Public Isolation as a Fishing Strategy
Social Distance is a Rod’s Length Away

Harbor Angler Report, March 20th Photo

The concept of “social distancing”, as is mandated by the current coronavirus epidemic, is not unfamiliar to anglers. On the contrary, not only are fishing prospects in general enhanced by getting as far away from people as possible, social isolation is often the main reason people seek fishing as a pastime in the first place.  More often than not, when I head out from the boat landing for a morning of bass fishing, I scan the water for other anglers and choose a spot with some chance of catching fish, but more importantly as far away from other boats as I can get. Now to some, this may seem counterintuitive. Afterall, if someone is in a particular location, isn’t there a good chance that they are catching fish and wouldn’t you want to be near them? This has not been my experience. The occurrence of a lot of anglers fishing in the same place does not always correlate to many fish being caught.  In fact, it seldom does. I learned this during my time fishing on Lake Winnebago, a large lake in northeast Wisconsin with excellent fishing surrounded by several urban centers. During my “pre-retirement” years, I was pretty much limited to fishing on weekends, typically Sunday mornings. I would try get out on the lake very early to beat the hordes of weekend anglers. Many times, I would observe a phenomenon that my buddies and I referred to as “cluster-f……” Well, let’s just say “gathering”. We would watch a single boat with an angler or two aboard motor out onto the lake. Not having any idea where to fish, they would drop their anchor at some random spot and wet a line. Soon a second boat would appear and figuring the other guy must know where the fish are, they would position themselves close by. Now a third boat shows up with anglers. Being even more convinced that, since there were two boats there, that must be the “hot spot” and they would join the “gathering”.  This would repeat all morning with each additional boat adding to the lure of the location until many dozens of boats would be “clustered” in a relatively tiny portion of the massive body of water, some separated by only a few yards. I personally have watched gatherings of thirty or forty boats form from nothing. Sometimes I would join the cluster out of insatiable curiosity.  Almost invariably, upon close observation, few people were catching any fish at all, but they were all convinced that the other guys were “killing them”. Lots of anglers does not mean lots of fish are being caught. Trust me on this.

Now there are obviously exceptions to this statement. For example during seasonal “runs” like the Fall spawning of zombie Chinooks or the Spring walleye runs. When you see the hundreds of boats in the Fox River below the DePere Dam as you drive over the Hwy 172 bridge, you can be pretty sure fish are in the river. But look carefully, as you will often see several boats isolated from the rest of the “gathering”. My guess is that they are boating just as many walleyes and perhaps more than the average angler out there and they don’t have to worry about hitting another boat when they cast.

Even when fishing is experienced with other people, proper social distance can be maintained. Most boats are at least twelve feet long making it easy to keep a rod’s length away from your partner. Heck, Paul and I have spent many, many hours at least six feet apart within the confines of the 17-Foot Maggie Leigh or his 21-Foot Lund. Charter boats are usually limited to a maximum six patrons, so even with the captain and mate, the group is still under the 10-person group limit dictated by current guidelines. So, it seems to me that the best thing to do in this time of national crisis and concern is to go fishing. To be honest, that’s my advice for just about any situation, but in this case, I think it is valid.

When I left Door County to spend a few weeks thawing out in Florida, the need for isolation and social distancing was not as acute. Since then, however, we have been advised by medical experts to avoid close physical contact with people and even have been ordered by public officials to avoid gathering in groups larger than ten.  Heck, even the bars are closed. But not the beaches or boat landings…….yet. I can think of no better way of social distancing than sitting in my kayak in the middle of the Mantanzas River near St Augustine or wading out into the Atlantic surf well away from the sunbathing masses. There is an isolated boat launch less than 2 miles from our condo. I have yet to see another craft there. Setting out near high tide, I paddle out through the flooded sawgrass islands and over the inundated oyster beds. Gulls, terns and osprey soar overhead. Nearby a huge brown pelican will collapse out of the sky and plunge, mouth agape, into the brackish water coming up with a bulging pouch full of water and perhaps a few small fish. I often observe pods of dolphins searching for fish. Probably the same fish I am after. I am sure they are more successful than I am. Casting shiny spoons, shrimp-like plastics or splashing surface lures I target the elusive redfish or a tasty spotted seatrout. More often this season I have boated just a few feisty, albeit smallish, bluefish. Bluefish are aggressive feeders and strong battlers often taking frantic leaps into the air. The few fish I catch are gratifying, but mostly I enjoy spending an afternoon on the water fishing in March and not having to drill a hole. Oh, and I don’t have to worry about being stranded by moving ice flows as a few anglers were recently on Green Bay. And I am alone. Socially isolated. Physically distanced from people and emotionally distanced, at least for a while, from the anxiety of these unprecedented times. When I do catch a fish. I can pick it up and not worry about contracting any new diseases. I can even give it a big smooch. There have been no occurrences of the CoVid-19 virus jumping from fish to humans, yet.

My surf fishing efforts have been futile to date, but no less isolating. One does have to maintain social distance as you make your way through the beachgoers dragging your tackle laden beach cart. Once you get into the surf and fling a heavily weighted rig, baited with squid pieces or shrimp, you are by yourself, again. On occasion, a passerby will shout over the sound of the crashing waves, “Gettin’any?”  I smile, shake my head indicating nothing yet, and turn my eyes back to the distant horizon.

In a week or so, I will be heading back to my beloved Baileys Harbor. The situation there will be much different than when I left. Sadly, I won’t be hanging out at the Cornerstone for a while. When I greet friends and neighbors at the post office, I won’t be shaking hands or slapping them on the back. As I stroll down the sidewalk past Baileys 57, Chives, and The Blue Ox, I will maintain a proper social distance from my fellow Harborites. An unfortunate fact of life right now. Hopefully, soon, we will be able to regain a semblance of our familiar routines. We will get through this together, even at a distance.

So, unless they close down the boat landings or prohibit people from taking to the water or wandering the streams, I will continue practicing my favorite form of social isolation. Fishing. The brown trout are unaware of any pandemic. The walleyes will not stop spawning. The bass will again return to their favorite haunts. I will be there as well as close to the water and as far away from people as I can be.

To all my friends and acquaintances or anyone else with nothing better to do but read these words; Stay safe, keep positive, help others when you can and wash your hands.


So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Bruce

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