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What is in Store for 2021? A COVID inquiry.

With opening day but a day away, it should be interesting to see how much of 2020 carries over to this fishing season. Thus far, the early season has been up and down. Weather and work conspired against me in January and February but March and April was quite good. I really had no way quantitative way of comparing angler numbers to last year but streams have seemed a bit less crowded thus far.

Last year was like few other years, he says in the understatement of the century. Wisconsin sold over 30,000 more trout stamps than in a typical year. Wisconsin had a 13.2% increase in fishing licenses sold and 30,000 increase in inland waters trout stamps represents and 20.4% increase. The increase in fishing licenses - and I would have to assume trout stamps - comes largely from residents as non-resident licenses were up a relatively small amount. Lastly, there was a large increase in first time license buyers, their numbers more than doubled in 2020 (Wisconsin Policy Forum). 2020 was so different all across the board. State park stickers skyrocketed - nearly half again as many in-state stickers were sold compared to the previous year. June sporting goods sales were up over 50% from the previous year and sporting good sales far outpaced general sales (Wisconsin Policy Forum).

Driftless stream
How much will 2020 look like 2021 on the streams? Do we see the "blip" from 2020 carry into 2021?

So what is in store for 2021? Do we see the angler numbers we saw in 2020? I would be surprised if there is not some drop off and probably a fairly significant one. For those of a certain age, the most obvious parallel is to the boom after "the movie". Fly fishing doubled in the two years after A River Runs Through It hit the theaters (FlyLords). History certainly tells us that the boom is unlikely to last unfettered but after "the movie", the boom did hang on for a number of years. A River made it cool to fly fish. COVID seemed to have made fly fishing possible for lots of folks.

Data from Wisconsin Inland Waters Trout Stamps are a bit difficult to decipher. "The movie" boom was in 1992 and 1993 but Wisconsin numbers are quite "wonky" after the drought of 1988 and 1989, there was no early season in 1990, and the DNR changed how they counted trout stamps from patrons licenses. Wisconsin was really shuffling the deck in the early 1990's which makes it hard to see what the "blip" from "the movie" really was. Wisconsin was moving away from stocked trout. For example, the West Fork of the Kickapoo last received adult fish in 1990. Looking around the Driftless counties, the story is much the same. The "old" nine county early trout season was going to catch and release in 1991. Wild trout management was becoming the new norm. My entry to fly fishing - 1991 - was between these two events - the drought and "the movie".

What is Driving the Current Boom?

It seems that during economic downturns, we "go back to nature". In fact, we saw a similar but certainly less pronounced bump in trout stamp sales and general outdoor activities during the 2008 recession (source). This year, the even more drastic bump, I would suspect, had to do with safety and not being able to do many of the usual things - going out to eat and to bars, youth sports, traveling, etc. - were generally on hold. Outdoors was the safe space and a chance to get out and do something. So people found different ways to occupy their time. For many, it probably gave them a chance to do something they had always wanted to do, like trout fish or more specifically fly fish. It would be interesting to know how many trout stamp buyers had never previously purchased an inland trout stamp and how many have not done so in many years.

“It was like everyone realized this was their opportunity to do the things they always wanted to but never previously had the time,” says Hilary Hutcheson, fly-fishing guide and owner of Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Mont.

I think there is an awful lot of truth to Hilary's statement. There is an appeal to trout fishing and even more specifically to fly fishing. It is hip and "sexy". Maybe not so much when I am doing but there is a certain appeal to fly fishing. All the cool kids are doing it. So are some of us not so cool, nor so young folks too.

What to Expect on the Streams This Year?

I have no crystal ball nor anything other than maybe a slightly educated supposition but I would expect it to be "2020-light" but I could see one of two things being the most likely outcome. First, I can see a fair percentage of new or returning trout anglers staying with it and we see my 2020-light prediction. Some unknown percentage will drop out this year and recruitment of new trout stamp buyers seems very unlikely to look much like 2020. Some drop is pretty much inevitable, it seems. How much of a drop is really the question. The other scenario I see as likely is that the drop is pretty significant as everything "gets back to normal". Things that once occupied many people's time instead of trout fishing - bars and restaurants, youth sports, travel, and other things - will continue to occupy people's time and the blip that we saw will mostly go away. I could even see a slight decline in inland trout stamp sales as the draw to do all the things you couldn't do for the last one plus years are now possible again.

I have always been a fan of the idea more eyes on trout streams is not a bad thing. Sure it sucked to see half a dozen or more cars on a Tuesday in the middle of the summer last year along Timber Coulee. But ultimately, I found a few out of the way places I didn't fish that often in previous years. Quite honestly, it was not a big deal that the streams were a bit more crowded. I had no problem finding places where I could find the solitude I look for when fishing. It also meant a nice bump in trout stamp revenue at a time we can use more money going into streams impacted by historic flood events. In the Midwest, we generally have a pretty different concept of stream crowding compared to trout waters of the Eastern US or Western tailwaters. Wisconsin streams are rarely truly crowded.

What is in Store for the Scientific Fly Angler Blog?

Hell, I have no idea. Let's see where the year takes us. I have a backlog of ideas that just need time and research - which also takes time. I am planning on a new fly tying project, "Project Terrestrial" for 2021. But other than that, expect a lot of the same random musings and a mix of science and fishing. Maybe a few more fishing reports kind of posts but maybe not. We will see. If you have not noticed, I am not planning things out. The site, on my end, is a bit of organized chaos. I write what interests me at the time and do this for fun. There is enough structure to life, I do NOT need it here.

Have things you would like to see? Drop a comment and if it is something I am interested in writing about, maybe we will see it in a few weeks or months.

Here is to a great 2021 season. Cheers!

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