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Fishing King Salmon in the Lower Niagara River with Captain Frank Campbell & Matt Higgins

A New York Times Article  

A Bruising Fight in Rough Water
By Matt Higgins; New York Times 

With boiling currents below and steel skies above, Capt. Frank Campbell steered up the Lower Niagara River in search of king salmon.

It was a warm afternoon during the second week of October, normally a prime time to catch king, or chinook, salmon during their annual run up the green river. But a water temperature near 70 degrees meant thousands of fish were waiting in Lake Ontario for the river to cool.

With boiling currents below and steel skies above, Capt. Frank Campbell steered up the Lower Niagara River in search of king salmon.

It was a warm afternoon during the second week of October, normally a prime time to catch king, or chinook, salmon during their annual run up the green river. But a water temperature near 70 degrees meant thousands of fish were waiting in Lake Ontario for the river to cool.

Campbell headed in the opposite direction, piloting his 21-foot boat into the Niagara Gorge, beneath the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge carrying traffic to and from Canada.

We were in pursuit of those fish that had preceded the main run.

The entrance to the gorge is a tempest of white water and white noise, where the cliffs suddenly rise to 350 feet and house enormous concrete hydroelectric plants.

A charter boat captain who spends 250 days a year fishing area waters, Campbell brought us to Devil’s Hole, at a spot thick with rocks and rapids four miles below the falls. We were there to catch one of the most prized freshwater fish in North America.

A mature Lake Ontario king salmon can easily weigh 30 pounds. To catch such a trophy in the raging waters of the gorge, with the trees showing the first of their fall colors, makes for a rare fishing experience.

“The only other opportunity people could have for catching fish like this is going to Alaska,” Campbell said. “There’s no other sport fish to compare to them, size-wise or fight-wise.”

Although native to the North Pacific, king salmon were introduced to the Great Lakes during the 1960s to cull baitfish populations.

Steve Dolan is an assistant manager and fish culturist at the Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar, outside Syracuse, where Lake Ontario’s king salmon are raised. The hatchery stocks roughly 1.5 million annually in the lake’s tributaries. The fish then spend up to four years feeding in the lake before returning to the rivers to spawn before dying. In the Niagara, king salmon run as far upriver as the falls. And although they do not feed while spawning, they will strike at bait. “They’re not in a good mood,” Dolan said. “They’re looking to spawn. It’s their natural instinct to get something out of the way.”

To provoke the fish, Campbell lets his boat drift with the current and uses salmon eggs as bait. He sets hooks on a skein loop near the river bottom, using a 15-pound leader on 17-pound line. The trick, he said, is to make the eggs look natural and ensure the bait remains near the rocky bottom.

Campbell, who has 17 years’ experience as a captain on the river, adroitly managed to keep the boat steady in the current while fishing, offering instruction, freeing snags and fending off barbs about failing to catch anything.

Bill Hilts, [Jr.] an outdoors liaison with an area tourism agency, had accompanied us for the day, providing a foil for Campbell and a recipe for chicken-wing-flavored king salmon steak.

Although the weather had cleared, revealing the river’s emerald water, our prospects dimmed because salmon do not favor light. Still, the fish were there. Campbell had been hooking them for weeks. Fishermen on a platform at the New York power plant were netting them. And the salmon seemed to taunt us by occasionally leaping from the water before disappearing with a splash.

But after more than three hours, we had yet to net a fish. Campbell had hooked one early on, but the line snapped.

By 6 p.m., another charter boat had reached its limit — three king salmon per person in New York waters — and headed in.

It was then, as the sun slipped below the rim of the gorge, that our fortunes improved. Campbell hooked a fish and handed me the rod. The spool whined, and a salmon leaped. I reeled furiously. For 10 strenuous minutes, the fish fought as I alternately raised the rod and reeled. Campbell finally netted the 25-pound thrasher a half-mile downriver amid the turbulence from the power plants. My first king salmon was a muscle-burning thrill.

Thirty minutes later, Campbell hooked another 15-pound king. The gorge had grown dark by then, and we were alone on the river. We took one final pass through Devil’s Hole and returned to the docks at Lewiston.

In a cleaning station on a bluff above where the river runs wide and slow, Campbell cut flanks from the fish for steaks and removed several pounds of bright orange eggs that would be used as bait. With the meat in a pile to one side, and the eggs in another, the scene was a visual aid for something Campbell would say later. “Salmon eat and spawn,” he said. “Those are the only two things they do.”

In Celtic mythology, salmon were thought to be wise, with their smarts correlating to their number of spots.

But here on the Lower Niagara, catching king salmon is not so much a cerebral pursuit. When the conditions are right and the fish are running, it is a battle in muscular currents with a feisty fish and the river roaring like the crowd at a prizefight.

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