GRAND FORKS — The COVID-19 pandemic has put life as we know it on hold with no real endpoint in sight.
Still, the need for outdoor recreation and spending time outdoors probably has never been greater, as long as it’s done within the 6-foot minimum social distancing guideline recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to minimize the potential spread of the novel coronavirus that’s wreaking havoc with the world.
Even if the risk begins to subside by summer, this will be a season the likes of which anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts have never experienced.
With that in mind, we talked to some people in the fishing industry — guides, TV show hosts and product promoters among them — to get their perspectives on COVID-19 and the impact it’s having on their lives, both professionally and personally.
Here’s what they had to say.
A 12-year Red River catfish guide and catfish tournament organizer, Brad Durick of Grand Forks says he’s in wait-and-see mode on the shape of his guiding season after spring flooding subsides.
Traditionally, catfishing on the Red River is best for both size and numbers during high water years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put tourism on pause. A tourism conference Durick was slated to attend this past week in Grand Forks was canceled, he said, as was a tour of the Berkley Fishing plant in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Known for its fishing line, fishing rods and other gear, Berkley is among the sponsors Durick has to offset his operating costs.
In the meantime, Durick is working at a local bean plant, where he’s been employed since late last fall. He has a guide trip on the books for Saturday, May 23, but the calls that normally come in for trips in June just aren’t happening.
Questions by far outnumber answers.
“After this flood, basically I’m going to be ready to fish as far as guiding, and I’ve got nothing,” he said. “I get it, everybody’s in a wait-and-see mode. Are they going to let us guide? Do people want to go with a stranger in this social distancing era? Do I want to go with people in this social distancing era?”
Durick is organizer of the Scheels Boundary Battle catfish tournament set for June 27-28 on the Red River in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and a tournament in Drayton, N.D., set for Aug. 8-9. Whether the tournaments can proceed depends on how the pandemic unfolds, and that remains to be seen.
“Fingers crossed at this point,” he said.
Durick also serves on the board of the Red River Valley Catfish League, which is exploring a “virtual tournament” format to replace the traditional Wednesday night competitions it holds throughout the summer in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Instead of gathering en masse, anglers would fish on their own during designated hours and submit the lengths of their top fish each week, along with a time-stamped photo showing the fish being measured, into an app called Fish Donkey.
The format has been used with good success in the Twin Cities area, Durick said.
“You’re going to eliminate the camaraderie of the weigh-ins and launches and all that stuff but at least people will be able to get out and play,” he said.
In an effort to salvage his guiding season, Durick is exploring what he calls “social-distance guiding,” in which he’d basically lead clients in separate boats to fishing spots on the river.
“If they want to bring their boat, I’ll do basically everything but drop the anchor and cast for you,” he said. “It’s something I’ve avoided the whole 12 years of my guiding existence but, you know — desperate times, desperate measures.”
At the very least, Durick said he hopes local authorities open the boat ramps once flooding subsides.
“Let’s get people out just to have some bit of normal,” he said. “And frankly, I’m just tired of being cooped up. I just want to get out. It’s going to be more mind clearing the first part of the season, I think, and not a lot of income.”
Like everyone else on the planet, Leer is doing his best to weather the disruption COVID-19 has caused to people’s lives.
“From a business standpoint — I guess from every standpoint — it hurts,” Leer said. “It’s sacrifice. I work with different companies inside the fishing industry. I had conversations with everybody within probably about a five- to seven-day period there, where everybody just literally paused every project that was in existence and hit the brakes hard.”
Because so many fishing products are made in China, supplies were getting tight even before the pandemic hit the U.S., Leer said.
“Everybody is sitting back and trying to assess the situation and determine where to go, so I don’t think it’s any different than any other industry,” he said. “It’s a bump in the road, and we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to get through it and around it. So, you do what you’ve got to do.”
Leer said he most worries about the small “mom and pop” bait shops and the guys who trap minnows.
“All these little tackle and bait shops are so important to our lifeblood in the North Country,” Leer said. “You shut them down, and then people become more accustomed to purchasing more things online. As convenient as it is and as wonderful as it is, do we start to limit our ability to get what we need out our back door? It’s going to inhibit our future angling opportunities, and then we risk that coming out of this.”
Leer, who’s in the process of rebranding who he is and what he does to reflect a broader scope of outdoor recreation beyond just fishing, said the demand for outdoors content has never been greater.
“That stuff is getting gobbled up at an enormous rate, and I think that’s good,” Leer said. “The positives that come out of this thing are going to be, you know, more people are probably going to get outside and do more exercise. Just the hiking, the biking and limited fishing opportunities that we do have right now. Some of that stuff is taking place, and that’s good.”
