Hunting and Fishing Pros Weather the COVID Storm

Captain Nick McNamara of Basswood Lodge with his hunting dog Hobbs, on a boardwalk in the marshes Upper and Lower Lakes Wildlife Management Area, located between the Grass River and the Oswegatchie River. Christopher Lenney/ NNY Magazines

By: Ben Muir
Catching fish is ideal, bagging some ducks is, too, but guides across the north country are looking for more: an experience for their customers, and during a pandemic — while it’s not all bad — the process has become muddied.

    Erik Swenson has been around fishing guides in his hometown of Cape Vincent since he was a child. He was tapped as a fish cleaner when he was 8. Pike is likely the trickiest to carve, what with all the bones, but after a few thousand it’s not too bad. 

    “They’re great action, and they’re really good to eat, too,” he said. “They get kind of a  bad rap because they have a lot of bones in them, but if you know how to clean them you can get all those out.” 

    By the time he was 10 he was running around the village waters with a 14-foot boat, and by 12 he became a deck mate to a season fishing guide. Fast forward a few decades, in 2000, Mr. Swenson got his license to guide and became owner-operator of Lori-J Charters in Cape Vincent. His father did it before him and he inherited his loyal clients while building many of his own, resulting in roughly 70 percent of his business being repeat. 

    His day starts at around 7 a.m., cleaning the boat, filling the tank and gathering bait and ice. If he knows there are kids coming on the trip he’ll set up a bucket full of minnows for them to play with. He’s prepared to explain how the river works, tell stories of it and let the guests take the wheel on occasion. 

    “Part of being a fishing guide is you have to have a certain amount of tour guide,” he said. “The outing is almost as important as catching fish. But as a fishing guide there’s nobody that wants to see you catch fish more than the guy who’s driving the boat.” 

    A group gets to the bout-house at 8 a.m. and they head out, fishing until around 12:30 p.m. on a half day or 3 p.m. on a full. He cleans their fish when they get back and sends them on their way. That’s one trend he has seen shift over the years. Many customers are taking photos with their fish and then sending them back. 

    “In the 80s and 90s, I used to say everything that came over the side of the boat is going into the fish box,” Mr. Swenson said. “Now, people don’t generally keep as many fish as they used to, period.” 

    After a trip he might prepare a shore dinner for his guests. There have been few this year, considering many parks where they would set-up the dinner had been closed due to COVID-19. 

     The pandemic has brought on challenges and opportunities for Mr. Swenson. The runaway biggest issue is the closure between the US and Canada. He has nearly 20 specific fishing spots he goes to in Canadian waters that he’s now not allowed to anchor at. 

    “I like to have fish biting in four, five or six spots at the same time so I can keep moving around,” he said. “That way people don’t see me in one place for too long because they’ll go there.” 

    On the other hand, Mr. Swenson’s business has increased. He said it’s likely due to families staying in the north country instead of traveling out-of-state on vacation. 

    “Yeah it’s helped business,” he said. 

    As far as when to fish, Mr. Swenson said the first half of August was really good. He loves the fall — with it’s unpredictable weather. Yes fishing in the rain is great, but that’s all it came be. Storm fronts make it more difficult. 

    Spring is another one of his favorites as well. 

    “It depends on the group,” Mr. Swenson said. “If you’re coming with your family, you’d want to come in July or August. If you’re coming with guys who want to seriously catch fish, I’d come May or early June, or September and October.” 

    On the hunting side, Capt. Nick McNamara is working to create an experience. He has owned Basswood Lodge near Canton for eight years and has been working there for the more-than 20 it has been open. He employs up to a half-dozen guides who take groups on to hunt geese and ducks. He prefers when groups select a three-day hunt — that way they can stay in one of his three lodges. 

    “It’s not like we’re going to meet you at a gas station and then head out to hunt,” Mr. McNamara said. “They become almost part of our family.” 

    The pandemic has affected him in a few ways. His clientele are mostly over the age of 50 and from all over the world, and not many are traveling. Another factor is the networking. Most of the outdoor shows or expos he goes to every year have been canceled, underscoring the fewer new clients he will make this year. 

    “Until the smoke clears and it’s over,” he said, “I don’t know how big of a toll.” 

    His business is an outfitter as well, and outfitters spend a lot of money pre-season to prepare. There are leases, insurance, employees. There’s nothing he can reuse after a pandemic comes around, which results in him sitting on several expenses. 

    “Once we’re ready to roll, all that money is out there,” he said. “We gotta follow through.” 

    Above all — whether it’s equipment, land or staff — preparation is vital. 

    “Anything we can control, we make sure it’s a 10 out of 10,” Mr. McNamara said. “You do everything you can to put the cards in your favor, but at the end of the day, mother nature is going to through you curve balls.” 

    This has resulted in nearly 90 percent of his business being repeat clientele. 

    “They know what they’re getting,” he said. “Have a couple rough days? They understand because they know the other side. They understand what good days look like.”