HURRICANE — Whatever the COVID-19 crisis can give, it also can take.
Tim Copen, owner of Off the Hook Fishing Lake near Hurricane, enjoyed a brief boom in business after Gov. Jim Justice encouraged West Virginians to get outdoors and go fishing. But then, when Justice ordered that outdoor gatherings be kept small, Copen’s boom went bust.
“The [Putnam County] Health Department sent a state trooper to tell us that we couldn’t have more than 10 people on the lake at a time,” Copen said. “Before that, we were getting 40 to 50 a day on weekends and 20 to 30 on weekdays.”
Copen said that under the 6-foot social-distancing guidelines recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, his lake — which measures approximately 350 feet long by 100 feet wide — should easily be able to accommodate 50 anglers.
Local health officials don’t see it that way.
“The pathways around the lake are narrow, and people walking along the paths can’t avoid coming within 6 feet of people who are fishing,” said Lolita Kirk, the health department’s administrator.
“Of even more concern to us is the sheer number of people who were using the lake. Right after the governor closed things down and limited mass gatherings to no more than 10 people, we received a call and a video that showed cars parked everywhere and people packed in there.
“This was after the governor closed down gatherings at outdoor basketball courts and similar facilities, and we were getting reports that kids were running around at the lake, playing while their parents were fishing.”
Kirk said a state trooper who went by the lake to check estimated at least 40 to 50 cars jammed into the parking lot and along the berms of nearby U.S. 60.
“We had a sanitarian go by and check it out,” she added. “He said there were people everywhere, and that the cars parked along the road were creating a traffic hazard.”
After a conversation with Copen, Kirk issued an order restricting the lake from hosting more than 10 anglers at a time.
Copen said that up to that time, he had been doing a land-office business at the lake. Not only was he selling daily admission tickets, he also sold lots of bait and fishing tackle.
“During the two weeks that we had more people, we sold out of bait every week,” he said. “One week, we went through 1,500 dozen nightcrawlers. I had to drive to Kentucky to pick more up. We couldn’t keep enough bluegills and goldfish in here.”
Copen pulled out his cell phone and showed off a couple of photos. One showed a display case jam-packed with heavy-duty baitcasting reels. Another showed racks filled with fishing rods.
“I was selling 30 reels a week, and rods along with them,” he said. “Look what’s left.”
He pointed to one rod rack that only had a couple of rods left, and to another that was empty. In the display case, only a few reels remained.
The 10-anglers-at-a-time order caused Copen to adjust the way he does business.
“Ordinarily, our [admission] tickets are for a full 24 hours,” he said. “To keep enough volume to make it worthwhile to stay open, we cut the tickets down to 12 hours apiece, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“That way we can have 10 people fishing through the day, and 10 more at night. Demand has been really good. We’re having to take reservations.”
Copen said he had to have the lake stocked three times in the past week with three species of catfish — channel, flathead and blue.
“We have some 60-pound blues and flatheads in there,” he said. “People have been catching fish. I think that’s why our business has stayed as good as it has.”
He said bait and tackle sales, while not as phenomenal as they had been, have still been good enough to keep him busy ordering more.
“I’ll be getting in more bluegills and goldfish, and I have more tackle ordered,” he said. “Business isn’t bad, but if it weren’t for the restrictions due to the virus, it would be a lot better.”