FARMINGTON – Public access to the San Juan River opened quietly on Memorial Day weekend, but as the news spread on social media and through word of mouth, anglers flocked into the water in boats and waders.
It is a sign of life returning to the fly-fishing industry, which was stagnated by the coronavirus-related business closures and stay-at-home orders, said Jeff Massey, owner of the Soaring Eagle Lodge. The riverfront lodge near Navajo Dam offers guided fly-fishing trips, accommodations, a restaurant and fly shop.
Massey said 11 of the lodge rooms are open starting this week, and he has implemented additional cleaning policies and added sneeze guards.
“I’m going to open,” Massey said. “I’m ready to be back in business.”
The float and wade trips, which typically consist of two anglers and a guide, will no longer include a provided lunch, and guides will try to keep the handling of equipment and gear to a minimum. Otherwise, they’ll be pretty similar to pre-coronavirus, he said.
“If they want to wear their mask, they can wear their masks,” Massey said about guests and guides.
Deemed a nonessential business, the lodge was ordered to close from mid-March to mid-May.
Massey obtained emergency funding from the federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the Paycheck Protection Program to help his 10 employees and buffer the loss of customers and revenue. In addition to lodge staff, he typically has 15 fly-fishing guides throughout the season.
“The guides are all subcontracted in,” he said. “Those guys are hurting.”
Ryan McRorie, a guide for more than 15 years, felt the impact of the coronavirus closures and travel restrictions firsthand. McRorie is an independent contractor based in Durango who runs a majority of his trips through the Soaring Eagle Lodge.
“COVID crushed our season,” he said. “I personally lost nearly $12,000 in bookings during the lockdown, plus the uncertainty moving forward that will result in additional trips being canceled.”
He said he lost about 60 bookings – roughly a third of his season.
Guides are in the business of creating a safe environment for clients and implementing strategies that can help prevent the spread of the virus. Even before social distancing was a priority with the coronavirus, experienced guides searched for areas away from the fishing crowd.
“The more experience you have on a river, the more flexibility you have to avoid crowds and deliver a quality trip,” he said.
McRorie also said confusion in the travel and tourism industry could have been avoided if local government officials had consulted with travel and tourism stakeholders.
In New Mexico starting in March, hotels were mandated to keep occupancy at no more than 25%, hindering travel and tourism, said Tonya Stinson, executive director of the Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Pairing that with many tourism-driven businesses and attractions that closed, decreased visitation is a given, and we have already witnessed that in the spring,” she said.
As businesses begin to reopen, Stinson said, Farmington and San Juan County could be uniquely positioned to attract tourists by offering outdoor activities that maintain social distance, including fishing the San Juan River.
Aaron Carithers, a guide based in Durango who has worked in the area for 29 years, said it’s been challenging to operate along the Colorado-New Mexico border. Colorado began relaxing restrictions earlier than New Mexico, including state parks and outdoor recreation.
“It has been hard to navigate,” he said. “I talk to these government entities, then my clients, back to the government entities, back to the clients. It’s a lot of moving parts.”
Carithers, who owns Anaszi Angler and runs trips out of Soaring Eagle Lodge, said the closure of Navajo Lake State Park in New Mexico was especially hard.
“My business has been stopped since March 16 and is just now starting to limp ahead,” he said. “It was thousands and thousands of dollars of work.”
Carithers said he was thankful to draw unemployment benefits, which typically don’t apply to contractors. Loyalty also helped: About 75% of his clients are longtime and returning customers, and most of them have tried to reschedule bookings.
Both McRorie and Carithers said they plan to avoid high-density areas, limit social contact and forgo lunches to keep their clients and themselves safe. McRorie said he would encourage a face covering, while Carithers plans to wear his buff, typically used for sun protection, as face protection.
“We will go out of our way to make it safe to fish because no one benefits from a second wave,” McRorie said.
Avid anglers and seasoned guides say the sport naturally lends itself to social distancing, reducing stress and providing much-needed outdoors time.
“The romantic notion of fly-fishing is it’s a quieter, more individualistic sport,” Carithers said.