The last week of March Raritan Bay really caught fire. This 70,000-acre piece of water, part of the New York bight, is flanked by North Jersey and Staten Island. The Manhattan skyline at the mouth of the Hudson River paints the bay’s northern backdrop. Every spring, Raritan gives cabin fever-racked salty anglers their first crack at big striped bass. The fish pile into this shallow, confined bay in April to stage for the spawn, and targeting them on a weekend can give a whole new meaning to “combat fishing.”
This year, Raritan isn’t just the nucleus of early-season striper action; it also sits in the epicenter of some of the hottest COVID-19 zones in the country. Neither nation-high infection numbers nor stay-at-home orders from both New Jersey and New York seem to be discouraging many anglers from crowding onto boats or lining up at ramps.
For clarity, I’m not suggesting we stop fishing—quite the opposite. I want us to be able to keep fishing. Getting on the water, albeit less frequently than before the pandemic, is one of the few things I can do that still feels normal. Unfortunately, after yesterday’s closure of all state and county parks in New Jersey, I now have far fewer options where I can feed my fishing fix.
What disappointed me most during the Raritan Bay striper eruption was the number of “high-profile” captains and anglers posting videos and photos from the bay with boats full of buddies. It’s simply impossible to maintain 6 feet of distance on a boat. Many states (including NY and NJ) strongly recommend that if you’re going to fish on a boat, go alone or with only members of your immediate household. That’s what I’m doing.
While I want everyone in those photos and social media posts to remain healthy, let’s not forgot that people are dying, and slowing the spread of this disease is what matters first. But the point here is bigger and well, more selfish. I want to be able to keep fishing straight through this whole coronavirus outbreak. In order to do that, I need my home state to keep fishing open. Failure to abide by social distancing directives lead to the shutdown of all recreational fishing in Washington State. In the article published on Foxnews.com on March 26, WDFW Fish Program director Kelly Cunningham presented a clear justification for the harsh decision.
“We’ve seen an uptick in outdoor recreation at some locations in recent weeks as people have looked for ways to get outside,” he said. “We’ve had reports of crowded boat ramps and busy fishing on some rivers, which runs counter to the governor’s direction to stay home and practice social distancing.”
Washington state should serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when governors and state agencies are put in the precarious position of balancing the need to control a pandemic outbreak with the desire to maintain the rights of citizens. Presently, Washington’s fishing ban has not been lifted, and on Monday the state announced a suspension of all spring bear and turkey hunting until at least May 4. The thing is, it didn’t have to happen that way. We, as outdoorsmen and women, have the power to prevent that situation from repeating all over the country. The more we disregard social distancing recommendations, the more pressure we put on state governments to keep us in check. The solution is simple: stay away from each other until this all blows over and we can keep fishing, hunting, and playing outside. But we’re clearly failing to do that, as we’re seeing more and more closures pile up as the weeks drag on.
The rules about what we can and can’t do are changing fast, but it’s on us to stay current and stay in compliance, just like any other hunting and fishing regulations. Social media isn’t helping (I know, what a shock), spreading a free-for-all of misinformation. “I read about it on Facebook” is still not a defense for violating fish and game laws, even during a pandemic. If you’re having difficulty navigating the sea of changing restrictions and social media hearsay, you can find the most up-to-date news on outdoor-related rules, closures, and seasons by state here.
If you’re looking for guidance on getting outdoors and enjoying our sports in a way that won’t negatively impact future government decisions, look West (just try to ignore Washington). The guidelines in place in states with more open land and fewer people are valuable no matter where you live. I reached out to Rachel Schmidt, the director of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation. With her insight, we’ve put together what we believe are best practices for outdoor recreation during this unprecedented time. And yes, some of these suggestions might be hard to swallow, but it’s all in the interest of keeping us outside now and getting back to normal life faster.
Be Prepared to be Alone
I’ve owned three boats in my life, and I didn’t buy any of them so I could spend more time fishing alone. The social aspects of hunting and fishing are what many of us love, but this is the time to put them on hold. It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re healthy and being cautious, and so are your pool of buddies, therefore there’s no harm in jumping on a boat or driving to turkey camp together. But millions of people are thinking the same way—in essence believing this virus is not going to affect their circles. And let’s be honest with ourselves, some of these same buddies have a history of contracting other “social diseases.” Hell, one of my fishing buddies contracted foot and mouth disease, twice. The mentality of keeping to your “inner circle” can still spread COVID-19, especially given that some of the biggest infectors didn’t even know they had it for a week or more.
In a recent Angling Trade story titled “The Coronavirus Elephant in the Fly-Fishing Room,” editor Kirk Deeter interviews Dr. Cliff Watts, a veteran ER doctor and avid angler. The story takes a deep dive into the practical and moral dos and don’ts of fishing during the pandemic, but when asked if fishing on a boat—particularly a drift boat—can be done safely, Dr. Watt’s answer was essentially “no.”
“Most drift boats mandate that the rower and the fisherperson be less than 6 feet apart,” Watts said. “The person downwind of a sneeze, or a spit, would be vulnerable to ‘droplets’ and hence there could be a significant potential to spread any virus.”
