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News / Sports / Outdoors

Local outdoors clubs experiencing downturn in members, volunteers

COVID-19, flu among reasons usual gatherings are getting smaller despite need in area

By TERRY OTTO, for The Columbian
Published: December 15, 2022, 5:20pm
4 Photos
Mike Golob, the president of the Southwest Washington Anglers, helps his son land a trout during the Klineline Kids fishing derby while a volunteer with the club waits to net the fish. This huge event has always depended on sportsman's clubs' volunteers, which are in short supply post-COVID.
Mike Golob, the president of the Southwest Washington Anglers, helps his son land a trout during the Klineline Kids fishing derby while a volunteer with the club waits to net the fish. This huge event has always depended on sportsman's clubs' volunteers, which are in short supply post-COVID. (Photo courtesy Southwest Washington Anglers) Photo Gallery

The long hangover from the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and local outdoor sportsman’s clubs across southwest Washington are feeling the pain.

The clubs were forced to forgo their in-person meetings during the pandemic, and although some were able to resume meeting via Zoom, those endeavors were not wholly successful.

During the nearly two-year hiatus from meetings and events, clubs have lost members, volunteers, meeting places, and funds. The ripple effects of this are being felt throughout the community.

Some club leaders are at a loss as to why people have quit being active, but there are several theories.

“Some people are afraid to get back into gatherings of people if they don’t have to,” said Mike Foulke, the president of the Southwest Washington Anglers. “People got settled in their ways during COVID. I think people still have good intentions; it is just a hesitation to get back in action.”

Foulke also pointed to the current situation of this year’s on-going triple threat of COVID, flu, and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Clark County hospitals have been swamped with people suffering from these illnesses.

The club lost its meeting place, a pizza restaurant that was a victim of the pandemic. They have found a new venue, but members are not returning. It has also been difficult to get volunteers to sign up for projects.

The Vancouver Wildlife League is the oldest sportsman’s club in Clark County, but they have not been immune to the after effects of the pandemic.

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“It is getting harder and harder to find volunteers to fill out certain projects we do,” said Chuck Cheshire, the president of the wildlife league, “and if we can’t get volunteers to step up and do it, we are going to have to choose what projects we can do and not do with this volunteer shortage.”

Cheshire pointed to a long list of projects the club has been involved with, including the huge kids fishing derby held at Klineline Pond every spring, the Merwin Hatchery special-needs kids trout derby, the shooting pavilion they built at Vancouver Lake, and an archery range the club has been planning to build for several years now.

Cheshire noted that when the club recently held a drawing for a gift certificate at an outdoor store in Vancouver, they ran into a staffing wall.

“We looked for volunteers to sell the tickets,” he said, “but it ended up being the same two people every time.”

The wildlife league has restarted their meetings, but the attendance is way below what it was pre-pandemic.

Beyond declining membership, lack of volunteers, and loss of meeting venues, most clubs have seen a shortfall in funding.

Michael Golob, the president of the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers, said — like the other clubs — they have seen a drop in active members, volunteers, and they had to change their meeting venue. He said it took six months to find a new place. They tried holding some meetings via Zoom, but the results weren’t great.

“We have about 175 members, and the first couple meetings were well attended,” he said, “but after that participation dropped to about 25 people.”

They have resumed in-person meetings, but participation has still lagged.

The club is also faced with a funding crunch.

“We would hold an annual fundraising banquet every year,” Golob said. “We would make 20 to 30 thousand dollars from that. It was what allowed us to give grants to the Klineline Kids event, or for Trout Unlimited to buy up land for conservation. We had to stop that (banquet) during COVID, so that dried up our income for grants.”

The club has always offered a lot of events, including fly casting and fly-tying classes, often for schools, and providing volunteer muscle for habitat and conservation projects. However, they now struggle to get volunteers.

“We would usually provide 20 to 30 volunteers for the Klineline Kids fishing event, but now we are lucky to get two or three,” Golob said.

Almost every local club has provided volunteers for the Klineline event, which is the largest kids fishing event in Clark County. This event has introduced thousands of kids to the sport of fishing every year, and that kind of project requires an army of volunteers. If there are not enough volunteers to hold the event the kids could be the losers.

The Klineline kids fishing derby is only one of hundreds of outdoor events held throughout Clark County, and it is a good example of the important work carried on by the various clubs.

Unless the clubs’ fortunes are reversed, many events could be cancelled, and these important community connections could be lost.

Most clubs reported mixed feelings about the future, and they are all trying to find ways to get people back out there, getting active and volunteering again.

“It doesn’t matter if its fly fishing, or conservation, or Habitat for Humanity, or whatever,” Golob said. “Any worthwhile cause, we encourage people to help out.”

Cheshire remembers a conversation with the mother of a child participating in a local event for special needs kids pre-COVID.

“She told me, ‘You don’t understand how much of a big thing this is for my son. We get the date and we write it on the calendar, and he counts down the days. He is so happy to be here,’ ” Cheshire said.