The Kenai River can be seen from the Funny River Campground on Sunday, June 23, 2019, in Funny River, Alaska. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai River can be seen from the Funny River Campground on Sunday, June 23, 2019, in Funny River, Alaska. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Area fishing guides hit hard by pandemic

“If the quarantine doesn’t come off pretty soon, I think we’ll just be out of luck this year.”

Fishing guides on the central Kenai Peninsula say they are being severely hurt by many of the aspects of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Guides all cater to different clients, so their experience differs a bit. Three of the four guides interviewed by the Peninsula Clarion on Wednesday hope a lifting of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s mandate on interstate and international travel will inject life into the season.

The mandate says that interstate and international travelers are required to self-quarantine for 14 days. May 15, Dunleavy said he was extending the 14-day quarantine until Tuesday. He also said he is evaluating the policy daily.

“Right now, everybody is hurting so bad,” Joe Hanes, of Fish Magnet in Soldotna, said.

Hanes said the uncertainty created by the quarantine is now threatening July, the biggest month for guides. Hanes spoke of what would happen if guides had a chance to shake hands on a deal to assure there would be certainty for July.

“Most guides would probably break your arm shaking hands,” he said. “They just don’t want to lose July.”

Hanes does lodging as well as rainbow fishing, halibut fishing, fly-in fishing and river fishing for salmon. He’s been in business since 1986 and said nothing has ever affected his business like the new coronavirus pandemic.

“When you end the quarantine, people just aren’t going to show up the next day,” Hanes said. “They have to book flights and make plans. If this goes on much longer and they don’t get rid of it, pretty soon it will have a serious impact on July.”

Mark Wackler, of Fishology Alaska and Orca Lodge in Soldotna, also said the potential lifting of the quarantine could turn things around. Wackler has been guiding for 25 years and specializes in trips on the Kenai River, but also does fly-out trips, halibut and sightseeing. He also has had nothing impact his business like this pandemic.

“If the quarantine is lifted, I think the phone will start ringing and email will start lighting up again,” he said.

David Goggia of Hooky Charters in Kenai is in the same boat. Goggia has been in business 21 years and does lodging, and Kenai River and saltwater guiding. He too said nothing has impacted his business like the coronavirus.

“If the quarantine doesn’t come off pretty soon, I think we’ll just be out of luck this year,” he said.

Monte Roberts of All Alaska Outdoors on Longmere Lake in Soldotna does lodging and all the types of guiding for fish. He has been in business 28 years.

When Roberts adds up the damages from the coronavirus, he estimates that half of the guide businesses could go out of business after this summer.

Roberts is not even confident the lifting of the quarantine will make a massive difference for his business. Roberts said his bookings for June went from 26 to one. All of those losses have come in the last week.

“I would say that 90% of the cancellations came because people are set back because they’re out of work for the last two months or two and a half months,” he said. “10% were most concerned about their health.”

Roberts said most of his clients have not retired. They are just getting back to work or opening their businesses after a couple months off. After finally getting back to their jobs, they didn’t want to immediately take a trip to Alaska.

Some Alaska businesses are pinning their hopes on in-state tourism, but all four of the guides said in-state tourism will not rescue them.

“The market is just not big enough,” Wackler said. “Not that there will be zero local business, but it won’t be big enough to cover the losses of out-of-state tourists.”

Hanes said he had his best summer booked since at least 2008, but has lost 90% of his bookings for May and June. He said some his clients have financial concerns about making the trip, some have concerns with booking flights and others have health concerns, but the quarantine makes certain very few out-of-state visitors will show up.

“If they don’t get rid of it soon, my bookings are going to start dropping like flies in July,” he said.

Hanes said that he’s at least fortunate to have a personal relationship with his clients, meaning those clients trust him when he tells them the quarantine will be lifted and they can come fish later in the summer. Some guides subcontract with sport shows or bed-and-breakfast establishments.

“I know guides who have been guiding for over 30 years, and they have four or five days booked in July,” Hanes said. “Lots of them.”

Goggia said he currently has five groups booked for July. Normally, all three of his boats are full for every available fishing day in July and he’s looking for other boats to fill.

Hanes said the quarantine takes away the convenience of the central Kenai Peninsula, normally the area’s biggest draw.

“A lot of corporate groups come to the peninsula for one reason over other places, and that’s accessibility,” Hanes said. “They don’t like flying to somewhere remote where they can be caught for three or four days if their trip is only five days long.

“They need to know they can come and go reliably.”

He suggested the governor tailor the quarantine in certain ways, like eliminating it for cities on the road system, where hospital space is plentiful. The quarantine also could be lifted for travelers from states that have relatively low numbers of cases, as is the case in Alaska.

Goggia said it is possible to bring visitors from out of state and have them quarantine at the lodge while they are fishing. He filed a plan with the state for quarantining and fishing at the lodge. He currently has a group of four who are quarantining and fishing. Those four even quarantined in their home states for 14 days before coming.

“This group of guys has been coming for 25 years,” he said. “If there’s a way they could possibly figure out how to do it, they’re going to do it.

“Most people aren’t like that. They’re just kind of going to throw in the towel and come next year.”

Goggia understands public health concerns, but he also is very concerned about what is happening to the state’s economy due to hits to tourism and the low price of oil. He said the impact is already rippling through nonprofits like the Kenai River Foundation, which has already canceled the Wounded Heroes event that takes military service men and women fishing on the Kenai River.

Dunleavy’s Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan does have guidance for charter operators on social distancing, face masks, sanitation and screening those who will be on the boat for symptoms. The guides said those rules do not hinder business.

“The quarantine is the deal breaker,” Wackler said. “The other things are just minor inconveniences.”

Roberts said he normally has his first trip in the first week of May but hasn’t even put his boat on the water yet.

“People just had to change lifestyles this year,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get enough money to pay my expenses and won’t end up losing money this year.”

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