Amid pandemic, more people catch the fly fishing bug

Interest growing as trout also face global warming pressure in Battenkill, other rivers

Photo of Rick Karlin

Manchester, Vt.

Before long, fly fishermen and women will descend on the Battenkill River, which starts near here in the Green Mountains and connects with the Hudson at Schuylerville. These anglers will start their annual compulsive quest to capture brook trout at the end of an artificial fly.

This year, fly fishermen may have to jostle for space, as the sport, and angling in general, see the same kind of pandemic boom that other outdoor activities like hiking and biking have enjoyed over the last year.

“People want to get outside,” said Tom Rosenbauer,  “chief enthusiast” for the Vermont-based Orvis Rod & Tackle company and the author of several books on the topic.

At the same time, the nation’s trout streams, including the Battenkill and those in the Catskills, are under threat from global warming, according to both scientists and longtime anglers who have noticed a steady increase in the water temperatures of their favorite trout streams.

“Warming rivers are definitely a threat,” said Rosenbauer.

As a result, those in the fly fishing world are pushing back, joining the call for more action on cutting greenhouse gases and working to keep their sport viable for future generations.

Rosenbauer, for example, notes that anglers have connected with Protect our Winters, which started in 2007 when a group of backcountry skiers and snowboarders began noticing the paucity of snow in places like the Rocky Mountains and Sierras.

And the Montana-based American Fly Fishing Trade Association recently issued a report urging protections for  sport fisheries, including action on climate change.

Fly fishing, in which anglers use the weight of their lures to cast their lines and try to mimic the actions of real insects, generated $1.172 billion in 2018, according to the Trade Association. That was a 31 percent increase over the prior year. The ranks of fly fisherman grew by 100,000 to 7 million by 2019.

They expect to land even higher increases when tallying 2020 data.

Fishing license sales up in NY

Fishing license sales jumped sharply last year in New York as in other states during the pandemic.

For resident full-season licenses

2018: 470,098

2019: 464,383

2020: 572,291

Source: Department of Environmental Conservation

Angling in general, which includes spin fishing with weighted lures and bobbers, has grown over the past few years, according to the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. Nationally, they reported a 49 percent rise in the sale of fishing licenses last summer during the height of the pandemic.

There were 3 million additional licenses sold in 2020, including record numbers of Black people at 3.7 million and 4.4 million Hispanic anglers. Women last year also hit a high of 17.8 million anglers.

“All the fly rods are sold out,” Saratoga Springs resident Greg Cuda said of his recent look at online fly fishing gear. He’s involved in the Battenkill Home Rivers initiative to improve trout habitat along the river.

Work on the river is ongoing with the local Clear Water Trout Unlimited Capital Region chapter.

The main challenge is simple, said Roy Lambertson, a Trout Unlimited member. “Trout don’t do well over 70 degrees.”

Forty five years ago, the Battenkill rarely got above 63 degrees but lately it’s not uncommon for it to hit 70 or 72 degrees, said Rosenbauer.

Compound that with stream bank erosion that can wash away cover and heat-weakened trout become easy prey for ducks and other predators.

Restoration includes building rock vanes or underwater structures that can channel water out toward the center of a stream, rebuilding stream banks, and adding wood, rock or other objects that provide cover and shelter for the fish. They also try to smooth or clear sediment brought on by increasingly violent thunderstorms.

In trout streams, a deep midstream channel provides both cool water and cover from predators. Trout Unlimited is also starting to monitor stream temperatures at various points on the Battenkill, he said.

But the larger question of warming waters is something that needs to be addressed nationally or globally, say these anglers.

One hopeful sign is the growing popularity of fly fishing among younger and more diverse enthusiasts.

Trout Unlimited member Richard Atkinson has long mentored young anglers at summer camps and he’s helped veterans get into the sport as well.

He believes young people, including college students, are increasingly drawn to the sport’s complexity and subtleties. Anglers can obsess and discuss at length the various flies they tie as well as their favorite pools or spots that can yield fish.

At 79, Atkinson remains an avid fly fisherman. While he doesn’t venture in water as swift or deep as he used to – he has two artificial knees and a hip – he still gets in the water, usually around May when the trout hatch. Until then, he’ll be patiently tying his own flies and teaching others in preparation for the season.

While the pandemic-fueled boom may put more anglers on the water, enthusiasts say that’s OK. Many fly fisherman practice catch-and-release and people who participate quickly see the value of preserving and protecting fish habitat.

“More people is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Cuda. “There is a philosophy of preserving the resource.”