Casper-area guided fishing under pressure as COVID-19 forces widespread trip cancellations

Crazy Rainbow Fly Fishing/The Ugly Bug Fly Shop manager and guide Corey Lincoln at the shop on Friday, May 8. (Brendan LaChance, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — Guided fishing services in the Casper area explained in phone interviews on Friday, May 8 that the local industry has been under pressure since COVID-19 began impacting the region.

Some local guide services say they have seen revenues drop as much as 95% since mid-March with health concerns about the virus and related restrictions keeping people from out-of-state away. All of the guide services who spoke with Oil City said that the majority of their regular clientele are nonresidents, particularly people driving or flying-in from Colorado.

“We have hardly any locals,” said Judi with Gray Reef Anglers. “Most of our [customers] are destination fishermen. People are afraid to come here from out of town. It has just been slow.”

A variety of factors have kept out-of-state anglers away. Guide services in the area say that many of the people who seek their services are retired and have been extra cautious because the virus poses higher risks for people in their age group.

“They aren’t willing to take that flying risk,” Judi continued.

Casper-Natrona County International Airport Director Glenn Januska said on April 28 that the airport had seen a 38% reduction in traffic during the pandemic.

Unlike the other guided fishing providers Oil City spoke to on Friday, Fish Tales Guide Service owner Bruce Parker’s focus isn’t on guided trout fly-fishing on the North Platte River.

“I offer walleye fishing mainly,” he explained, added that he started the service part-time after retiring. “At this point in time, I’m turning down business because I’m over 65 and at risk.”

Nevertheless, he notes that calls have been significantly down and that he thinks that walleye fishing tournaments will also be impacted by the decrease in people traveling from out of state.

He notes that it is guided trout fishing which has been most impacted amid the pandemic.

“The [guided walleye fishing] market really isn’t here anyway,” Parker says. “I kind of do guiding just for something to do. Trout fishing is still the big thing here.”

Other factors which have put pressure on that guided fly-fishing industry have included the state’s restrictions on out-of-state visitors coming to Wyoming. Most guide services say that the 14-day self-quarantine directive for travelers acted as a greater deterrent than the halting of sales of nonresident single-day and five-day fishing licenses.

The two-week quarantine directive for travelers has expired as of Friday and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will resume sales of short-term nonresident fishing licenses on Saturday.

“People were scared that there would be some sort of enforcement if they flew to Casper or crossed the border,” Cowboy Drifters Flyshop manager Bethany Vandeburg said. “They weren’t sure what would happen if they would cross the state line.”

“A lot of them don’t want to leave their lives behind too. One of the guys works for a police department down in Broomfield.”

This client explained that he wasn’t prepared to leave his job or family since the police department was preparing for possible civil unrest with people losing their jobs and food flying off of grocery store shelves as the pandemic’s arrival caused some to panic.

“There was concern that there were going to be riots down there,” Vandeburg says. “He was scared to leave his wife unattended. In Wyoming, we didn’t have that dynamic, at least not then.”

Crazy Rainbow Fly Fishing/The Ugly Bug Fly Shop manager and guide Corey Lincoln explained that many out-of-state clientele are used to high prices at places like ski resorts and consider the $102 nonresident annual fishing license available from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department worth it even if they would only use it for a one or two day trip.

Other guide services stopped serving people from out-of-state for a while in an effort to help prevent spread of the virus.

“We closed or doors to all nonresidents fisherman from April 3 through today,” Wyoming Fly Fishing Guide Service and North Platte River Fly Shop co-owner Liz Anderson said, adding that the business decided that was “the right thing to do out of respect for our neighbors.”

They are again allowing nonresidents to book guided fishing trips now that the 14-quarantine has been allowed to expire.

“The floodgates are open now that the directive has been lifted,” Anderson said. “Everybody has been cooped up. Folks are coming up here to kind of escape what is going on right now. A peaceful day on the river is kind of where it is at.”

While several guide services have had to cancel hundreds of trips for one reason or another, they say that clients are beginning to reschedule and some are expecting a busier summer and fall season than usual.

But some people traveling to the Casper area to fish also come for big events like the College National Finals Rodeo, which has been cancelled this year, or an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Fly-In, which was expected to provide a big tourism boost for the Casper area this summer but has been postponed until 2021.

“We are always really busy during the rodeo every year,” Anderson says. “We always get new folks.”

Lincoln says that there is a grass landing strip near the Miracle Mile region of the North Platte River and that Crazy Rainbow had been looking to land pilots coming for the Fly-In as clients to take out on the river this summer.

“CNFR provides a lot of walk-in business for our flyshops,” Lincoln adds. “Those [event cancellations] have definitely hurt us a little bit.”

While people are starting to re-book outtings and things could improve as the summer progresses, Anderson says that overall she expects revenues to be down this season.

Vandeberg says that Cowboy Drifters’ tries to stay busy even in winter months, serving “select clientele that like to fish in cold weather.” She says the business was busy in February before COVID-19 hit and “it fell apart.”

“We probably did 100 trips before everyone started canceling,” she explains. “Quite a lot of our trips were just put on hold. We are being very flexible with our clients at this time.”

Some of the guide services also offer lodging for their clientele but COVID-19 has impacted that aspect of business as well. Vandeburg says that Cowboy Drifters have two rental cabins, but they “had to shut them down temporarily because we had no access to cleaning supplies.”

“During that time we just started collecting whatever we could,” Vandeburg adds, noting that she’d pick up a bottle of Lysol or Clorox if those happened to be available when shopping.

She added that with cleaning products hard to come by at stores in the area, some regular out-of-state clients even called and asked what products were needed to allow the cabins to open and shipped those to the business. Clients coming up from Laramie would also check stores there for needed products and drive them up to Casper.

