PORT O’CONNOR – Riotous music played in Capt. Benny Judice’s garage Wednesday afternoon as he worked on a friend’s Mowdy to keep boredom at bay.
“I’ve worked on some boats in the last few weeks, eight or nine, and waxed that car there three times,” the 60-year-old fishing guide said and pointed to his nearby Mustang. “Just killing time, like everybody else.”
Trip cancellations came in mid-March for Judice and for the vast majority of fishing guides in Port O’Connor and Seadrift, as Americans were told to stay home and avoid traveling in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Judice considers himself one of the lucky ones because he retired several years ago and does not depend on guiding for more than supplemental income, he said. But for other captains, the impact is devastating.
“It is your livelihood. For a lot of us full-time guides, if we’re not booking trips, then we don’t have money coming in,” said Capt. John Ashley, who lives in Shiner and guides out of Seadrift. “We’re all just trying to survive right now.”
Some have applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program or an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, while others are taking on odd jobs to get by or reducing prices because any business is better than none.
Capt. Nick Capparelli had 24 trips canceled in April. On Wednesday he said he had charters booked for the next five days, after heavily reducing his fees.
“It has been a hit or miss,” he said. “Some of my trips are discounted. I reduced my prices when everybody started losing their jobs.”
When will business be back to normal is the question that plagues all guides, and arguably all Americans.
“I’ve got trips in June and July that are still scheduled. We’ve just got to wait and see what happens,” Ashley said. “We’re hoping that when the decline goes down, everybody goes back to moving and wanting to get out of the house and we’ve got customers calling to go fish and it gets real busy.”
There is an inherent ripple effect of a downturn in recreational fishing in Texas’s small, seaside communities, where tourism makes up a big chunk of the local economy.
“With people canceling, that affects a lot of people,” said Mary Jo Walker, vice president of the Port O’Connor Chamber of Commerce. “They were going to stay somewhere, going to eat out, going to buy bait.”
With most fishing guides off the water, bait sales are already down, said Matt Martin, manager of the Port O’Connor Fishing Center.
“It is not only bait sales, but we sell fuel on the water, too,” he said. “The fuel price has gone down, but with a lot of the guides getting canceled because everybody is too scared to come down, then, of course, they don’t buy bait, buy fuel, buy ice – pretty much everything we sell.”
Local recreation anglers are still patronizing the fishing center, but certainly not as many as usual, he said.
“A lot of the regular people, non-guides, have not come out, too, because they’re worried about losing their jobs or they already have,” he said. “Honestly, I think it is going to impact the whole summer.”
Walker said she is praying the stay-at-home orders and closures won’t need to be extended into the summer, which would mean further loss of customers for guides, restaurants, bars and vacation rentals during the town’s busiest season.
She owns Beacon 44 RV Park and has already had her own cancellations.
“I’ve had cancellations, mainly weekend stuff right now and not necessarily the long termers, but if they can’t come down here, like last weekend when they closed our beach … these people are going to pull their campers out because what is the point?” she said.
Bay Flats Lodge Resort, a luxury fishing and hunting resort in Seadrift that brings in mostly corporate clients, had lost about $320,000 in business as of April 1, said Chris Martin, who owns the business.
“We won’t get that back,” he said. “The scary part that we’re hearing is that due to the coronavirus, the powers to be (at corporations) have eliminated any travel, any entertainment, any spending money.”
As the price per barrel goes down and layoffs ensue, oil companies, in particular, are cutting back on corporate trips, Martin and several guides said.
Martin is trying to look at the silver lining of the pandemic by using down time to reevaluate business strategies and clean and update facilities at the resort, while keeping his staff working.
“I’m looking out the window right now at one of our cooks. She has a paint brush in one hand and a paint bucket in the other and is staining the deck,” he said. “Without the staff and the guides, we don’t have a business.”
Bay Flats Lodge’s guides are self-employed and subcontracted. Watching them lose trips has been one of the toughest parts of the pandemic, Martin said.
“One of them is cleaning boats or detailing boats and the other ones are out of work,” he said. “They’re all suffering, I mean, none of them are working.”
A few guides, though, have still managed to find clients to take fishing.
Business at the fishing center was slow last Wednesday afternoon, but not dead. Capparelli, Capt. Tex Reich and Capt. Owen Gayler sat outback in waders and chatted.
Their laughter carried in the wind.
Like Capparelli, Reich and Gayler said they have had cancellations, but are still steadily booking trips.
“For me, it is mostly the people that have homes here,” Reich said. “They come down here and they quarantine themselves down here and they just can’t stand it, so they pick up the phone and go fish.”
Many of Gayler’s fly fishing clients have driven from Houston, he said.
“They’ll come down just for the day and I’m pretty strict on everything,” he said. “For me that is the biggest difference – keeping everything bleached out and not touching their rods or anything ... Not shaking their hands like we were raised to do.”
Those that do come tend to wear masks and lather their hands in sanitizer, said Reich, who did not seem too concerned about the pandemic.
“‘I just tell them, ‘Look, the only Corona we have down here is ice cold,’” he said.