Jeff Zellers grew up spending his summers around Chautauqua Lake with his family at the Institution. Zellers said it’s fun to think about his progress as a fisherman, from his time as a young boy on the shores of the lake, to the catches he makes now as a New York licensed fishing guide.
“The first thing I would do after we pulled in the driveway was hop on my bike and head for the Bell Tower with a fishing pole in my hand,” Zellers said. “I couldn’t get enough, and I still can’t.”
This year, Zellers launched Chautauqua Fishing Charters, offering a variety of fishing trips on Chautauqua Lake, giving everyone an opportunity to catch the assortment of fish in its waters. Zellers said the business offered an opportunity to share his interest and experience with Chautauquans of all ages.
“I fish with all ages, from 7 years old to 90 years old, and every age in between,” Zellers said. “It is truly a Chautauqua activity that all ages and skill levels can enjoy. There’s something special about having three generations of a family onboard, enjoying what the lake has to offer.”
Chautauqua Fishing Charters offers four tours: Muskie Madness, focused on muskies; Family Fun, focused on any fishing skill level; Moonlight Walleye, a nighttime charter for walleyes; and the Sunset Cruise, which centers more on sightseeing than catching fish.
Zellers spends his winters as a professional fishing guide providing tours in the Everglades and Florida Keys, and said that the tours can be crowded. While taking periodic visits back to Chautauqua for the last 20 years, Zellers found that he had not noticed any mention of other charter fishing businesses around the lake.
“Fishing has always been integral part of my Chautauqua experience, so it really fueled my desire to bridge the gap, and provide the opportunity to Institution residents, guests, and visitors who might have an interest,” Zellers said.
Zellers said the inaugural season has been exciting, and more successful than he ever anticipated. He said the best part of his job is watching guests have a memorable day.
“The biggest success of the season, hands down, was watching lifelong Chautauquan, Kitty Warman, who is 88 years young, and has been a neighbor of mine since I was a child, reel a muskie in on charter,” Zellers said.
One of Zellers’ favorite catches is the muskie, one of the largest freshwater fish and a staple of Chautauqua Lake. With its large head filled with teeth, and sizes ranging up to 60 inches in length, Zellers said the muskie is the ultimate catch on the lake.
Zellers’ business partner and other tour captain, Lou Clementi Jr., are lifelong friends who have been fishing together for more than 30 years. Zellers said Clementi, as a local business owner, has been a great resource for knowledge on the community as a whole.
“As soon as it felt like this could be a viable business opportunity, the first thing I wanted to do was get Lou involved,” Zellers said. “There was no hesitation on my end. We have similar personalities, interests and passions. And we trust one another, so it makes decision-making easy.”
The business will stay open after the Institution’s season ends, offering tours through Oct. 31, reopening next year on May 1.
Zellers said he would love to continue to run Chautauqua Fishing Charters for the foreseeable future. The business offers a chance for him and his family to spend their summers around the lake.
“I have a son, and Lou has a son and a daughter; and without any undue pressure on any of them, I think it’s the dream of most fathers to have something self-built to pass on to the next generation,” Zellers said.