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Covid-19 and fly fishing

two men fly fishing
Two anglers practice social distancing while fly fishing.
Image by 272447 from Pixabay

As we seek an ‘out’ to stay-at-home orders, how should anglers fish and how should guides conduct trips?

Editor’s note: The following is written behalf of Trout Unlimited and Angling Trade Media, and in partnership with the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA).

A month ago, I tackled the fly-fishing “elephant in the room” with this piece in both Angling Trade and on the TU blog.  

It was related to the coronavirus pandemic, namely, can and should anglers be fishing now? The general conclusion was “yes,” where states allow, in a hyper-local context and under a number of strict guidelines.  

Now, we are starting to reach the next level, as many states are easing “stay-at-home” restrictions.  Anglers are ready to fish more — and guides/outfitters/shops who have felt the financial impacts of shutdown are chomping at the bit to resume some type of operations. 

So, let’s tackle another elephant — what might guide trips and DIY angling practices look like in the “new normal?” 

The truth is, it’s going to be much harder to reach general consensus on these matters, as different areas of the country have different levels or precautions and restrictions. Nobody can give exact catch-all guidelines for fishing in all 50 states and beyond.   

For a qualified perspective, I reached out to one of the most credible public health and infectious disease experts in the world — who also happens to be a dedicated fly angler and a good friend. If anyone is legitimately positioned to see “both sides” of the “should we fish/guide, and how argument,” it is Eric J. Esswein, MSPH, CIH, CIAQP, FAIHA, CAPT, USPHS (Ret.), CEO, Emeritus Health and Safety, LLC.  

In the past, Eric was instrumental in creating public health strategies to battle SARS and Ebola, and at this time he is on the front lines against Covid-19, literally trying to save the lives of many people. Still, he took time to answer some very pointed questions about DIY angling and how guiding might look in coming months, because that could save the lives of people in the fishing community. 

Here’s what he had to say about using a fly rod as a better than average measure for social distancing: 

“With progressively diminished stay at home safer at home restrictions, all types of fishing will increase because it’s our passion. Agreed, a 9ft. rod is the “ultimate social distancing yardstick” and that analogy should be exploited, however, a rod, used in that manner is only as good as the intent and expertise of the user.  So how the user actually behaves when using the rod as a physical distancing tool is critical. 

“In a pandemic, consistent social behaviors are critical in breaking the chain of transmission and SARS CoV-2 is highly transmissible. Admonitions for behaviors and actions are textbook: maintain at least a 9-foot fly rod distance apart, wear some type of face covering, e.g., a neck gaiter/Buff, don’t drive together, net your own fish… fish hyper-local, fish mostly with family members. Additional guidance is suggested: Screen yourself using CDC guidelines for COVID-19, seek medical care if you are symptomatic, fish alone, plan and prepare to be completely self-sufficient, have all the tippet, floatant, flies, all the nostrums you’ll  need for a day afield or plan to go without.  

About the importance of candid in-advance communication with people you intend to fish with — as friends or clients:  

“If you plan to rendezvous with a buddy, have a forthright ‘risk communication’ discussion before your trip. Discuss if anyone is experiencing cough, shortness of breath, fever (101.4 F or above) or feverish symptoms, if any have had any high risk encounters in the past 14 days (grocery shopping, close contact with the general public for periods longer than 30 mins, while not wearing a face covering, not washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water or using an alcohol based sanitizer after dermal contacts with commonly touched surfaces). SARS CoV-2 is age-discriminatory, folks 55 and older have a much higher risk for contracting the virus than folks 45 and younger and if you are over 65 and you contract COVID-19 the risk of death is 22 times higher than those 55 and younger.  My observation is that folks on guided trips can afford to be guided and, lets face it, are often older. Guides and shop staff tend to be younger in my observations; they have lower risks for serious health effects.  Folks with pre-existing heart, lung and kidney disease are at higher risk.  Is fishing now really worth the risk if you are older or have existing health concerns.  Can you wait?      

On weighing hazards vs. risks:   

“Now it gets a scant technical, so please bear with me… In occupational health and safety (and what I teach my South African graduate students) we control workplace hazards by first understanding exposure risks, then using a paradigm called the “hierarchy of controls” (HOCs) to control or minimize exposure risks.  The HOC is prioritized and involves first trying to eliminate the hazard,  next substitution of a less hazardous substance or material, next engineering out the hazard, next, using administrative controls (policy and procedure and worker training to understand the hazard and the controls), lastly use of personal protective equipment (PPE).  In a pandemic, we are faced with this: decision making in the face of uncertainty, do we really understand “hazard” and “risk” and what controls can be used to limit exposures.    

Unfortunately the public does not understand hazard vs. risk very well.  A hazard is something that can harm or even kill us, risk is the probably or likelihood we will be exposed to that hazard and an adverse outcome will occur. A large hole in a sidewalk is a serious hazard; the risk is falling in, sustaining serious injury or even death.  Securing a sturdy metal plate over the hole totally eliminates the risk but not all risks can be eliminated in a pandemic. Often we begin to control risks through actions we can take personally to understand the hazard, our behaviors and the behavior of those around us. If we all do this, it’s a force multiplier, hence stay at home.’ We can decide not to do something, or at times foolishly to do something: ‘Hold my beer, watch this shit…  SARS-C0V-2 is a serious hazard, so we need to understand how our decisions and behaviors influence the risk we may be exposed to; this comes down to making informed choices and personal decisions about how much risk we are willing to tolerate.   

