Nothing is safe from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — not even fishing.
While some might look at the activity as the ultimate form of social isolation, concerns from rural communities led California regulators to allow temporary limits on freshwater fishing during a unanimous vote on Wednesday.
Officials in smaller counties, who are worried about anglers from out of town spreading COVID-19 in their communities, urged the Fish and Game Commission to postpone the spring trout season. Known as “fishmas” to many fishermen and women, the season’s opening day — this year’s is set for April 25 — typically draws thousands to rivers, streams and lakes throughout the state.
Wednesday’s vote took place during an online teleconference and was rescheduled from an earlier attempt on April 9, which was canceled when it became overwhelmed with members of the public who called in and shouted obscenities — many of whom were reacting to false rumors circulating online that a complete freshwater fishing ban was in the works.
During his press conference that took place shortly after the contentious meeting was cut short, Gov. Gavin Newsom assured fishing enthusiasts that the season as a whole wouldn’t be canceled, but merely delayed in some at-risk areas.
“I’m passionate about fishing myself and I’m getting inundated by people that are concerned that we’ve canceled the fishing season. That is not the case, we are not canceling the fishing season in California,” Newsom said, adding that the state wants to “delay, not deny, the season.”
“We hear you; we deeply care about addressing your anxiety and just know we are not ending the season,” Newsom said. “We just want to delay it a little bit and work with the counties to address the surge of interest and the need to keep everyone protected and everyone safe in this circumstance.”
Wednesday’s second attempt at a public teleconference and vote included input from the counties of Alpine, Inyo and Mono. In a letter sent to Newsom on April 1, Mono County officials pleaded with the state to postpone the trout season, pointing out that even since the stay-at-home order began last month, they’ve seen an increase in visitors coming to hike, fish, climb and camp in the area.
There are about one million licensed anglers in California and plenty in the Central Valley, who happen to live in close proximity to one of the top five trout fisheries in the state — New Melones Reservoir. The lake is located in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, the latter of which has already asked visitors to hold off on their plans to travel to the foothills.
“The County of Tuolumne and its public safety partners ask that all non-essential travel to our county stop until the Governor’s stay-at-home order is lifted. We value the support received from visitors and enjoy being your gateway to the Yosemite National Park, National Forests and waterways. However, these amenities will remain closed until further notice,” Tuolumne County said in a statement posted to social media. “We are trying to protect our vulnerable populations, mitigate impact to our healthcare system and ultimately help curb the spread of COVID-19. We look forward to the day when this pandemic is behind us all and we can welcome our visitors back with open arms.”
New Melones Reservoir has been closed to the public since April 4, and Don Pedro Reservoir, another popular fishing spot for Turlock and Valley residents, halted all reservoir use this week. In Stanislaus County, all regional parks and reservoirs (Modesto Reservoir and Woodward Reservoir) have been closed, as well as the boat ramps at Fox Grove and Basso Bridge.
Merced angler Aaron Gonzales believes Wednesday’s decision, which grants Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham emergency authority to postpone the trout season in rural areas, is an “overstep.” He often fishes at Twin Lakes in Mono County, he said, and said he doesn’t see people stand closer than six feet apart on the shore.
“Last time the citizens of California checked, state waterways did not belong to a few scared locals on a mountain,” Gonzales said.
Others, like Modesto fisherman Craig Barnhart, understand the need to delay the season.
“I understand the tradition of the opener. The problem is the Eastern Sierra gets inundated by people from all over, a lot from L.A. I feel a postponing of the opener is a very small price to pay if it keeps the people that live in those areas safe,” he said. “I feel thinking otherwise is a bit selfish.”