OSWEGO — In an effort to promote year-round tourism and boost local business, the county invited promoters from the I Love New York campaign for an afternoon of fishing on Lake Ontario and the Oswego River this week.
Anglers are gathering at the mouth of the Oswego River to catch salmon migrating from Lake Ontario, making early fall an ideal time for Oswego County to show off what local bodies of waters have to offer fishing enthusiasts from around the country.
Pushing off from Oswego’s east marina next to Alex’s On the Water, marketing content creators Elizabeth Yuko and Phil Novoa joined Dave Owens from the county Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning for a trip on Coldsteel Sportfishing’s 36-foot Egg Harbor.
For Yuko, a freelance writer and Fordham University professor, and Novoa, associate vice president of Finn Partners working with the state’s ubiquitous I Love New York campaign, their fishing trip was the last stop on a tour of New York state tourism.
“Everybody has been really friendly, and the weather has been literally perfect,” Yuko said. “There’s been much history to learn about.”
Yuko and Novoa said they had never fished before, aside from the odd trip with a grandparent when they were little. But they stepped off the boat that afternoon with more material for promotional content than when they boarded, each having caught a King Salmon and Novoa declaring himself “a new man.”
Manning the 36-foot Egg Harbor on Wednesday was Captain Tom Burke of Coldsteel Sportfishing, a charter company working with the county to boost tourism on area waterways. For commercial charter captains, Oswego’s proximity to freshwater angling is a huge leg over regional competitors and makes local shores a coveted tourism destination, Burke said.
“We have a bit of a monopoly on everything west of [Interstate Highway] 81,” Burke said. “We’re actually in a really good place.”
On Wednesday’s fishing trip, Captain Andy Bliss, who works with Burke from May through September while maintaining his own charter company, Chasin Tail, casts out 10 lines with copper weights that plunge 26 feet into Lake Ontario.
The two-man crew monitors the water’s conditions — depth, temperature and lakefloor terrain — using digital sonar technology.
When one of the lines bends downward from its 45-degree angle, Bliss calls on first-time anglers Yuko and Novoa to take the reigns. First on deck, Novoa grabs a hold of the pole and immediately starts reeling in.
“When the line bends down, that’s when you reel in,” Bliss tells him. “Then pull on the pole. There you go. Just like chewing gum and walking.”
Bliss says King Salmon are known for their endurance and strength, as a species built to swim upstream. But he said the fish at the other end of Novoa’s line was putting up quite the fight.
“They fight hard,” he tells Novoa. “But this one is exceptional.”
Novoa and the salmon volley back and forth for about 10 minutes before the fish can be seen within inches of the water’s surface. At that point, Bliss dips his net into the water and scoops up Novoa’s first caught fish, a King Salmon that Bliss estimates to weigh around 25-pounds.
“I feel like a new man,” Novoa exclaims, wrestling to hold the writhing 23-pound King Salmon in his arms to pose for Owens’ and Yuko’s cameras.
For Owens, a marketing and design specialist, the fishing trip provided him with a suite of promotional material. Owens said the county launched a digital marketing campaign targeted at niche communities, like anglers. To optimize the online promotional material, the county’s tourism team uses analytics to match demographics of people with different tourism destinations and even fish species and seasons.
“The idea is that we’re not a scheduling or booking agency; we think of ourselves as more like the best referral service,” Owens said.
In the wake of record high lake levels and flooding in 2017 and 2019, Owens and his team have been countering the negative view of Lake Ontario and associated tourism activities by telling the “whole story” of the lake in their promotional material. The reputation of causing property destruction can give a black eye to area tourism opportunities because of a perceived association with the lake, even if certain opportunities were unaffected.
“Sure, water levels have been high, but ask any fishing captain and they’ll tell you the fishing has been great,” Owens said. “Take Harborfest: people think about a music festival on Lake Ontario and immediately think of the flooding, when in reality the water levels had little or no effect on Harborfest.”
The county’s tourism team is trying to “round out” the “stories” told about regional tourism opportunities in their marketing campaign, Owens said. For instance, rather than targeting ads at fishing communities as competing groups of steelhead anglers versus Atlantic Salmon anglers, promotional materials that include interests both angling communities make for longer stays in Oswego.
“We thought it would be a tough sell to providers, but [angling communities] are not competing, because they want to fish one thing one day and get the other things the other day,” Owens said.
By one measure, the Oswego County Fishing Facebook page, the number of audience members targeted by the marketing campaign has ballooned since late 2018, when the campaign took off. The number of followers nearly doubled in 2019 to 12,500, twice what it was at the beginning of the year.