city-fishes-arkansas-rive

With the snowy Sangre de Cristo range as a backdrop, Roger Welles fly-fishes on the Arkansas River just east of Cotopaxi on Thursday. The temperature in nearby Canon City hit 75 degrees Thursday and Welles said he couldn't pass up the chance to get on the river. He said he lives in Canon City and fishes the Arkansas year-round. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE

SALIDA • On a March Tuesday here in the Arkansas River Valley, 50 degrees and overcast is what fly fishing dreams are made of. Happy hour is either a Manhattan at Wood’s Distillery or a blue-winged olive hatch, and Wood’s will be open after.

COVID-19 changes plans. Changes routines. It’s changing how we Colorado. These days hanging a “Gone Fishing” sign in The Next Eddy Fly Shop and Guide Service is the last thing Sarah Briam wants to do. So with her shop open only on an appointment basis, she rigged up her Echo 5-weight and reluctantly hit the water.

“That’s the thing, the fishing’s really good right now,” said Briam, who co-owns the store on West First Street with her boyfriend, Colin Medved.

Pausing, she said: “But for a small business here the timing of the (coronavirus) is horrible.”

The neighborhood fly shop is the kind of Colorado-centric business that’s already feeling the pinch caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Fly fishers may not be as smart as we try to sound, but we’re forever a mindful bunch. Now shop owners and guides are caught in the unique balance of doing the socially responsible thing and providing a service everyone’s mental health needs right now: fishing. That’s true even in a glorious mountain town where you can text the owner to swing by for a spool of 5x tippet.

“We don’t need to be out shopping,” Briam said. “But fishing would probably do us some good.”

One concern is how folks mentally handle this new and bizarre reality — however long it lasts, fingers crossed — that includes empty Safeway aisles, panicked social media and self-isolation. The concern itself is enough to make you feel sick. We’re not made to be this detached.

“I can’t imagine a better place right now than on a river,” Angler’s Covey owner Dave Leinweber said.

That was the overarching message from roughly a half-dozen Colorado fly shop owners and managers who cater to one of the few activities still available. Shoot, the virus is the first to beat the Manitou Incline, which closed last week. Same for our ski areas. But you know what’s open? The river, and the flows are nice and cold.

“There’s a bit of social shaming going on with people that aren’t sitting in their house all day every day,” said Tucker Ladd, who owns Trout’s Fly Fishing in Denver. “At the same time we’re saying: How can we help people get through a strange and uncomfortable time?”

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Deckers on a weekend is proof that fly fishers have perfected social distancing. We’ll share flies, stories (some true), even a raft if you bring the beer. Sharing our waters is when it starts to get personal, as the best waters are the waters with no one around. That’s also changing now, as everything has since coronavirus fears tangled our lives into a wind knot.

The day after nearby Monarch Ski Area closed, The Next Eddy received a rush of emails inquiring “is fishing still open?” in reference to job opportunities. When a client at a Denver-area shop said he had fished the Blue River in Summit County, a hot spot for COVID-19, the owner moved the conversation outside to the sidewalk at a distance of at least 6 feet.

Colorado Springs’ Angler’s Covey and others are disinfecting rental waders after guided trips. Boulder’s Front Range Anglers limits in-store customers to five. Littleton’s Anglers All sacked its free-shipping threshold to encourage online shopping. Trout’s moved an in-store Euro nymphing presentation to its YouTube channel.

“We’re selling a ton of fly tying materials,” Anglers All owner Chris Keeley said. “If you’re quarantined you still have to get your fix.”

Guided trips remain an option at every shop that offers the service, with some shops offering to meet clients at the river to respect social distancing guidelines. Several said they’ve conducted guided trips with the client at least 6 feet away from the guide throughout the day.

And here’s a golden oldie on Colorado’s rivers: “Out-of-state business is pretty much gone,” as Leinweber said. New bookings “have come to a screeching halt,” Ladd said. That’s a stomach punch to their economy, whether it’s a heavyweight shop like Angler’s Covey (roughly 4,000 trips per year) or a small-town operation like The Next Eddy (one per weekday this time of year). One day last week, Woodland’s Park South Platte Fly Shop hosted two guided trips — one in the Deckers stretch of the Platte, one on the Dream Stream in South Park. Their business hasn’t budged yet, manager Mike Keith said.

“The coronavirus doesn’t live in the river,” he said.

Time will determine the severity of the industry’s economic downturn due to the pandemic and resulting precautions. Trout’s Fly Fishing cited the 2002 Hayman fire and 2008 recession as rare dips for an industry that’s mostly grown in lock-step with Colorado’s population.

“(In 2008) we were very uncertain how it was going to go. Then like now, we didn’t know,” Ladd said. “But I have yet — in 15 years with Trout’s — had a down year. People always need that escape. It’s therapeutic.”

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My trusty fishing dog is responsible for the first time COVID-19 crashed my routine on the river. On a secluded stretch of the Arkansas near Cotopaxi, he encountered a mama goose who strongly suggested Wally Bean keep it to 6 feet.

Even our wildlife knows too much tweeting and not enough fishing puts anyone in a sour state.

“We feel so fortunate we live here during a time like this,” Briam said. “Imagine not having this (river) as an outlet. I think you’d lose it a little.”

Gov. Jared Polis encouraged Coloradans to take advantage of the outdoors and the centering it provides. “Yes, go fishing!” Colorado Parks & Wildlife spokesman Bill Vogrin said. There’s a mental health component to all of this, too.

The fishiest experts already knew that. Over at Angler’s Covey, Leinweber’s wife and daughter were texting fish photos from their day on the Platte. Trout’s Ladd established a family rule of two walk-wade trips per week for their two kids.

“People are finding stress relief outdoors,” the South Platte Fly Shop’s Keith said.

“Pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and fish with your family for a couple hours,” Anglers All’s Keeley said. “To me, that’s the ultimate social distancing.”

The coronavirus pandemic brought self-isolation in a hurry. Just check the traffic on Interstate 25, which went from 2020 Colorado to 1990 Colorado in less than a week. “Now’s the time,” as Angler’s Covey said, to book a hard-up guide and go where there is no traffic. The goal of standing in a river is to find a quiet place, anyway. Fly fishers have been social distancing for years.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

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