It’s a rare business that’s not suffering during the COVID-19 crisis in America and fishing guides are among those who are seeing their income plummet.
Across the country, guides who are usually busy tying leaders, relining reels and sharpening hooks for the peak of the spring season are now sitting at the docks—or in front of their computer screens—wondering what hit them.
Many fishing guides make a significant portion of their annual income in the spring months, and the money they bring in during this peak period has to carry them through the rest of the year when their clients are working, vacationing with the family, hunting and doing all the other things we do when we’re not fishing. This year, due to the coronavirus outbreak, those peak earning weeks might produce next to nothing for thousands of the nation’s fishing guides.
"I've had as many as nine customers call to cancel in a single day since this started," said Captain Jesse Beye of Boca Grande, Fla. "If this doesn’t turn around by mid-April, the whole fishing season this year will be lost."
Ray Markham, who targets snook, redfish and seatrout on Tampa Bay, says most of his bookings for spring have canceled. "Spring fishing is red hot and I have only two bookings for all of April," he said. "That month is normally booked solid."
Dylan Hubbard of Hubbard’s Marina at Treasure Island, the largest headboat company on Florida’s west coast, has temporarily closed his doors and laid off his staff. "We’ve been open for 92 years through three generations," he said. "I’m concerned for our captains, mates and shop people."
Captain Mike Carter, a bass guide on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, has also had his share of cancellations. "Most of the people who were flying in to fish have canceled,” says Carter. "I can make some of that up with locals, but not anywhere near most of it."
Captain Bobby Abruscato, who guides for reds and trout on Mobile Bay, Ala., also reports a decline. "This is normally the start of our busiest time of the year, and this year that’s just not happening—we’re not getting any calls for new trips, and our business charters, multi-boat deals, have totally gone away."
Even then, these guides might not be as bad off as those in the Florida Keys. There, U.S. 1, the only access road to this hundred-mile-long island chain, is closed to all but residents and service people—no visiting anglers allowed, period.
To be sure, fishing guides and charter captains are not alone—millions of Americans have been laid off in recent weeks. Last Thursday, the Department of Labor reported 3.3 million people filed for unemployment in the seven-day period ending March 21. Monday, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a report estimating that the unemployment rate in the U.S. could climb to 32 percent in the second quarter.
However, many if not most who are laid off from regular, W-2-type jobs will get an extended unemployment income package—not a match for their regular income, but hopefully enough to keep food on the table and the lights on.
Guides may get a stimulus check, but that will only make up for a few days of the missed spring season. And many guides have hefty boat payments on top of all their household and family expenses. They don’t get paid days off, sick time, medical insurance, retirement benefits or other benefits that workers often get from employers. As with all small-business owners, they have the freedom of self-employment, but in times like these the trade-off is security.
Of course, most who are capable of guide duties are able-bodied individuals who can seek other work ashore—and many do during the slower months. But if almost all industry shuts down for months to come, many of them will lose their boats and possibly even their homes. The fishing business—and all of America—will take a long time to recover.
While this is a small problem in the massive maelstrom that has suddenly engulfed most of the planet, it’s one that regular customers of these guides can perhaps ease a bit. Most guides offer gift cards; buy yourself a future trip—or several—or buy gift cards for buddies and business associates. A few hundred bucks for these guides could mean the difference between sinking and swimming this spring.
If you don’t have a favorite guide but are in a position to help, you might consider groups like Save the Season, a non-profit dedicated to providing financial relief to guides whose financial situations are dire. Visit the site to make a donation and score cool T-shirts, hoodies, mugs and more. One hundred percent of proceeds support guides affected by the pandemic.
Don’t forget your favorite tackle shops, either. Little River Outfitters in Townsend, Tenn., and Gator Jim’s in St. Petersburg, Fla., are just two that are offering curbside service. Call ahead and they’ll bring your order out to the truck.
This is also a good time to remember conservation groups like the Coastal Conservation Association, Trout Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy and others, virtually all of which have had to shut down their fundraising auctions and banquets for the next several months. For those with the discretionary funds to spare, your usual donation will go a long way toward keeping our fish and wildlife healthy. (Of course, donations to the American Red Cross are also desperately needed.)
In the meantime, let’s go fishing. It’s one of the safest things you can do right now, and we could all use some fresh air and sunshine. If you go, though, remember to maintain the appropriate social distancing of six feet. As luck would have it, that happens to be the length of many fishing rods.