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Rich Landers: COVID-19 is one thing fly fishing clubs don’t want to catch

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Physical distancing is traditionally practiced by fly fishers, enforced if needed by the threat of getting hooked in the butt by your partner’s weighted Woolly Bugger.

But while they haven’t stopped their pursuit of trout in 2020, members of local fly clubs say the restrictions brought on by COVID-19 have dried up much of the off-the-water social interaction they crave.

Bound by Washington rules, fishing clubs and other nonprofits have canceled most group outings. Even on private fishing trips, members generally have stopped sharing rides beyond family for the time being, reluctantly expanding their carbon footprint as they reduce exposure to the coronavirus.

“The worst part about not sharing rides is the loss of learning time,” said Lee Funkhouser of the Inland Empire Fly Fishing Club. “ On the three-hour drive to Lake Rufus Woods in a car with knowledgeable partners, you’ll know how to fish it by the time you get there.”

Funkhouser and another club member, the Rev. David Kuttner, drove separately and met for a day of fishing recently at a prearranged stream access site on the Coeur d’Alene River. They immediately noticed the reason the club joins the North Idaho Fly Casters for an annual shoreline clean-up day. The group event has been canceled this year, but that didn’t stop Funkhouser from bagging litter on every foray from his pickup.

Sportsmen’s groups provide valuable manpower for cleaning access areas and supporting projects related to fish and wildlife throughout the year. Nearly all volunteer involvement has been called off this season, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff.

The Spokane Fish Hatchery, for example, banks on help especially during trout spawning and egg-taking time starting in late November. In late September, the fly fishers normally provide helpers for clipping adipose fins off trout to mark them as hatchery-raised before they are stocked.

“Unfortunately, we won’t be able to use volunteers this year,” said Kevin Flowers, hatchery manager.

Instead, Flowers will be recruiting agency employees who have been trained in COVID-19 avoidance and can give up some hours from their normal duties.

The Clear Lake Kids Fishing Day that was canceled in May involves roughly 100 volunteers, said Randy Osborne, state fisheries biologist.

“A lot of the volunteers are retired, and we made the decision not to expose them,” Osborne said. “Most of the help originates from organized groups, and we certainly couldn’t do what we do without volunteers.”

“Joining the club 15 years ago was the best thing I ever did for improving my fishing,” Funkhouser said, noting that going out with peers also elevates awareness.

“On the river, you’re likely to be gently reminded to get a fish back in the water if you’re spending too much time trying to get a photo.”

Kuttner, a priest assigned to the Catholic Newman Center of Eastern Washington University, joined the club three years ago after meeting a couple of members while fishing Amber Lake. “They were good guys who love fishing,” he said. “They were so willing to share ideas. I said, ‘Sign me up.’ ”

The priest quickly became the club’s new hope for rising to the unconventional expectation of provide fishing reports without stretching the truth. He has yet to be observed, however, putting a tape measure to his trout.

Matters of religion are not taboo on club trips as long as they discussed in the context of thanking God for creating fish that will take a fly.

“When I miss church on a Sunday,” Funkhouser said, “I plead for forgiveness and ask, ‘Would you rather have me in church thinking about fishing or on the river thinking about God?’ ”

All of the local fly fishing clubs promote conservation ethics. The Inland Empire club, founded in 1956 exclusively for men, contributes to fisheries in many ways, such as maintaining the trout spawning channel at Bayley Lake in Stevens County, funding native redband trout information signs along the Spokane River, and improving the boat launch at Amber Lake south of Cheney.

What can be done with physical distancing remains scheduled in the COVID-19 era while the rest so far have been canceled.

The club markets the Runje Releaser, which allows anglers to reel in a fish and release it from a barbless hook quickly without touching the fish. The releaser, invented years ago by club member Mike Runje, is sold at Silver Bow and Swede’s fly shops and profits are earmarked for fisheries conservation.

The Spokane Fly Fishers, whose membership includes men and women, has canceled the dozen or so group outings to favorite fishing waters this year, but continues to provide value to its members during the pandemic, said Paul Olsen, president.

“Annual dues are $35 a family, but the board recently voted to waive the fee this year for people suffering financial hardship,” he said. “It’s much easier to sign a waiver than to sign up a new member.

“We plan to use Zoom for our first general meeting of the season on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. We have a professional audio-visual person working on it. Local angler Leon Buckles will speak on ‘Fishing Destinations’ to dream about and discover.”

Relationships made in the past are helping many members get through the pandemic on a more private social scale, he said.

“But the youth recreation classes we were scheduled to give for parks departments and high schools are all canceled.”

Spokane Women on the Fly initially canceled all scheduled outings for its 700-some members. During Phase 2 restrictions, the club has limited groups to five anglers even when fishing in less-restrictive Idaho, founder Heather Hodson said.

“Interest in weekly Zoom happy hour meetings faded last spring as people started going outdoors more in May,” she said. “Women started coordinating their own groups within the group so they could still get out fishing.”

Hodson produces a weekly virtual program for members called Tuesday Tips on topics such as fly tying. Recently, she hosted a popular session with a photographer on taking fishing photos.

“I think the key is to keep the programs to the hour and allow for a lot of Q&A to keep people involved,” she said.

Monthly virtual membershipmeetings via the club’s Zoom account will resume in October, starting with the usual “Where have you been fishing?” social time and progressing to a conservation or education presentation, she said.

Hodson is optimistic that her group can wade through the pandemic to firm footing on the other side.

“We actually might have a much larger attendance than we would with in-person meetings,” she said.

“We have members in outlying areas and Idaho who may not want to drive into town on a school night but would be up for tuning in online.”

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