COVID-19 disrupted our lives in more ways than one. Aside from the fear of becoming gravely ill or the loss of loved ones, the isolation for some and boredom for others has caught many off guard. In a matter of weeks, consumers became hunters and gatherers of toilet paper, thermometers and Tylenol, and became teachers to their children as well as telecommuters. State and federal governments began closing bars, restaurant dining rooms, gyms and hair salons. Many were told to shelter in place only to leave the house to attend work or for outdoor recreation like fishing.

Luckily, many states deemed bait and tackle stores as essential businesses. This was great news for both retailers and consumers. State game and fish commissions and natural resource agencies encouraged Americans to get outside and fish, reminding them to remain courteous to others by staying cognizant of crowding at boat ramps, encouraging local fishing by avoiding the temptation to travel more than a days’ drive to a hot fishing location—filling up your vehicle locally—and to exercise the six-foot social distancing rule while on the water.

Bad for life as we know it; Great for fishing

This time of year, fishing often takes a back seat to team sports, family vacation and work. This year, however, all group and team activities were cancelled, allowing fishing to move up the list. Where did this leave independent retailers?

For the most part, open, religiously wiping down doorknobs, registers, displays and encouraging social distancing at their locations. Signs adorn doors advising that anyone feeling ill or having a fever need not enter the store. Social media is the advertising tool of choice advising the public of operating hours and special instructions. Reorders have been slower to arrive, but they credit manufacturers and distributers for keeping them in the loop and informed of shipment delays and arrival times. They have experienced a little difficulty in receiving parts for reel repair. 

Scott Rook, retired Bassmaster Elite Series pro, manages Southern Reel in Little Rock, Arkansas. His store elected to keep the store open and maintain their regular hours. “We started off slow the first week of April,” says Rook. “Those that came in were buying two packages of worms, a bag of hooks, package of line and that was it. Sales averaged around $30.” 

As the month progressed, it steadily got busier and Rook’s sales improved. “With the tournaments cancelled, those anglers stopped coming in. On the positive side, we’ve been just as busy but with new anglers. They’re coming in buying terminal tackle, weights, hooks, bobbers, small combo rod and reels that we don’t normally sell a much of but were seeing a lot of it this year. The kids are out of school and people are off of work and they are going fishing—some for the first time,” adds Rook, who has loaded videos to Southern Reel’s Facebook page to help newcomers get started from rigging to where to go and what to throw. “This virus is bad, but it has gotten more people into fishing.”

Contact Free Shopping

When you walk into Fish ‘N Stuff in Sherwood, Arkansas, you’ll see an inviting leather sofa, fishing programs playing on flatscreen televisions and a bass magazine covered coffee table. Since COVID-19 arrived, this area is empty. “We aren’t letting our guests hang out or congregate in the store; we’re trying to keep it contact free,” said manager, Jacob Perkins. He too has seen an influx of first-time anglers. “As a store, we usually cater to more serious tournament angler. We have gear for everybody but our primary customer is the guy that will come in and spend a significant amount of money preparing for a tournament. Those customers are still coming in, but they are spending a lot less. Our average checkout price for April is down so far but we have a lot more people coming in. There are definitely a lot more people fishing,” said Perkins.

They didn’t do any special promotions but used social media to let people know that we are open, would take phone orders and offer curbside pick-up. “Since the stimulus checks have come in, we’ve seen much larger purchases, especially rods and reels. Of course, that isn’t uncommon this time of year because tax refunds have the same effect, added Perkins.

Live Bait Boom

Southern Reel doesn’t carry livebait, but Rook believes he would be seeing an uptick in live bait sales right now if he did carry it. Fish ‘N Stuff does. They sell redworms and crawlers. And Perkins said that they normally have an increase in livebait sales this time of year but there has been significantly higher demand during the pandemic. 

The Dugout, in Marietta, Georgia sells crickets, minnows, goldfish, crawfish, crawlers, etc. They are normally busy this time of year, but 2020 has been an exception. Between the COVID-19 fishing phenomenon and the fact that they have had so many nice weekends in a row, sales have been off the charts. “This the best year we’ve seen it in 32 years,” said store owner Jamie Koza.

Honey Creek Tackle, located in Bargersville, Indiana carries everything from tackle and livebait to boats and firearms. Indiana’s state government deemed tackle shops as essential, but owner Jason Roberts opted to voluntarily shut down for two weeks. “We were super busy on a Saturday with a lot of people in the store. It was an eye opener and I realized for everyone’s safety, staying open might not be a good idea,” said Roberts. “We had a store meeting and decided to close for two weeks. Luckily I was able to pay everybody during this time.” The store sells live bait and he was worried about those customers not being able to get what they needed. He decided to put a cooler and a minnow tank outside and offer free bait. He posted a Facebook video announcing the store closure and that livebait would be free. “It was a hit! I asked that everyone be courteous and only take what was needed and they did just that. I kept the tank and cooler filled,” said Roberts.  

After two weeks, Honey Creek Tackle reopened with shorter hours., limiting entry to five to ten people in the store at a time. Anglers have accepted it and it is now the new norm. 

Boat and Kayak Sales Returning

Boat sales act as supplemental income for a smattering of tackle shops, Honey Creek Tackle being among them. After great sales in January and February, Roberts says his store saw a complete stop in boat sales as soon as COVID-19 hit. However, according to Roberts, that trend is reversing. “We’ve sold several boats in the last couple of weeks. The stimulus checks have helped but the banks have gotten tighter on financing boat loans to make sure the person still has a job,” he added.

In Georgia, The Dugout acts as a de-facto hub for kayak anglers in the Marietta area, selling Hobie fishing kayaks to anglers eager to hit the area’s lakes and rivers. “Kayak sales were very impressive all winter,” tells Koza. “We cater to the kayak tournament crowd and the winter kicked off with several tournaments. When COVID-19 caused postponement of tournaments, everything slowed down. They’ve started moving again with four selling this past week. And something kind of crazy, we sold four St. Croix Legend Extremes this week.”

Koza’s comments echo remarks across the board—store managers are reporting lower priced rods and reels sold during the beginning of the pandemic but an uptick in items with larger price tags in the last week.

Apparel Sales Slow

While many stores are beginning to see resurgence in sales, it should be noted that all four locations mentioned one product that isn’t selling very well, apparel.  Several possible reasons were offered but the consensus is that anglers have decided to wait on technical clothing, spending money on the basic items needed to fish. Each store we spoke to predicted those sales will pick up as the economy reopens.