Tom and Bob Niagara Steelhead

Tom and Bob Charlton with a Niagara River Steelhead.

Courtesy photo

"Fish on!"

A cry we heard many times as we swiftly floated down the cold Niagara River, fishing for huge steelhead and lake trout this past weekend.

We had chartered with Chris Cinelli on six previous excursions, either for those beautiful swimmers or smallmouth bass or walleye. He never disappointed before and today was no exception. Arguably the region’s finest, learn more about Chris at

But what made this trip so exceptional was that my 34 year old son was aboard. We had fished together hundreds of times before, in both fresh and salt water, so I suppose I took his companionship for granted. He was always there, anxious to go. But last summer I wondered if we would ever fish together again.

In June, Bob suddenly went from strong and healthy to critically sick with Wegener’s, an extremely rare autoimmune disease. I went to be with him in the Buffalo General hospital, where he stayed for two months, three weeks of it in a coma. Almost all organs were shutting down and he was given a 10 percent chance of surviving. At one point, I counted 17 tubes and wires coming and going from his motionless body. Family and friends gathered and prayed. I had never gone through anything as emotional.

Somehow, miraculously, he fought back, and today, after many months of recuperation and rehab, is functioning at 100 percent. Back to work, back to his comical, clever self, back to his passions: hunting and fishing. (Gee, wherever did he get that?)

Out on the river, Steelhead, which are actually large rainbow trout, live in the deep, cold waters of Lake Ontario and head upstream toward Niagara Falls in the early spring to spawn. While the fishing is always great, especially with the highly decorated Chris, the catching varies. A lot of a day’s success depends on the water clarity, which can vary quickly quite a lot. Clear water means more fish.

The water at 7:30 this morning was very low, as both the U.S. and Canadian power authorities draw water overnight from the Niagara above the falls into their reservoirs for later release through giant turbines to generate electricity. Shortly after we started fishing, about a mile downstream of the falls, they stopped drawing off water and the river began rising, almost 8 feet in elevation a few hours later.

You might think fish as big as these “steelies” take big bait. I did. But the bait Chris favors is a few BB-sized eggs (roe) from previously caught fish, wrapped in a small piece of hi-visibility red or yellow cheesecloth on a hook so small it would fit entirely on your thumbnail.

Fishing in 12’ to 17’ of water the hook is on a 2’ leader below a long, thin barrel sinker. Careful attention must be paid to keeping your line taught, as these fish hit lightly. Big as they are, they typically don’t put up the fight you’d expect. But don’t be fooled: once they get close enough to see the boat the fight begins as they dive for the boulders on the bottom or scream along on top, sometimes providing spectacular jumps.

A large net is needed to bring them aboard, as the 10 pound-test line would not allow lifting them out of the water. Often, after a photo is taken, the fish is returned to its breeding mission. That said, they make excellent table fare, being most similar in taste and texture to salmon. Daily personal limits are three steelhead with a 22” minimum.

We returned to the launching ramp after just a few hours of fishing due to cold wind and rain and coming lightning. As I watched Chris deftly fillet our catch of three “keepers” (we released nine others), I pondered just how lucky Bob was to be there. My eyes actually welled up with thanks and joy for the miracle of my favorite fishing pal -- my survivor, my son.

The message: life is fragile. Take nothing for granted, even thinking next weekend will always come. If you’re considering taking someone dear to you fishing this weekend, or hunting mushrooms, or hiking, or maybe just to the park for a picnic or to fly a kite, well, just do it. What could be more important?

Tom Charlton, retired, is a resident of Davenport and has hunted and fished in 19 states and across Canada. Please email your comments and article topic suggestions to him at