By Dave Csanda of Midwest Outdoors
Legendary Minnesota fishing guide Tony Roach combines childlike passion for fishing with a relentless drive to locate and catch fish for his clients, friends, family and yes, even himself. He lives, eats, sleeps and breathes fishing in everything he says and does, and his work ethic is second to none, 24/7/365.
If his name sounds someway familiar, it’s perhaps because he’s the nephew of Hall of Fame Angler Gary Roach, who helped introduce Tony into the fishing business at an early age. Like the entire Roach clan, who all have fishing and hunting flowing through their veins, Tony was, is and will forever be passionate about the outdoors. His enthusiasm is contagious, and at the age of 41, his hard-won veteran expertise is an inspiration and education for everyone he meets. To hear him tell it, he retired at age 27, when he became a full-time guide. And he’s having the time of his life.
Here, then, is Tony Roach in his own words.
MidWest Outdoors: Tony, a lot of folks know you’re related to your uncle Gary. But what they don’t know is, how relentlessly hard you’ve worked, to establish both your reputation, and a successful guide/promotional business in the fishing industry.
Tony Roach: I grew up in a fishing family, evidenced by my uncle Gary, and my dad Mark, who fished the MWC (Manufacturers Walleye Classic) circuit and lots of other tournaments in the 1980s. Dad took me fishing whenever possible, and I fished a lot on my own.
I grew up on the Moose River system near Duluth, Minnesota. The river had a place on Pelican Lake near Brainerd, and on Mission Lake as well. If I wasn’t fishing, I’d be scuba diving. The passion has always been there. And I always knew I wanted to fish for a living.
People would see me riding my bike to go fishing almost every day. There were tons of loca rivers, and I’d leave at 6 a.m. and come home at 9 p.m. I’d go to baseball practice and fish my way home. One time I skipped baseball practice because there was a good walleye bite, and I got in trouble with the coach. Mom was super made, but Dad chuckled, and always had my back.
MWO: How did you begin breaking into the fishing business?
Roach: I used to follow my dad and Gary around, and I’d help set up booths at sport shows and promotions. During my high school years, I did all of Gary’s fish frying at sports stores, promoting his fish batter. I’d get minimal pay, but would get to talk to sporting goods store managers and customers. I had just gotten my driver’s license, and was driving all over the Midwest to fry fish, but I loved it. My dad got me into walleye tournaments when I was 14 years old. When I was 16 or 17, we won some money in the Wave Wackers tournament on Mille Lacs, and got to meet a lot of touring pros. I was in high cotton!
I had a chance meeting at St. Cloud State University with an individual whose dad ran Flag Island Resort on Lake of the Woods. I fished there, and the next year, I guided. Dad fixed me up with nice rods and reels and tackle for fishing there.
More importantly, he helped me begin to develop a business plan. After college, I’d have to figure out how to fish full time. I learned to never go in to a potential sponsor with my hand out. Instead, it was, “What can I do for you?” – whether I got paid or not! I remember my first fishing seminar, and still have a copy of my first check.
When I got out of school, I took a job as a superintendent for a home building company, but was very honest with them that it was only a stepping stone to a fishing career. I was still fishing on the side in 2004, and was asked to join Mister Walleyes Specialities in 2005, which opened doors. I got to work with Northland Fishing Tackle, worked sport shows, and promoted my fledgling guide business. But I also knew I couldn’t leave a good job when I had a wife and baby girl. it took me about two years to build up my clientele, after which we moved back to Moose Lake.
The first three years, I donated all kinds of guide trips at DU banquets and such, just to help build up the business. I didn’t make much money, but I started making a name for myself. George Nitti at Nitti’s Hunter’s Point Resort was very good to me, and to this day, we enjoy a close relationship.
Mille Lacs was really good then, being good walleye water close to the Twin Cities. So getting summer trips wasn’t too difficult. But the big question was, how was I going to make a living in winter? Resorts rented fish houses, but nobody was guiding. So I saved all of my summer money, and spent every day of the winter of 2006 drilling holes with my StrikeMaster, looking for fish, learning how to catch them all winter long, on different structures, in different depths. Perch were notorious roamers, and you had to keep moving to stay on them.
I didn’t look at it much differently than summer fishing; it was just more work. It became the basis for the Ice Trolling system we use today. i gotta have 100 percent success, and need to keep people moving to stay on active fish.
Along the way, I met Cory Schmidt, and Roger Cormier for MidWest Outdoors. Roger came out, and we wailed on the fish Ice Trolling. The word got out, and my business suddenly went from wondering what you’d do, to booming! Lots more media followed. Without that winter element to my guide business, I’d have had to get a part-time job. Ever since, I stay busy all year long.
Today, I try to fish every day. I love what I do. I wake up early, excited about fishing. I want to take my kids fishing. When I go on vacation, I go fishing – be it on the ocean, or throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. I don’t know what else I’d do. I’m starting to see the same passion in my son, which is a cool thing.
Roach through the years
- 1980s-90s: Grows up fishing near Moose Lake near Duluth, Minnesota
- 1992: Began fishing walleye tournaments with his dad.
- 1997: Guided at Flag Island Resort on Lake of the Woods.
- 2004: Began guiding on Mille Lacs Lake.
- 2005: Joined Mister Walleyes Specialties promotional team.
- 2006: Defines and refines his Ice Trolling system.
- Today: Operates Tony Roach’s GUide Service (roachsguideservice.com), and Tony Roach Outdoors videos on the YouTube channel.
MWO: How have things changed on Mille Lacs since the advent of zebra mussels?
Roach: The water clarity is much clearer than in previous years. It wasn’t an abrupt change; it took several years. The biggest thing is, when I first started guiding, I could fish for walleyes in the morning, perch in the afternoon, and then back to walleyes in the evening. Nowadays, you don’t catch many jumbo perch anymore. So I also fish for other species, and and in the last month, I’ve probably fished 20 different lakes for bass walleyes, bluegills, pike – everything.
I used to use a lot of monofilament line. Nowadays, it’s braids with fluorocarbon leaders, or straight fluorocarbon line. In spring, you used to be able to fish right under the boat with your outboard running. Nowadays, it’s all about pitching, getting your lure away from the boat, even in 15 to 20 feet of water.
Back in the day, you met people in person and learned about fishing from them – seminars, in-store promotions and such. Or you taped and watched TV segments. You had to work harder than now. Nowadays, my son Robbis is able to do it digitally; you just click a button. If I’d had all those learning tools at my fingertips, I could have learned fast.
Even so, I’m still always learning, and helping people learn by explaining things to my customers. There’s no ceiling for me, and I’m fortunate to be able to fish every day. My wife calls it a disease, but other Roaches in the family are much the same. It’s genetic.
Article first appeared in MidWest Outdoors magazine. Used by permission.