As many Kansans remain tucked away indoors this spring during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the outdoors industry is taking a hit.
Just as with other businesses, COVID-19 is having an effect on fishing and hunting guides in Kansas.
But much like the mysterious disease, it’s not hitting everyone the same way.
The extent of the damage ranges from minimal or even a slight upturn in business in some instances to a complete halt of business in others, as cancellations leave some guides hurting while others are able to capitalize on the suddenly free time many potential customers have.
An example of an outdoor business that has been hit hard is C and S Whitetails near El Dorado, a guide service owned by Chad Onek.
Onek usually is busy guiding turkey hunts at this point in the spring. But since the coronavirus pandemic hit, he has seen mass cancellations. As of Monday night, Onek reported having 18 cancellations — two youth hunts, four adult shotgun hunts and all 12 of his archery hunts.
His out-of-state business prospects took another hit Thursday night, when Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order suspending the sale of all new nonresident general spring turkey hunting permits as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Those who have already purchased their nonresident permits, however, will still be allowed to hunt.
That move will have a noticeable affect on hunting guides and small town economies in Kansas that rely on those out-of-state dollars from hunters to survive. Last year, the state issued 14,700 nonresident spring turkey permits in total. By comparison, the state's biggest outdoors draw, deer hunting, saw 21,816 nonresident permits issued in 2019.
Onek’s son-in-law, Garrett Love, operates Western Kansas Pheasant Hunts near Montezuma in Gray County. He wasn’t affected as much by the pandemic, as the pheasant season for controlled shooting areas such as his game farm ended March 31. Still, he’s keeping an apprehensive eye toward September, when the season picks up again.
"We don’t have turkey, so doesn’t impact me as much," Love said. "Who knows what fall will bring though."
Lawrence crappie tournament angler Joe Bragg is another whose small business, Thump30 Guide Service, has been negatively affected by the pandemic.
"It hurt ... bad," said Bragg, who also has been affected by tournament cancellations. "I had just dropped $2,900 on my outboard overhaul getting it ready for the busy season, had $1,200 more tied up in entry fees and lodging for my (American Crappie Trail) national championship, then the virus busted on the scene. Had to refund nine deposits from guys canceling out of fear. Most of my clients are older folks. Then because I'm not really an essential business, I can’t book any full-paying trips."
Despite the hardships, Bragg has still found a way to scratch his fishing itch while making some money, and helping others out in the process, as well. He began offering $50 guided trips for kids and their parents, just enough to cover his expenses.
"All I'm able to do right now is kid trips, so I at least get my fuel expense covered so I am able to get away from the house so the wife can work — she works for Topeka VA and they have her department working from home.
"That stupid virus crap hit right near the spawn, literally my busiest time of year, and can’t work ... killin’ me."
It wasn’t all bad, though.
"On a positive note though, the fishing is jammed up right now. Been having a blast with the kids," Bragg said. "Best pre-spawn fishing we’ve had in years.
"I have been taking them kids and flat whoopin’ up on some fish. One thing you can always bet your bottom dollar on when there is kids in that green Ranger of mine ... Dad always gets outfished."
The Kansas Crappie Club, which Bragg runs, also had to postpone its Special Olympics benefit tournament last month, but he is hopeful the next scheduled tournament May 3 on El Dorado will go on as planned.
"But it could be postponed depending on what KDHE says," he added.
Ken Corbet, owner of Ravenwood Lodge in Topeka, said it’s been hard on his business, as well, but he has been able to reschedule some hunts and other events for later dates.
"April’s been kind of a tough month for keeping the lights on," said Corbet. "We’ve had a few shooters and a few hunters out. We’re open for business. The nice thing is the president declared us essential, we’re kind of a gun range."
Despite the economic uncertainty, the Justin Corbet Foundation — named in honor of Ken’s son, who died in 2003 — is still offering $20,000 in grants through May 15 to groups and organizations to promote youth and women’s shooting programs.
By contrast, Lawrence fishing guide Brian Ondrejka, owner of Kansas Angling Experience Guide Service, said his business has been relatively unaffected.
"I have only had two postponed trips due to clients' age, young and old," Ondrejka said. "Otherwise, I am still booked solid. I am preferring one person, or two from the same household, obviously as careful as possible. If a client decides to postpone until later, that is no issue, I am still business as usual barring being more precautionary and still practicing distancing as much as possible."
Ondrejka, who mainly fishes on Clinton and Melvern — as well as Coffey County before it closed until April 15 — said he has had more people call to book trips during the pandemic than he has had postpone.
"Weekends are booked solid through mid-May, but have some weekday availability," Ondrejka said. "Wiper, walleye/sauger and smallmouth season is finally here. Lot of fun to be had."
Wakefield’s Jason Hyman, owner of Jason’s Fish Guides, offers guided cat fishing trips on Milford Lake during the spring and fall, while focusing more on white bass and wipers during the summer.
The Salina native said his business is typically overbooked as it is, but he’s seen a recent spike in the number of calls he’s gotten about booking a trip, particularly from families.
"To be fair, I turned down probably 50 percent of my inquiries out of lack of time before all this hit," Hyman said. "So now I've noticed probably an increase of 40 to 50 percent inquiries, sometimes much more. I think the reason for that is fishing is something people are not only allowed, but encouraged, to do, and you know it's a good place to social distance out on the lake if you take the proper sanitary precautions necessary to be safe.
" ... Over the next six weeks, I've had dozens of cancellations, but I get them filled up as quickly as they cancel. As a matter of fact, I have a waiting list of dozens of people that would just take the next opening I get as of right now. A lot of it's because people are off work and their kids are out of school and so they're just kind of planning earlier vacations to do things that they can while they have that opportunity."
Another tournament crappie angler who doubles as a fishing guide, Riley’s Frank Haidusek, said the impact on his business has been minimal, as well.
"Not much," said Haidusek, who owns and operates Cleared Hot Fishing. "Of course, I didn't have much guiding last year with high waters and tournaments."
Haidusek takes several precautions on the water. He doesn’t shake hands, and if someone is coughing or looks sick he reschedules. If someone contacts him from a coronavirus hotspot, he said he’d decline, as "a lot of our cases in Riley are people that traveled to KC, London and California."
Haidusek said he simply cannot risk taking the virus home with him.
"Most of the people are older generation, so I don't want to take any chances, and my daughter has had breathing issues and has a low/normal heart valve pushing," Haidusek said. "I have disinfectant and wipes for before and after trips. They handle the rods and I do everything else."
He said if things change and it gets tougher to bring in customers, then he might offer some discounts, but he doesn’t have to rely on guiding for his primary income the way others do.
"It's not really worth my time to do $50 trips like Joe," Haidusek said. "I spent $1,400 on new tires and axle work a couple weeks ago, plus insurance, and will have personal property tax when they open back up."