A record Lake Erie walleye population has attracted a bumper crop of anglers to public boat ramps in northwest Ohio. Similarly, the annual spring spawn on the Sandusky and Maumee rivers attracts thousands of anglers daily during a month-long spawning period.
But the global coronavirus pandemic is turning the world hyper-local as Ohio halts non-resident fishing license sales and municipalities reduce parking after anglers ignore social distancing rules and stay home orders.
Ottawa County, Ohio, Sheriff Steve Levorchick said he’d recently received complaints from residents in his area about the high volume of out-of-state anglers coming to fish for walleye.
With Lake Erie populations at a record high, anglers travel from more than a dozen states to fish the waters of the Western and Central basins. It’s common to see anglers from the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri, among others, in the chase.
“I’ve received literally hundreds of calls from local citizens that are concerned about their safety and health, not only for themselves but their family and friends also,” he said. While most calls concerned anglers traveling to Ohio, some also included concerns about owners of vacation homes, condos, cottages and trailers coming to the area.
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Last week Levorchik asked state officials to suspend the sale of new non-resident licenses, and in short order the Ohio Department of Natural Resources made it happen. Sales of spring turkey hunting permits to non-residents were also suspended.
Last season, the ODNR issued about 108,000 non-resident licenses, including one-day, three-day and annual permits. By April 6 this year, the ODNR had issued a total 8,051 non-resident licenses before halting sales. By comparison, during the same time last year it had issued 11,976, a decline of 33 percent.
“I don’t think it’s going to stop the out-of-state fishermen from coming, but I hope it curbs it at least,” Levorchick said. “My first call was to the director of public safety, who thought it was a great idea. He then took it up the chain of command to the governor.”
Despite inquiries and complaints about non-resident anglers traveling to Ottawa County to fish, he said local law enforcement agencies lack the authority to close state-owned sites. Such a move could only be made by the state or by a local health department.
Levorchick, himself an avid angler and hunter, said he’s not trying to ruin anyone’s fishing but just trying to keep Ohioans and Ottawa County residents safe.
Jeff Frischkorn, an outdoor writer from Lake County, Ohio, traveled to the Port Clinton area to glimpse the situation for himself last week.
“I was told by one of the officers at the Mazurik ramp that about 20 percent of the anglers were non-resident,” Frischkorn said, shaking his head. “There were so many vehicles they had traffic stopped in the roadway.”
“There are a lot of out-of-state fishermen here and they’re simply not following the rules. They’re supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days when they get here and they’re not,” he said. “It’s endangering everyone in our communities in Ohio. The ODNR has made a big mistake here in not closing these ramps.”
A Great Lakes Now survey of the two most popular Ottawa County launch sites more than a week after Frischkorn’s visit and few days after the ODNR’s halt to non-resident sales found just ten out-of-state vehicles out of 175, placing the tally of non-resident anglers at less than six percent.
Division of Wildlife chief says suspending sales protects Ohioans
There could be more orders coming if anglers don’t follow social distancing guidelines, said Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife Chief Kendra Wecker.
“It definitely accommodates Ohio anglers to ensure they can continue to fish and be safe. The new order takes care of people who want to fish that are already in Ohio,” she said.
Non-resident anglers who have already purchased a license prior to the order are still able to fish. Whether or not state boat ramps remain open, Wecker said, remains to be seen.
“It’s all dependent on the people who should be complying with the social distancing orders. If people aren’t complying and they’re gathering in large groups and assembling then we may be forced to shut those areas down.”
Peer pressure from others will likely determine what happens to the state’s Lake Erie public ramps, Wecker said. And some input will come from non-anglers.
“We have a lot of different entities in this whole process between local governments, sheriffs’ offices and federal agencies all trying to communicate and figure this out,” she explained. “And there’s local pressure—some people are very, very concerned, especially a lot of non-anglers. From what they see, because they don’t understand it, they see a full parking lot and think ‘Oh, they’re not following the rules,’ when in fact a lot of times they are following the rules. We’ve had officers out taking photos, and it’s kind of us conveying that people can fish responsibly and be apart from the non-anglers.”
Wecker said ODNR officers are still performing their regular enforcement duties and reminding anglers of social distancing guidelines.
“Right now we’re here, one day at a time, and we’re making progress according to Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton. We’re doing our part trying to keep people safe and that’s number one. Keeping people safe and allowing them the opportunity to get out and recreate as much as we can.”
Parking limited, but fishing’s not canceled yet
Maumee Mayor Richard Carr issued a statement April 6 indicating all parking within city limits on streets adjacent to the river were being closed.
