Ask An Angler: Are More People Fishing Today Than Ever Before?

By: John Neporadny

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit I decided the best way to practice social distancing was to go fishing. Apparently so did a lot of other people.

My home waters of Lake of the Ozarks usually receives heavy fishing pressure in the spring, but during the Spring of 2020 it seemed like fishing pressure doubled as COVID-19 cases kept rising. Data from the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF) reveals fishing pressure is probably on the rise because of a national trend in increased fishing license sales.

An RBFF survey showed “a year-over-year increase in fishing license sales from January through August 2020” according to data collected from 45 states.  The growth in resident and non-resident license sales was an increase of more than 3 million licenses over the numbers from 2019 before COVID started spreading across the country. 

All the states providing the data showed surges in fishing license sales that averaged a 14 percent nationwide increase.  RBFF noted the bump in sales was fueled by “an 18 percent jump in resident license sales from the millions of Americans who found themselves looking for new, exciting socially distant activities close by.” The number of people fishing was undoubtedly higher than the RBFF license sales totals because the data doesn’t include numbers of anglers who were allowed to fish when some states such as Missouri waved fishing license requirements during the pandemic. 

The wave of anglers allowed to fish without a license during the pandemic put an extreme amount of fishing pressure on the lakes and rivers in Missouri. A trout hatchery manager at one of the state’s trout parks told our group of outdoor communicators that the hatchery struggled to stock enough trout in the stream to keep up with the heavy fishing pressure from all the new anglers visiting the park. 

The COVID pandemic changed the way many people work now with several companies allowing employees to work from their homes.  I have noticed in my area this trend has led to a surge in home sales at Lake of the Ozarks with numerous people moving to the lake and working from their new homes. This has led to increased fishing pressure on the lake not only on the weekends but also during the week.  Working from home gives these individuals greater flexibility in juggling their work schedules so they can take some time off to fish during the week. 

The RBFF 2021 Special Report on Fishing stated “a ‘COVID bounce’ clearly brought new energy to fishing, as total outings rose to 969 million.”  The total outings represented the highest number of outings since 2012 and a 10 percent increase from the previous year.

The RBFF report indicates fishing pressure could actually experience a post-COVID decline though. The RBFF also measures the annual churn of fishing participants comparing those people who join or rejoin the sport versus those quitting in a given year. The RBFF reported from 2019 to 2020 there was a net increase of 4.6 million anglers, but there was a loss of 8.8 million prior participants who chose not to fish in 2020, resulting in an annual “churn rate” of 17.5 percent. The RBFF surmised that the high churn rate threatens 2020’s gains if the industry cannot convert the new participants into loyal, repeat anglers.

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