For the past few weeks, Chris Leonard has fought against the one thing he loves most — fishing.
The Mammoth Lakes resident has been one of the most outspoken Eastern Sierra fly fishing guides pushing for a delay to the season opener. It’s counterintuitive to his livelihood and joy, but he’s concerned about tourism in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And he’s not the only one.
Public officials in Alpine, Inyo, and Mono counties wrote to state officials a few weeks ago asking for a delay to the annual season opener, which is affectionately known as “Fishmas” and takes place on the last Saturday of April each year.
An influx of tourism will unduly expose residents to the coronavirus in regions that already have some of the highest infection rates in the state and could put more stress on their limited rural health care facilities, they said.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Charlton Bonham announced the decision to postpone the season in four counties yesterday. The temporary delay expires on May 31.
“Fishing season opener is one of the most magical moments in the recreational calendar each year,” Director Bonham said. “This situation raises a legitimate concern at the local level regarding potential transmission of COVID–19 from outside the areas.”
All waters in these three counties not currently open to fishing will remain closed until the temporary regulation expires, but each county does have limited year-round fishing on the East and West Walker, Hot Creek, and the Upper and Lower Owens. CDFW made minor adjustments to bag and possession limits on the waters currently open.
After the CDFW decision to postpone trout season was announced for the three counties that requested it, officials from Sierra County also requested postponement for certain waters.
CDFW immediatley responded by delaying the trout opener on the Downie River and suspending fishing on the North Fork Yuba River from Yuba Pass downstream to the confluence with Goodyears Creek.
“Is it a popular decision with everyone? No.” Leonard said. “The fact is, though, that while beaches and golf courses slowly and cautiously open in So. Cal, comparing those decisions to fishing opener in the Eastern Sierra is comparing apples to car batteries.”
Because of the state orders, there is no infrasturcture for tourism or fishing, which would be a disaster, Leonard says. As the organizer of the annual Owens River clean up, Leonard says that he sees a lot of human waste and trash under normal conditions.
Lodging and restaurants are currently closed. Parking and restroom facilities are closed. Camping is closed.
“The steps forward will be quite calculated and very much depend on how well the spread of COVID-19 is controlled,” Leonard said. “Everyone wants the green light to wet a line. Myself included.”
Though the postponement is just 45 days and only affects the counties that requested it, the process to change the regulations was dramatically drawn out over the last few weeks.
A Fish and Game Commission meeting on April 9 was abruptly cancelled and rescheduled when meeting organizers could not gain control of the public on the telecast. A group of misinformed and rowdy commenters protested what they thought was an indefinite statewide ban even though what they were fighting against was never proposed. Later that day Governor Gavin Newsom interrupted his own press conference to weigh in.
“I’m passionate about fishing myself,” Gov. Newsom said. “We are not canceling the fishing season. We just want to delay, not deny that season.”
Then, on April 15 in the rescheduled meeting, the Commission voted unanimously to adopt emergency regulations authorizing the Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to temporarily make changes to fishing regulations.
In that meeting both the Commission President Eric Sklar and CDFW Director Bonham reminded the public that a statewide ban was not being considered. They also emphasized that access issues and closed marinas that many commenters were concerned about in their coastal communities are under county jurisdiction and not managed by the state.
“Making this decision (to delay opener) was very difficult considering the fact that I grew up coming to the Eastern Sierra to fish,” Mono County Supervisor John Peters said. “It is just not practical, safe or responsible to allow people to come here, and expect that we can get through the introduction of thousands of people unscathed.”
Many public officials from other counties including Trinity, Humboldt, El Dorado, and Sacramento expressed support in delaying opener in the counties that requested it, but also said they do not want the same regulations for their own regions.
Some public commenters expressed concern for a shift in pressure explaining that if people cannot fish in these counties those people might just go fish in neighboring counties.
“When opportunities are being closed it diverts that focus other places,” Mark Smith said on behalf of the Northern California Guides and Sportsmen’s Association. “We need to recognize there is going to be travel as folks attempt to do outdoor recreation and that is just reality. The fact is that actions are going to cause unintended pressure in other places.”
A few people said the inability to catch fish and feed their families was unfair because markets are low on fresh foods, and others argued that fishing is safer than standing in line at a grocery store or food bank.
Others said a delay in fishing season opener was a violation of their constitutional rights and one person declared he’d never spend money in Alpine, Inyo, or Mono County again.
Some urged the Commission to do nothing and require the counties to use law enforcement to control visitors violating the governor’s stay-at-home orders.
According to Sherriff Ingrid Braun, Mono County does not have martial law nor the capacity for law enforcement for an influx of thousands of visitors with no tourism infrastructure.
“It will create utter chaos if we had fishing opener still as scheduled,” she said.
Now with the CDFW decision to postpone the season finalized, county officials are discsussing a soft opener when the delay expires. Even then, there most likely will not be lodging or campgrounds or restaurants or events.
It will not be the same festive Fishmas that visitors have grown to love. Season opener, it seems, will be more of quiet change in regulations rather than a celebration. But at least, there will be fishing.
This article first appeared on the author’s Medium page.