While COVID-19 health concerns and restrictions forced large cancellations in the past two month, Vandeburg says guided fly fishing tends to be a “luxury sport and is expensive.” She says with clients beginning to reschedule, economic fallout from the virus doesn’t appear to be a major factor keeping people away.

Anderson says that some of Wyoming Fly Fishing Guide Service and North Platte River Fly Shop’s regular out-of-state clientele have been opting for camping or private lodging options in the area rather than staying at hotels in order to limit their contact with other people.

“They are probably not supporting the local economy as much as they were,” she explains.

While Wyoming State Parks campgrounds are closed to nonresidents and Natrona County Parks campgrounds had been closed until Friday, guide services say some of their clients have been camping on some Bureau of Land Management managed land.

Some of the guide services have partnerships with the Ramkota in Casper where clients who have traveled to Wyoming have continued to book some rooms.

While the guided fishing industry have felt pressure from the dramatic drop in the number of out-of-state clients, some say that may be relaxing pressure on fish populations in the North Platte.

Anderson says that during the busy spring and summer months, there can be as many as 60-70 boats on the river counting both private boats and drift boats used by guided services. She says that can put a lot of pressure on the fishery and that a decline in visitors this spring may have “given the fish a bit of a a break.”

She adds that the situation could lead to better fishing this summer.

Vandeburg shares a similar outlook.

“This pandemic happened to fall during the main rainbow [trout] spawn in the river,” she says. “It couldn’t have been timed any better.”

But she says that if guided fishing in the area end up seeing a busier summer, that could cause pressure on fish due to higher temperatures. While all the guided trout fishing services focus on catch-and-release fly fishing, Vandeburg says that temperature in the heat of the summer is something guides should consider.

“Fish mortality goes up with higher temperatures,” she said “We want to get them right back into the water [when it is hot].”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Casper Regional Fisheries Supervisor Matt Hahn that less nonresident anglers this spring may have had “somewhat of a reduction in fishing pressure on the North Platte itself.”

But Hahn says Game and Fish have seen an increase in Wyoming resident fishing both on the river and a “fairly noticeable uptick in use on Pathfinder and Alcova [reservoirs].”

Hahn says that creel surveys have revealed that upwards of 80% of anglers on the Gray Reef reach of the North Platte are nonresidents whereas the reservoirs tend to be used predominantly by residents. Therefore, it depends on the water region whether COVID-19 has eased or increased pressure on fish populations from anglers.

From an overall population perspective, Hahn says Game and Fish was not concerned with angler pressure on North Platte fish populations to begin with. He says water conditions have a much greater impact on spawning.

When water flows stay clear, this offers more ideal spawning conditions, whereas a “silty river during spawning can have a big negative impact.”

“Angling pressure plays a part but it is a very minor part,” Hahn says.

While some of the guide services think they could see a big summer and fall boost since spring trips were cancelled, Hahn says that may not end up being the case. He says the big draw of the North Platte is that it “fishes really well in the spring when a lot of other rivers are running kind of high and muddy.”

Hahn says as the season progresses, anglers who were looking to the North Platte this spring may opt to travel to locations like the Madison River in Montana or the Gunnison River in Colorado.

“I would be surprised if there was a lot more [pressure from agnlers] this fall,” he said.

Hahn added that since guided fishing is predominantly catach-and-release, he has little concern from a population manager perspective.

Whatever the case may be, guide services are gearing to go.

“We’re excited to get back to work,” Vandeburg said.

She adds that Cowboy Drifters hired a new manager in January and he moved from Alaska right when COVID-19 started seriously impacting the business. They weren’t able to pay him for a time.

“He just volunteered to start learning,” she added.

The business applied for federal COVID-19 relief assistance loans, but that the process has not been smooth.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of confusion about the loans you could get through the [United States] Small Business Administration,” Vandeburg said.

Cowboy Drifters initially thought they could apply for either for the SBA administered Economic Injury Disaster Loan or Paycheck Protection Program loan, but not both. They opted to apply for the Economic Inury Disaster Loan, but never heard anything back after applying.

Once the second round of PPP funding was made available by the U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump, Cowboy Drifters applied for that program.

“That one came through,” Vandeburg says. “We have been able to pay [our new manager] now.”

While guided fishing services are hopeful that things will start to pick up as the season progresses, COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of charity events some are involved with.

Crazy Rainbow/Ugly Bug, the Platte River Fly Shop and the Reef Fly Shop are all sponsors of the Two Fly Tournament.

“We had the Two Fly get cancelled this year,” Lincoln explained. “That is kind of a heart breaker.”

The Two Fly Foundation say they have raised over $1.8 million Fishin’ for the Mission tournaments to benefit the Wyoming Rescue Mission. The 2020 tournament has had to be postponed due to the the restrictions against large gatherings in the state.

“We’re hoping to have that just a little later,” Anderson said.

Lincoln says that he’s grateful for locals who have continued supporting local fishing businesses during the COVID-19 outrbreak.

“I think it is really important now that the locals rally up and do some fishing,” he added. “The cancellations were pretty hard on us this year. We are definitely super appreciative of all the locals who allowed us to stay afloat and keep the doors open.”

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department say that while some events surrounding the annual Free Fishing Day may not occur, Free Fishing Day will still be recognized on June 6.

Game and Fish Public Outreach Specialist Sara DiRienzo says Free Fishing Day kicks off the summer season and that residents and nonresidents alike can fish that day for free without a fishing license.

She adds that invasive species boat check stations are operational and that all out of state boats must be inspected before being placed in Wyoming waters. Game and Fish are practicing social distancing during such inspections and encourage anglers to follow all social distancing and COVID-19 related safety guidelines as well.

“Be safe, smart,” DiRienzo added.