Story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
Each autumn in Rochester, New York, you can see a gathering that rivals the annual spectacle at Alaska’s Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. There, gigantic brown bears gather along the stream to feast on migrating salmon. A classic photo that appears each year shows at least one bear poised at the top of the small falls with its mouth open wide as a leaping salmon is frozen mid-air, inches from that gaping maw awaiting it.
Like Alaska, Rochester sees migrating salmon arrive by the thousands and they, too, are eagerly snapped up by predators. In Rochester, the predators are fishermen.
But the setting in which they seek their prey is more spectacular than the small Brooks Falls. For in Rochester’s nearly 200-foot deep gorge held up by layers of ancient seabeds hundreds of millions years old, the Genesee River thunders down the Lower Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in New York State.
What truly defines Rochester’s Lower Falls is its setting: it’s in the middle of a city and it connects to nearby Lake Ontario, which makes it an amazing fishing spot.
While tourists may not flock here, fishermen do. It’s the autumn salmon run that draws them from throughout New York and adjoining states.
By late summer, driven by primeval mating urges, three varieties of salmon forsake their Lake Ontario habitats and follow their noses along a faint molecular watery trail emanating from the places where they were stocked in the hundreds of thousands as fingerlings. The largest and by far the most prolific, the Chinook or King salmon (a Pacific salmon), start to swim into the mouth of the Genesee and head upstream. They begin arriving in significant numbers through October and into November. As autumn deepens, smaller numbers of Coho and Atlantic salmon, and rainbow/steelhead and brown trout also show up.
They all run into a major problem: the over 100-foot Lower Falls. It stops them cold. Catching them might seem like the classic shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s a bit more difficult because urges other than hunger have taken over their brains.
Captain Ken Strimple, fish guide and host of the ESPN radio show “Let’s Catch Fish” says to catch salmon, “You have to lock into their psyche … they’re huge scent junkies.” So he first tries natural baits like fish eggs, and, if that doesn’t work, he taps into their instinctual behavior. One technique he favors is to try and back them into a corner where they often strike out of aggression.
Many year-round sport fishermen prefer to avoid the rambunctious territorialness of the autumnal salmon seekers who ring the base of the falls. They fish further downstream; a few may forsake the salmon and head upstream above the falls where they can work the waters without worrying about tangling lines.
Salmon also run up smaller tributaries of Lake Ontario, most notably Oak Orchard Creek, Sandy Creek, and Maxwell Creek. Some follow their personally scented watery trail to Irondequoit Bay to its south end, where they enter Irondequoit Creek. Home. The restless continue onward, a few swimming nearly 15 miles upstream into Corbett’s Glen. It’s a small nature park (in the suburb of Penfield) known for its woodland paths – and for its small run of migrating salmon. And once in a while, some, on an unknown salmon pilgrimage, make it all the way to Powder Mill Park in the town of Pittsford.
For the Chinook, sometimes topping 40 pounds, the migration trip, wherever it takes them, is their final trip. Of the migrating salmon, they are the only species that dies after spawning. The other species, if their physical condition allows, spawn and eventually return to the lake. Not all fishermen are addicted to the salmon run. James Dunbar fishes the river around the year because, “This is a world class fishery. I catch walleye, muskie, bass, carp. The carp and catfish often fight better than the salmon.”
Along with fish, history abounds here: Native Americans settled here centuries ago. A branch of the Underground Railroad terminated here, with Canadian ships carrying slaves to their freedom across the lake. Old flour, paper, and textile mills flourished along this part of the river. A still active hydro power plant at the base of the Lower Falls produces enough energy for 31,000 homes.
The Lower Falls is a working waterfall in a working class neighborhood. It can be wild. It can be exciting. It can even be educational.
When it comes to “spectacular” and “amazing” falls on the Genesee River, most of us think of Letchworth State Park. And while the falls there are amazing and spectacular they are matched, even topped, by their Rochester counterparts. In particular, Rochester’s Lower Falls matches nicely to Letchworth’s Middle Falls. Each is over 100 feet tall, each is roughly the same breadth, and each has a distinctive boot outcropping interrupting the falls. Although they aren’t quite twins in resemblance, they do appear to be siblings.
Seeing the Falls
To see the upper part of the falls, go down the stairs by the park’s restroom facility and follow the walkway under the bridge. If you continue on to Lower Falls Park, you’ll discover an interesting sculpture. You’ll cross the RG&E sluiceway if you keep walking another 200 yards.
With no designated trails into the gorge from Maplewood Park, access from that area is discouraged. A Google search may show some options.
You can also see the falls if you drive across Driving Park Bridge, turn left onto St. Paul Blvd., and then turn left onto Seth Green Drive. Go about 100 yards and turn left into a parking lot. Walk down the road to the power plant where you can see the falls and access the east riverbank for fishing.