Do Fish Travel Over Niagara Falls (And Do They Survive)?

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Updated: July 22, 2022
Image Credit YingHui Liu/Shutterstock.com
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Niagara Falls is along the border of the U.S. and Canada just northwest of Buffalo New York. There are three falls that make up the group of Niagara Falls, with the “Horseshoe Falls” (Canadian Falls) being the most commonly referenced. The other two falls are the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls.

The falls occur between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie where the Niagara River connects the two. With a large variety of fish that live in the Niagara River, you could ask do fish travel over Niagara Falls? And if they do, do they survive? Let’s find out!

What kinds of fish live in the Niagara River?

Niagara Falls is in between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

CPQ/Shutterstock.com

The Niagara River has a variety of fish, waterfowl, and amphibians that live in and around the river. Some of the most common fish are smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, perch, walleye, muskies and northern pike. Below the falls and into Lake Erie you will find lake trout, rainbow trout, king salmon, and channel catfish. You also find smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, perch walleye, muskies, and northern pike. The question is did some of the fish from the upper river make it over the falls and survive to make it to Lake Erie?

The Northern Pike is one of the fish that is found both above the falls and below the falls.

How big is Niagara Falls? How far is the drop?

Olympic Divers that dive off of platforms dive 10 meters (32.8 feet). The pool needs to be at least 5 meters (16.4 feet) deep for them to successfully “land”. So if a fish went over the Falls how far would they fall and how deep is the lake at the bottom? Here are the heights of the three falls:

  • Canadian Falls (Horseshoe Falls): 167 feet (50.9 meters) drop. 5x higher than an Olympic diver!
    • The pool below the Canadian Falls is 100 feet (35 metres) deep.
  • American Falls: 176 feet (53.6 meters)
    • There is a rock pile at the bottom of the falls which is 70-110 feet (21-34 metres) below the edge of the falls.
  • Bridal Veil Falls: 176 feet (53.6 meters)
    • There is a rock pile at the bottom of the falls which is 70-110 feet (21-34 metres) below the edge of the falls.

Do fish travel over Niagara Falls (and do they survive)?

Yes! Fish do travel over Niagara Falls. While fish can avoid the falls by staying upriver more, there are some that get caught up in the rapids at the top of the falls. The water in the rapids is moving at speeds of 25 mph so once a fish gets caught up in that they are along for the ride. Once the water reaches the falls it can get as fast as 68 mph (the fastest ever recorded!).

According to Wes Hill, an Niagara River expert, the good news is it is estimated that 90% of the fish that go over the falls survive. Wes grew up along the river and he would often help officials locate bodies and/or save people from going over the falls. He was brought in as an advisor during filming of films like Superman II, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Legends. As an avid fisherman he is familiar with fish going over the falls and surviving.

How big are the fish that live in the Niagara River?

Scientists suggest that smaller fish may have a higher survival rate than larger fish going over waterfalls. It depends a lot on the conditions below the falls. If there are lots of rocks, like at the bottom of Yosemite Falls, larger fish could land on the rocks and be killed. Let’s look at how big some of the Niagara River fish are (by average size):

Happy fisherman with walleye fish
Walleye are some of the biggest fish that are in the Niagara River.

FedBul/Shutterstock.com

  • Smallmouth bass: 1 to 4 lbs.
  • Largemouth bass: 1 to 5 lbs.
  • Perch: 4 to 10 ounces.
  • Muskie: 15 to 36 lbs.
  • Walleye: up to 20 lbs.
  • Northern Pike: Up to 40 lbs.

For all these fish, records will be significantly larger, but this gives an illustration of how large an average fish going over Niagara Falls may be. As you can see, a perch may stand a far better chance than a walleye or northern pike.

Has a human ever survived a fall over Niagara Falls?

  • The first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel was Annie Edson Taylor who was a 63-year-old school teacher. She made her attempt on her birthday, October 24, 1901. She was hoping to become rich and famous from the stunt. She did survive but her fame was short lived and she ended up working as a street vendor in Niagara afterward.
  • On the 4th of July in 1928, a unique contraption that was a 6-foot rubber ball was used by Jean Lussier to go over the falls. He built in some oxygen rubber tubes to last for the trip and he surprisingly survived!
  • Two Canadians, Peter DeBernardi and Geoffrey Petkovich survived a trip over the falls in a barrel on September 27, 1989. They went over the falls in one barrel and only suffered minor injuries.
  • In 1985, the first man and woman to survive going over the falls together is Steven Trotter and Lori Martin. They also went over in a barrel.

Has a human ever died trying to go over Niagara Falls?

Yes. There have been numerous suicides over the years that end tragically when someone goes over the falls to their death. There are also people that have tried stunts to go over the falls but have died. Here are some of those:

  • In 1920, Charles Stephens attempted to go over the falls in a barrel. He had a 600 lb. oak barrel but it wasn’t strong enough to protect him. The barrel was ripped apart and he died.
  • On the  4th of July in 1930, George Stathakis used a large 10-foot, 1000 lbs wooden barrel to attempt the falls. He also brought along his pet turtle, Sony. Unfortunately, the barrel got stuck behind the falls and it took 20 hours for rescuers to free him. But that timing proved too late. The barrel was sealed and George only had about three hours’ worth of oxygen so he suffocated. The turtle, who was thought to be around 150 years old, survived!
  • One stuntman tried to go over the falls in a kayak. He decided not to wear a helmet or a life jacket. On June 5, 1990, Jessie Sharp died going over the falls (or landing) and his body was never recovered.
  • Amazingly, daredevils have also tried going over Niagara Falls on jet skis. It certainly must look impressive, but it is also deadly. The last attempt was made by Robert Overacker on October 1, 1995. He did not make it.
Niagara Falls
Fish do travel over Niagara Falls, but people should probably not try. Many people have died trying. It is illegal to try to go over the falls, so best to just take some amazing photos!

YingHui Liu/Shutterstock.com

What kind of fish can walk up waterfalls?

There has to be a shout-out to a fish that can walk up a waterfall! The cavefish (Cryptotora thamicola) is a blind fish from Thailand that can use its fin as feet and walk. A recent study found that “They are commonly observed climbing steep rock surfaces in fast-flowing waterfalls created by basalt or andesite intrusions.” What an amazing feet (feat)!

Up Next…

We’ve talked about fish traveling over waterfalls, but what about bears? Watch this wild video of a bear going over a waterfall in Yellowstone National Park.

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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