By David Figura
‘It’s my passion. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,’ says 80-year-old fishing guide
For more than four decades, Captain Tony Buffa has been a beloved and well-respected charter boat fishing guide on the Central New York angling scene — giving joy and memorable experiences to countless clients and inspiration to others.
Having turned 80 earlier this year, Buffa, of Bridgeport, continues to guide on Oneida Lake three to four times a week, weather permitting.
He takes clients out on My Gal Cal II, his 28-foot boat docked on the lake’s southern shore at Fremac Marina in Lakeport. His fishing season on the lake begins in April and continues through November. He specializes in catching walleye, but also assists anglers in landing perch, bass and whatever else can be hooked in the lake.
At the end of this season, Buffa will have been taking out fishing charters on Oneida Lake for 47 years. He chartered on Lake Ontario for 43 years, but stopped doing that last year.
“I’m simplifying,” he said with his infectious smile and laugh. “Right now, I’ve come to the point in my life where I’ll do a six-hour charter in the morning and never do a second charter that day. Also, I’ll never do three days in a row and I’ll never do more than four trips in a week. And I’m good.”
Buffa said friends and family wonder how much longer he can keep going.
“I love the way my life is and I want it to go forever,” he said. “Friends say, ‘Tony, aren’t you sick of guiding?’ I say, ‘No, it’s my passion. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. As much as I’ve been out on the water, every day is a learning experience.’”
Born and raised catholic in Syracuse, Buffa, who has college degrees in mathematics and English, was a member of the Brothers of Christian Instruction, a community of Catholic men, similar to the religious order that teaches at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse.
While a member of the order, he taught math for six years at Mount Assumption Institute in Plattsburgh, where he had attended high school. He later dropped out of the order, married and taught math briefly at both Bishop Ludden and Bishop Grimes Catholic high schools — and eventually was hired to teach at Onondaga Community College, where for 43 years, he taught calculus before retiring in 2015.
Juggling two careers — teaching and guiding — wasn’t always easy, but Buffa managed.
While at OCC, he would teach Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He would often be out on the water during the fishing season on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends, either on Oneida or Ontario lakes.
“Back in my younger days, when I was in my 30s and 40s, it was nothing for me to do two trips a day. That kind of energy is gone,” he said.
Over the years, Buffa applied his teaching skills to promote angling and his guide business. During the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, he gave fishing seminars during the off-season about Oneida Lake and Lake Ontario at Fredon’s sporting goods store on Teal Avenue in Syracuse.
“They kind of took me under their wing,” he said, adding that the store bought him a boat — and eventually a larger one to take out charters on Lake Ontario. In return, he pledged loyalty to the store, meaning he’d only give fishing seminars there.
“All I needed to do was pay the insurance (on the boat), the docking fee and take them (the owners) fishing a few times,” he said. “It was a great deal.”
When Fredon’s closed, Buffa continued to give fishing seminars at Bass Pro Shops and at the Northeast Sportsman’s Show at the New York State Fairgrounds, along with a class on fishing at OCC. He stopped doing seminars about five years ago, figuring he had an adequate client base and no longer needed to promote his guide business.
In addition to the fishing seminars, Buffa has been a long-time board member of the Oneida Lake Association. For the past 42 years, he has been the chairperson and emcee at the group’s annual public meetings.
One of the things that Buffa was known for on Lake Ontario was his “evening reflections” — which he gave daily using the VHS radio on his boat.
Other fishing guides on the lake and many on shore tuned in to hear Buffa speak at the tail end of his afternoon charters during the months of July, August and September. Some guides used to turn their boat radio volume up for their clients to hear.
It was a tradition that Buffa said he started more than 20 years ago on the spur of the moment. He stressed it was not a religious or evangelizing thing.
“It rose out of the need to recognize our close friends and charter captains who had passed over the years,” he told The Post-Standard in a 2021 interview. “One afternoon I was out there and I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we create an evening reflection that included their names, and those who had most recently passed on. It will give us all a chance to remember them and reflect on the privilege of being out on the water and thanking a higher being for that privilege.’”
Buffa credits his good health and longevity as a guide to a number of factors. They include genetics (his mother lived to be 100); the fact that he never smoked and is a moderate drinker; the physical activity and excessive amounts of fresh air he has taken in other the years while guiding and fishing, and the fact that he’s a “chess fanatic” — a game he described as “real brain muscle activity.”
The following are excerpts from a recent interview with Buffa.
My Gal Cal II. Where’d you come up with that name?
“My boat is named after my wife, Carolyn, whose maiden name was Carolyn Ann Lawson. Her nickname in college was Cal, an acronym for her full name. It’s my second ‘My Gal Cal’ boat, an upgrade from the first. We’ve been married for 47 years and Carolyn has been my number one fan and supporter for all my endeavors.”
