Devil's Hole, Niagara Falls, and steelheads

Michael Sullivan of Eden, N.Y., lands a steelhead near a power plant on the Lower Niagara River. 

I should have listened to Mick Jagger.

It was an omen. A Rod & Reel warning from the Rock & Roll gods.

But I should start at the beginning. Originally it was an e-mail from brother-in-law Jim in Buffalo, N.Y., that set me on my course of doom. That, and the fact that an ESPNOutdoors.com editor in Little Rock, Ark., actually read the thing when I forwarded it on.

Here's part of the e-mail from brother-in-law Jim:

Went Steelhead fishing with Michael yesterday. A bit cold but we boated around 20 fish. The average size, 14 lbs. Your arms get tired from cranking.

And then he attached some photos. I think they were what made the editor in Arkansas go nuts.

Editor Guy in Arkansas: "Did you see those steelys?"

Me in Bristol: "Ah, actually one is a nurse, the other is an insurance guy. Pretty sure neither one has worked the steel mills."

EG in AR: (A few second pause.) "The fish, Don. The rainbow trout."

Me: "Oh."

EG in AR: "Where did he say they caught these?"

Me: "He said on the Lower Niagara River, below Niagara Falls, near Lewiston, N.Y. Right across from some wing joint, I think."

EG in AR: "You mean to say it's not Alaska or something like that, it's incredible . . . " (the rest is blah blah blah stuff as I was mainly thinking about how I missed Buffalo wings from home, but there was one thing he said that I did hear; something about how one of the best places he ever fished was Lake Erie for bass …which went blah blah blah again as I thought of this great shot 'n' beer joint I used to go to on Lake Erie that had the coldest Bass Ale) . . . will ya?"

And for some unknown reason, to his "will ya," I said, "sure," even though I basically had no idea what he had said, or, what exactly I had just agreed to.

EG in AR: "Great let me know when you get back."

So before I know it, here I am, somewhere between Utica and Syracuse on the New York State Thruway. I would know exactly where, except for the horizontal snow and whiteout conditions.

And on the satellite radio, Mick Jagger is giving me fishing tips: "You can't always get what you want," he says. "But if you try sometimes . . . you just might find . . . you get what you need."

And what I've been told I need is to go fishing for steelhead trout on the lower Niagara River. In the middle of winter. In Buffalo. With my in-laws.

The Rock gods don't have a song for that.

Survivor: Lake Erie

Turns out what I also need is gear just to live through the trip. I'm from Buffalo, where nasty weather is measured in feet. But even I had never gotten an e-mail like this:

"Do you have warm clothes? If not, I will see if Chris has another survival suit available for you."

Survival suit?

I do have a fishing vest, and cargo pants, but I have nothing that remotely has the word "survival" in it. So I now find myself standing in Bill's Military Surplus & Bait Store, the kind of store that has a brown cardboard sign duct-taped to the front door reading: "No Soliciting. Don't want it, Don't need it, JUST GO AWAY!!"

Bill and his store smell like Camels, grease, and 50-year-old Army surplus clothes bought by the crate. Even my teenaged son, a gourmet of smells, stays close to the front door.

I venture in and fess up: "Bill, some guy in Arkansas is sending me to my death."

Seems he's heard this one before. ESPN is, in fact, just down the road.

"I have to go fishing, in winter, for steelys, near Niagara Falls," I blubber. "With in-laws. And it's cold. Going after big-ass trout that make your cranking arms sore. They say I need a survival suit. And just for the record, what the hell is a survival suit, and why the hell would I need one?"

At which point Bill opens his cigar box-turned-cash register, propped open with an empty .50-caliber shell, and butts his Camel out on what I can only hope is a totally deactivated hand grenade.

He digs between the dollars, quarters, fishing hooks and once-tied flies, and pulls out a small scrap of paper that he uncrumples and hands to me, saying, "Read this."

It says that I may want to consider a survival suit since if I happen to fall into 38-degree water wearing only my vest and cargo pants, within a few minutes I will be unconscious, and within an hour, fish food.

Turns out, he does have a survival suit. "An old Soviet one," he offers. "Twenty bucks. Got a few rips in it, though."

That would seem to me to pretty much take the "survival" part out of the survival suit. But then again, 20 bucks is a damn good price.

