Trout numbers and sizes are up for both shore casters and boat drifters working the lower Niagara River.

Water levels remain low but the catch count continues to be high for a variety of trout. Any given day, a shore-bound angler can hook into lake trout and brown trout while working live and artificial baits to hook into rainbow/steelhead trout moving and feeding in the river’s currents.

Each year in mid-February, the Niagara River Anglers Association stages its Annual Roger Tobey Memorial Steelhead Contest at the Lewiston Landing boat launch site. That competition is set for Saturday.

Conditions vary each contest. With excess staining, Niagara’s waters – and nearby Lake Ontario and tributaries – often afford shore anglers a better chance for big-fish entries than the drifting boaters who can cover much more water in search of steelies.

As a test run, I joined with charter captain Frank Campbell and outdoor writer Bill Hilts Jr. on a Monday morning reconnaissance run Jan. 7 to check out the fish and fishery.

Conditions then were quite similar to the water clarity and height expected for this Saturday’s outing.

Several boats had hit the water before we eased out of Lewiston Landing at 8:30 a.m. A few drifters were working the Artpark shoreline, but none seemed to be arching a rod in a fight with some tugging trout.

Campbell headed up current and had us set up alongside a few other boaters who were working the Devils Hole drifts.

Anyone familiar with this amazing wide spot in the gorge knows that this can be the premier place for shore and boating anglers to fight fish. Everything from bass and panfish in warmer times to trout and salmon species through the cold-water season find Devils Hole angelic. But lower waters can be demonic for boat propellers.

Campbell and charter captain Chris Cinelli are regulars on this Artpark-Devils Hole run. We passed Cinelli as his party was pulling in fish and had two fish on during our first drift. A live minnow on a three-way rig consistently got hit as soon as we bumped bottom.

More than once, Hilts, Campbell and I had fish on at the same time, with two or at least one ending up in the landing net before we drifted down to the outflow waters of the power plants.

We did best with minnows while shore casters were connecting with all kinds of artificial baits, especially long-tailed white lead-head jigs.

As so often occurs while on a hot bite, fish moods change. At mid-morning the bite tailed off somewhat and Campbell switched to Kwikfish, a banana-shaped bait that is most effective with a metallic (silver or gold) based finish embellished with various over-spray designs – dots, netting, scales, etc.

For me, a silver Kwikie with pink/red dots began connecting. On the next drift, Hilts switched to Worden’s newer Mag Lip Flatfish, a lure with a Flatfish or Kwikfish banana-type body and a wide plastic lip that resembles the prow of a Hot 'N Tot lure. Hilts’ numbers and fish sizes improved as the morning progressed.

The count of trout at and above the 10-pound mark exceeded 20 by noon – about 10 lake trout and a dozen or so steelies.

Three of the mid-sized fish went under the fillet knife, but all the “lunkers” either were photographed and/or immediately let go before they got over the gunwale.

Cinelli was doing the same thing in Devils Hole that day and late this past week he enjoyed similar catch counts and weight amounts along the Artpark drift.

The big brown trout presence in the lower river has improved so much in recent years that Niagara River Anglers Association planners now include a separate division for the largest brown caught during the steelhead contest, which goes from sunrise to 2 p.m. Saturday.

For entry details, drop by Slipper Sinker Bait & Tackle in Olcott, Creek Road Bait & Tackle in Lewiston or call 998-8910.