Talk about the first time you went fishing.
“I was 7 years old and it was on a Catholic Youth Organization outing for kids at Green Lakes State Park. You could choose either swimming or fishing. I said `Jeez, I think I’ll try fishing.’ But I didn’t own a fishing rod at the time. The day before the outing, my mother took me to the neighborhood tackle shop and bought me a hand line, some sinkers, hooks, some bobbers and bait (worms). When we got there, they strung us along the shoreline. I took the hand line, and whipped it around my head in a circle and fired it out there and watched the bobber. And lo and behold, the bobber went up and down and I pulled on the handline and brought in a pumpkinseed (a sunfish). I said to myself, ‘I think I like this’ and it’s been a passion for me ever since.”
Who taught you how to fish afterward during your childhood years?
“My father was not part of my upbringing. He left when I was six months old. I have to pay tribute to my uncles, Tony Merluzzi and Leonard Massaro. They took me on a boat fishing on Oneida Lake. Sometimes we went up to Sandy Pond or over to Montario Point, where the north and south branches of Sandy Creek come into Lake Ontario. Or for a quick outing from shore at the Caughdenoy Dam or Horseshoe Island on the Oneida River, or at the Belgium Bridge on the Seneca River. We did a variety of fishing. I enjoyed catching anything that would bite.”
Talk about when you decided to become a charter boat captain.
“I got married in 1975. I told my wife, Carolyn, that I did not want to live in the city. I wanted to live either on or near Oneida Lake. After getting married, we moved out to Bridgeport and rented a house on the lake and eventually bought a house just down the road that had lake access. She was good with that because she was raised on a farm and her father took her fishing as a child. In fact, I took her fishing on one of our first dates.
“I had a 17-foot boat with a 35hp motor and kept it a small marina just walking distance from the house we were renting. Apart from my teaching job, I fished every living moment possible that I had to fish.
“So, I’m looking around and telling myself, ‘There is no one on this lake who is guiding and that it’s something I should look into.’ I looked into the requirements, studied what I needed to study and passed the U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Credential exam in September 1976, the same year that Jim Boeheim took over the reins of the Syracuse University men’s basketball team. The certification gave me the captain’s title and allowed me to take up to six people at a time out fishing for pay. I was 34 years old. I started off on Oneida and expanded my outings to include Lake Ontario a couple of years later.”
Over the years, how have you dealt with crabby or rude clients who expect a banner day of fishing every time you go out?
“I think it’s important for the captain of a boat to set the tone immediately. Be upbeat when you greet the people. Be positive throughout the outing. Go out of your way to help those people who aren’t as coordinated as the rest of those on the boat. Explain to everyone what your decision process is as you go through the outing. And if they can’t accept that, I’m not going to let anything bother me at all because I know I’ve done everything in my power to help the people on board have a good time. Have we had outings where we’ve been totally skunked? Absolutely. But I’m not a magician and I’m able to accept that.”
What was the scariest moment of your 47 years of guiding?
“It was up on Lake Ontario. My boat took a direct hit by lightning. It was on August 15, 1985, on my mother’s birthday. I was coming back from an outing. Back then, we didn’t have GPS or the radar tech we have today. We looked to the south (saw the storm coming) and I got on the VHS radio to other charter boat captains and said, ‘There will be some sparks coming here pretty soon.’ So, all the boats started heading back in a row. As we were approaching the Oswego Harbor walls and the lighthouse, we took a direct hit on the boat’s antenna. There was a coupler with all the electronics at the base of the antenna. It vaporized into a yellow mist and my boat, of course, shut down.
“The noise was incredible. My ears were ringing for maybe an hour. Fortunately, neither I or any of my clients aboard had any sensation or feeling of an electric impulse. The antenna was directly grounded to my rudder. The bulk of the charge found ground through the grounding cable and into the water.
“But other funny things happened. My hour meter for my engine spun backwards 400 hours. Every piece of electronics that I had on board got fried. Afterward, when they pulled the boat out of the water, there were two to three holes in the hull where some charges found their way out. You could stick your fingers through them.
“Ever since that day, I’ve always been the first back to the dock whenever anyone would see lightning off on the horizon. Once was enough.”
For someone who doesn’t get it, why do you continue to be so passionate about fishing?
“The dividend of spending time fishing is this: You’re so involved in the fishing process that you don’t have time to think about other things that encumber your brain — the world’s problems, family problems, personal problems. You’re thinking about what you need to do to catch the next fish. What I tell people is when you feel you’re having too much stress in your life; it’s time to add water.”
David Figura, retired outdoor writer for The Post-Standard, Syracuse.com and NYup.com, is working on his second book, “Nobody Likes a Whiny Man,” about guys handling life in their 60s and 70s. His first book, “So What Are the Guys Doing?” covered how men are dealing with middle age.