Starting Your Fishing Guide Business with NY Fishtale’s John Wisgo

About NY Fishtales
Located in upstate New York, NY Fishtales is run by fishing guides Johnny and Andrea Wisgo.  Over the past two decades they have successfully grown their guiding business to a year round endeavor splitting their trips between river angling and running charters on Lake Ontario. 

How did you get introduced to fishing?

My dad was a big time hunter and fisherman and got me into fishing at a young age.  I started off fishing the Lehigh River (Pennsylvania) with a spinning rod and eventually picked up fly fishing.  During this time, my mom was tying flies for the local shops in town.  Between the two of them, they taught me not just how to fish but also how to make my own flies which was crucial to my early success.

Can you tell us how you went from fishing as a young child with your dad to becoming a professional fishing guide?

I fished in New York for the first time with my cousin when I was younger.  Towards the end of our trip I hooked a large steelhead and within seconds my line had disappeared.  My heart was pounding, I was doing everything I could to reel the fish in, but it didn’t take long before it jumped out of the water and spit the hook out.  It was at that  point I was determined to catch one of these bastards on my next trip!

During this time I was doing construction work throughout the summer,  giving me the opportunity to fish in upstate New York during the fall and winter months.  And you better believe that I was right back up there fishing the very next fall, but this time it was for salmon.  

I would go up there over the next few years and stayed at this lodge for months on end.  This is where I got my feet wet guiding.  The lodge was eventually sold, which allowed my wife and I to open up our own business in 1999.

When we first started the business, both of us would guide on the river.  But as of about 12 years ago, we began chartering on Lake Ontario. The charters run from mid April until the end of September.  Once that season wraps up we’re back in the river from October until the beginning of April.  It’s a never ending cycle and there is always something to fish!

Were there any prerequisites for getting your fishing guide license?

Before I got my guiding license I wanted to make sure I knew the river inside and out.  I fished the river for 5-6 years before I even went to get my guiding license because I wanted to ensure we would catch something every day I took someone out.  I had to prepare myself for every situation – high water, low water, weather and the time of year.  It doesn’t matter what the conditions are, the goal is that the clients I take out have a memorable experience and catch some fish.  

What is the difference between a fishing license and a guiding license?

A guiding license is a course given by the Department of Forestry.  The course was not very difficult, it’s essentially an escalated boy scout course.  Along with that you have to follow the rules and regulations of the state you’re fishing in.  For New York, you also need a water safety course and to be CPR and First Aid certified. This is something you have to keep up-to-date every year.

What type of fishing do you specialize in?

When we go out on the river, we do whatever it takes to catch the fish whether it’s fly fishing or using a spinning rod.  I always give the clients my recommendations on what the best way to fish is for that particular day. Ultimately, I let them decide on the style they’re most comfortable with.

Between river fishing and running your charters, which one provides you with more business?

The charter season is definitely longer, so assuming we have pretty good weather our business does very well during those warmer months.  Once the charter season comes to an end we still have pretty decent weather through the end of the fall and early winter.  During that time we can run about 75 trips over 90 days on the river, but come January and February our trips slow down quite a bit.

What have you done in terms of marketing to acquire new clients?

About 75% of our clients are repeats, so you could say we’ve built up a very good rapport with them.  Those clients have treated us well and have found that a majority of our new business is by word of mouth.

Aside from that, social media and Facebook has been tremendous to our success.  We are constantly uploading pictures from our trips and have organically grown to over 3,300 followers.  When it comes to Facebook we focus on posting quality content that people really enjoy.  We find that posting during the day has been effective for us because the people who are stuck in an office all day see how much fun we’re having and creates that desire to be out on the water with us.

What has been the biggest obstacle running your guiding business?

To be honest, the biggest hurdle isn’t even related to fishing. It’s just a huge time commitment.  The time away from my wife and kids can add a lot of stress. I only really get about 1-2 months out of the year that I can spend a good amount of time with them.  Aside from that, I’m out on the river or the boat.  

In terms of financially growing the business, we started small and steadily grew over the past 20 years.  We had a small boat in the beginning, but now we’ve moved up to a 28ft charter and we’re actually considering getting a second one.  

What is your direction for growing your guiding business?

It’s hard to scale what we have because the guiding industry is so hands on.  I can’t just hire anyone with a guiding license because they don’t typically have the experience and knowledge of the river like we do.  Sometimes when we go out with larger groups I’ll bring some additional help, but the work we do is very personal.

When people travel long distances to fish with us for a few days, we recommend a few local places that they can stay at.  But every once in awhile there might be some issues at those lodges and then it reflects poorly on us.  To become more full-service we built our own small lodge and present that as an option to our clients.  By having our own lodge we can be 100% responsible for the quality of their trip from beginning to end.

Even though we would like to expand, our number one priority is to take care of the clients we already have.  There isn’t the volume of anglers that there once was when snagging was allowed.  The big businesses that used to thrive up here were focused on quantity over quality which is why a lot of them are no longer around.

What would be your recommendations for any guide looking to land their first few clients?

A lot of guides get started by taking up an apprenticeship.  Work with more experienced guides who already have the clientele and help them out.  Offer your time, learn the ropes and you will get an amazing hands on education about how to run the business.

Any last words for fishermen out there looking to get into the guiding business?

If you’re looking to become a guide, don’t do it because of the money, do it because you love it.  I love what I do and the day I look at fishing as a job is the day that I’ll quit.  

You have to be personable and be able to build quality relationships with your clients.  When you take your clients out on the water you aren’t just trying to catch as many fish as possible, you’re offering an education as well.


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01 Comment

  1. Davis Barnes

    Johnny is not only the best guide on the Salmon River,he may well be the best fisherman on the Salmon River. You never want to try and fish upstream of him, the fish don’t make it that far.

    April 20, 2017 Reply