Opinion: Fishing thrives in the age of coronavirus, with people seeking a calming distraction

MEMPHIS — Kevin Glona placed the catfish on the counter and slammed a hammer into its head, prompting a question over the din of Jimi Hendrix playing from the speaker. Why exactly, on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of a pandemic, was he slamming a hammer into the head of a fish that had already been caught?

“If someone was going to skin me alive,” Glona answered, “I’d want them to knock me out.”

Then Glona, the manager of Catch’em Lakes and Walnut Grove Bait and Tackle put aside the hammer and grabbed a fillet knife. He sliced near the fish’s gills and cut along the spine from head to tail. Pliers came out next, and Glona used them to rip off the skin like he was shucking corn. Finally, he washed the catfish in a nearby sink and handed it back to a customer. 

They had six more catfish to be filleted and cleaned. Another customer was waiting to get into the bait shop. About 50 others were fishing one of the four lakes, trying for one last bite before sunset.

The phone hadn’t stopped ringing, and the conversation usually went something like this: “Are you open? We need something to do.” 

“We’ve been slammed,” Glona said. “We’re thriving amidst the chaos, I guess you could say.” 

Social distance-friendly sports of solitude are about all we’ve got left to distract from the sobering reality of the health crisis our country is confronting.

Kevin Glona clips the fins off a catfish on Monday in Memphis, Tennessee.

Fishing was included on the list of essential services when Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland issued his stay at home order last week. Catch’Em Lakes owner Eric Beene even called to make sure he was reading the order correctly. Since then, even though Beene only allows three customers at a time in the bait shop and asks those fishing to stand 10 to 15 feet apart, business has boomed.

“We’re up right now. There’s a lot more adults coming in than normally come in,” Beene said. “It’s their therapy.”

That’s what makes fishing so alluring, with or without a pandemic. 

It’s a form of competition when you hook a fish on your line, and you’re tugging and pulling and trying to get that fish out of the water before it wriggles free. It’s an intoxicating and addicting feeling “when you get one on the reel, especially when you got a big one,” said Aaron Foster, who was at Catch’Em Lakes Sunday afternoon fishing with his brother. “The best part about fishing is fighting the fish.”

But there’s also a spiritual and soothing aspect to fishing. It’s passed down from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters, and bonds families together over generations. It’s also, most importantly, a way to escape for a little bit, and we could all use that these days.

Dewayne Harris is a truck driver who was at Catch’em Lakes for the third day in a row. He’d usually be driving back-and-forth from Illinois or Ohio to the Port of New Orleans. Nobody’s shipping much right now, particularly out of a COVID-19 hot spot like New Orleans. 

Instead of stewing at home, Harris went fishing. 

“Everybody’s stressed about corona and the stock market, and this is something to take your mind off things. It’s just relaxing,” said Chelaynn Perez, who was at Catch’em Lakes with her 3-year-old daughter and admiring her haul for the day. “These fish are definitely going on the grill.”

The bait shop had to be re-stocked because “we weren’t prepared for all the other places closing down,” Beene said.

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Monday afternoon, Beene backed his large black pickup truck toward the edge of one lake, and Glona hopped into the bed and grabbed a large cooler of catfish. Glona took a net, loaded as many fish as he could and dumped them into an orange bucket. Beene then tossed the bucket of fish into the water.  

After putting 600 pounds of catfish in the lake Friday, they were adding 700 more pounds.  

“I’m just hesitant to put too much in right now,” Beene said. “I don’t want to put in $5,000 of fish, then close down. I think sooner or later they’re going to end up closing every single thing.”

Before that hammer comes down, though, there are plenty of catfish to be caught. 

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto

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