Coronavirus alters Pennsylvania state park use, trout stocking, trout fishing, shooting ranges
It was recreation as usual at Colyer Lake over the past few days between rain showers. Many people enjoyed hiking, fishing, birding, boating and walking their dogs. The 77-acre Centre County impoundment and surrounding land is owned by the commonwealth and managed for fishing and boating by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.
Some users of state-owned parks have not been as fortunate, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic spreading across Pennsylvania. These are unusual times the likes of which I have never experienced. The facts in this blog will likely change as the situation develops.
As a result of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts, state parks were officially closed for at least 14 days, beginning March 17. This will likely stretch through April and longer.
According to a recorded message on state park office phones, all buildings, rental facilities, restrooms, cabins, yerts and camping areas are closed. All reservations for facilities during this period have been canceled, as well as any event or public education program.
As of now, trails, parking lots, boat launches, disk golf and picnic areas will remain open, and park rangers will continue to patrol for public safety. Streams and lakes remain open for public fishing as the seasons allow. People are still able to enjoy the parks on a limited basis.
If you visit the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s website looking for the agency’s usual trout stocking schedules, you will find a blank page. Some trout stockings have been social events attracting 50 to 100 people — a situation to be avoided this year. All future trout stockings this spring will be unannounced — the public will not be permitted to participate, and the agency encourages them to stay away. The agency hopes to announce stockings after they occur.
“We realize that many of our stocking volunteers look forward to helping us, but we must take these necessary precautions to ensure public safety during this vital period,” said commission Executive Director Tim Schaeffer. “Just as we’ve counted on our volunteers for decades to help us stock trout, we’re counting on them now to play it safe and stay home.”
The commissions communications director Mike Parker added that streams, lakes and ponds will still get the same number of trout. “We just want to protect our employees and the public,” he said. “Not all of our hatchery personnel have the licenses necessary to drive stocking trucks and we need to keep them healthy so that stocking can continue.”
According to Parker, 2020 trout stocking will continue at an accelerated schedule, with a priority given to those areas of the state predicted to be affected most severely by COVID-19 because that could result in travel restrictions. In some cases, preseason and in-season stockings will be combined into one stocking for efficiency and to reduce travel and contact with the public.
“We have a live product and we have to get them out to make space for next year’s trout,” Parker said. “We are trying to get as many fish in the water as possible before the opening day on April 18. Since the public can’t help, staff from all across the agency are pitching in.”
The coronavirus is also affecting stocking by co-op nurseries such as the Bald Eagle Sportsmen’s Club. The club’s cooperative nursery raises over 40,000 trout — many of which are stocked in western Centre County streams.
“Our big stocking day — that was scheduled for April 11 — usually attracts more than 50 people from at least four different counties,” club spokesperson Mark Jackson said. “We know that we can’t do it that way this year.”
The club plans to distribute trout a few hundred at a time to avoid the big congregation of people. According to Jackson, some streams that they stock might not receive trout until after the season starts.
Our neighboring state, Maryland, has stopped all trout stocking. Since Pennsylvania’s opening day encourages people to crowd together in some stream sections, I wouldn’t be surprised if additional changes are made.
Other than the way streams will be stocked and a two-week delay in the southeastern regional opening day, thus far little has changed with respect to trout fishing. Wild trout streams and special regulation waters are open to fishing now. Stocked trout streams will open on April 18 for the traditional opening day. The Mentored Youth Trout Day is scheduled to occur on April 11.
An earlier opening day — April 4 — and March 28 Mentored Youth Trout Day had been scheduled in 18 counties in the southeastern part of the state. Having two opening days in recent years caused many local anglers to travel to a southeastern county for the early opener, and then anglers from the southeast would travel into the other 48 counties during the traditional mid-April opener.
“Travel in and out of the area of the state with the highest number of COVID-19 cases is not something that we wanted to encourage this year,” Parker said. “So we are having one statewide Mentored Youth Trout day on April 11 and one opening day on April 18. This will reduce travel and stream crowding.”
To reduce unnecessary travel and social contact amid health concerns, commission director Schaeffer signed an emergency order that allows anglers and boaters to display their fishing license, launch permit, or boat registration digitally on a phone or other mobile device as proof of possession.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission announced recently that it is closing all shooting ranges on state game lands, effective immediately, until further notice.
The closure includes rifle, shotgun, pistol, and archery ranges.
According to a Game Commission news release, “…Many of these ranges can become very crowded and represent a potential risk to the spread of COVID-19.” The Game Commission operates approximately 30 shooting ranges across the state.
”We know the ranges are popular, and we know this announcement will cause disappointment among those who use these ranges,” said Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “But our number one priority, at this time, is public health, and we are encouraging people to stay home and heed all state and federal safety precautions.”
To further mitigate the impact of COVID-19, both commissions have closed their offices and buildings to the public, including the very popular visitor center at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. The Game Commission has postponed in-person Hunter-Trapper Education classes. However, hunters 11 years old and up now can take the online Hunter-Trapper Education class, and all fees typically associated with the online course will be waived through March 30.