"Try this," he says. "I wore it to shoot Commies in the winters in Bosnia." Bill hands me a regular issue Army M51 Fishtail Extreme Cold Weather Parka circa 1965, complete with the smell of Bill, Bosnia and Purple Haze.

Then he starts rooting around in other Cold War bins. From under a massive green pile Bill suddenly pulls a pair of Army-issue long johns. He sniffs them. "Here," he says. "I wore these in Romania and they kept the family jewels toasty all the time. Three bucks."

A deal, true, but after the fourth time through the wash, my wife threw them out. Febreze is no match for Romania, or Bill's family jewels.

No Plan B

Trust me, you never want to get an e-mail that has "Think About A Plan B" in the subject line. Especially when you already have 35 bucks' worth of Cold War extreme cold weather gear stinking up the back of your minivan.

Another brother-in-law e-mail:

"db, the winds are blowing and forecast calls for wind for today and tomorrow. The wind problem: Lake Erie is not iced over, the winds cause the lake to get "churned" up or muddy, the steelhead are "sight" fish, they need clear water to bite."

"When you cross the Grand Island bridge, if the water looks like coffee with double cream, conditions suck. The ideal condition is water looking like green tea."

Below me, as I cross the Grand Island Bridge, I can see that the Niagara River is not even close to green tea level. It looks more like cinnamon dolce latte, and a double shot at that.

I keep driving anyway, hoping the steelheads are hungry and have at least 20/20 vision.

Within minutes, I'm on the Lewiston boat launch with both in-laws, Michael Sullivan and the e-mail writing Jim Niland. Walking up the cement launch ramp is Capt. Chris Cinelli of Niagara River Guides, a lifetime steelhead fisherman and full-time guide for the past seven years. He spends more than 220 days a year on the water, and these are the first discouraging words he says to me: "Water clarity is real bad today."

Usually, he explains, visibility is about five feet in blue-green water (he and Jim must drink different tea). He says steelheads spend the whole summer in the deep water of Lake Ontario, then winter in the lower Niagara. The Captain explains to me that the Steelhead season runs from the middle of October through the end of May.

I try to take it all in. Then I tell the guide, "I'm freakin' freezing."

That's because it's about 25 degrees with a 20-mph wind blowing right through my fishing vest and cargo pants. (And not that I'm about to say anything, but the Barone family jewels, unlike Bill's, are not doing very well about now. Later that day, Michael announces to me, and pretty much the world in general, that he is "going commando." According to brother-in-law code, you don't ask a follow-up to that.)

As I run back to the minivan to put on more Bosnia-smelling Extreme Cold Weather Army surplus stuff, I hear Capt. Chris say: "You're lucky today. Normally the town of Lewiston has to come down here with a backhoe and break up the ice so we can put the boats in. Some days the icebergs floating by are as big as my boat."

I return bundled under at least four layers, two of which stink. So insulated am I that I can't zip up my boots, so Michael does this for me.

"Thanks guy," I say. "You sure you want to do this? It's freezing out there."

"You bet," he replies. "I love this. Happy to be on the river, just so damn thrilled to be here, just like Ringo Starr."

The limits of egg sacs

The Niagara River water temperature is 38 degrees, and there is 18 to 25 feet of it underneath me. I'm in the Artpark Drift, one of several drifts on the Lower Niagara. I know this because I'm looking at some sort of GPS thing on Capt. Chris' boat that shows a dotted line running right straight down the river.

Chris explains: "The Niagara River is a border river. You should have a New York State and Ontario Provincial Fishing license so you can fish both sides."

(You can get a New York fishing license online, and the Canadian counterpart online or by calling 1-800-667-1940. I highly recommend calling because a woman with a very sexy French accent answers the phone, which explains why I somehow now own eight Canadian Fishing Licenses.)

Capt. Chris keeps one foot on the trolling motor pedal, one hand on the steering wheel and both eyes on Michael and Jim. Jim is in the front of the boat, Michael is behind me in the back. I keep moving around, saying I need to take great pictures. In fact I'm doing it just so I can use the guys as windbreaks.

We're drifting Quickfish down the Artpark drift with a three-way swivel rig with an 8- to 9-foot leader and 1 ¼-ounce sinker. "It mimics an injured bait fish drifting down the river," Chris says. "The steelys come out of the lake and stack up on the drifts, nice gravel bottoms with drop-offs that the fish love to stage on."