The uptick in virtual meetings with the online website Zoom and other platforms has the potential to change the way people do business going forward.
“I think we also have learned we can do all sorts of meetings and business without travel,” Leer said. “There’s a lot more communications and ways to interact with people that are going to suddenly move to the mainstream that weren’t there before.
“What is this all going to look like when we’re all done? I have absolutely no idea.”
For now, Leer says he keeps his focus on physical and spiritual routines, spending time with his wife, Ineke, and keeping in touch with family.
“I don’t try to think too far ahead,” he said. “My mentality is literally day to day, week to week, and I refuse to think any further out than that. If I think too far out I can really get myself all twisted up on what I think is going to happen, and I have no idea what’s going to happen.
“None of us have any idea what’s going to happen. The only thing I can control is where I’m at today.”
Mike Olson of Thompson, N.D., is a tournament walleye angler and host of “Fish Addictions TV,” which airs on Fox Sports North. He also is a partner in Greenworks Landscaping and Fencing in Grand Forks.
Like most people during the pandemic, Olson spends much of his time at home with his family — wife Laura, daughter Abby in sixth grade, son Jacob in fourth grade, son Alex in first grade and son Conner, who’s 2.
When he does go fishing, Olson says, it’s short trips close to home. Filming for the TV show, which soon would turn to open-water fishing, is basically on pause, he said.
There’s also the challenge of keeping the three oldest children on track with their online schooling.
“I’ve really spent a lot of time on that,” Olson said. “With everything going on, it’s not just the sickness, it’s that kids aren’t in school, work travel bans, everything is affecting where and what we can do as anglers.”
Anglers are “kind of at a crossroads” right now, Olson says; especially those who promote the sport of fishing.
“You have communities right now that are asking anglers not to come, you have communities that are opening their arms to us,” he said. “What do we do at this point? I’ve taken the stance of appreciating the communities that don’t want it, your places like Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River, which has been really publicized.
“I go to the Rainy River every single year, but I want to respect those community decisions and understand, with everything that’s going on. And so it really does make it hard.”
Still, it’s important to get out of the house and wet the occasional line, Olson says, even if it’s close to home for an hour or two. He also hosts live segments on Facebook every Wednesday and Sunday to keep in contact with the anglers who watch “Fish Addictions.”
Based on those social media conversations, Olson says there are a wide range of opinions among anglers about making longer distance fishing trips to communities that might not want an influx of people right now.
“I think it’s easier for us to take a stance on, ‘Let’s just appreciate that these communities don’t want outsiders in their communities at this point in time,’ ” Olson said. “And if you do come, be as respectful as possible because this is going to be something that lasts a long time.
“Even when this is over, people are going to remember how we act as sportsmen, and it’s going to affect things for years to come.”
Host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show, Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake also spent several years guiding and was inducted into the North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame in 2016.
So far, Mitchell says, the personal and professional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been minimal.
“Maybe I’m too optimistic or whatever, but it hasn’t had a huge effect on us yet,” he said. “Obviously, it’s limited some sports shows, it’s limited some travel, things of that nature. It’s really cut down a lot of those large events with people.”
Mitchell says he’s been sticking close to home and has taken advantage of some great late-ice walleye action on Devils Lake and adjacent waters.
“We’ve been trying to be sensitive to the risk of it, I guess, by not traveling all over, fishing all over (and) filming, and just trying to be respectful,” he said. “We could go over to Minnesota, but what would people think? How would it make us look if we were putting our business or our finances ahead of somebody’s health if it’s perceived that way?”
Filming is more or less on hold for the time being, but Mitchell said he’s optimistic he can make up the lost time down the road.
“We’re just going to wait a little bit and just wait and see,” he said. “If nothing else, do some short day trips around North Dakota. I’m not worried about that. If we can’t film for a month or so, we’re going to be behind on things, but we’ll catch up.”
From a tourism standpoint, the timing of the pandemic, which fell near the end of the winter fishing season but before summer, could be minimal if life gets back on track by mid-May, Mitchell says, taking the optimistic view.
The interest definitely is there, he said; online sales of lower-priced items such as tackle and fishing rods are “through the roof.”
“What I also see is a lot of pent up demand,” Mitchell said. “They might be selling it in untraditional ways, but there’s some things that are selling really well, and the participation is really high. People are out fishing like crazy right now.”
Getting outside seems to be more important than ever, he said.
“It’s even more crucial that people get outside just for their sanity,” he said. “I think for a lot of people, it’s going to maybe realign some priorities. They’re going to sit back, and when they get through this, they’re maybe going to do some things for themselves and do things for their kids that are more self-fulfilling, and I think hunting and fishing really plays into that.”
