Some open, some will wait until luring tourists feels safer
By Mike Lynch
Fishing guides and fly shop owners in the northern Adirondacks got a surprise this week as the state gave them approval to go back to work as part of the New York’s phased-in reopening plan that started Friday.
Some angling professionals plan to head straight for the water, but others will wade in more slowly.
Vince Wilcox, who owns Wiley’s Flies in Ray Brook, was shocked when told by the Explorer Thursday that he could run his guide service — as long as he followed the appropriate reopening steps, which include developing protocols for social distancing, equipment cleaning and health monitoring. But he wasn’t in any hurry to get back to work even though he needs the money. Instead he plans to take a cautious approach, perhaps starting up in mid-June.
“My clients come from the areas of highest concentration of coronavirus,” said Wilcox, who has had two open heart surgeries. “It’s troubling for me. It’s a really tough decision.”
Wilcox said there are a number of complex issues to consider, ranging from insurance coverage to monitoring the health of his guides to cleaning equipment. Many of his trips are on drift boats and rafts on the Saranac River, and he said he doesn’t even have supplies to properly clean those boats yet.
He would like see more testing for COVID-19 in the area. In addition to the prospects of clients spreading the virus in the region, he said, he worries that many fishing guides are young and healthy and have the potential to be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19.
“I’ve got a lot of older clients,” he said. “I don’t want to kill them.”
Wilcox has taken a big hit financially, he said, and he anticipates losing dozens of trips this month and possibly next. Still, his biggest months of the year are July and August, so he has a little time. In the meantime, he plans to keep selling gear online and will offer curbside pickups. He thinks opening up the guiding business will attract visitors to the Adirondacks.
“We’re missing business right now. It’s difficult,” Wilcox said. “But until I see how this shakes out, I don’t want to be part of bringing a bunch of people into Saranac Lake, New York, and into Lake Placid, New York.”
In Wilmington, the Hungry Trout Fly Shop plans to open its guiding business on the West Branch of the Ausable River, a destination fly fishing destination for trout anglers who are active in May and June. In a Facebook post, the Hungry Trout Fly Shop said it would be “booking guide trips starting Friday May 15.”
Evan Bottcher, who owns the Hungry Trout, told the Explorer earlier this week that his guides could properly maintain distance from clients and keep gear sanitized. His guides generally are on foot, so they don’t have to sanitize boats, and guides can keep space from clients.
“If there’s one thing people can do safely it’s take someone on the river,” he said.
Bottcher’s clientele doesn’t all come from outside the area. There are second home owners who have been in the Adirondacks for weeks and have already been inquiring about guided fishing trips, he said.
Rachel Finn, a Patagonia ambassador fishing guide for Hungry Trout with nearly three decades of experience, agreed with Bottcher. Fishing can be done safely, she said, though she still hadn’t seen the decision coming and was a little nervous about starting up again.
“I’m very surprised at how early they are allowing it,” she said. “And I’m hopeful that everybody will play by the rules.”
Finn said she’s having to rethink how she does everything, but being a river guide plays to her advantage because she and her clients are on foot and can keep their distance. “The most important thing is to be safe,” she said.
“I’m trying to keep positive, and I’d like to help some people have a good experience,” she said.
Tom Conway, who owns the Two-Fly Shop in Wilmington, said he didn’t plan to reopen for guiding right away, in a large part because his business is based on visiting tourists. He said he would stick to selling flies and gear to locals.
“I don’t even see the purpose of trying to guide,” he said. “Too soon.”
Among other things, Conway said he worries about bringing the virus home to his 84-year-old mother, who is living with him.
“This is a worldwide pandemic,” he said. “It’s better to err on the side of caution.”
Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid, said the commercial fishing industry and guided fishing trips were included in Phase 1 of New York Forward partly because of the need for it in other areas of the state. NewYorkUpstate.com recently reported that the Lake Ontario Charter Boat Association hired a lobbyist to encourage the state to open the industry. The organization sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on May 7 outlining how its members and other several other industry groups would safely operate.
McKenna said people shouldn’t travel to the Adirondacks for fishing guides, and the expectation was that Adirondack fishing businesses would make a little money to get by but shouldn’t be expecting to go back to normal.
“We still consider ourselves in the mitigation stage,” he said. “Pause now and play later.”
When asked about opening an industry that relies on drawing people to the region for the majority of its business, the Department of Environmental Conservation encouraged anglers to stay local.
“Each of the state’s 10 regions have a wide variety of recreational offerings available within them for the public to explore and enjoy, and it is not unreasonable to think that there are people within the seven counties of the North Country region who might be interested in a locally-guided trip to receive expert advice on the great fishing opportunities available,” the department said in a statement. “DEC continues to encourage New Yorkers to recreate local to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Other industries that are being allowed to open in regions that met the necessary criteria in Phase 1 are construction, agriculture, hunting, forestry, retail (limited to curbside or in-store pickup), manufacturing and wholesale trade. In addition to the North Country, other regions that were allowed to reopen in Phase 1 are Central New York, Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and the Southern Tier.
A State University of New York Canton professor and part-time fishing guide from Saranac Lake, Matthew Burnett, spent many hours this spring teaming up with a Tri-Lakes group to manufacture face shields for medical professionals. The face shields were used as personal protection against COVID-19.
Burnett said he was cautiously optimistic about guiding fishing trips this season and thought it could be possible to take clients out safely as long as the state’s guidelines were strictly followed.
He emphasized that people need to be vigilant about doing things like wearing masks and social distancing, despite the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases reported in the Adirondacks.
“It’s easy to be in this bubble of this beautiful area and think we are safe from other problems of the world,” he said. “It’s easy to be lured into a false sense of security.”