Earlier this week, Brandon Crouser thought back to his childhood, remembering what it was like growing up along the Little Chiques Creek as winter transitioned to spring and state officials opened the local waterway to trout fishing.

“We spent more time down there than doing anything else,” he said, fondly recalling the hours spent casting into the creek near his Mount Joy-area home.

Decades later, Crouser, now 40, said that excitement hasn’t gone away, and he guesses that’s also true for the hordes of anglers who are likely to crowd Lancaster County’s popular rivers, streams and creeks Saturday, when the 2021 trout season opens.

They’re crowds that have only grown due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to increased interest in recreation outdoors, where the virus is less likely to spread.

“Last summer it was packed. It didn’t matter where you went,” Crouser said. “I think it’s still going to be pretty popular this summer.”

And at least one local bait shop owner, Jim Neary, said he’s hoping that popularity will make up for revenue lost last year when COVID-19 shutdown orders forced his store to close at the start of trout season.

“Everything considered, I probably lost about 30% of my business,” said the owner of Jim Neary’s Bait & Tackle in Kirkwood.

The 2021 season opens at 8 a.m. Saturday. And this year, the opener is statewide — a deviation from staggered starts, which previously allowed some counties to open earlier than others.

State Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director Tim Schaeffer previously said the single-day opener was enacted with the purpose of “reducing the amount of travel across multiple opening days.”

In 2020, commission officials similarly discouraged travel for fishing and released other guidelines in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Those guidelines remain in effect this year, commission spokesman Mike Parker said.

“We had very good reports regarding angler behavior statewide,” Parker said. “As expected, we had some incidents early on where people were not social distancing correctly.”

Jim Neary's Bait & Tackle

Jim Neary of Jim Neary’s Bait & Tackle shows a medium fat head minnow inside his store at 212 Spruce Grove Road in Colerain Township Thursday, April 1, 2021. Neary said this minnow can be used for trout bait.

Popular pandemic activity

That success was reported even as the number of anglers taking to Pennsylvania waterways drastically increased, Parker said.

In fact, nearly 20% more fishing licenses were sold statewide last year than in 2019, he said.

A total of 980,711 fishing licenses were sold in Pennsylvania in 2020 —160,139 more than the previous year. That’s in addition to a nearly 19% increase in the number of purchased trout stamps, Parker said, placing the total at 501,442.

“The pandemic certainly had a lot of influence on this increase. … Fishing and boating were very popular activities,” Parker said.

Lancaster-based fly fishing guide Bill Nolan didn’t need to see the statistics. The owner of PA Troutfitters said he witnessed the growing crowds last season. Sometimes they were so large that it was difficult to find parking or to access boat launches at certain sports.

“It was like that everywhere,” he said. “I think everybody was getting tired of being cooped up.”

Nolan was referring to those stuck inside due to pandemic-related shutdowns, which also impacted his business. Under precautions, Nolan said he took a weeks-long hiatus from guiding, and when he finally began offering services, it was only with limited groups, following social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Often, Nolan said, both he and his clients were apprehensive.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s a pandemic. What are you going to do?” Nolan said, hopeful that vaccine distribution will ease worries, especially among his older clients.

Optimistic for 2021

Over in Kirkwood, Neary is hoping for a similar return to normalcy along the Octoraro Reservoir, where he rents out boats and deals in bait and tackle.

Last year, a pandemic-related government mandate forced his business closed during the first days of trout season — a period when he traditionally brings in a large percentage of his yearly revenue.

“Without a doubt, for live bait, I do really well, especially if there is nice weather,” he said, describing the thousands of dollars of inventory that sat on his shelves unsold last season.

Instead, those sales likely went to large online retailers, he guessed. Neary said he was able to lean on the federal Paycheck Protection Program for some relief with salaries.

“Financially, it kind of stinks,” Neary said. “There are a little bit of hard feelings, but I understand that we really didn’t know what we were dealing with.”

Now, Neary said he’s hopeful that sales will rebound this year.

Nice Saturday weather could help, Neary said. And National Weather Service forecasters are predicting sunny skies and high temperatures in the low 50s.

On top of that, Crouser said, the area’s streams and creeks are in good shape, full from recent rain and prior snowmelt. He knows because he’s been out stocking as a member of the Donegal Fish and Conservation Association.

“It’s going to be way better than last year,” he said.

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