Many anglers will be navigating unfamiliar waters for the opening of Wisconsin’s 2020 game fish season.
With outdoor activity considered “essential” under Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, the fishing season will kick off as usual Saturday despite most aspects of life seeming anything but usual this spring.
In addition to the most obvious difference — the presence of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 300 people and generated nearly 7,000 positive tests in Wisconsin — anglers are hearing atypical advice from state Department of Natural Resources officials for this weekend.
The agency is urging people to fish close to home, add hand sanitizer to their tackle boxes and avoid getting too close to other anglers whether casting from a boat, dock or shoreline.
“We’re asking anglers to maintain their social distancing — to keep 6 feet between themselves and others not in their household,” said Joseph Gerbyshak, a DNR fisheries biologist in the Eau Claire area. “One good tip is to use their fishing rod as a gauge because a lot of rods are about 6 feet long.”
The DNR also is encouraging anglers not to travel in the same vehicle as people from outside their household and to wash or sanitize their hands often, particularly after touching hand rails, boat launches or public piers, said Gerbyshak, who has spent recent weeks working on data analysis from home instead of performing his usual pre-opener duties focused on monitoring fisheries in Eau Claire, Chippewa, Dunn and Pepin counties.
The goal of all of this, of course, is ensure that people have fun and stay safe at the same time, he said.
In this unprecedented year, that means encouraging people to catch fish but to take precautions so they don’t catch the new coronavirus.
“This year anglers will find themselves experiencing a non-traditional fishing opener,” Justine Hasz, director of the DNR’s Bureau of Fisheries Management, said in a news release. “Instead of traveling to their favorite spot, they will create a new tradition of fishing closer to home and finding new local spots to catch a fish or two.”
This fishing opener definitely feels a lot different for Mike Buroker even though it’s his 35th as owner of Buroker’s Taxidermy, Bait & Tackle in Eau Claire. With his business not considered essential, the only way Buroker can serve his customers is through curbside service and his 24/7 vending machine that dispenses a variety of bait and tackle.
“It’s difficult. When somebody wants hooks and sinkers, you can imagine the challenge,” said Buroker, who considers it unfair that customers are allowed to enter big box and hardware stores that offer fishing gear but can’t go inside his small shop. “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until they’re looking at it.”
Still, Buroker said he is providing the best service he can under the safer-at-home restrictions and appreciates the customers who are supporting his business.
One of those customers, Troy Prill of Eau Claire, said he is used to taking COVID-19 precautions for work and isn’t too worried about exposure while fishing the opener with his father Saturday on Lake Menomin in Menomonie.
Prill ruled out fishing up north to stay closer to home and because he expects some lakes and boat landings to get crowded this weekend.
“The DNR says everybody should respect everybody’s space at boat landings, but I think it will cause some problems,” Prill said, predicting that some anglers may not react well to someone telling them to keep their distance.
Despite his intent to practice social distancing, Prill acknowledged that he won’t hesitate to help if his dad gets a big fish on or if they run across someone who gets hurt.
Keng Her of Eau Claire said he is excited to go fishing this weekend and believes it will be a welcome diversion from the stress of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
“It is hard for people not being able to be closer to loved ones or to do the things they love to do as the weather continues to get nicer,” Her said. “As long as everyone is doing their part on being safe and keeping a good distance, I think it’ll be OK.”
Mark Felmlee of Eau Claire said he plans to head to Lake Holcombe with a buddy for the opener.
Though he plans to proceed with caution, Felmlee said, “I’m very much looking forward to it as a part of my life that will be normal.”
Preliminary evidence suggests all of the new aspects of an old tradition don’t appear to be spooking Wisconsin anglers.
“Fishing license sales are up so we’re anticipating a busy year and a busy weekend on the water,” Gerbyshak said, noting that a pleasant weather forecast likely will add to the appeal.
“I think people are itching to get outdoors,” Gerbyshak said. “A lot of people have been working from home and they’re looking for any excuse to get outside. Fishing is a great way to relax and enjoy being outside and hopefully put a fish on the dinner table too.”
Buroker said he has heard from many customers that they are eager to get out on the water.
“People are tired of this,” Buroker said. “They want to go fishing.”
