain the view like fog. Heavy, wet flakes sting your eyes and slap the rod, the sensitivity of which becomes mere rumor, held uncertainly between fingers the shade of a cloudless afternoon sky.
Step right this way. You've got an invitation. The magical mystery trout tour is waiting to take you away. Right. One mystery concerns the questionable logic that leads people to abuse themselves this way — the north wind slicing through six layers of clothing above tortured feet that feel like blocks of ice.
One answer is to dress right. But the best answer is in the tap-tap of sinkers meeting bottom. At some point, the tapping stops. The rod tip doesn't move. Time stands still until that tip slowly bends down. From the hookset until a big silver something-or-other break dances into the net 15 minutes later, and long afterwards, the misery is forgotten. Adrenalin is beter than a warm fire. Suddenly the top button of your coat is undone, your hood comes off, and the snow is beautiful. That's the ticket. You're now beyond help, joined at the hip with the undead zombies that wade northern rivers in winter.
The mystery is many faceted. These fish leave perfectly good lakes full of food to run headlong into current that checks out at 36°F or less. What's wrong with them? Nobody knows. Some come to spawn, some come to feed, some simply seem crazy. Some are lake trout averaging 8 pounds
Some are steelhead the size of your leg. Some are brown trout the size of Hulk Hogan's leg. And only some rivers have them all. Which leads to the most intriguing part of the mystery — what's going to bite next?
So step right this way. Literally thousands of rivers, streams and creeks the empty into the Great Lakes entertain fine runs of steelhead. But the bus only stops where mixed bags of salmonids, including browns or lakers, can be taken anytime from November through April. And step lively. The tour started yesterday.
The Niagara River
The photo above shows Frank Campbell holding an average Niagara steelhead. I've been to the Niagara River five times during the height of the mystery tour. Four times the situation was precisely as described in the first paragraph. Snow, wind and an obscured view of the ancient gorge created by the slow, steady retreat of Niagara Falls. The view, in fact, shrank to the confines of the boat with occasional hints that something approaching a shore actually existed somewhere out there.
The Niagara runs deep and heavy, and the trout fishing here is like few other places on earth. Sometimes the hot bite is 20 to 30 feet deep on rock and gravel flats, where the fish are best approached vertically from boats. A weight somewhere in the vicinity of an ounce hangs on a long, 2- to 3-foot dropper from a three-way swivel. The 10-pound leader is 6 feet long in average clarity, replaced by a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader that's 10 feet long when the water runs clear. Hooks range from a size #4 down to a size #10 — again, depending on clarity and the bait du jour.
Baits can be pieces of cut skein (row or eggs still in the membrane), spawn bags (salmon or trout eggs tied in nylon mesh), emerald shiners, yarn flies, artificial worms or a variety of other plastics. Lures (jigged without additional weight) include spoons and blade baits in the 1/2- to 1 1/2-ounce range. The bait is kept moving at the speed of slower bottom currents with boat control, by slowing the drift with the bow-mount trolling motor.
At other times, shore fishermen catch their share using floats with jigs and spawn, minnows or plastics to entice steelhead that average 8 pounds with a fair number over 20 pounds. Some years the Niagara gives up more 20-pound steelhead than any other river in the Great Lakes region. Lake trout and browns run in and out of the river all winter long, some of them topping 20 pounds, too. Prime time on the Niagara tends to stretch from a week or two after Christmas into February, with spotty (but sometimes incredible) bites through March and April. If the river clouds up, lakers and browns are always going out on the Niagara Bar outside the river mouth in Lake Ontario.
(Contacts: For lodging with guide service, call Bruce Blakelock (716/754-4101). Guides: Captain John Oravec (800/443-2510); Captain Frank Campbell (716/284-8546).