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'Not the right time': Ontario's fishing opener is worrying some communities and dividing anglers

Trout fishing season in southern Ontario officially kicks off Saturday, and in a normal year that would mean hordes of anglers descending on popular spots for a chance to hook the catch of a lifetime. But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has riverfront communities worried.

Despite concerns of some riverside residents, province has opted not to postpone opening day

Thousands of anglers are expected to flock to rivers and lakes for the first day of trout season. Some communities are worried about what that means for physical distancing. 3:06

Trout fishing season in southern Ontario officially kicks off Saturday, and in a normal year that would mean hordes of anglers descending on popular spots for a chance to hook the catch of a lifetime.

But with COVID-19 physical distancing measures keeping many inside, the lure of a day on the water has divided  anglers and left some waterfront communities concerned about crowded streets and packed trails.

Despite pressure from those residents to postpone opening day and widespread closures of parks, trails, boat launches and river access points by municipalities, the province has opted to allow the season to go ahead as planned. 

One such worried community is the Hamlet of Whitevale, a small creek-side village of just a few hundred people in north Pickering, Ont., just south of Highway 407. 

Each April, residents welcome hundreds of anglers on opening-day weekend, looking to target prized migratory rainbow trout making their way up West Duffins Creek, a small tributary of Lake Ontario that flows through the hamlet, to spawn.

Opening day of trout season in southern Ontario, usually the last Saturday in April, draws lots of anglers to West Duffins Creek in search of migratory rainbow and brown trout. This photo was taken during opening weekend last year. (Submitted by Julie Schrembi)

Some anglers even arrive Friday evening and camp in the hamlet overnight, hoping to get a prime fishing spot the next morning.

This year, the Whitevale & District Residents' Association pushed the province to postpone opening day.

"In the past, we've had big breakfasts for them. It's not an issue of animosity between the village and anglers," said Julie Schembri, president of the association. 

"The issue is that we believe the politicians should be sending one clear message. It's either okay to go out and do what you want, or it's not. Fishing is just one more of those things, and there are many of them."

Schembri sent letters to Pickering town officials, local MPPs and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, urging a temporary shutdown. 

The popular trail that anglers use to get to the creek is only centimetres wide at some points, she said, which means proper physical distancing would be "nearly impossible."

Conservation officers ready, ministry says

Whitevale is not alone in its concerns. 

The town council in Port Hope, home to the mouth of the mighty Ganaraska River, authorized the closure of all land and parks adjacent to the waterway until May 12 "in an effort to limit group gatherings as it relates to the opening of the trout fishing season."

A barricade warns that a boat launch into Rice Lake is closed. (Submitted by Phil St Onge)

John Yakabuski, minister of natural resources and forestry, told CBC Toronto the decision not to postpone opening day was partly based on the notion that in many more remote parts of Ontario, fishing does not involve "any congregation of people whatsoever."

He added, however, that anglers "need to respect the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health" and maintain all physical distancing protocols while out on the water.

"We expect anglers to behave the way we are expecting everyone to behave during this pandemic. We don't expect them to be travelling from one community to the next to go fishing," Yakabuski said.

"If people don't behave according to the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health, we may have to revisit some of the things that we've decided."

Conservation officers, who wield the same legal authority as other law enforcement, will be out in full force, he added. Anglers could face fines as high as $800 for parking in a closed conservation area, for example.

'Frustrating' messaging from province

On message boards and in social media posts, many anglers have expressed frustration at what they say is confusing messaging from the ministry.

Phil St Onge is a life-long angler based in Bewdley, at the western end of Rice Lake. He agrees that fishing should be open, but said he's not sure what to make of the province's decision.

"I think it should be open. People need to do something. People need to go outside," he told CBC Toronto. "We've been prepping for fishing all winter, getting the boat organized, just to be able to get out there."

Phil St Onge fishing with his son on Rice Lake last year. St Onge says the province's messaging on this year's fishing season has been 'frustrating.' (Submitted by Phil St Onge)

But with many of the access points, marinas, trails and parking lots that anglers often use now closed, he's not sure what's acceptable.

"It's frustrating. It's like, 'Yeah, you can go, but good luck trying to get there.' It's like telling us that we're not allowed to fish, but you can go fishing at the same time."

Other anglers have chosen to avoid going out altogether, even though the season is technically open.

Anglers divided

Rob Cesta is the owner and operator of Drift Outfitters and Fly Shop in downtown Toronto. He and his staff, though they're avid fly fishermen and advocates, are staying off the water for now.

"I'm taking the expert health advice, first and foremost, which is to stay at home, which is to not travel unnecessarily. So I'm making that sacrifice," Cesta said.

Christopher Krysciak, shop manager at Drift Outfitters and Fly Shop, poses with a Great Lakes migratory rainbow trout, also known as Great Lakes steelhead, caught last year. (Submitted by Rob Cesta)

Cesta acknowledged that some anglers have yearly opening-day traditions that stretch back decades, and that debate within the fishing community about this year's season has been polarizing. Physical distancing is easy once you're on a river, he said, but it's the travel to and from that's the problem right now.

"A lot of folks find their relief on rivers, stress relief and exercise, and they are planning to go out and fish. But some are planning to drive a long distance, which is not great. So we are advising them to listen to the health experts first."

As for Schrembi, she said she finds the government's current position on the fishing opener "illogical."

"People like to come out here and enjoy it. And we welcome that. But not now. It's just not the right time right now," she said.

"I don't think we're going to come to an end to this if people keep finding exceptions to the rules."

Maintaing proper physical distance isn't hard in many fishing scenarios, but anglers often congregate at the limited number of access points. (Submitted by Rob Cesta)

With files from Natalie Kalata and Lucas Powers

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