It's safe to say that, until now, none of us have ever experienced the sheer weirdness of trying to find normal in the midst of a global pandemic. The uncertainty around employment situations, interpersonal relationships, and recreational pursuits is stress-inducing at best and flat-out maddening at worst.
As I write this, sitting in my toy dinosaur-riddled den turned playroom, I reflect on what got us to this point and where we are headed. What will the future hold as we contend with a virus that doesn't care for us, except as its vectors for procreation? Will we ever get back to what we remember as the previously-mentioned "normal," or will a different version of normal that we haven’t yet imagined precipitate out of this awkward social alchemy? Will my son ever know a time in which social distancing is a thing of the past? Will we be able to recreate like before this scourge? Will my guide friends be able to provide their services without fears of contracting COVID-19 from clients? When will I be able to fish with my buddies outside of my immediate quarantine bubble?
When the pandemic hit our shores, or to be more specific the soil of my home state of Washington, in February of 2020 and social distancing directives were issued, I thought at least we could still go fishing. My thinking was that fly fishing is, at its heart, a sport that epitomizes social distancing. The further separated the angler is from others, the more likely they are to fish untouched water, and the better the fishing. After all, solitude and quiet is something we seek and relish about this pursuit. I thought our inherent necessity for separation from the masses would allow us to keep fishing. But you know what they say about the best laid plans, and things changed.
The last weekend before fishing and hunting abilities were stripped away from us, I hitched up the boat and met a couple of fishing buds for a day trip on our home water on the dry side of Washington. With the closure of non-essential businesses, we saw an opportunity to put in some serious time on the water.
We made plans to drive separately and shuttle our own rigs to and from boat launches. We wanted to minimize our contact with one another, not knowing the full extent of how this disease spread. We had serious and frank conversations about each other's risk and exposure levels. Chewing tobacco was banned from the boat, and we each brought our own beers and food in separate coolers to limit potential cross-contamination. Being safe for ourselves and with each other was the aim. We figured we were doing it the right way and that other anglers would be doing the same. Oh brother were we wrong.
When we launched, we saw no signs of overcrowding. People were courteous and patient. Considering that we chose to fish a more technical section of the river from a rowing standpoint, we didn't see elevated boat traffic during the day. However, when slipping into the takeout at the end of the day, after a stellar day of raising big native bows on golden stonefly impersonations, it was evident that we weren't the only ones looking to take advantage of the opportunity to fish a little more than usual. I can't pass judgment on my fellow anglers because to do so would be hypocritical of me, but the river was very crowded when we slid in on the scene at the launch.
Side-slipping the drift boat into the takeout ramp, I saw that my home water was indeed more crowded than I had ever seen. The parking area was overflowing with trucks and trailers. Additionally, social distancing was not being adhered to as it is presently, and the typical post-float high fives and bro-hugs were occurring per usual. Remember, this was early on when mixed-messaging was confusing to all of us, and our concerns about the virus were not as defined as they are now. All editorial aside, things were not, and are not, unilaterally being conveyed in a cogent manner when thinking about the seriousness of the pandemic. Confusion abounded and Washington was Ground Zero.
A few days later, our fishing rights were temporarily suspended, the State government citing numerous scenes similar to the one we witnessed. I couldn't blame the state; it was locked in a desperate game of triage with something no one fully understood. So we anglers and hunters begrudgingly capitulated for the greater good. When a pandemic stares you in the face, leadership must err on the side of prudence, and we place our trust in that leadership.
Since then our governor has reinstated our fishing privileges, but we must remain vigilant. We must fish within the social parameters recommended by the government and epidemiological professionals because if not, hear me sisters and brothers, we will again lose our fishing privileges because of lackadaisical preventative practices. All privilege aside, it stinks when they tell you that you can't fish. No one wants their passion ripped away. It's time to be diligent and do this recovery the right way so we don’t waste our sacrifices.
What does this mean for us fly anglers and for the outdoor community? It means maybe limiting ourselves to day trips to hunt, recreate, and fish. It means sessions in which we can travel to and from the field on one tank of gas. You might consider fishing solo or with those in your quarantine bubble. Maybe it's time to hit the smaller water where crowds are less likely to be an issue. If you do plan on taking that longer road trip, be sure to use your masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
Many times our favorite fishing destinations are just that - destinations - in smaller communities that may not have the medical infrastructure like those of larger cities. If the virus gets ahold in a smaller community, the medical capacities could be quickly overwhelmed. This isn't just my thinking but was, and is, the message coming out of Olympia (our state capital) and others.
Being a bit of a pragmatist, I take this advisory to heart moving into phase two of post-COVID life. That means getting creative with our fishing, part of which is thinking local. What opportunities are available close to home? Being from western Washington, my fishing opportunities are plenty. However, in the spring (when our fishing rights were reinstated) most trout and steelhead waters were marred by runoff, a period when mountain snowpack begins to melt due to warmer temperatures and our rivers were a blown-out chocolaty and unfishable mess.
I began to consider opportunities in smaller bodies of water that hold little wild cutthroat trout that are fun to chase on a smaller rod. I also struck upon the idea of tackling species such as bass and panfish. These still water species are readily available for most. More than likely they swim in a pond, lake, river, or creek within 15 minutes of your front door.
Throughout this time, I have fallen back in love with warm water fly fishing. Watching a bass blow up a white streamer stripped just under the surface is exciting. The wake made by old Mr. Redeye cruising from a woody structure to destroy its prey is heart racing. The sight of a crappie lifting off the bottom to inhale a deer hair popper from the surface of a glassy lake, or the little microplunger-sounding suck of a bluegill eating a little cork popper on a four weight during a sunny day is smashing good fun.
I like to throw in a five and six weight rod for this type of fishing in addition to the four weight for panfish. I recommend short leaders on a weight-forward or double-taper floating line, necessary to turn over a popper. If you go lighter on the leader material, then you run the risk of line-twist on a popper, and these fish aren't usually leader-shy, so the heavier tippet won't be a deal breaker. The six weight, or even a line weight or two heavier, might be warranted based on the size or species of bass. I like to run a versatip system that allows me to switch between floating and sinking lines while not having to carry extra spools strung with differing sink rate lines.
Whatever the species, it may be time to do a little exploring on the local. And what better time than now to take those in your family with you for some "quality time" as my old man would say. Drag the partner and/or kids along (if that's part of your dynamic).
Come to think of it, I've been interested in carp fishing prospects lately. Up until recently, carp were looked at as "trash fish" in the states, although the Brits and other European anglers made an art of carp fishing long ago. These fish pull big and will rip line like a redfish on the tidal flats, based on my experience as a kid fishing for them with bait rods and a can of corn.
Maybe it's time to stretch out and learn something new, or rediscover something that we haven't tried in some time. It's possible to do this all while minimizing the risk to oneself, family, and fellow citizens. What does the future hold for us anglers? I couldn't tell you, but I'll be darn sure I am doing my part to keep it safe, sensible, and open out there on the water while having fun within the confines of the greatest of angling pursuits. Some day soon my son will be out there with me and my wife sharing our joy for fishing no matter where that fishing might be.