A great day off for Sabres’ coach

Dan Bylsma, current head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, is in a good place. Yes, he’s a coach in the National Hockey League after playing for 12 years. That in and of itself is a pretty darn good place to be. He followed that up with a NHL coaching job, including as a head coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins and winning the Stanley Cup in his first year at the helm. But now that he’s in Buffalo, a program that has been rebuilding for several years, he’ll also be able to take advantage of some of the finest freshwater fishing in the world!

Bylsma, born in 1970 in Grand Haven, Mich., is no stranger to the outdoors and fishing has been a big part of his life ever since he was a kid casting on the Pere Marquette River in his native state. “I love fly fishing,” he reflected as he reeled in a hefty trout from the Niagara Bar during the team’s Christmas break. “I’ve got a place in Ludington and spent a lot of time fishing the Betsie River in northern Michigan.”

His baptism into the local fishing was through Capt. Jim Hanley, former television show host for Northeast Outdoors. Hanley spends his spring through fall on Lake Erie chartering customers. His first experience with Bylsma showed the coach’s true colors. “Conditions were tough on the lake,” said Hanley. “The mud line had moved out and we were trying to catch bass. We managed to catch one nice one but we really had to work for it. It seemed futile. Bylsma didn’t want to quit. He kept saying ‘one more cast’ or ‘one more drift.’ He was a real diehard.”

Hanley was along for this particular day on the Lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario. As a cameraman for the Buffalo Sabres home games, he sees the coach regularly and quite often they talk fishing. “I’ve got some friends who want to take us fishing,” he told him mid-month. Within a day he identified the best days and Jim let Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charters know of his availability. Frank set aside a morning and we were off to try and catch trout.

Actually, we didn’t know how good the fishing was going to be. Waters were off color a bit because of winds riling up the waters on Lake Erie and flowing down through the system from above. The day before, Campbell had cancelled a trip because of questionable water clarity. It’s important to note that most times when you can’t boat fish, shore fishermen can still cast a line and do well. Waters along the shore tend to be a little clearer and the trout – steelhead, browns and lakers – will cruise the clearer water in search of a quick meal. Keep that in mind in the future.

My window of opportunity was a small one. I was leaving at 11:30 a.m. to drive to Florida for a family getaway. I could not arrive until 9 because I had to drop my wife off at work and then meet the angling trio at the Fort Niagara launch ramp. That was the easiest plan of attack for picking me up and dropping me off. As luck would have it, trout action was hot. They were probably hungry because the turbid conditions the previous three or four days offered limited feeding opportunities. Our first drift produced three trout, all at the same time. A tripleheader! That was the norm as we worked baits up the ledge. These were all lake trout taking our Kwikfish lures – silver with chartreuse markings, wobbling off three-way rigs. Maintaining contact with the bottom was important, but not letting too much line out so that it would scrape against the bottom where rocks or mussels could nick your line. Checking that line every time you reeled in was important. Some of us found out the hard way when the fish hit hard enough to break the fluorocarbon connection. 

We moved around a bit to current rips and dropoffs that could be more likely to hold a brown trout or steelhead. We did have some hits that were harder than a normal lake trout grab, but we lost the fish for whatever reason. While we were not targeting lake trout (you never know what you are going to catch in the Niagara or out on the Bar), keeping them off your lines can be a difficult proposition at times. All were released quickly and without incident. That said, it may be time to revisit the angling regulations as to how it relates to lake trout.

Lake trout, part of a federal restoration effort conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a closed season from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 in an effort to protect spawning fish. Nothing wrong with that. The Niagara River is a special place where natural reproduction has been documented. However, to make this fishery above board, the state should consider following the same path that they used for bass – catch and release only during what is now the “closed season.” DEC made rules for bass to allow anglers to actually target them when the season was closed after Nov. 30 and before the third Saturday in June. It’s not without its share of controversy. With the lake trout, though, anglers can’t help but catch them. When they move into the river, they become easier to catch. Plain and simple. Let’s make it legal.

Which takes us back to Bylsma’s first lower river experience. Campbell dropped me off at the latest possible moment (one last drift) to start my trip south. They headed south, too, motoring in Campbell’s Lund boat to the famous Devil’s Hole in the Niagara Gorge. It seems like whenever the river has an opportunity to show off to a passionate angler, it goes overboard. The trio hit double digits on steelies using the same approach of fishing Kwikfish off three-way rigs. They changed things up by offering up some minnows on the menu, too. Quite often this same approach can produce a wide variety of other fish species, including sturgeon, musky, bass and walleye to name but a few. Today is was all steelhead up to 10 pounds, completing a near perfect day on the water.

Bylsma is finding out how special this place really is when it comes to fishing. Let’s hope that his experiences are all positive on the ice, too. Welcome to Western New York!

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