All the water in the Great Lakes funnels through the Niagara River, which flows along the border between New York and Canada. It’s a wild, tumultuous river that offers anglers a lot more than a view of its famous falls.
The Niagara River flows 36 miles from the easternmost tip of Lake Erie to western Lake Ontario. Niagara Falls serves as the dividing line between the Upper Niagara River and the Lower Niagara River.
The Lower Niagara River, closest to Lake Ontario, offers outstanding fishing for cold-water fish like salmon and steelhead. Warm-water species, which include smallmouth bass, walleye and muskellunge, are comfortable throughout the river.
In order to keep one’s bearings, it’s helpful to remember that the Niagara River flows northward. Thus the southern half of the river is the Upper Niagara, and the northern half is the Lower Niagara. It can be a little disorienting at first.
As excellent as the fishing can be, it comes with some challenges. The river ranges in width from over a mile to as little as 250 feet, and the ferocity of its current varies accordingly.
Fishing the Niagara River isn’t always easy, but the potential rewards are great.
Niagara River Salmon Fishing
A major salmon fishery in Lake Ontario was established in the late 1960s and early ’70s when the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began stocking smolt of both Chinook and coho salmon.
Both species make a major run up the lake’s tributaries in the fall. The Niagara River—which carries more water into Lake Ontario than all other tributaries combined—is ground zero for salmon fishing this time of year.
Chinook salmon are the first to arrive, entering the Lower Niagara in early September and peaking toward the end of the month. Cohos are a little later, starting in late September and hitting their stride by October. The Niagara River hosts both species through November.
The Chinook salmon that run up the Niagara River average 15 to 25 pounds, and coho typically weigh 8 to 10 pounds. Considerably larger individuals of both species are possible. They make it as far as Niagara Falls, about 14 miles upriver.
Devil’s Hole is arguably the top place to fish for salmon. Several spots in the Lewiston area, including the New York Power Authority fishing dock, are also popular for bank fishing.
Anglers can also fish this stretch by boat, though doing so requires skill and experience.
Strong and unpredictable currents are the main challenge anglers must contend with, whether fishing by boat or bank.
The ideal salmon fishing rig for these conditions, used almost universally by Niagara River salmon anglers, is known as a three-way rig.
The rig’s key components are a three-way swivel, a 1.5- to 2.5-ounce pencil weight, and a size #1 or #2 Gamakatsu octopus hook. Anglers typically bait the hook with salmon egg sacs or skein.
The pencil weight is attached to one eye of the swivel via a 12-inch leader, and the weight and shape of this particular sinker allow it to bounce lightly along the river’s rocky bottom with less snagging.
Use 14- to 20-pound mono for your main line and slightly lighter line for the leader and dropper.
Size K-8 or K-9 Kwikfish lures are also effective and often seen as an alternative option when natural baits aren’t getting bites. Many anglers simply attach a Kwikfish to a similar three-way rig.
More: Check out our simple guide to catching Pacific salmon species such as Chinook and coho.
Trout and Steelhead Fishing
Steelhead, lake trout and brown trout are all on the table for Niagara River anglers. Like salmon, these species have all been stocked in Lake Ontario for decades, and they stage annual spawning runs up the Lower Niagara.
Niagara River Steelhead Fishing
The steelhead start to show up in the river in November, and they spawn in waves throughout the cooler months. Many are caught in the river as late as May. All the areas that are productive for salmon are also great bets for steelhead.
Much like salmon fishing, the presentation of choice is a three-way rig. For steelhead, the rig is usually scaled down slightly for fish that typically weigh 5 to 8 pounds.
Salmon eggs are often effective, as steelhead commonly feed on the eggs of spawning salmon in the Niagara River.
Anglers might switch to Trout Beads and Glo Bug yarns when the water is warmer and steelhead are more aggressive. Live shiners and minnows also work at times.
While steelhead can be caught throughout the Lower Niagara River, a key area is Niagara Bar, a unique geological feature made of sand and rock that extends from the river’s mouth about 5 miles out into Lake Ontario.
The edges of the bar rise steeply from 70 to 20 feet, and multiple trout and salmon species feed here.
Catch More Steelhead
Learn more about steelhead fishing techniques in our easy how-to guide.
Also, we’ll help you find the best steelhead fishing rivers and creeks in New York.
Niagara River Brown Trout Fishing
Brown trout join steelhead in the Niagara Bar area in November, making their own spawning run up the river. The ledge on the river side of the Niagara Bar is the best brown trout spot.
Browns up to 10 pounds are caught by jigging spoons or drifting live bait along the ledge, starting on the deep side and working your way up.
Many anglers also troll for browns using stickbaits like Smithwicks, Rapalas and Thundersticks.
