Bait shop owners reeling amid shutdown during spring fishing

KIRKWOOD, Pa. (AP) — Tending to a line on his fly rod, Shawn Coe crouched Friday morning on a stone-and-mud island surrounded by the shallow waters of Octoraro Creek near Kirkwood.

Coe, 30, who moved to Lancaster County from Alaska in October, said fishing has been a welcome way to stay active since both the technical school where he studies and the furniture store where he works were shuttered to limit the spread of COVID-19.

But Coe said the contagious respiratory virus has complicated even his pastime; earlier, he hoped to get some fly-tying supplies but found bait shops were among the nonessential businesses ordered closed by state Gov. Tom Wolf.

Though closures are intended to halt the coronavirus, bait shop owners like Mike Phillips, said it could cripple their businesses, which rely on revenues that come in ahead of and during trout season. It’s a season that also has been delayed in Lancaster County due to the disease.

“You go through a lot of inventory in a short window,” said Phillips, owner of Phillips Bait & Tackle in Quarryville. “I’m looking at eating a good bit of money.”

'Many understand the need'

Jim Neary, owner of Jim Neary’s Bait & Tackle in Kirkwood, put that loss into perspective. This year, he purchased about $17,000 of new tackle to sell at his seasonal shop, which was scheduled to open this week.

Typically, much of that would sell in the lead up to Pennsylvania’s trout season, which is scheduled to open April 18, with a mentored youth day on April 11.

They’re dates that prove troubling because state park lodging facilities and campgrounds are closed due to the disease until April 30, eliminating long traditions of families who stay on the grounds on opening trout weekend.

State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokesman Terry Brady said he has heard from anglers who’ve expressed “disappointment but not animosity.”

“Many understand the need,” he said.

'You can never make it up'

With his shop shuttered, Neary said he fears anglers will take to online retailers to buy their fishing gear.

“In the fishing business, you can never make it up,” Neary said, predicting losses like he’s never seen before.

Neary also thought about wholesale bait farmers like Richard Kurtz of Kurtz Fish Farm in neighboring Chester County. It’s from there that Kurtz and his employees truck thousands of pounds of minnows to bait shops in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, he said.

Many of those shipments have now been canceled.

“We’ve had drought years when we had trouble raising fish, but nothing like this,” Kurtz said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Kurtz said he was coming into spring with profits already low due to a warm winter, which drastically limited chances for ice fishing.

“I’m hoping the bait shops will be allowed to open soon,” he said, though Wolf has not said when the shutdown will end.

'Dead is more of a burden'

Still, Neary said he understands the importance of the shutdown -- even more so after he picked up an illness on a recent cruise to the Bahamas. Doctors thought he might have the potentially deadly COVID-19 and sent him for a test, which involved a long “metal Q-tip” deep up his nose.

“It was one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever done,” he said, revealing tests showed he was not infected by the virus.

George Acord, one owner of Susquehanna Fishing Tackle in Columbia, shared a similar mindset.

“It’s a burden for companies like us, but being dead is more of a burden,” said Acord, who listed his year-round shop’s inventory in the multi-million-dollar range. “It’s just collecting dust.”

Acord said he’s still fulfilling sales ordered by phone and online, all while looking forward to the time when the pandemic ends.

“I don’t think you want to start telling people when the fishing season is going to happen,” Acord said, skeptical of the April 18 open. “But It’s all going to happen, and it’s all going to be good. Fishing is going to help people recover from this mentally.”

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Information from: LNP, http://lancasteronline.com