But so far today, the only thing we've almost hooked is me, with an errant cast from the back of the boat.

In clearer water, Chris uses tiny egg sacks with colored mesh. "I put loose steelhead eggs up in it, and a little pink Styrofoam float in it so it floats off the bottom," he says. "It matches a single salmon egg coming down the river and it gives off a nice scent that the fish will hit."

And it works. In the pictures that lead me here, and freaked out the editor guy in Arkansas, the last time out on this river the guys boated about 20 fish (all but one was released; New York law allows for three to be kept but only if they are over 21 inches). The average catch that day was an 8- to 14-pounder, 29 to 34 inches long. I know this because behind my brothers-in-laws' backs, I called their wives, who happen to be more truthful in fish-related matters.

One of the Chris-isms I heard that day was, "If after a couple of drifts, no hits, time to move on." We moved on.

"Chris, where we headed now?" I asked.

"Up to the power plants," he said. "We kind of zig and zag through the rapids, up to a spot called Devil's Hole."

None of this was ever explained to me before we set out. Even though I'm still a little vague on this survival suit thing, I'm convinced it's not wise to fish a place named "Devil's Hole" without wearing one. Both brothers-in-law are smiling at me, which from experience I know to be not necessarily a good thing.

"Devil's Hole (or "Satan's Ass," as Michael refers to it) is a natural bay," says Chris. "There's a big rock formation that comes out at the top of the hole that slows the current down and makes a nice area for the fish to stage, probably one of the best spots on the river to fish.

"But it's a little spooky going up there. You got the rapids, three power plants discharging water. Loud, very loud."

As my eyes get wide, so do the smiles of the boys in the boat.

Drifting Devil's Hole

Imagine fishing, say, turn 3 of the Bristol Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. It might be almost as loud as fishing Devil's Hole. Maybe.

Towering above us, both behind and in front, are three major, bigtime, hydroelectric power plants. Rapids are all around us, and on top of it all is that slow bass beat you feel in your gut: the roar of Niagara Falls, just a couple miles upriver.

Walden Pond, it ain't. But it's here where I see my first steelhead porpoise. And it's over this roar that I learn of the respect the fish have.

"These fish want to run," Michael says. "When they hit they take off running, steelys love to take 50 to 70 yards of line out, run across the water, jump out of the water a few times, run back under the boat. They are not something you fish sitting down. It's a very challenging fish. Landing them is crazy."

Chris uses Pflueger rods and reels with 10-pound main lines and 8-pound fluorocarbon leaders to catch fish that average 14 to 15 pounds, with some as heavy as 20 pounds. "The fight is incredible," he says. "We run about 10 steelhead boated for every 20 hooked."

Says Jim: "You get a much better fight out of them. It gives the fish a fighting chance, we purposely use lighter rods, lighter lines."

It became apparent that the Cinnamon Dolce Latte River would win out this day as we drifted Devil's Hole and later where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario, under the gaze of the 17th-century cannons of Old Fort Niagara, where we had hoped to catch lake trout "the size of logs."

Coming back up river, the props went to the fish: "exciting to catch," "adventure," "great sport."

"When they hit," Chris said to himself as much to anyone on the boat, "the first thing you want to do is to start reeling, because the first thing the fish will want to do is come up right with you. Their natural reaction is to come right up to the top."

Smiling, he adds, "I've actually had them jump right into the boat."

Jim and Michael make that wistful nod as they listen to Capt. Chris' fishing lessons at 40-knots while watching the old squaw sea ducks skimming the river for a meal.

"Why not just set the hook?" Michael asks. "Why reel?"

The reply comes: "The leader I'm using is an 8- to 9-foot leader from a three-way swivel to the hook. If you just lift up that rod, you're not pulling the hook line up at all. When you start reeling that hook and everything is coming right up, you are getting the hook set that way."

With the river mist stinging our faces, within sight of the graceful arch of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge to Canada, this is the last thing Capt. Chris says as he guided his boat into the boat launch: "Some days, you'll swear you're fighting a tarpon out here."

Alas, this day we do not. But I still find myself feeling a bit like Ringo Starr.

Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. Other stories of his are available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.
Capt. Chris can be reached at chriscinelli@adelphia.net.