Catch More Brown Trout
Niagara River Lake Trout Fishing
Lake trout also start to show up in fall, drawn to the oxygenated water that emerges from the river mouth. They commonly strike spoons, FlatFish lures and live bait.
Lake trout fishing is closed during October and November to allow them to spawn. Niagara Bar is a major spawning ground for Lake Ontario’s lake trout, and anglers land some beautiful lakers after the season reopens on December 1.
Niagara River Smallmouth Fishing
Smallmouth bass are some of the most prolific game fish in both the Upper and Lower Niagara River. Bass weighing 2 to 4 pounds are abundant, and anglers land smallies weighing 6-plus pounds every year.
Bass get moving in mid-April most years as water temps creep into the 40s. May is a great month to catch chunky pre-spawn smallmouths, though the fishing is catch-and-release only until the third Saturday in June.
The key to finding smallmouths in almost any season is identifying current breaks and rocky habitat. Smallmouths favor rocky areas, and although they thrive in moving water, they’ll usually stay out of the strongest current if they can.
Some of the best areas in the Upper Niagara River are around Strawberry Island and Pirates Island. Shoreline piers, breakwalls, rip-rap banks and other artificial structures are also productive.
There are also many excellent ledges and shoals around Grand Island, which spans 17,000 acres and splits the Upper Niagara River into two forks that rejoin below the island.
Bass fishing is also excellent in the Lower Niagara River from Devil’s Hole downstream to Lake Ontario.
Smallmouths from Lake Ontario enter the Lower Niagara every spring to feed on spawning smelt and take advantage of warmer waters that come downriver from lake Erie. Focus on casting to any area with slack water.
The top smallmouth baits in the Niagara River are soft shell crabs—crayfish that have molted—and these bass delicacies are available at many local bait shops in summer. July through September offer outstanding bass fishing on live bait.
Crabs are often fished on a drop-shot rig, which can also be a great setup for fishing soft plastics like Yamamoto Senkos and Roboworm Straight Tail Worms.
Crankbaits and white-skirted spinnerbaits can also be killer smallmouth lures in the Niagara River.
More: Learn to catch more smallmouth bass (as well as largemouths) in our complete guide to bass fishing techniques and tips. Then, track down the best smallmouth bass fishing lakes and rivers in New York.
Niagara River Walleye Fishing
It’s quite possible that no lake in the world produces more walleye than Lake Erie, so it should come as no surprise that the Upper Niagara River right below the lake is also a walleye hotspot.
New York’s walleye season starts the first Saturday in May, and the months of May and June offer some of the best walleye fishing in the Upper Niagara.
The river produces a lot of healthy fish that weigh over 5 pounds, and some tip the scales at 10 pounds or more.
Live emerald shiners are the top bait for spring walleye, and anglers commonly fish these baitfish on a three-way rig similar to those used to catch salmon and trout.
Later on in summer, when baitfish in the river are more scarce, crawler harness rigs become more effective.
The Upper Niagara River offers a wealth of rock piles, sand bars, ledges, reefs and wrecks that walleye inhabit. They often share habitat with smallmouth bass, and it’s common to catch a few of each on a spring day.
Walleye often favor deeper water than smallmouths, though, at least during daylight hours.
The best walleye fishing usually occurs after dark, especially for shorebound anglers looking to take advantage of springtime bank and pier fishing.
Walleye season extends until March 15, after which fishing closes to protect the fish while they spawn.
Some of the biggest walleye of the year are big pre-spawn fish that the few anglers hardy enough to brave the frigid nighttime fishing conditions catch in early March.
The Lower Niagara River also offers some excellent walleye fishing opportunities. Walleye push their way up from Lake Ontario every spring, and the Lewiston area produces some excellent walleye in May.
The Niagara Bar at the mouth of the river is also a perennial walleye haunt.
More: Be sure to read our simple how-to guide to walleye fishing. You’ll definitely also want to know which New York lakes and rivers have the best walleye fishing.
Niagara River Musky Fishing
The Upper Niagara River is one of New York’s best muskie waters.
Lots of modest-sized muskellunge measuring 30 to 40 inches are caught here every summer, along with an impressive number of trophy fish over 50 inches.
Muskellunge season starts on June 1st, and the first few weeks of the season offer some of the best fishing, at least in terms of numbers. For trophy muskies, late fall is the ideal time to fish.
November is when big muskellunge from Lake Erie enter the river to feed on the abundant baitfish present in the late fall. While some muskies live in the river year-round, these big lake-dwellers create an unbeatable opportunity.
The Lake Erie mouth of the Niagara River in Buffalo is a key muskellunge area, along with the southwest end of Grand Island and the hump known as the Sunken Island, which is on the north side of Grand Island.
The most likely time of day to hook up with muskellunge is right around dawn and dusk. In mid-summer, daytime bites slow way down on the river, and experienced local anglers take to trolling after dark.
