New rules likely problematic for Lake Erie charter skippers
Frustrated by uncertainties regarding their businesses, Ohio’s Lake Erie charter boat captains have received some, but far from all, direction by the Gov. Mike DeWine Administration.
These skippers understand they can resume operations May 12. And the numbers who can do is impressive, too. The state had 810 licensed Lake Erie charter captains in 2019. To date for 2020, 520 individuals have re-upped or obtained a required state charter fishing license.
Here’s the rub, though. Conditions under which they can conduct charters are supposedly to follow DeWine’s 14-page “Stay Safe Ohio” guidelines established to deal with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
However, social distancing aboard a rocking and rolling 30-foot pleasure craft could prove problematic. So would knowing that a six-person mixed party almost certainly would violate DeWine’s rule that stipulates the gathering of household members only.
Complicating matters is the Ohio DNR is deferring to the Ohio Department of Health as to just what charter captains can do and cannot do. Calls to the state health department’s press secretary were not returned in time for this story.
Then there’s the point the Ohio DNR’s Division of Wildlife is still prohibiting the sale of the various types of fishing licenses to non-residents.
Ohio suspended the issuance of licenses to non-residents April 6. Up through then the state had issued 5,620 annual non-resident fishing licenses, a drop from the same 2019 to-date number of 9,908 such tags.
Also, up through the stoppage, the Ohio Division of Wildlife had issued 2,836 short-term fishing licenses as well as one-day Lake Erie charter licenses. It is generally accepted that the bulk of these tags are issued to non-residents.
Thing is, non-resident fishers often make up a large to the bulk of many charters’ clients. Some of the licensed fishing guides say non-residents make up from 40 percent to as much as 95 percent of their business.
Ohio DNR chief of communications, Sarah Wickham, said in a prepared statement the agency is “…working to resume the non-resident license sales just as soon as we can in a safe and responsible manner.”
“I do not have a date to announce yet, but we will put it in on our website and social media when sales resume,” Wickham said.
As for the charter captains’ actual ability to conduct business operations, Wickham said to “…direct your questions about business re-openings to the Ohio Department of Health.”
Even so, DeWine’s current orders do state that upon entering Ohio with “the intent to stay” non-residents are “… being asked to self-quarantine for 14 days…” unless they have a critical job like construction or healthcare
It is doubtful that coming to Ohio for the purposes of catching walleyes would be considered “critical” or “essential,” however.
Thus the entire matter leaves Lake Erie charter captains wondering what their full responsibilities are going to be when the ban is lifted. And even more so about what the future holds.
That, plus other, practical, unknowns such as how a charter is going to accommodate anglers eager to climb over one another to hook and net a walleye.
Paul Pacholski, president of the 265-member Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, said he and his group was informed in a May 2 text message from officials with the Ohio DNR on some of the rules that will govern charter boat operations.
These rules will require asking clients a series of health-related questions such as whether they feel ill, if they have been around anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and if they have been out of the country recently, Pacholski said he was told.
“We’re not going to be expected to play doctor or nurse,” Pacholski said. “We’re not going to be the police and demand they wear masks, either; all we can do is ask and suggest.”
Still, DeWine’s Stay Safe Ohio rules do require that employees – including captains and first mates – wear protective coverings over their mouths and noses at all times, including when piloting a vessel or netting a client’s fish.
DeWine’s edict likewise stipulates that “…maintaining six-foot social distancing for both employees and members of the public at all times, including, but not limited to, when any customers are standing in line.”
As improbable as that demand will be when a charter captain is operating a boat or netting a fish, there is some wiggle room for the clients at least in where they stand when casting worm harnesses and similar rigs.
What Pacholski says he will do for his boat, and is similarly recommending that other charters who rely on casting baited lures might do, is to use tape to mark off six-foot lengths on both a vessel’s starboard and port gunnels running along the deck’s interior.
It just so happens, says Pacholski, that for many large charter vessels the measurement from the stern to where the boat’s hardtop comes down to meet the gunnels is 18 feet.
Consequently, each angler in a so-called “six-pack” charter will have a marked-off zone to stay within.
As for the large number of charters that utilize trolling where clients sit, stand and mingle about a deck, that’s a situation Pacholski says he cannot relate to.
“I’m old school. I still cast,” he said.
Not so for charter captains such as Marv DeGreen of Geauga County. DeGreen typically begins his business around Huron and finishes up working out of the Grand River in Lake County.
And near universally DeGreen uses trolling gear that has to be constantly maintained in an orchestrated endeavor.
Such work has him running planer-board lines, setting out fishing lines, changing lures, netting fish, along with a myriad of other duties that puts the employer within inches – not six feet – of customers.
“I guess we could put one person on the hardtop and another one in the bow and someone sitting on the head,” DeGreen says facetiously.
DeGreen says the situation will be compounded because when a vessel is underway, clients usually are packed tightly together on seats, a padded engine cover, and in an elevated passenger chair alongside that of the captain.
A solution both Pacholski and DeGreen say is for charters to consider reducing the size of an outing from the standard six person group to five or, better yet, four persons.
“I do a lot of four person trips now,” DeGreen says. “But it’s still the same rate as for a six-person trip.”
Pacholski says he also will try to better accommodate the governor’s Stay Safe Ohio rules by considering reducing the size of a fishing party, perhaps even giving some sort of discount.
“Of course I’ll do that for my regular customers more than I would for others,” Pacholski said. “I know that my regular customers will come back.”
Then again, adds DeGreen, what Gov. DeWine insists today is not inscribed on two tablets of stone, let alone on 14 pages of moderate-size type.
“This is all changing on a daily basis,” DeGreen says.