By Rick Kustich:


A ride to one of my favorite rivers is usually filled with anticipation of the day and a certain rebellion against the norm. But recently it is more angst than anticipation and the norm would actually be refreshing. It’s all out of balance. The only other instance in my lifetime that brought out a similar bleakness was the events of 9/11. The loss of life, general despair, damage to the economy and heroics of first responders and medical staff related to COVID-19 all strike a similar chord.

I have grappled with my decision to visit a river and fish at this time. Guidance on various outdoor activities away from the house has been flowing from states, provinces and municipalities for weeks. Described as a fluid situation, this guidance is continually being updated. Some jurisdictions allow fishing but have deemed guiding to be nonessential, others allow for subsistence fishing and still others have ruled against both recreational fishing and guided trips. And leaders of some popular rural fishing destinations are asking and even demanding anglers from more densely populated areas not to visit until circumstances improve. 

Despite the highest number of confirmed cases of the virus of any U.S. state and a strong campaign toward staying home and social distancing, my home state of New York has actually promoted solitary outside recreational activity. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued common-sense guidelines for promoting safe recreational practices to help stop the spread. Fishing was specifically mentioned in the suggestion of activities to responsibly enjoy the outdoors. The guidelines also encouraged those recreating to stay local. While my area of western New York has nowhere near the confirmed cases of downstate, the concept of containment seems to be consistent with limiting travel. 

But despite the green light from the state of New York, the decision to fish has resulted in a sense of guilt, maybe even feeling a little dirty. There are friends and acquaintances that aren’t allowed to fish, launch a boat, guide or operate their fly shops and lodges. These are professionals in the fly fishing industry—good people who do what they do because of their passion for fly fishing and to simply put a smile on their client’s or customer’s face. While most do it for love not money, I spent enough time in the industry to know profit margins are typically thin and circumstances such as this can have a devastating effect both financially and emotionally. I feel deeply about the sheer frustration that is being experienced.

The question of going fishing extends beyond social distancing but more importantly is this being socially responsible? While the question has its ethical overtones it can be partially answered through science. By packing all the food and drink I need from home, driving directly to and from the water, fishing remote sections of a river and bringing a mask just in case, I am satisfied that this behavior is not risking the spread anymore than if I was home laying on the couch all day. And while staying on the couch may be the best step for everyone’s physical health it clearly does nothing to keep my mind healthy. I crave that connection to nature that cleans and purifies.

From an ethical standpoint, most of us who enjoy fishing, hunting, hiking and other natural activities do so because of physical distancing. It’s an inherent part of the draw instead of something we are being asked to do. I feel very fortunate that this is my passion. So it seems to follow that those so deeply connected to the outdoor life should be able to continue the pursuit as long as the activity does no harm.

Where it gets messy is when fishing, boating or the ability to operate fishing-related business is deemed nonessential by a local, state or provincial jurisdiction. While statistics show that distancing is working and is a significant tool in stopping the spread, the debate is beginning to rage over where the line should be drawn between safety and commerce or survival and the desire to do the things we love. I hear the passionate pleas from both ends of the spectrum. It is the ethical question that will always be part of the narrative of COVID-19.

There is much confusion surrounding the virus. The unprecedented nature of the crisis means there are no road maps to either side. There have been other deadly outbreaks in human history but not at a time when people are as mobile or living in such condensed populations. And it is the extremely contagious nature of the virus that causes the most concern. One of the items that seem to skew opinions is the wide variation of the occurrence of infection across North America and the world. The closer one lives to a cluster the more panic exists. And while COVID-19 preys hard on older individuals with pre-existing conditions, there have been documented deaths of healthy younger individuals as well. 

But there is simply a need for people to be outdoors. Many of us need to stay connected to keep our being intact. Hopefully, we will begin to see lessening of restrictions on recreational activities soon. More jurisdictions should follow guidelines similar to New York State’s and allow for responsible activity. Guides and lodges may need to develop constructive techniques to keep clients healthy since current discussions by government leaders seem to indicate a methodic multi-step approach to recovery to prevent a backslide. As testing increases more opportunities will be possible. 

The realization is growing that life will be quite different in the near future and we are most likely working toward a new normal. I will only feel better about my own fishing when we all can get back to the water—guides can once again work with their clients, fly shops can open their doors and lodges can cater to their guests.

Episode #: 32 (click to listen)
Duration: 1 hr 4 min
Topics Discussed: Great Lakes steelhead and what we can expect in his latest book.
Buy Rick’s Books: Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes SteelheadFly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead – An Advanced Look at an Emerging Fishery
Bio: Rick Kustich is a fly-shop owner, guide, instructor, and the author of five fly-fishing books. Over the years, Rick has been instrumental in the midwest fly-fishing scene.