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COVID, Fishing, and the Future

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

Let's face it, 2020 has been a huge shit sandwich. That said, there are some interesting things that have come out of the response to the novel Coronavirus. Among many, the "back to the land" and DIY movements that have come in the response to the virus. While many sectors are doing poorly in the "new world" or whatever other incredibly poor descriptor of what has, is, and will happen in response to the Coronavirus, others are raging. Much of the "service economy" - hospitality, restaurants, gyms, weddings, sports, etc. - has certainly been having a very rough time. While the home improvement, gardening, and outdoor recreation stores have been at what seems like all time highs. An interesting tidbit from Facebook recently - a local sporting goods store reported selling all of their kayaks for the year which has never happened before. If you can't - or don't want to - gather in groups in public, the outdoors is a great alternative.

Driftless stream from above
IDK, I just felt like an image was needed to break things up a bit...

This brings us to fishing, license sales, and the questions about what the future holds.

More than 1 million people have purchased Wisconsin fishing licenses this year, an increase of 18% from the same time in 2019, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of data provided by the Department of Natural Resources.

Source: Paul Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (July 4th article, requires subscription)

First, to put this in perspective, not surprisingly Wisconsin sells more fishing licenses than almost any other state. Three very populated states with significant ocean coastlines - Texas, California, and Florida - are the top three in license sales. These states are followed by Minnesota and then Wisconsin is #5 (Source: USFWS). It is particularly impressive given the populations of Wisconsin and Minnesota. For Wisconsin, an increase of 18% is an increase of nearly 200,000 additional licenses.

Paul Smith continues, later in the article, to share some specifics.

For example, the state sold 388,560 resident annual fishing licenses, the most popular license type, for a 21% year-over-year increase.

None of this is all that surprising given what happened prior to the July 4th article being published. Licenses sales are up a total of 18% and resident licenses are up 21% so most of the increases is from residents, in no small part due to the safer at home period.

Sales of inland trout stamps increased 22% to 153,887, while Great Lakes trout and salmon stamps were up 14% to 102,436.

For the trout angler, there is good and bad in this, I suppose. I had certainly noticed that there were more people on streams this year than in previous years. I like my solitude. It is a HUGE part of what makes fly fishing on streams my number one outdoor activity. I grew up doing a lot more lake fishing out of a boat but over time, streams just became so much more alluring. In no small part because there are fewer people fishing streams compared to lakes. There is still solitude, even give the increased number of anglers. I've just had to choose my spots a little differently. Simple hint - fish places others are not willing to fish. Fish the brushy streams. The small streams. While not my favorite places to fish - the streams that flow through private land where you need to keep your feet wet. The places that require a long walk. You can always find solitude but sometimes you have to work a little harder for it.

However, I've always been on the side that more anglers is a good thing. It means more eyes on streams, more money going into streams, and maybe wishfully, greater political clout that may help improve trout fishing (yeah, that one is pretty hopeful). A 22% increase in trout stamp sales means more money for trout stream habitat improvements, maintenance, and research. The numbers for 2019 and 2020 are not released but 2018 data (source) shows about $1.66 million in trout stamp revenues so a 22% increase is over $350,000 more for these activities. With recent flooding over much of the state and damage to streams, this increased money will help speed up improvements to flood damaged streams.

Fishing a driftless stream.
Another stream shot to break up some text...

BTW, if you've not explored the Expenditures of Inland Trout Stamp Revenues, it is a great resource to see where your trout stamp purchase goes but also resource to find where habitat improvement projects and maintenance have occurred.

And the last quote from the Paul Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article:

And first-time buyer licenses (resident and non-resident) totaled 85,789, more than double the 41,644 sold in 2019.

It will be interesting to see how this translates to future license sales. There is a small industry (ok, a VERY small industry) around analyzing and assessing how to retain hunters and anglers. It has been a huge topic for resource agencies as fishing license sales have stayed the same , they have even as populations increase. They have found that a fairly large proportion of anglers and hunters buy licenses somewhat sporadically. Since it is difficult to increase fees and many have been As resource agencies budgets stagnate, the two best sources to increase revenue are to draw in new participants and having participants buy licenses more often or without lapse. Which leads us to the figure below...

From this 2014 analysis, what is most evident is that the only age classes showing increased license sales are the 55-64 and 65+ age classes. Obviously some of this is related to "Baby Boomers" and our changing demographics but it is a bit worrisome, or at least it would be if your budgets depended upon at least maintaining license sales.

Foggy Driftless stream.
Just a bit more distraction in a wordy post.

It will be interesting to see how increased 2020 license sales translate into future license sales. The past tells us a couple of things. First, many that buy licenses in 2020 will not buy them in 2021. Retention, measured as percent who have ever participated in fishing who were active in at least one of the three years prior, was 55% in 2010 (source - Table 7). In other words, only 55% of those that bought fishing licenses in 2010 bought one in 2007, 2008, or 2009. To many of us, it is probably quite unfathomable to think about not buying a license every year but most anglers are much less dedicated.

Second, we also know that anglers that have bought licenses in the past are more likely to buy them in the future. Yes, they may not buy a license every year - or even most years - but it increases the pool of likely license buyers. It remains to be seen if this "bubble" is evident in the future but you can bet that resource agencies will attempt to take advantage of the COVID-related back-to-the-land movement. Both of these points do assume no differences in how people buy fishing licenses after COVID-19.

Why should we care about any of this? Maintaining and improving the quality of fishing is dependent upon funding. As the number of anglers remains constant and the percentage of the public that fishes decreases, resource agencies face stagnate budgets. Less money for monitoring, management, and research which could mean declines in fishing quality.

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