Monday, May 11, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Don’t ignore the awesome fishing in the Erie Canal

More often than not, the lack of accessibility to fishable water is cited as the key reason why many people don’t fish on a regular basis. But, there exists a body of water in Niagara County which can readily smash this misconception. It traverses the state for some 350 miles, is connected to over 170 more miles of networked waterways, supports hundreds of miles of adjoining trails, and is within 25 miles of 80% of the upstate population. This accessible, marvelous water way is none other than the Erie Canal.

The most famed portion of the 524-mile New York State Canal System, the Erie Canal was opened in 1825, serving as that century’s key trade route, opening up the West to settlement and economic development. It sped the flow of resources from the Midwest to the Atlantic and within 15 years of its opening made New York City the busiest port in the America’s, moving more goods than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.

With its economic boom long since gone thanks to rail, roads, and air, the Canal has made a comfortable transformation to a recreational destination. Boats of all types and sizes frequent the Canal. Hikers, bikers, and joggers have made the adjoining trail system a very popular stop. The Canal is now managed by the New York State Thruway Authority, an organization that has made a concerted effort to market the waterway both nationally and internationally.

The Canal is a fishable waterway 

Despite the Canal’s recreational uses being well-known and well-advertised, one of the greatest recreational pursuits of all-time – fishing – has become an afterthought. The Canal is perceived by many anglers to be a dirty waterway, devoid of all but rough fish (carp, catfish, etc). It is also looked upon as a poor angling choice due to its artificial and uniform channel-like appearance.

Adding further to this stigma is the fact the Canal is drawn down or dewatered every winter, which tends to make one believe a healthy fishery could not be sustained.

Such stereotypes are unfounded. Although at first glance the Canal does not appear overly fishy it does provide excellent fishing opportunities. Smallmouth bass, rock bass, and sheepshead are quite common and you will also find a smattering of largemouth bass, walleye, northern pike and crappies throughout the Canal. Furthermore, being that it is book-ended by the Upper Niagara River and the Hudson River, and fed by numerous waters in between, the Canal has become home to any number of fish that frequent those waters. So, the occasional hook-up with other fish is not uncommon: I once landed an impressive brown trout under the Gasport lift bridge and I have heard reports of anglers catching muskellunge near Lockport’s locks.

More than just quantity, the Canal produces quality as well. For proof, one need look no further than the leader board in 2014’s Erie Canal Derby, a family-style event that has been going on since 1991. Last year, anglers in Niagara and Orleans county caught a 4.9-pound bass, a 6.3-pound pike, and a 5.9-pound walleye; all decent fish no matter the water!

The Canal is accessible 

Not only do you have an endless supply of fish to chase, you have a nearly endless means by which to do so. Totally unlike the situation with most bodies of water within the area, the land-based angler has an incredible amount of access. The entire canal system supports over 240 miles of trails, over 15 of which can be found on this end of the county.

Entrance to the towpath can be had at any number of bridges that cross the Canal. A good portion of the shoreline along the trail is tree-free, affording the chance to cast to your heart’s content.

Such ease of accessibility coupled with a rather refined environment – the towpath is well-maintained soft gravel – is what makes a trip to the Canal a great place to get youngsters into fishing. The Erie Canal is what turned me into a fisherman: The first fish I ever caught was a pike in the Canal, back when I was maybe 6 years old.

The Canal’s ability to get kids hooked on fishing is proved by the aforementioned Erie Canal Fishing Derby. Founder Steve Harrington has often noted that the Canal’s accessibility allows the derby to bring families together by getting them to do something exciting outside, a rarity in this day and age of electronics, computers and TV. The Derby has led to a tradition of fishing in many a family.

Much more than just a shoreline fishing destination, boating can be another peaceful means by which to fish the Erie Canal. It is navigable May through October and you could launch at Widewaters in Lockport or the boat launch on Telegraph Road in Gasport. As a matter of fact, you could throw in a kayak almost anywhere.

A pass is required by all motorized boats and there are certain periods when the Canal is open for business, giving larger boats the chance to navigate through the locks and under lift bridges. So, before hitting the water make sure to do some research via the Thruway Authority’s website,

How to catch fish in the Canal

Getting to the fish is easy. Catching the fish is just as easy. Much of the canal’s fairly uniform shoreline is supported by large rocks that were deposited by those who toiled in the Canal’s construction and reconstruction. These rocks provide shelter to very healthy populations of crayfish and minnows that ultimately end up supporting the upper end of the aquatic food chain.

Therefore, to catch the Canal’s gamefish bounty it is imperative that you offer an attractive presentation in such rocks, and there are no better lures for this task than soft plastic twisters and crankbaits.

The old stand-by of many a tacklebox - 3" white twister tails (the venerable Mr. Twister) - work wonders in the Canal. They can be slowly bounced among the rocks, getting into the cracks and crevices where the crayfish hide and the bass and walleyes hunt. Hang-ups will be numerous, as is always the case when jigging in rocks, but break–offs will be minimal. By walking upstream or downstream it is very easy to dislodge your jig.

Small, crayfish-hued crankbaits work equally as well in the Canal. The best method is to walk the shoreline and cast downstream - parallel to the shore - retrieving the crankbait rapidly and bouncing it off the rocks in five feet of water or less. This method will produce smallmouths all day and walleyes at dawn and dusk.

Other methods work quite well, too. In the dog days of Summer, small surface lures cast in the shallows prove quite effective on bass in the evening. Live worms and minnows jigged amongst the rocks or besides structural walls under bridges, docks and guard gates has produced many a decent fish. Spinners cast along the shoreline are great at catching bass, but, beware, they are more apt to snag as compared to the more buoyant crankbaits.

The Erie Canal is truly an asset to New York State. It helped make the USA what we are, one of the most powerful economies in the world. It now offers unlimited recreational potential and historical value. And, it is home to a very diverse, very exciting, and very accessible fishery, one that will please everyone, from the youngest of anglers to the most-experienced of outdoorsmen.

So, get out and enjoy what the Erie Canal has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.

+Bob Confer  lives in rural Gasport where the Canal has afforded him many hours of pleasant fishing through the years. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 07 May 2015 East Niagara Post

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