Fly fishing through a pandemic

In times of turmoil, should we even be talking about fly fishing?
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Fly fishing—especially in remote locations like this one—can help us decompress and de-stress during these trying times, not to mention help us soak up much needed Vitamin D-fueling sunlight. But, if you head out, be sure to respect all social distancing measures recommended by local, regional and national authorities (photo: Chad Shmukler).

The world is changing all around us. March Madness was cancelled. The NBA season was suspended. So was the remainder of spring training and the beginning of the Major League Baseball season. Schools are closed. Grocery stores are having a hard time keeping goods on the shelves. (Good luck finding hand sanitizer or toilet paper.) Meanwhile, anything approaching a normal life has disappeared in Europe, where Italy and France are locked down and modern medical facilities are being overwhelmed by the global pandemic.

Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen here in the States, but the tea leaves, which are already scattered across the nation from Seattle to New York City, point to the kind of systemic disruption that very few of us are prepared for right now. People are working from home, bars and restaurants are going dark, and “shelter in place” orders that close everything but essential businesses are popping up. At the same time, two words that we’ve never used in conjunction with each other — “social distancing” — have become the new American mantra in the age of the novel coronavirus.

So where does this leave us? And should we even be talking about fly fishing in the midst of an international emergency that shows no sign of dissipating any time soon?

As for where we stand and what tomorrow holds ... I honestly don’t know. Nor, it seems, does anyone else. At a minimum, I’d suggest being highly skeptical of people who tell you that they can discern the future in their crystal balls. We’re feeling our way through wholesale changes right now and the only thing that seems obvious is we’re in for a wild ride. It makes sense to buckle your metaphorical seat-belt and do everything you can to prepare for an uncertain future.

As for fly fishing ... well, when the days are dark and the news oscillates between bad and worse, most of us try to hold on to whatever sense of normalcy we can find. With that in mind, fly fishing can offer a pleasant distraction, and that’s equally true whether we’re sharing old photos on the web or sneaking in a few hours on the water.

If you do have the option of fishing and if you decide to give it a shot, keep in mind that you’re one of the lucky ones. Be sure to savor the experience at the same time you stay safe, follow federal, state and local outbreak guidelines, and give your fellow anglers plenty of space.

If you’re not in a situation that allows you to get out on the water, there’s always the internet. You can read stories, watch videos, engage in fly fishing chatrooms and share photos from past trips to your favorite waters. Either way, keep in mind that everyone else is stressed and on edge. It’s a good time to cut folks a little extra slack.

I’ll wrap up by saying that this isn’t the first time that Americans have found themselves in a difficult spot. Nor is it the first time that we’ve wondered whether fly fishing might potentially help us navigate a rough patch.

Back in World War II, OSS officer Jack Hemingway — Ernest Hemingway’s son — parachuted into occupied France to work with the French Resistance. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his fly fishing gear behind, so in addition to his weapon, he actually jumped into the night sky with his fly rod, a reel, and a box of flies. While he was in France, Hemingway wore civilian khakis with a small U.S. flag sewn on his right shoulder. One day he came across a quick-moving stream and decided to break out his fly fishing gear. He described what happened next in his book Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman:

I had become totally concentrated on thoroughly covering the last few yards of possible holding water when I heard a most unwelcome and frightening sound, that of marching boots close by. With the sound of the stream through the nearby riffles, I had been caught completely unaware. I looked up and, marching at route step with rifles and machine pistols at sling arms, was a patrol in German uniform. They were all looking toward me and making what sounded like derisive, joking comments as they went along.

For the first time in my life I made a silent wish that came as close to a real prayer as I had ever come. Above all, I wished not to hook a fish at that moment. If I had, the whole patrol would have halted to watch. Then there would have been a conversation and, if I had turned to any degree, the U.S. flag would have been visible. The powers above were with me; I hooked nothing, and the Germans kept marching down the track.

We’re in uncharted waters, but that doesn’t mean we need to lose our cool or forget who we are. We have the ability to rise to the occasion. Please be kind to the people around you, help out where you can, and stay safe and healthy as we do our best to ride out the coming storm.


Todd I always enjoy reading your stories but this one really hit home. I do plan to fish tomorrow since I won't be at work. It feels a little strange to go fishing when the world no longer feels safe. But fishing is brings me happiness and makes me feel alive and well.

Thank you and well said. I am an educator and what would have been a dream come true to fish at length during the week, feels a bit surreal. It does help my heart to see so many young people out there beside me seeking the same solace and beauty. Good health and I'll see you on the water.

This was such a great post. I loved the story you included about Jack. Such amazing, peaceful imagery. In the Catskills here fishing and the rivers are church. Have no doubt there will be alot of out there praying this year. Like we always do. Best wishes-Tenzo

Thank you so for sharing your thoughts above. We will come out the other side stronger and probably more grounded almost the values that really matter. The ones we tend to ponder over while following the fly. Time for ourselves and more time for one and other.

Thank you for your insight. And for sharing Hemingway's book. One of my important options at the moment is reading about fly fishing. You made an important contribution.

Fishing In The Time of COVID-19

Quoting an old Danish proverb, the great physicist Niels Bohr said, ‘it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.’
True but let me try. Destination fishing is over for the year.
• Travel is risky. The State Department tells travelers overseas that they might get stuck there.
• Airports have a petri-dish character. Airplanes even more so.
• Close gatherings of strangers from all around the world are troubling. Dangerous even.
• The age demographic of those who travel to fish skews old.
• One case of COVID-19 loose on a remote island could devastate the whole population.
• Medical facilities at many fishing destinations are sketchy or nonexistent.
• Evacuation services like Global Rescue and the many travel insurance operations may become overwhelmed.
• Lodge cancellations are already ramping up.
• Guides without clients won’t be guiding anymore.
• Lodges and fishing operations that bite the bullet and shut down now will be in better shape for what follows this crisis than those who struggle on until they’re broke.
• Many lodges and fishing operations run on marginal profits and won’t be able to stay in business under even moderate strain.
• Many operations that book fishing travel will be under strain to stay afloat. Ditto fly fishing shops.
• There’s no conceivable Go-Fund-Me effort that could make the tiniest dent in the problem.
We’re done for the year. At best.
Tie flies. Groom your tackle. Look at old pics and videos. Stay in touch with your fishing mates.
And know that you’re done travelling to fish for at least this year. At best.

Absolutely agree. Stay home and act like you have this virus and don't want to share it.

Good article. I'd like to think we can exercise good judgement and enjoy solitude. Blanket rules often make zero sense. Avoid remote travel? Sure. Drive down the road to be literally alone on the water? Why not- I'm hurting nobody. Just don't brag about / post it on social media, etc. Don't gather in groups in parking lots. Don't all bunch up at the bridge pool like a bunch of toads.

Let's hope the flyfishers out there can continue to find and enjoy solitude, safely -- and demonstrate that we don't need blanket rules to protect us from ourselves.

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