Staying indoors leads to getting outdoors
Fishing on the increase during quarantine
Maybe you’re still sheltering in place, working from home, unable to go to the gym or church.
What do you do?
Millions of Americans are doing just that — in eye-popping numbers. Cooped up, and without their usual recreational outlets, anglers have taken mightily to the mountain streams, reservoir lakes and coastal waters across the South. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision two years ago to expand hunting and fishing opportunities at the nation’s wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries seems particularly fortuitous. More federal lands and lakes will open this fall.
“Here in the Southeast we love the great outdoors and now, more than ever, dropping a line is a perfect way to get out and experience the natural world,” said Leo Miranda, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the South Atlantic-Gulf and Mississippi Basin. “Not only does it soothe the soul, but fishing helps conserve the land and waters we love.”
Some states, though, have imposed coronavirus restrictions on who can fish and where. Employees of state and federal fish hatcheries must also adhere to the stay-safe rules which can curtail restocking of trout and other species across the South. As the country recovers from the pandemic, though, fishing will likely remain an essential pastime.
“We continue to operate as normal as we can in these unprecedented times,” said Brandon Simcox, river and streams coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. “And we’re encouraging folks to get outside; of course we want folks to be safe. But fishing is certainly a good way to do that social distancing.”
“Offering even more fishing”
Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Interior set about expanding hunting and fishing opportunities at the nation’s wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries. Last year, hunters and anglers gained more access to 10 refuges and two hatcheries across the South, a total of 125,000 additional acres. This year, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) proposes to expand access on 22 refuges — and another 500,000 Southern acres.
In addition, more than 110 new or expanded hunting and fishing opportunities — new species, acres, and times to hunt and fish — will be offered to more closely align federal and state rules. If approved, the new regulations will take effect this fall.
The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee refuge in south Florida, for example, is likely to open up another 108,000 acres for fishermen in boats without motors. Airboats will be allowed from July through November on nearly 14,000 acres. Frog lovers will be able to gig up to 50 frogs a day (per party) between July 16 and March 15. And most of the refuge will be open all day and night.
“During the COVID-19 outbreak, we have seen more fishing because we are the only outdoor recreation area open in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties,” said Rolf Olson, the Loxahatchee refuge project leader. “We have always been popular for freshwater fishing. And now we’re offering even more types of fishing.”
Just about every Southern state reports more anglers. Georgia wildlife officials say sales of fishing and hunting licenses were up 20 percent this April versus April 2019. And virtually every wildlife refuge in Georgia tallies significantly greater numbers of rod-carrying visitors. Banks Lake refuge near Valdosta, for example, boasts a tripling of fishers on weekends. (The refuge will also offer an alligator hunt this year for the first time.) The Service has waived entrance fees at all refuges and hatcheries for the foreseeable future.
Tennessee has boosted hunt-fish licenses by $3 million this year.
“That’s saying a lot since nonresident license sales have been greatly reduced this year — they’re a huge part of our total sales,” said Jenifer Wisniewski, communications chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “It’s great to see Tennesseans getting back to old habits and heading outdoors to go fishing.”
“Access to good fishing holes”
James Gray supervises the six cold water hatcheries for the Service in the Southeast. The hatcheries — two in Arkansas and Tennessee, one each in Georgia and Kentucky — stocked 269,000 trout in March in state and federal waters. Last March, they stocked 425,000 brook, brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout. Blame the coronavirus for the drop-off.
All states imposed some manner of lockdown on their citizens. Some governors closed state parks. Some restricted the sale of fishing licenses to out-of-staters. Some national parks and forests were shuttered. In addition, state natural resource agencies mandated hatchery-specific rules, including a prohibition on visitors, no stockings and strict work-at-home guidelines.
As the world slowly reopens, the restrictions ease. And there’s still a lot of time left this year to fish.
“By the end of the year, I feel we’ll be fairly close to all the stocking we did last year,” said Gray. The hatcheries stocked nearly 5 million trout in 2019. “A lot of that depends on the state agencies since they haul a good bit of the fish we produce at our hatcheries.”
Fishing, though, is more than a recreational balm in a troubled time. Excise taxes anglers pay on rods, lures and other equipment helps the Service support sport fish habitat, wetlands conservation, fish stocking and research.
“The conservation of Southern wild and natural places needs fishermen and women,” Miranda said. “The Service will do whatever it can to make sure they have access to good fishing holes.”
Dan Chapman, public affairs specialist
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