If there’s one activity that seems to fit our current situation and its social requirements perfectly, it’s fishing. You’re outside, you’re in your own space, and nature has you in its stress-relieving clutches.
According to Jesse Mestrovic, Wheeling’s director of parks and recreation, “The sport of fishing takes many forms but regardless, it is a great way to be immersed in nature and away from other people. The perfect social distancing activity. Fishing is a great family activity and something that has been passed down from generation to generation. I have fond memories of fishing with my parents and grandparents. Fishing is an activity that gets you outside in the elements where you can connect with nature through experiences.”
While Wheeling resident Andrew Chao regularly commutes to New York City for his job, he spent much of his quarantine time in Ohio County waters. An avid fisherman, he saw it as the perfect opportunity to work on a beloved hobby here at home. He fishes for many species, but trout are his favorite.
Chao said that, normally, Wheeling Creek is a pretty solitary place for a spring trout fisherman, but this year, likely because of the pandemic, lots of fishermen came out to enjoy the fruits of the DNR’s stocking labor. Elm Grove was a popular spot, he recalled, with so many folks unable to work or travel.
“There were people everywhere, even on weekdays,” he said. “I saw a lot of younger kids out there.”
Due to the pandemic, Gov. Jim Justice granted West Virginians two months of license-free fishing, so streams and ponds were under a lot of pressure. But generally, as befitting the Friendly City, the mood was genial.
“I met some really good people this year, and I saw on more than one occasion people very generously give jars of PowerBait to others as they were trying to steer others into what the fish were hitting on,” Chao said.
Given the choice, he prefers streams over lakes.
“It’s a more natural element of where the trout are,” he said. “You’ve got to be much more strategic about it. I enjoy stream fishing because you get to locate the fish, which is very, very difficult.” Trout are wily and have both monocular and binocular vision. They can focus on something to the side or gaze in front and above them. This means that if you can see the trout, the trout can probably see you. It’s why trout fishermen find the sport so challenging. The fish is a worthy opponent.
Middle Creek Lake is a popular fishing spot, too, and the decision to fish there paid off when Chao hooked into a 35-pound muskie, the biggest predator found in local waters. Not only was it a momentous catch, but it opened new doors of friendship on the shore of the lake.
“I became friends with Orion Neff, a man in his 60s,” Chao said. “He was the one who hooked into that fish before me, and it broke off, but when I caught it, I told him we caught that fish together. Orion and I ended up on the phone talking about life and family, and he shared with me about working on the farm and brought me his homemade canned salsa and jalapenos. Without fishing, we come from very different walks, and yet bonded around fishing.” That camaraderie paid off this year when Chao got a treble hook lodged in his hand just as fellow trout fisherman Tom Paree of Paree Insurance came walking by.
“I joke that the insurance man helped be my hand surgeon this year, in assisting me taking that hook out … he just happened to be walking his dog and saw me sitting on my driveway struggling with the treble hook,” Chao said.
Happy Goat Yoga owner Lindsay Schooler has spent much of her lifetime fishing with both her father and husband.
“My first and finest memories are of being on the water with my dad, catching our fill, and watching him clean them all in his basement bathroom while the family beagle sniffed excitedly around,” she said. “I didn’t fish much locally until I met my husband, Josh Schooler, in 2011. Now, we fish the Ohio River north of the dam near our home and south of it in my hometown of Wheeling. We fish all the local lakes, but Barkcamp really has our heart.”
Like Chao, Schooler and her family fish for sport and for food. Wild-caught fish taste better than farm-raised due to their varied diet, and they’re free of the antibiotics and pesticides found in farm-raised fish.
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“As a yoga teacher and a human being, I struggle with whether to eat meat or fish at all, honestly,” Schooler said. “I’m allergic to nuts and soy, so leaning into a pescatarian diet feels best for me, personally. I give gratitude, thanks and prayers for every fish I catch for fun or for sustenance.” She and Josh feel a special reverence for life on the water; some years ago they rescued a great blue heron entangled in fishing line, an all-too-common problem when anglers leave monofilament line in the water or embankment.
Schooler said she and her family are grateful for the gifts and experience of nature, both for its healing power and the opportunities it provides families to connect.
“The time I spend fishing with my family is something I honor and treasure every moment of. It’s a beautiful and invaluable supplement to other therapies I use to treat compound, complex PTSD. Being outdoors and on the water with my 13-year-old son, Dryden, and my spouse, are some of the best moments of my life,” she said, adding that she’d love to see more women on the water and in nature “to reclaim their connection to the natural world and the divine feminine within us all.”
FLY FISHING VS. SPIN FISHING
Fly fishermen get their chance in the late winter and early spring, when the DNR stocks local waterways with trout. Unlike fishing with a traditional spinning reel, fly fishermen usually don waders and make their way into the stream to reach their targets. Fly fishing is an art. The fly fisherman needs to know not only what species he or she is seeking but also what insects are currently hatching. The bait, or “fly,” needs to mimic the insects present at any given time. Streams lend themselves well to fly fishing more so than lakes.
“I try a bit of both styles,” Jesse Mestrovic said. “The waterway and species of fish usually dictates which tool of the trade is selected. There is some overlap but for me it’s like picking a snowboard versus skis. Wheeling Creek or Tomlinson Run State Park are my local favorite fly fishing locations.”
If you don’t know much about fly fishing, the folks at Cabela’s are knowledgeable and can get you set up with the gear you’ll need. The same goes for traditional fishing.
Jesse Mestrovic’s favorite spots are Bear Rock Lakes Wildlife Management Area, which lies to the south of I-70 near Dallas Pike, and Middle Creek Lake, which is accessible from Triadelphia. In addition to Wheeling Creek, Andrew Chao has enjoyed fishing at Zion Christian Retreat Center. Most anglers have favorite local creeks and lakes, but for those looking for something new, Mestrovic’s Ohio Valley Adventure page has an excellent collection of fishing resources, including a database of popular lakes and streams in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Whether fishing from shore, a boat or a kayak, anglers will find plenty of options in the tri-state area. He also includes a link to DNR stocking info.
The West Virginia DNR’s website also has a database that lists each body of water and what species are found there. Pennsylvania and Ohio DNR pages list similar info. You must purchase a license for each state you plan to fish in. Find the pertinent info here for Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
As for public health in the time of COVID-19, per the CDC, water-based activities are deemed low risk if anglers maintain a 6-foot minimum social distance. Fortunately, as any fisherman will tell you, six feet isn’t nearly enough space, and they naturally spread themselves out to encourage a bit of solitude. And whether fishing solo or with family, fishing is one outdoor activity that anyone can take up and enjoy.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in Wheeling, West Virginia. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University and serves as the Northern Panhandle representative of West Virginia Writers. Her hobbies include hiking, travel and rescuing homeless dogs. Visit her at laurajacksonroberts.com.