The Latest Scoop on Fishing Participation

In 2020, the pandemic provided the single largest increase in fishing participation ever. That point is well known. The big question was “Will these people keep fishing?” Individual companies, state fish and wildlife agencies, and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation have been working independently and together to do their best to maintain sportfishing participation. Fortunately, largely through the ongoing efforts of the RBFF, state agencies were much better positioned to effectively market fishing compared to 10 years ago. Though evaluations of individual marketing efforts show success from marketing investments, what happened to participation overall in 2021?

As past research shared previously in this column has shown, the reasons why people fish can be boiled down to “fun, social, and outdoors.” 2020 set the perfect stage. After COVID-driven shutdowns kept many away from friends and family, people wanted to get outdoors and have some fun with others. As an activity where people are naturally distanced, fishing was the perfect excuse to get away. We know from various surveys that many people who fished in 2020 did so to spend time outdoors with others. Fishing may not have been their own choice, but they went at the suggestion and invitation of others. Even then, fishing was not a part of their future plans. A year later, we have data on post-COVID fishing participation.

On behalf of the American Sportfishing Association, RBFF, and other trade and sportsmen’s organizations, Southwick Associates regularly collects license sales data from state fisheries agencies. This work is funded by a grant awarded by state fisheries agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who also have an interest in maintaining participation.

In 2020, the number of anglers grew roughly 14%, which is the largest single year increase I’ve ever seen in 30 years of tracking the industry. In 2021, the number of people purchasing fishing licenses declined 6%, but we still had higher levels of anglers than seen in years. We knew some 2020 anglers would not return, but the net result is that fishing license sales are still well above their pre-pandemic 2019 level. This larger pool of anglers is spending money, providing fishing tackle retailers and vendors with a better, healthier sales environment than we saw in 2019.

I expected the number of younger anglers to have grown the most, but that’s not the case. Our 18- to 24-year-old anglers increased 3% over the last two years, while the 25- to 34-year-old anglers increased 4%. Surprisingly, the largest increase was the 35- to 44-year-old segment with 11% growth. Even my Gen-X generation (aged 45 to 54)—who have shown the worst fishing participation rates in recent years—did better with 5% growth.

Probably the best news in 2021 was the continued high level of first-time license buyers. In 2020, there was a 31% increase in the number of people observed buying a fishing license for the first time. While this number fell in 2021, we still saw nearly 10% more people enter fishing then we did in 2019 and prior. Even with much of the country back to normal in 2021, last year we still met many people interested in fishing who had not fished before.

So, what does this mean for tackle sales? The news is even better on this front. While the number of anglers increased 15% in 2020, tackle sales did even better. The same factors that encouraged new anglers to give us a try also drove our regular customers to fish more often in 2020. The average annual spend increased significantly. Also, though we cannot measure youth participation very well as they do not need a fishing license in most states, anecdotally it appears their fishing participation rates increased the most. Put all these facts together, and we saw tackle sales increase nearly 50% in 2020. Specific data on 2021’s sales volume— both in dollars and units for dozens of tackle categories—will be available by early summer from Southwick Associates.

The pool of new anglers definitely grew in 2021. It is incumbent upon us to properly welcome and serve these new anglers if we are to maintain and grow that business. If they have a fun experience with their friends, most will fish again. Do your best to identify these new, often hesitant customers when they enter your store. Talk to them about their experience and the methods, gear and bait used. Try to help them catch more fish next time. If we all do this, our future will grow even brighter.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Fishing Tackle Retailer.