Fish and hunt alone, or as many government agencies suggest, only have close contact in the woods and water with people who live under your roof. If you must go out with a close buddy for safety or other reasons, drive separately, wade fish instead of using the boat, and keep proper distance during the trip. Hopefully in the coming weeks, there will be a relaxing of social distancing guidelines that allow us to enjoy the outdoors with friends in a normal fashion again, but while we’re still in the thick of it, follow the rules.
Rethink Where You Recreate
Social distancing while enjoying the outdoors has created an odd conundrum in many areas. While theoretically it’s not difficult to stay 6 feet away from other people, it is when parks, trails, and recreation areas across the country are seeing massive influxes of visitors. This crowding forced many states to close down certain areas, but according to Schmidt, there is more at play when governments consider the shutdown of public lands than simply the spreading of the virus. It boils down to behaviors triggered by the need to social distance.
“If parking lots are crowded, don’t try to fit by making new parking spaces or parking outside of the trailhead parking area on the side of the road,” Schmidt said. “If established trails are crowded, don’t blaze new trails in heavily used areas. These actions cause damage to the resources.”
According to Schmidt, with many public recreation areas operating with little or no staff, they don’t have the manpower to police these infractions. The solution is just shutting the area down completely.
“When Montana’s governor announced the stay at home order, he asked residents to use good judgment when it comes to outdoor activities,” Schmidt said. “That means maybe finding a different trail or keeping outdoor recreation closer to home. The number one goal of everyone at this moment is preventing the spread of a very serious virus, but if that goal is not compatible with responsible recreation, the recreation in certain locations will have to be put on pause.”
I caught up with Deeter at Angling Trade, who offered another perspective to consider when deciding where you’re going to recreate. It speaks directly to the growing number of people with the desire to leave the crowds—and in many cases, a COVID hot zone—behind.
“If you’re going to drive to fish, it should be for minutes, not hours,” Deeter said. “It’s not cool to drive from Denver to the Frying Pan, or from Seattle to Montana right now, but people are doing it. You have to think about the rural communities you’re heading to. They don’t want your ass there. They don’t have the infrastructure to handle an uptick in cases. Help them now by not showing up to fish, and then help them later by showing up when this is over. That’s when they’ll need you.”
Now Isn’t the Time to be Daring
Western states like Colorado and Montana were quick to advise against backcountry skiing and rock climbing, in some cases attempting to shut it down entirely. The directive is aimed at minimizing the need to tie up rescue crews, medical personnel, and medical facilities with unnecessary injuries during the pandemic. Skiers and climbers are naturally more prone to injury than hunters and anglers, however, the message from these ski-heavy states should resonate with every outdoorsman across the country.
Now is not the time to be adventurous. That section of unexplored river you’re dying to run in your kayak can wait. Suck it up and fish the easy-access water instead of crawling down a canyon to check out a new stream. If you’re running a boat alone, don’t push off 30 miles. Keep it close to the beach. Don’t head out into the steepest, rockiest terrain you can think of looking for turkeys or spring bears. Hunt the usual haunts you know well and consider staying closer to the trailhead than you normally would.
This may seem trivial and like an edict from the fun police, but imagine breaking an ankle or wrist right now. How eager are you to go visit an emergency room for an injury that could have easily been avoided? Not only could this increase the odds that you’ll be exposed to the virus, but your injury could potentially slow or hinder care to a patient with COVID-19.
Leave No Trace
I hope that everyone reading this already follows the “leave no trace” principle. Schmidt, however, pointed out that it has never been more critical than right now. Being a steward in the outdoors will directly correlate to fewer closures of boat ramps, parks, and recreation areas.
“If there’s a garbage can at your favorite trailhead, don’t throw anything in it,” she said. “Pack your trash out. If there’s a public bathroom on site, don’t use it. It’s easy in this situation to put land managers in a very tight spot because if they have to shut the bathrooms down due to lack of resources, manpower, or health risk to maintenance staff, people will relieve themselves behind or around the outhouse, and then you have a human waste hazard situation. If they leave facilities open with minimal maintenance, people complain that the facilities are not being kept up to par. It’s a very delicate balance.”
The way to tip that balance in our favor is simply minimizing our impact as we enjoy the outdoors right now, particularly in places with more visitors. Launch the boat, fish, and leave promptly when you’re done. Shorten your duration in the field; go home for lunch instead of packing in a picnic.
There are lots of reasons for fear and anxiety right now, and even outdoor recreation, our sanity safe haven, feels threatened. Recently, states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Nebraska closed turkey license sales to non-residents and are requiring out-of-state hunters to quarantine for 14 days after entering the state. Even in Raritan Bay, some townships have shut down popular waterfront fishing spots and municipal parking lots as a result of weekend crowds. Non-residents are being asked to please stay away. Washingtonians are completely locked out of their hunting and fishing, and several states including Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Texas have shuttered their state parks.
But let’s please take the long view here. This is one season in a lifetime, and if we all hunt, fish, and play outside more conservatively and responsibly, we might not lose the privilege altogether. Not only are we doing the right thing for our society in this tough time, we might also find some small, long-term benefit from less-molested wildlife. Imagine what a season of lighter harvest might do for future turkey populations. Think of how reduced pressure on a bay loaded with prespawn stripers could boost the population in years to come. We have to make some sacrifices now for the good of every person in the country, but take solace in the fact that in some instances, you are subsequently doing it for the good of the fish and game species you love.
Featured image by Stanley Kosinski.