Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide stay-at-home proclamation on Wednesday cast more questions on an already uncertain start to Pennsylvania’s 2020 trout season.
However, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat spokesperson Mike Parker shared some clarity during a phone interview a day after Wolf’s edict.
“Fishing remains an acceptable outdoor activity under the stay-at-home order, as long as social distancing is practiced,” he said. “Opening day, scheduled statewide on April 18, is still the date as of today.”
While the last three words of his statement leaves the door open for a possibility of a change, the bigger concern for local bait shops and other trout equipment providers is whether or not they will be able to outfit anglers.
“I’ve been trying to cut through all the official statements, dating and timing of it all,” said David Lilley, of the Blue Heron Sports Shop in Milton. “Ultimately, it states on the government’s website that we are not allowed to have face-to-face contact with customers, so how are we supposed to help people get ready with their last-minute needs such as fishing rods and hip waders? And the fish commission suggests getting licenses online, but not everyone has a computer. I think it is only realistic to expect that the opener will be pushed back a couple of weeks.”
Ken Maurer, of Southside Bait Shop in Sunbury, said he spent two hours combing the state government’s website after Wednesday’s stay-at-home order to figure out his next steps. On the Pennsylvania Department of Health website, under its Coronavirus tab, there is a Frequently Asked Questions section directly related to the governor’s order.
No. 30 on the list asks: “May sporting goods, hunting, fishing and tackle stores maintain in-person operations?” The response: “Sporting goods stores, hunting fishing and tackle stores may not maintain in-person operations but may maintain self-service operations.”
“We have responded by closing our front door to customers, but we will maintain our bait vending machines and provide items through a drive-up window,” said Maurer, much like a fast-food restaurant. “We have to do something to bring some money in. People don’t realize that we typically make three times as much in April than we do any other month of the year, and we will never be getting those sales back this year as it is.”
A frustration for both tackle shop owners is that retailers like Walmart that sell food items can remain open and still have their sporting goods sections open for consumers – meaning that most anglers will likely purchase their needs there instead of visiting their local small businesses.
Parker admitted that the fish and boat commission does not determine which businesses stay open.
“We would be advising fishing guides, who require permits from us, at this point that they can not operate under the order, as they are neither essential nor life-sustaining,” he said. “I can tell you that some tackle shops have closed. Many others, which may also be gas stations or grocery stores, remain open.”
The loss of the state’s southern trout season opening date due to the coronavirus has already impacted a variety of shops and outfitters, including B&B Wholesale Bait, out of Harrisburg, that provides live bait to locations throughout the state.
“Losing the opener for the southeastern 18 counties that have enjoyed an early start to the season has been a rough hit for us. We typically see both local customers and people that travel in from out of the area for that day,” said Greg Kwiatkowski. “Trout season, for many bait shops, is the bread and butter event for the year. Standalone bait shops that can’t operate right now may not be able to survive this situation.”
State officials are watching New York – where trout season opened on April 1 – to see how trout fishing affects the coronavirus spread. If and how that impacts the Pennsylvania state opener remains to be seen.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.