“The COVID-19 crisis places in danger all health care workers, police officers, paramedic/EMTs and all whose jobs put them in contact with the public,” the statement read.
Following suit, the City of Perrysburg, Perrysburg Township and Metroparks Toledo have altered, and in some cases closed, parking areas traditionally used by Maumee River anglers.
But while access to the river has been made more difficult, it hasn’t completely disappeared.
“I talk to people all day long and I try to explain it to them,” said Mario Campo, who operates Maumee Tackle. “The river is open and there are some places to park and also the road is open for people to get dropped off to go fishing.”
Campo said that his business was already down about half from last year after Ohio’s stay at home order was issued by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on March 23. With the new, reduced access to the river, it’s down even further.
“This is basically my Christmas time,” Campo said. “I make 50 to 75 percent of my business this month. It’s going down incrementally each day because people aren’t working and so they don’t have a lot of extra money to spend.”
While he isn’t selling nearly as many jigs, fishing lines, waders, licenses, tackle and other merchandise, he is still open and has adapted to meet the altered demands of anglers and the virus.
“I’ve got a drive-thru and carry-out now, since we’ve got a big porch. People don’t even have to come into the building,” Campo said. “We take a good portion of our operation outside every morning and people just pull right in the parking lot. And if people go inside, it’s just four at a time.”
Campo said because his operation also includes a federal firearms license, he’s considered essential and will remain open, just like grocery stores. Maumee Tackle falls under the essential business category, he added, because it’s in the healthcare category.
“That’s how I explained it to the chief of police,” he said. “We fall under the mental health aspect of things so people don’t go crazy being cooped up in their houses.” Campo said the chief laughed and admitted he had to agree.
Michigan governor declares boating non-essential
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s clarified stay at home order released April 10 forbids powerboating, in general, though allows sail boating, kayaking and canoeing.
Ohio and Michigan have both previously ruled charter fishing non-essential activities.
In Ohio, DeWine has not yet closed ODNR boat ramps or declared boating a non-essential activity.
But in Michigan, some MDNR sites have been closed due to a high volume of traffic combined with failure of visitors to follow social distancing guideline. In Manistee County, the Tippy Dam Recreation Area has closed. The villages of Suttons Bay and Northport in Leelanau County have closed their public boat ramps to reduce the influx of out-of-town anglers and boaters.
Plan now, visit later
While governors DeWine and Whitmer have issued stay at home orders for all non-essential travel, getting everyone to comply is easier said than done.
DeWine’s request that anyone traveling to Ohio from out-of-state self-quarantine for 14 days is not being followed, at least in the case of most non-resident anglers. Some communities are beginning to take action, especially those which have been historically tourism-based.
Lake Erie Shores and Islands, the tourism bureau serving Erie and Ottawa counties, is tasked with drawing people to the region. But now, it’s asking people to plan their trips to the area – but not to come anytime soon. A statement on their website reads:
The health and safety of our guests and all who live and work in the Shores & Islands region is our top priority. We are asking you to Plan Now. Visit Later. Only essential businesses and some carryout and delivery options are currently available for local residents. We are all in this together, and while travel is not possible now, we look forward to the day when we can welcome you back.
Port Clinton Mayor Mike Snider manages vacation rentals in the area and said he’s currently laid off.
“The reality is, from our side, our website traffic is way down. Our phone calls are non-existent. For the most part, people are understanding it’s not the appropriate time to travel anywhere,” he said. “I actually went down to the pier and there were two groups of people fishing. I went down to Rich’s Drive-Thru and got some soda pop and iced tea and went back and introduced myself as the mayor and I thanked them for social distancing while they were fishing. They were thankful, by nature. It was really nice meeting them.”
Snider said one group traveled from the Marion area, the other from the Akron area, just to spend the day shore fishing in Port Clinton.
The Ottawa County Commissioners issued a public statement on the matter, stressing that they cannot prohibit the movement of people into the county, whether they are fishing or coming to their vacation homes.
“I think what we’re trying to do is send a message jointly with the visitors bureau to plan your trip and come later, when things are different,” said Mark Stahl, one of three commissioners. “We love having people from all over visit our area, but these are unprecedented times and we just want to be sure everyone is as safe as they can be, our summer visitors and our residents.”
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Featured image: Despite a blustery day with temps in the 40s and an Ohio stay-at-home order looming, this trio at the ODNR’s Mazurik boat ramp in Marblehead plans to head out for some walleye fishing in late March 2020. Photo by James Proffitt.