Anglers, some hauling boats, were among the thousands protesting Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s restrictive stay-at-home order, which includes prohibiting the use of motorized boats.
Wednesday’s Operation Gridlock, organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, brought roadways around the state capitol in Lansing to a halt. Many believe Whitmer’s move to battle the COVID-19 pandemic is overreaching, infringing on their rights and causing undue economic hardships.
One man who brought his boat from West Michigan told WOOD-TV 8, “I just don’t see why I can’t take my kids out fishing. I don’t see why that’s not essential. We are old enough to wash our hands, be safe about it and use some common sense — that’s all it takes.”
Whitmer pointed to her state having the third most coronavirus cases in America with 28,059 and 1,921 deaths. “Unless it’s a life-sustaining activity, we’re asking people to stay at home,” said Whitmer, who is now facing federal lawsuits in that her order violates First Amendment rights.
Mark Zona and Kevin VanDam are the two highest-profile bass anglers from Michigan. Both believe the boating rules are excessive and contradictory. They think enjoying the outdoors can be done prudently.
“I really think we can go fishing and we can go hunting in a safe, smart and healthy manner. We can enjoy the outdoors safely,” Zona said. “Am I for regulations for us to be safer? Absolutely. But gosh, when you shut down our rights to fish, that’s the scariest thing on earth.”
On April 9, Whitmer enacted 2020-42 that extended a prior order through the end of the month, which includes limits on gatherings and a fine of $1,000 to congregate with individuals who do not reside in your household.
Under the new order, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources stated:
“Non-motorized boating, such as canoeing, kayaking and sailing, falls within the outdoor activities permitted under the ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ Executive Order. However, the use of a motorboat, jet ski or similar watercraft is not permitted for the duration of the Executive Order, which is currently set to expire at 11:59 p.m. [on] April 30.”
Zona and VanDam said that seems contradictory.
“I’m left speechless with the whole situation,” Zona said. “I cannot go on the pontoon boat with my boys? That is mind boggling. I’m all for restrictions to get us through this challenging time safely, but not the complete closure of boating and our rights to fish — you start walking down a scary road letting that happen.”
Zona said he’s had hundreds if not thousands of texts and calls from anglers asking him to do something.
“I am as upset as the next angler,” he said. “I’ll be honest, the first phone call I made was to Kevin and the second was to (Bass Pro Shops founder) Johnny Morris. Kevin and Johnny are like me, passionate of our rights and being smart and safe stewards of Michigan hunting and fishing.”
VanDam said he’s been working with Morris and his team on the national issue of rights to state and federal lands. About a month ago, VanDam said he was trying to set up a fishing trip when he learned that Illinois had shut down fishing. He quickly informed Morris, who put his considerable conservation wheels in motion.
“Within two hours, he had sent me a three-page text back where he had contacted all the different conservation groups around the country,” VanDam said. “It was not on anybody’s radar at all, but it was going to Congress to close state and federal lands, parks, trails, ramps, everything.
“Johnny called everybody from the Secretary of the Interior to the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages more than half of the country’s fishable water. Johnny and Bob Ziehmer (senior director of conservation for Bass Pro Shops) had their team stressing the importance of the value of the outdoors and keeping them open.
“A lot of places have tried to do that, but slowly and surely things haves changed. There’s a lot of states that are shut down now.”
The Michigan DNR was on the side of outdoorsmen when the pandemic began, VanDam said. It waived fishing license fees and kept open state parks and allowed free access to boat ramps. However, the spread of the virus forced closures of bathrooms and campsites, yet the DNR still seemed to encourage people to safely enjoy the outdoors, whether it be fishing or hiking.
The first closure in Michigan occurred on March 31 when anglers were congregating at the Tippy Dam State Recreation Area for the steelhead run, VanDam said. DNR officers on bullhorns couldn’t get the anglers to dissipate, so fishing was shut down.
VanDam can see why Michiganders are complaining about the latest restrictions. He said not only are people prohibited from using gas or electric motors on any boat, but they can’t buy things like garden or home improvement items. A major point of the governor was she feared the virus could spread from gas pump handles.
“So I can go load up my truck go get gas, put my kayak in, but can’t use my motor boat?” he said. “There’s 11,000 lakes in the state and thousands of miles of rivers and streams that a lot of resident have homes and cottages on. Just like Zona, they’re not allowed to go out on a pontoon boat on their own lake. But I can get in the car and load up my rowboat and go anywhere?
“All we’re are asking for is common sense. We all know how therapeutic it is and how important it is to get in the outdoors, whether you want to hike or fish. I can’t imagine all the amount of cases of depression and suicide that could come out of this.”
Zona and VanDam, longtime friends who live within an hour of each other in the southwest part of the state, are reeling that they can’t partake in an activity that went from hobby, to obsession, to livelihood.
“My main point,” Zona said, “is that the best thing we have in a time like this is fishing and hunting, whether it be alone or with immediate family. There is a very safe and very smart way for us to enjoy the outdoors.”
Wednesday evening, a sheriff’s group in four northwest counties sent out a press release opposing some of Whitmer’s restrictions, adding they would not strictly enforce certain provisions and will deal with each case individually.
“Each of us took an oath to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, and to ensure that your God given rights are not violated. We believe that we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties,” the release said.
Sheriff, Ken Falk of Manistee County, echoed Zona and VanDam in a story on UpNorthLive.com.
“The motor boat thing, that was a real big kicker,” he said. “You can take a kayak or canoe out but you can’t take a motorboat out because you’re going to use gas? You’re going to touch that gas pump one more time a day or week? That’s just a little much.”
B.A.S.S., which through the years has worked through political avenues to maintain fishing access, recently began the initiative, Live Smart, Fish Smart, to honor current social distancing practices and help prevent the spread of the potentially deadly disease.