It’s a common workday daydream for a great many anglers: retire relatively young, get a guide license and get paid to take people fly-fishing on the trout streams of the Adirondacks and Catskills. What could be more fun?
“I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the right adjective,” said Jim Zullo of Indian Lake, Hamilton County, who’s been living the dream for 11 years. “It’s work. You have to be prepared. You’ve got to get people on fish. That’s the stressful part of it. If they’re paying you money, you’ve got to show them a good time.”
But after a pause — a short one — Zullo decided the adjective was right, after all.
“It is fun,” he said. “It’s exciting, and you meet some great people, just great people. And it’s just so pretty up here.”
Zullo is no stranger to excitement, or to a job that demands rigorous preparation and performance when the pressure’s on. He was a school teacher for 32 years, and for 20 years held one of the most high-profile positions in Capital Region athletics — head coach of the boys’ basketball team at Shenendehowa High School.
He couldn’t have been much more successful. Zullo led the Plainsmen to the state championship in 1987 and four Section II titles between 1987 and 1991. He’s a member of the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame, and holds a 513-250 record as coach at Shen, Little Falls, Broadalbin-Perth and tiny Indian Lake High School, with its graduating class of 11 students, where he coaches today. (After all, there’s not much fly-fishing in Hamilton County during basketball season.)
“It’s especially enjoyable for someone who was in a classroom for 32 years to be out rowing a boat,” said Zullo, 65. “But I know when I’ve done eight or nine days in a row, I’m really exhausted. I think it’s a younger man’s game.”
Maybe so, but Zullo’s passion for fishing and skill as a teacher are clear to the people he guides.
Katherine Bassett and her boyfriend Jon Tizzard, of Bournemouth, England, were “on holiday,” as they say, lunching on chicken wings, when they met up with Zullo in the Adirondack Mountain Grill in Indian Lake last week. A conversation ensued, Zullo’s services were engaged and the couple found themselves the next day on the bank of the Cedar River, learning to fly-cast.
They didn’t catch anything on the Cedar, but when Zullo took them out on his boat on Indian Lake that evening, Tizzard landed a brute of a northern pike on a spinning rod.
“It was huge,” Bassett said of her boyfriend’s catch. “It really made our vacation. Jim is a really good teacher and really good fun. I can see why people like to go fishing. I think we’ve both got the bug now.”
“Jim knows the West Canada and all the creeks and streams really well,” said Doug Jensen of Speculator, who commutes to the biotechnology company he founded in Boston and has fished with Zullo since 2006. “He’s a great teacher. I’ve had a broad range of experiences with him and learned a lot of things I can use on my own. And he’s a fun guy to be with — patient and easy-going.”
A native of Gloversville, Zullo graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1965 and took his first job as a coach at Little Falls High School in 1968.
“I went fishing with one of the teachers on the West Canada Creek,” he recalled. “He fly-fished and I worm-fished, and he caught about 30 fish and I didn’t catch any. I asked him if he would teach me, and he did.”
Soon, it was Zullo who was teaching the sport. At Shenendehowa, he ran an adult education class in fly-fishing for 20 years, taking his students on an outing to Kayaderosseras Creek for the last class.
For his own fishing, Zullo drove east to the Battenkill River or west to the West Canada and made pilgrimages to the famous trout rivers of the Rocky Mountains.
After retiring from teaching in 1998, Zullo became a guide at Beaver Brook Outfitters in Wevertown, showing anglers the good lies in the rocky Indian River and rafting them into the rugged and remote Hudson River gorge.
“It was great fun,” Zullo said. “I gradually, over a period of years, got more and more customers up here and got to where I didn’t have to work for anybody else — I was busy for myself all the time, or as busy as I wanted to be.”
He left Beaver Brook and went into business for himself, under the name Sabael Guide Co. For six seasons, Zullo was part of the hyper-competitive trout guide corps in the Catskills, taking clients down the Delaware River in pursuit of New York’s biggest and smartest trout.
“It’s like going to college, working down there,” he said. “I learned a lot from the other guides. It’s just amazing, the fish that are in that river. It’s like being in Montana.”
But by 2005, Zullo and his wife, Linda, had moved from Clifton Park to the shore of Indian Lake, and he was tiring of the 360-mile round-trip commute to the Delaware. So these days, he concentrates on local waters — mainly the Indian, the upper Hudson and the West Canada. He takes people bass fishing with spinning tackle on Piseco Lake, Lake Pleasant and Sacandaga Lake. One of his favorite gigs is flying into roadless Tirrell Pond, on the back side of Blue Mountain, for brook trout with clients from a nearby corporate conference center.
“I really look forward to that,” he said. “It’s usually in the fall when I’m not very busy, anyway.”
Mike Shafer, the retired chief of the Gloversville Fire Department, played junior varsity basketball for Zullo in the late 1960s at Gloversville High.
“He was an excellent coach, as was borne out by his career since,” Shafer said. “He was tough, but a real good teacher. I really learned how to play basketball from him.”
Some 30 years later, Zullo taught Shafer again — this time, where to cast for good trout on the Indian River. “He’s a terrific guide,” Shafer said. “He’s a lot of fun to fish with and very knowledgeable.”