Cap. Ismael “Smiley Yanez” loves to fish. He can walk out his back door and his boat is there on the Arroyo.
That boat, however, hasn’t moved too much — especially with other people in it.
Yanez, a Weslaco native, has spent the past 15 years working as a full-time fishing guide, taking clients on the water in search of trout, reds and drum.
Now, however, the only fish he’s catching are for an upcoming meal as the COVID-19 virus has mercilessly hammered fishing guides, bait shops, local boat manufacturers and the South Texas fishing industry, from the coast, to the Arroyo River, Falcon Lake, Lake Amistad and beyond. In Port Mansfield, at least two bait shops have recently closed over lack of business and in an effort to protect themselves and their families.
“In the past two weeks I’ve lost probably $3,000,” Yanez said. “This is my income. Fortunately, my wife has a job; I have to borrow from her. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
For some guides, they’ve done no other work in their lives and chartering clients is their only source of income. For others who are more seasonal, like Capt. Rudy Romero of Harlingen, it still is hard to stomach, and that income is still planned for and needed. Romero works in the refineries seven months out of the year, but usually comes home in mid-spring. He said he’s usually booked for fishing charters every day, sometimes even double, throughout the five months he remains.
“This is my time of year,” Romero said. “It’s tough, it’s crazy. All the boat ramps are closed, they’ve been locked up and constables are there waiting. It got too wild and nobody was taking this seriously. Now I think you need to have a private dock just to go out by yourself — like grocery shopping.”
J.R. Rodriguez lives in the small town of San Perlita, “population 512” he said. For the past two years, Rodriguez has made a living as a fishing guide and as founder and owner of Big Dog Status Outfitters, a company that schedules fishing and hunting trips. However, now, even if the docks and boat slips weren’t closed, Rodriguez said he wouldn’t take anyone out on the water.
“I just don’t feel comfortable. I want to keep my family safe, even if it means passing up some charters” said Rodriguez, who has a wife and three daughters. “I’m hoping we get good news by the end of the month, transferring clients who had to cancel and booking new charters. This is just the beginning of the peak season and this is how I provide for my family.
“We (fishing guides) live off the water. But I respect the laws and believe it’s what we need to do. Everybody needs to be following the rules.”
This is also the beginning of the peak season for fishing tournaments, both private and charity-driven. Rodriguez’s 14th annual Big Dog Status Fishing Tournament was scheduled for later this month, one of the earlier tournaments of the season. That has been put on hold for now.
The tournament raised money each year for a different charity. They’ve partnered with organizations such as Teach the Children and Warriors United in Arms in the past and have donated more than $70,000 to those organizations. This year, Rodriguez said, the tournament was to donate to Washed Up Texas, based on South Padre Island.
“We decided to postpone our event, to not only protect our families and ourselves but all those in the community. We made the decision as a board about a month out. We’re very fortunate we didn’t get in too deep, making the decision before registrations and sponsorship signings. It wasn’t the right thing to do, to try to continue.”
The tournament usually brings in around 110 boats and team members from all over the Valley and Texas. There are dozens of tournaments scheduled throughout the summer on the bay as well as on the Arroyo.
“The tournament has always been about helping others,” Rodriguez said. “Teams get together and a lot of the fishing guides are hired during those tournaments. It’s just a fun day on the water, raising money for those we can help.”
The effects, like in many businesses and households, have also been heavily felt on Falcon and Amistad lakes. The B.A.S.S. Nation, a global network of locally organized fishing clubs had to cancel one of its tournaments at Falcon Lake that was scheduled at the end of March.
Three anglers, who qualify through a rigorous series of local and regional tournaments prior to a national championship, advance to what probably is fishing’s biggest spectacle — the Bassmaster Classic. There are about 60-70 competitors from the Valley who participate at various levels with B.A.S.S. Nation, said regional director Larry Nors.
“It has shut down two of our tournaments and possibly will shut down more,” Nors said. “About a week prior to it, we received and BASS sent out an email to all state presidents saying no meetings, no club gatherings or state or regional tournament for so many days. Basically, everything is shut down.”
Cleve Ford is the owner of Dargel Boats in Donna, the longest running family-owned boat manufacturer in the state. He still has his doors open, but the way they do business, from selling boats to building them, has drastically changed.
“We have been deemed an essential business at Dargel, filling a few government bids,” Ford said. “But we are doing a lot of things different. We have temperature checks of employees, we are limiting the amount of people coming into the showroom and making sure if our guys have to work on something close together, that they all have respirators on the ones that don’t practice extreme social distancing.
“Also, we are happy to be able to keep the guys employed so that they have money to buy food for their families and one less person being unemployed.”
Ford says while he feels that many of the new rules in effect were important, he also believes some of the local, city and county leaders may have gone a little extreme.
“For the guides for example, several have boats that are 23 feet or more in length. They could easily practice social distancing with two customers on their boat and enjoy the water and the great outdoors, and where better than in the middle of the bay,” Ford said. “Unfortunately, some of our elected officials don’t see it that way. The county says you can use your boat as long as it’s not a paid trip. I would say it’s more dangerous to go to the local grocery store with all the people in them than to go fishing on a boat.”
Ford said they are still taking boat orders by phone or by appointment, adding that many people will want to do something after the pandemic ceases.
“I know there will be a surge of people who will want to get out of their house once it’s over and we can go out and about our daily lives,” Ford said. “We can work on the boats and get them ready to go while this is going so families can enjoy it after this is all done.”