DNR fisheries staff have maintained hatchery operations and have been stocking fish across the state, so anglers should have plenty of opportunities to test their skill, Hasz said.
The recommendations about people fishing in their home area shouldn’t limit local anglers too much because the Chippewa Valley is home to many lakes, rivers and streams with an abundant supply of fish ranging from walleye and panfish to northern pike and trout, Gerbyshak said.
“That’s a great thing about the Chippewa Valley,” Gerbyshak said. “We have a great variety of good fishing spots.”
CHIPPEWA FALLS — Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman understands why the Rice Lake City Council approved a resolution this week to invite businesses to reopen ahead of the state’s May 26 timeline, but he isn’t pushing for a similar measure in his city.
“We’ve thought about it,” Hoffman said. “We had discussions with public health and police, and we are going to continue to follow guidelines.”
He added: “I think (Rice Lake) is going to run into trouble with the state.”
Hoffman said he hasn’t brought any proposals to the council, and no council members have suggested one to him.
“I can appreciate it,” Hoffman said of the Rice Lake resolution. “I’ve talked to the business owners, the restaurants. They all have a genuine concern of what this would look like. We’re all being cautious about it.”
Hoffman said he understands the temptation to open now. Chippewa County has had 21 positive COVID-19 cases, but 18 of those people are now showing no symptoms, no one is hospitalized, and there haven’t been any deaths.
“I know a lot of citizens are getting tired of it, but that doesn’t mean we can run out and do what we want,” Hoffman said. “Now is not the time to throw caution to the wind. We’ve been successful in northwest Wisconsin in minimizing this.”
Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters didn’t want to comment on the Rice Lake resolution.
“It’s not our place to comment on actions taken by other communities,” Peters said.
It is unlikely a similar measure would come forward in Eau Claire, he said.
“There are no proposals to take action that would be inconsistent with the law,” Peters said. “As we’ve done from the beginning of this crisis, we will continue to follow the orders issued by Gov. Evers. It’s the law — it’s not optional or voluntary.”
Peters added: “Everyone would like to return to normal, but it should be done applying data and metrics in a uniform manner.”
Compliance in Rice Lake
The Rice Lake resolution passed on a 5-4 vote with Mayor Mike Diercks casting the tie-breaking vote. The resolution appears to allow all businesses to reopen and advises city police to enforce state laws at their own discretion.
Diercks didn’t return calls for comment Thursday.
The plan doesn’t have support from the Barron County Public Health Department or the Sheriff’s Office.
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said he’s been in close contact with the Rice Lake Police Department, and no businesses attempted to open Thursday that would have been in violation of the state’s stay-at-home orders.
“We have no issues,” Fitzgerald said. “Everyone is still compliant. It’s business as usual here.”
Like Hoffman, Fitzgerald said he understands the temptation to open. Barron County has had just six positive COVID-19 cases.
“All six are recovered, and none were hospitalized,” Fitzgerald said. “We haven’t had a new case in 2½ weeks.”
Barron County Public Health Director Laura Sauve didn’t return calls for comment.
No resolutions planned in Menomonie
Menomonie Mayor Randy Knaack and City Manager Lowell Prange both said they have no plans to seek to open the city earlier than the state guidelines.
“At this point, the administration and mayor will continue to support the guidelines set by DHS,” Prange said. “I don’t think we’ll change course right now.”
Prange noted the city has allowed for curbside pickup at the public library this week, and the plan is for the farmers market to open May 16 with some social distancing plans.
Knaack said he liked the idea of opening up some businesses — with some requirements — but “I don’t agree with head-butting the sheriff and human services and health departments.”
Knaack said if businesses were to open, he thinks rules must be implemented that include reduced capacity, social distancing, and mandatory masks at indoor public places.
Mike Jordan, Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce director, said he is hopeful that proposals will head to the governor or other state officials that will allow for reopening businesses early in northwestern Wisconsin.
“I can’t speak for Rice Lake, but from our perspective, the May 26 date that is out there is not what we want to see. We want to see it sooner,” Jordan said. “The situation in Chippewa County does not match the situation in Milwaukee County. We should be getting back to business before May 26.”