Charter captains to the rescue
It was Sunday, March 22, when charter captains and guides were hit with a “PAUSE” order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, declaring that they were deemed “non-essential.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Charter captains are the ambassadors for our Great Lakes fisheries here in New York. For many non-resident anglers coming into this state (and Lake Ontario is number one in that department), the skippers are responsible for a visitor’s first impression of the Empire State. No, it is not that concrete jungle many people associate with New York City. Most people do not realize how far we are away from the Big Apple. Here in Western New York, we are a land of water and fish, surrounded by agriculture and rural countryside.
For charter captains on the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, the unwelcome designation could not come at a worse time. After suffering from high water issues two of the last three years that forced cancellations (more from media hype than anything due to record high level flood events in 2017 and 2019), the 2020 fishery was taking off early. King salmon were starting to hit consistently in the Western Basin of the lake. Brown trout were hitting along the shoreline. Lake trout were biting everything in sight. The lower Niagara River trout fishery was going bonkers. It was setting up to be a great spring.
And then COVID-19 hit. The chartering stopped. Captains could sign up for unemployment. Or could they?
I know of at least 3 three captains that were still struggling to get clarification as they waited to see if they would fall under the state guidelines or the new COVID-19 guidelines for unemployment. This is still going on, more than a four weeks later. As many people were receiving their stimulus checks in their bank accounts, charter guys will have to wait in the mail to receive theirs. That is because many charters must pay taxes at the end of the year directly – no refunds there. So their bank accounts aren’t used.
When it came time to stock Chinook salmon in the limited number of ports due to a new stocking strategy in the lake for kings, there were social distancing concerns. The Town of Newfane Marina, site for one of the headline salmon ports at Olcott, was working with the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association (LOTSA) to prepare the pens. However, they did not believe that the pen project could take place without violating social distance protocols.
Enter the charter guys, willing to work overtime to devise a plan that would hold the fish in the pens and keep everyone safe. Led by Capt. Vince Pierleoni of Newfane and his first mate Nick Glosser of Amherst, they convinced the powers that be within DEC to give the plan a try.
Other captains offered their help to make it all work, including Capt. Alan Sauerland of Newfane, Capt. Matt Bedient of Lockport, Capt. Tim Sylvester of Wilson, and Capt. Joe Gallo of Amherst. Capt. Anthony Ellis and Capt. John Mango were also there to lend a hand when needed. This was not named the Ultimate Fishing Town for nothing in 2012, bestowed the title by the World Fishing Network after a nationwide search.
In Wilson, the port was rearing steelhead and charter skippers led the way there, too, including Capt. Dan Evans at Bootleggers Cove Marina, as well as Sauerland and Sylvester.
The other salmon port in Niagara County was Youngstown in the Niagara River. Not only was there a pen rearing project for both king salmon and steelhead, but there was also a tank project for 5,000 salmon to see if they could develop a better fish-holding facility. Bottomline, it was more work. Led by Captains Matt Yablonsky of Youngstown and Frank Campbell of Lewiston, they had to limit the number of volunteers. Still, the local captains came off the water to assist. Captains Joe Cinelli, Larry Balch, Joe Czyrny, Ryan Shea, Paul Schirmer and Steve Drabczyk all used their time off to help get the pens ready, assist in the receiving of the fish and then help to keep them fed. These projects are no easy feats to implement and kudos to the captains who helped pull this off – for the benefit of everyone who fishes this end of the lake. Apologies to those captains I missed.
Of course there were others involved in all of these projects, such as the members of LOTSA who put the pens together, Scott Scheffler with the Town of Newfane Marina, the staff at Bootleggers Cove and Mike Fox, the brains behind the scenes in Youngstown. But it was the captains who made sure that every project was completed and working to perfection.
Some credit must also go to DEC – the biologists who oversee the pen projects, the truck drivers who deliver the fish and the hatchery workers who also must deal with reduced staffing. Thank you to all to ensure a brighter future for the lake.
Also taking a hit for the spring were key derbies and tournaments like the spring Lake Ontario Counties Trout and Salmon Derby (www.loc.org) set for May 8-17 and the Niagara Pro-Am Salmon Team Tournament June 5-6 (www.lakeontarioproam.net). Tackle shops and marine dealers are struggling, too. Toss in marinas and other marine-related businesses like boat repair shops and the list goes on.
Right now, New York’s “pause” has been extended to May 15. That is normally prime time for some of the best spring salmon fishing in the Great Lakes. If there is a soft opening for businesses, the charter fleet should be front and center for opening to give the lakeshore communities a kick-start to a delayed tourism season. Lake Ontario-related businesses will need all the help it can get as we get things back on track. Keep your fingers crossed and stay safe.