That’s also reflected in the ratings of his TV show, Mitchell said.
“Our television ratings have never been higher, and then also social media impressions,” he said. “People are just on their phones nonstop right now.”
Despite the pandemic pause, Mitchell is bullish on the future.
“I think our industry has been pretty lucky,” he said. “It’s going to affect everybody somewhat, somehow, and there are some things that are just going to get decimated by this.
“I don’t know if the hunting and fishing industry is one of them.”
In a typical spring, the approach of open water fishing and upcoming walleye tournaments is cause for excitement for Johnnie Candle, a veteran Devils Lake fishing guide, tournament angler and seminar speaker who was inducted into the North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame in 2018.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has left a cloud of uncertainty.
“It’s just not in our DNA,” Candle said. “You work for yourself, and this is a time of year when normally you’re fired up. I would usually be coming off trade show season and just getting ready to start tournament fishing and then after those first tournaments, you come back home and Devils Lake is open for business and away you go.
“And now, I don’t know — you kind of feel like that racehorse at the Kentucky Derby and they never open up the gate and let you out. It’s just, ‘What the (heck) do I do?’ ”
Candle says he lost 15 seminar speaking engagements after the pandemic basically shut down the country in March. Besides an opportunity to promote products for sponsors who help pay the bills, Candle says, the seminars generate clients for guide trips.
Candle says his guiding schedule is booked from mid-May through mid-July and no one has called to cancel; the second part of the summer is less certain.
“You do a seminar in Fargo or Minot or Bismarck and holy cow, the next week you get five or six guide trips booked,” Candle said. “Well now, you’re not giving the seminars and doing the promotions, which is keeping the phone from ringing for later in the summer. Right now, we don’t even know if the rest of the summer is going to happen.”
Depending on how the pandemic unfolds, Candle says the way he interacts with clients in the boat likely will change, as well, to maintain the 6-foot social distancing recommendation.
Safety comes first, and if that means clients have to net their own fish and bait their own hooks, so be it, Candle says. With a 21-foot boat, Candle says he might not be able to take more than two clients at a time.
There also are other considerations, such as sanitizing the boat and making sure clients only handle their specific fishing rods, Candle says. He has a page of notes on his desk filled with “what-if?” scenarios.
“When you’re thinking about a fishing trip, you just go fish,” he said. “Wiping the boat down at the end of the day, usually I get a hose and I spray the floor down and maybe I wipe the windshield with some Windex and try to make sure there’s no fish guts on the carpet and call it good for the next day.
“I don’t normally sanitize steering wheels and hand grips. Are you really going to stand out there with a box of Clorox wipes and every time you lift the livewell up, wipe the handle off? Those are all things I’ve been thinking about, and man, sometimes you look at that list at the end of the day and go, ‘Wow, is it worth it to even try to attempt to take people out in these conditions?’ ”
Despite the challenges, Candle says it’s not all gloom-and-doom.
“I think everyone will get through it,” he said. “We don’t have a choice but to get through it, but it’s definitely going to alter things. As far as making a living in the outdoor industry and as a fishing guide, there’s no doubt about it — it’s going to be a lot different this year.”
Bemidji fishing guide and motivational speaker Dick Beardsley was in a boat Tuesday, April 7, with a buddy from the Twin Cities on the Missouri River near Chamberlain, S.D., where he spent a few minutes talking by cellphone about the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it’s having, both present and future.
“I almost felt kind of guilty coming out here to be honest with you, but like I said, we’re keeping away from each other,” Beardsley said
There weren’t many other boats on the river, and walleye fishing so far that morning was “a little bit slow,” but the weather was beautiful, he said.
“It’s nice to have a 7-foot fishing rod in my hand instead of a foot-and-a-half-long ice fishing rod,” Beardsley said.
Like other fishing guides, Beardsley said he’s seeing the uncertainty people have about making summer travel plans, given the unknowns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
It also will affect the bed-and-breakfast Beardsley and his wife, Jill, operate near Lake Bemidji, he says.
“The trips I have on my books already, I don’t have any cancellations yet, but normally by now, I’m getting lots of emails and calls about booking trips, and they’re just not coming in,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Another unknown, Beardsley said, is what the pandemic will mean for the Minnesota fishing opener on Saturday, May 9. The opener’s still a go, but organizers of the annual Governor’s Fishing Opener have postponed the event, which was scheduled for Otter Tail Lake, until next year.
“I mean, they might close all the accesses — you never know,” Beardsley said. “It’s a scary deal, but it’s not like it’s just (affecting) me. It’s affecting everybody, no matter who you are or what kind of job you have.
“This is something, when we’re long gone, that kids will be reading about in the history books.”