Regardless of the season or time of day, trolling is the go-to tactic to maximize strikes. Top lures include Musky Candy plugs, Legend Lures Perch Baits, and Red October Monster Tubes.
Other Fish Species
The Niagara River offers a wide variety of other fish species, including some that are not traditionally considered game fish. Sheepshead and carp are common catches, especially in the upper river.
Anglers may also encounter white bass, channel catfish, and the occasional northern pike.
The following species are also common:
Of all the fish considered “panfish,” yellow perch are easily the most abundant in the Niagara River, although white perch, bluegill and rock bass are also fairly common.
The best yellow perch fishing is usually in early spring when they congregate around harbors and marinas.
The north end of Unity Island near the canal lock is a good spring perch spot in Buffalo. During the warmer month, schools of yellow perch shift toward offshore shoals and rock piles, but bank anglers will catch some in shallow water year-round.
Live emerald shiners are the bait of choice for yellow perch. Baiting two shiners on a double drop-shot rig is a go-to tactic among many local anglers.
Lots of 10- to 12-inch perch are available, and occasional giants may reach 15 inches.
Catch More Perch
Step 1: Find the very best yellow perch fishing spots in New York.
Step 2: Catch them with the top yellow perch fishing techniques and tips, including best baits and rigs.
Though they are nowhere near as common as smallmouth bass, largemouth bass also inhabit the Niagara River.
Shore anglers catch quite a few 2- and 3-pound largemouths in the Upper Niagara using topwater lures and plastic worms.
Largemouths avoid strong currents. The best places to find them are protected marinas and harbor areas.
Any spot with minimal current and ample weed growth will likely shelter a few largemouths, and summer is the best time to catch them.
Catch More Largemouth Bass
Find the best largemouth bass fishing New York has to offer.
Catch more largemouths (and smallmouths) with our simple bass fishing tips and techniques.
A major smelt run takes place in the Lower Niagara River every spring as these diminutive fish surge upriver from lake Ontario in vast numbers. Anglers often catch them from the banks using dip nets in April.
Planning Your Trip
The best time to fish the Niagara River depends on what you want to catch. There are year-round opportunities, with spring and fall offering the best shot at varied multi-species action.
Catching smallmouths and salmon on back-to-back casts isn’t unheard of.
Remember that the Canadian border runs, for the most part, down the center of the river. Invest in a Province of Ontario fishing license if you plan to cross the line.
Getting to the Niagara River
The Upper Niagara River as it leaves Lake Erie is a stone’s throw from Downtown Buffalo, and there is ample access in the city and its northern suburbs, including Tonawanda.
The city of Niagara Falls surrounds the falls themselves, and Lewiston is the main hub farther north.
The river is also easy to reach from all points east, thanks to I-90. The drive is about 90 minutes from Rochester and 2.5 hours from Syracuse. In addition to many privately owned marinas, the river is accessible from various public parks, piers and launch sites.
Upper Niagara River Access
There is excellent bank and pier access on the Upper Niagara River through Buffalo city parks. Lasalle Park is located right at the mouth of the river at Lake Erie, and nearby Unity Island has access through Broderick Park and the Bird Island Pier.
Black Rock Canal Park, a little farther upriver, includes a public boat launch and bank access, as does Isle View County Park in Tonawanda. Several additional parks also provide bank or pier access, including North Tonawanda’s Raymond Klimek Veterans Park.
Grand Island, which sits in the middle of the river, has some great options. Two state parks on the island—Buckhorn Island State Park and Beaver Island State Park—offer shore access, and there are boat ramps at the latter.
Lower Niagara River Access
Whirlpool State Park is the farthest upriver fishing access on the Lower Niagara River below the falls. Often the best salmon and steelhead fishing is available here but beware of the steep climb up and down the gorge to access the water.
Trails connect Whirlpool State Park to nearby Devil’s Hole State Park, another excellent shore fishing site.
Continuing downriver, New York Power Authority (NYPA) fishing platform is a popular fishing spot and is open most years from April to November.
Lewiston’s Artpark is another favorite bank fishing spot, and boat access is available nearby at Lewiston Marina & Launch Ramp.
An additional fishing platform is in Joseph Davis State Park, and Fort Niagara State Park offers boat ramps at the mouth of the river.
Know Before You Go
As we’ve alluded to already, the Niagara is often a difficult river to fish, and a dangerous one. Fishing it by boat is not for the inexperienced, and we are not alone in highly recommending that your first time on the water be with a licensed guide.
If fishing the Niagara River during the colder months, we cannot overstate the importance of dressing warmly.
The best tip is to dress warmer than you think you have to, with more layers than you think you’ll need. The river—and the air immediately above it—may be significantly colder than surrounding areas.