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St. Lawrence County tourism leaders eye partnership with Jefferson County to net more big fishing tournaments

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CANTON - St. Lawrence County tourism leaders say Jefferson County could lend a hand to net more big national fishing tournaments like the Bassmaster event last weekend in Waddington.

Jefferson County stole some of the limelight from St. Lawrence during the tournament, as many of the anglers who competed in the Aug. 8 to 11 tournament — including the winner — rode their speedboats south on the St. Lawrence River to fish in the Thousand Islands region and Lake Ontario. But while the shores of Jefferson County received much of the attention, the tournament was funded only by St. Lawrence County organizations, and the St. Lawrence Board of Legislators pledged $75,000 to Waddington to host the tournament.

Competition organizers hope the event’s resounding success will spur the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council to consider joining a regional sport fishing campaign called FishCap. Launched in 2010, the initiative promotes the St. Lawrence River Valley as “the world’s fishing capital.” The nonprofit is funded exclusively by public and private agencies in St. Lawrence County. And, so far, FishCap has promoted only the St. Lawrence County region, avoiding the Thousand Islands.

The FishCap campaign played a key role in attracting the Bassmaster Elite Series fishing tournament to Waddington, said Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray, who launched the initiative with St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patricia L. McKeown. The Massena Town Council voted to contribute $75,000 needed to start FishCap in 2010, or $25,000 for three years. That funding was used to hire renowned angler Donald R. Meissner as program coordinator.

After witnessing the tournament’s success in Waddington, Mr. Gray said he believes the region eventually could host a schedule of national tournaments during the year, similar to other regions such as Lake Champlain and Oneida County. Support from Jefferson and Franklin counties to promote FishCap, he said, could help redefine the region as a fishermen’s mecca.

“We have spoken about the need for much broader regional approaches, and that was our intent from the get-go,” he said. “Starting FishCap was a leap of faith for a number of people, but it’s translated into this tournament. I believe more tournaments are coming to the St. Lawrence River, and they could be more successful if they are located in a more centralized location” between Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties.

Gary S. DeYoung, executive director of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council, said he is open to exploring how the agency could help FishCap attract more national fishing tournaments to the north country. FishCap has not yet reached out to the council to request financial assistance.

Mr. DeYoung pointed out the council already is leading efforts to promote sport fishing along the St. Lawrence River and on Lake Ontario. Jefferson County hosts several annual fishing tournaments in the Thousand Islands region, he said, and is home to about three dozen fishing charter captains.

Even so, Mr. DeYoung acknowledged, regional tourism leaders could do more to attract national fishing tournaments, such as the Bassmaster Elite Series. And teaming up with FishCap in St. Lawrence County could help meet that goal.

“In Jefferson County, we’d have to look at what our best strategy is for fishing, and if that meshes with FishCap’s mission,” Mr. DeYoung said. “Do you go after the small tournaments here that have an ongoing flow during the year, or big tournaments that grab national attention? Not only the north country, but New York state in general has a long way to go to remind people we are a fishing destination.”

More research is needed to determine the economic effects of major fishing tournaments hosted here, Mr. DeYoung said. He is looking forward to learning about the overall impact of the Waddington tournament, which drew 34,100 people over the weekend — a record-breaking attendance for the Bassmaster Elite Series. A group of international master’s of business administration students from Clarkson University, Potsdam, is completing an economic impact study for the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, which will be released in the fall.

The tourism council already has made plans to promote sport fishing across the north country, Mr. DeYoung said. Last year, it secured a $64,000 state grant from the North Country Regional Economic Development Council to promote sport fishing across an eight-county region by creating short films that will be launched on tourism websites and YouTube. Production of the film series will start in the spring. “We hope to have a dozen of these videos to promote fishing across the region — charter fishing on Lake Ontario in Henderson Harbor, the Indian River Lakes and the St. Lawrence River,” he said. “We’ll ask our partner agencies, including FishCap, to help in the production of it.”

Mr. DeYoung added that a handful of tourism agencies cooperated to submit a state grant application this week for $1,806,750 for the governor’s Market NY tourism initiative. The north country will compete for a chunk of a $5 million pool of grant funding. Participating agencies are the Thousand Islands International Tourism Council, FishCap, Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, Adirondack Regional Tourism Council and Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid. Tourism efforts in the application range from promoting sport fishing, boating, motorcycling and paddle sports.

FishCap is asking for $170,000 to bolster its tourism campaign to attract more out-of-state visitors. That request includes $25,000 to air national video series on WPBS-DT, Watertown’s public broadcasting station, called “Fishing Behind the Lines,” featuring soldiers from Fort Drum; $30,000 to attend sport fishing events across Northeastern states and Canada; $25,000 for a multimedia display to promote the St. Lawrence River Valley at shows, and $50,000 to hire a full-time employee to help visitors make plans for fishing vacations.

Mrs. McKeown said she hopes these efforts, if funded, mark only the beginning of an ongoing partnership among regional tourism leaders. She said FishCap could become a catalyst to achieve that goal for the region’s sport fishing industry.

“There are times when it seems like one group is pitted against another in the region, but we don’t see it that way here,” she said. “We see the area as a large fishery that runs from one end of the St. Lawrence River all the way to Lake Ontario.”

Anglers fished up and down the whole St. Lawrence River during the Bassmaster tournament, said Richard A. Clarke, captain of Sign Man Fishing Charters in Clayton. Weeks before the tournament, Mr. Clarke saw dozens of professional anglers on the river near Clayton who were mapping out their fishing spots.

“A fair amount of people were practicing prior to the tournament between Clayton and Cape Vincent,” said Mr. Clarke, a fishing guide for 33 years. “And they were going by me during the tournament to fish on Lake Ontario. They were fishing the whole river, from Massena to the Thousand Islands area.”

Mr. Clarke said he would like to see the next Bassmasters tournament hosted in Clayton, for example, to promote northern Jefferson County.

“In all fairness, halfway between Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River would probably be the fairest place to be,” he said.

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