Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

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Niagara River fishing trip takes on special meaning before the storm

Bill Hilts, Jr. with a brown trout he caught on a recent trip to the lower Niagara River. (Photo courtesy of Bill Hilts, Jr.)

“Hey Bill, a few of us are hitting the lower Niagara River before the storm on Thursday, want to go?”

It was Capt. Ned Librock of Catching Dreams Charters doing the asking, a person who dedicates his serious trips on the water to taking kids with cancer fishing in the spring, summer and fall to provide unimaginable therapy. It helps to surround yourself with good people and he’s a shining example.

The storm he was referring to will be talked about for many years to come, now called the Blizzard of 2022. We didn’t know how bad it would be, but before it even hit, Patrick Hammer, meteorologist for WGRZ (the NBC affiliate out of Buffalo) was already calling it the storm of a generation with feet of snow and wind gusts to over 70 mph.

Estimated wave heights on Lake Erie were forecasted to be over 30 feet high. And we were going fishing, getting in a morning of action before Mother Nature would let it all hang out. We honestly didn’t know when we would be able to do this again.

We met at the Lewiston launch ramp at 7:45 a.m. with father-son charter captain duo Chris and Connor Cinelli of Grand Island. Connor, who helps Librock run many of his Catching Dreams trips, had been borrowing Ned’s boat. We would be fishing out of the Catching Dreams Lund, but with the younger Cinelli’s gear rigged for trout and walleye.

“I can’t believe how much bait there is in the upper river right now,” said Chris Cinelli. “My net was full with one dip in the river, beautiful Emerald shiners.”

We motored down to brown trout territory, off Fort Niagara just a cast away from the famed Niagara Bar. On the trip, my mind wandered. Ten days earlier, my father – Bill Hilts, Sr. – had died. Not unexpected, but still not an easy life lesson to have happen. I lost mom in 2018 and now I was parentless.

We set up our first drift in 16 feet of water, using a three-way rig to bounce bottom with just enough lead to make contact.

Librock was the first to make a comment about whether I would remember how to fish. It hadn’t been that long, but that’s part of the fun fishing with friends – a certain kind of banter that will see buddies go back and forth in a kind of word sparring that some people might be upset with. Not us.

No sooner had the gloves come off and I had a fish on. I looked over at Ned with a big smirk on my face.

“Want to reel it in so you can see what they feel like?”

He was at a loss for words at first, but not for long. “Nah, you can reel it in. I’ll catch my own.”

I brought a nice brown trout to net, took some photos, and released it back into a 36-degree Niagara River.

On the second drift, the same thing happened. Fish on!

RELATED STORY: Passing of N.Y. legend: Bill Hilts, Sr. dies at 90

My initial thought was not of Ned but of Dad, “Big Bill.” One thing he wanted to do before he died was to fish the Niagara River one more time – a river he grew up on. He never got that chance, but I felt like he was reliving that through me. I felt a chill, but it wasn’t from the cool winter air.

“Ned, want to reel this one in?”

“No! I am just fine,” he said with a smile on his face, but a bit sheepishly.

Another beautiful brown trout came to the net, and we staged some more photos. Again, I offered the fish to Ned, at least for a photo so he could prove to people that he had been fishing.

“No thanks.”

On the third drift, I had another trout on before Ned even dropped his shiner into the water. It came to the net quickly, allowing for a rapid release and time for another Emerald on my hook before the drift was over.

“Fish on! Ned, really, take the rod so you can feel what it’s like!”

He was starting to regret he said anything when we first started. However, on the next drift Chris and Ned both managed to hook up with some nice browns. Only Connor failed to bring in a trout all the way to the boat and into the net, although he did have a few feisty ones on. There is always next time.

We headed upriver to try for some walleyes. The wind was already starting to blow and our drift on two different walleye hangouts were difficult. Boat control is key, and the changing currents combined with shifting boat movement from the wind were being impacted. We managed to catch a few bass and some perch, but by noon we were ready to call it quits.

It made me think of our friend, the late Capt. Doug Stein of Grand Island, who was a believer in never leaving fish to find fish. We should have stayed at Fort Niagara.

“I did have one advantage on the river today, Ned,” I told him at the launch ramp. “I think my dad was watching over me and he was with me to catch those fish.”

A smile was all he needed to say.

The storm? Hammer was right. The Blizzard rivaled (and even surpassed) the historic Blizzard of ’77. Through the worst of it, the fishing trip helped bring a smile to my face and some inner warmth that I will long remember through the rest of my time here on Earth.

My only concern is that I hope Ned will invite me on another fishing trip. If he does, there may not be any hooks on the lures.

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