“A real life fire-breathing example: on a float trip or when wading, a tangible hazard is falling from the boat and drowning, slipping and falling when wading, entrapment against a log or rock: drowning or serious injury.  We control the risk by wearing a life jacket, listening to the guide, not drinking alcohol to excess, sitting down and bracing while in rapids, wading safely, wearing a wading belt, using a wading staff, not wading in swift currents or past our wading strength or skill levels.   

On implementing the HOC’s for COVID-19 and fishing: 

Elimination:  decide if the joy derived from fishing is worth the risk one may encounter in times of a pandemic and high COVID-19 transmissibility.  We are still in the acceleration phase of this pandemic, the risks are still high. If you decide to accept the risks of being out with a guide or others, maintain physical distancing as much as possible. Perhaps that means no float trips, waiting until new cases of COVID-19 are decreasing for a 14-day period. Any guide trips should require agreed upon no touch guiding, no shared food, guides not handling clients rods, and touching clients only in an emergency.  No handshakes, use an elbow or toe tap to greet or say goodbye.  

Substitution:  we can’t substitute a virus of lesser transmissibility or pathogenicity but we can substitute another experience:  binge watch fly fishing shows and videos, tie flies. Read Harrop’s Trout Hunter….  Some of this is a waiting game, for now.

Engineering controls: not a lot here that’s particularly useful, hard to engineer out a virus.  A vaccine would help; it’s a long way off.   
 
Administrative controls: Keep COVID-19 symptomatic clients out of shops and off boats as best as possible.  If guides and shop staff have symptoms they should not be working.  This involves developing and implementing policy and procedures (e.g., waivers we sign before a float trip that give clients caveat emptor that in a time of a pandemic there will be risks) but the shop and guide are doing everything possible to limit the risks of transmission.  Using alcoholbased hand rubs, washing down frequently touched surfaces in shops and on boats, posting signage on shop doors: if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms please do not come in, phone into the shop, pay by CC, curbside pickup of your order.  No shaking hands when greeting clients, tipping can happen and should but the guide needs to wash his/her hands or use an alcohol based hand rub. No hugs after a big fish day.   
 
Clients should be asked to wear a face covering or a neck gaiter, and BTW these are on sale in our shop for 30% off for guided trips but you have to stand away from the register and other shop customers, and we are limiting customers to 3 at a time in the shop at any one time for physical distancing purposes to protect our staff and our customers.  Please don’t pet Otis the shop dog, he loves it, but he does not want to be a fomite (technically he can’t be because fomites are inanimate objects such as doorknobs, phones and such that can hold and transmit virus).  Still, don’t pet him during the pandemic.  
   

PPE, has a big place in a pandemic and for some of the right reasons, especially in healthcare.  For fishing and in shops, face coverings are recommended but the degree of how well neck gators and cloth face coverings really work to prevent transmission is unknown, there’s no data yet.  But yes, recommended.      

Regarding fishing from boats now: 

That’s where a clear caveat emptor needs to be discussed with the guide and client before the trip.  Is the shop insured for force majeure events, of which COVID-19 certainly falls under. Phone calls with the client before a trip to inquire:  are you symptomatic, have you had any highrisk exposures, can we do a walk and wade trip instead of a float?   Risk communication needs to occur with clients and shop staff.  Here’s what we are doing, but we can’t control the risk 100%  

Re: pangas and flats skiffs; one client likely poses less risks but all boats are potentially floating hot zones (e.g., cruise ships).  Again, shops need to “have the discussion” and provide risk communication to clients before the trip to qualify if they are experiencing symptoms and acknowledging there will be some degree of risk, explaining that with COVID-19 infections can be asymptomatic and shop owners are doing what they can to follow CDC guidance for prevention.   
 
The main points for control now are going to be taking whatever actions can reduce risks of transmission by following CDC guidance for small business, clear risk communication with clients, shop staff and guides and until the pandemic is better controlled acknowledgment there will be risks for exposures because some risk can be controlled to some degree but not entirely.  Clearly stating what measures are being taken on the part of the shop and guide and asking clients for mutual actions for behavior and actions on their part will be required.   

So please, take all that in and consider it carefully. Here are my personal takeaways and how I’m going to apply it to my fishing, going forward.   

Numero uno, all anglers should strictly abide by the local regulations imposed by their states, counties and local communities, foremost. When somebody goes rogue, breaks the rules and gets somebody sick, that could have ramifications for all of us.   

I think DIY angling and hyper-local fishing will be the main focus for the next several months. Smart guides and shops will adjust business models to tap into this as an opportunity, perhaps becoming more “coach” than the guide who ties on your flies and nets your fish.   

I think most trout trips can and should be walk-wade, and social distancing by at least the length of a fly rod is easily understood, even “catchy.” Meet people at the fishing spot; don’t drive together. Wear PPE and know which way the wind blows. 

I feel really bad for guides who have no option but to guide from a boat.  But I think you need to watch the science. Different states already have different precautions, which I understand and respect. New Zealand is now operating with 1-meter distancing guidance, which is much more do-able in the boat context, it seems, than 6-feet. Either way, I’m not having any non-household people in my boat until 6-foot distancing guidance is clearly lifted. 

Communication, verbal screening, and candor are all critical things.  Liability may be a legitimate concern. 

The highest risk group for COVID-19 is 55 and older, which happens to reflect many anglers, and the vast majority of guide clients.   

To date I have been nothing but impressed by the vast amounts of poise and character displayed by the angling community as a whole, and guides and outfitters in particular.  We will continue doing our thing to offer discussions, updates, and information as we all work through this.  Take care. 

Kirk Deeter is the publisher of Angling Trade Magazine and the editor-in-chief of TROUT Magazine. He lives and works in the mountains west of Denver.