March 2020 is a time many of us will never forget. The first part of the month felt pretty normal, at least for me. Reports of a viral outbreak were in the news, but seemed far away from my world. Winter fishing was underway and plans were being made for spring. A turkey hunt road trip was in the offing, as was steelhead fishing and chasing pike with a fly rod. The summer dance card was pretty full and all seemed well.
Then just like that, Canada — and the world — was in lockdown. Like millions of people, I immediately went from working in a building, to being set up at home on the dinner table. Travel all but stopped. Roads and highways were deserted as people stayed inside. There were runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer at local shopping malls. It was one of the oddest times I can remember, with much unknowing and fear. All those plans that had been so carefully made were suddenly in doubt, or in jeopardy.
In time, much of what I’d planned for the spring and summer was cancelled or postponed. April was largely spent indoors, save for the occasional walk with my wife or foray out to buy groceries. Yet like many of you who read this magazine, I am not built for being indoors 24/7. I need the wilderness and the water for peace of mind and mental health. It was time to get outside.
The first foray was not far from home. It was to McVicar Creek, the focus of my childhood fishing adventures. Although Thunder Bay has an excellent urban fishery, as an adult, I’ve tended to go down the highway. So, on a whim, I grabbed my hip waders, fly rod, and tackle bag and got in my truck for the short ride to the creek. There were a few anglers around, but everyone gave each other a wide berth. The creek was running well, and sparkling in the sun. Stepping onto the shore of the creek, I felt normal again. It was a huge relief. The fly line was pulled out, and a little green egg pattern was tied on.
After a few drifts, the familiar feeling of a steelhead registered. Seconds later, a silver fish was streaking down the creek with a happy angler in hot pursuit. It was a lovely fish of about 24 inches, and I took a couple quick pictures of it lying in the water before letting it go. A while later, another trout was on that took me farther downstream. Another angler asked if I needed a hand. “Can you take a picture,” I responded. After a few shots, the fish was released and the angler and I had a nice chat. Human interaction felt good. All in all, it was a much-needed break from the lockdown.
Because of concerns about potential COVID-19 transmission, our family was being physically distant. It was difficult, but we did it. Yet my dad and I have always fished in the spring together. So, we tried to figure out how to do it safely. Travelling in separate vehicles, and being on the opposite end of an 18-foot boat, seemed a good bet. We also decided to fish closer to home and explore Lake Superior, the giant pond on our doorstep. Unlike some parts of Ontario, not all access to the lake was restricted.
So, we waited for the ice to go out, and a few days later, put the boat in. It’s always a great feeling to be on the water for the first time after winter, but under COVID-19, it was next-level. Once again, the anxiety and worry of the day seemed to slip away, and it was great to be outdoors with family, even at a distance. We even caught some fish, including lake trout, steelhead, and one slab of a coaster brook trout. It was new water, and an adventure. I’m pretty sure fishing closer to home will become something that continues post-pandemic. This exploration likely would not have happened in a “normal” year.
More free time meant reconnecting with some friends as well, even if it was at a physical distance. My long-time friend Geoff Coleman and I got to do some fishing in my boat thanks in part to the pandemic. We go back four decades and spent many days on the water when we were young and restless. Time has passed, we have raised families, and negotiated busy careers, but have tried to stay in touch.
So, with gaps in our calendars, we made plans. It was great to reconnect and do it on the beautiful waters of Nipigon Bay, a place we had fished together decades earlier. What could be better than chasing brook trout and steelhead on the pristine waters of the greatest lake with someone you share a lifetime of memories with? It was a fine couple of days, and there was no time squeeze or agenda. We just hung out on the water.
No, not all things about the pandemic have been so positive. The tourism and outfitting business in Ontario has taken it on the chin, and will be recovering for years. Likewise, small towns that rely on tourism, including anglers, hunters, and others, have also had to adjust to the reality of closed borders and reduced tourism. And it goes without saying that those families who have loved ones that have suffered from COVID-19, have had to endure an unimaginable disease. Sadly, as I write this, the battle against COVID-19 continues.
Maybe, when we look back in the rearview mirror at this unprecedented moment in time, it will be with the knowledge that despite the losses, it brought us closer together as humans — and closer to the outdoors, which so many of us need to thrive in this life.
Originally published in the Nov.-Dec. 2020 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.