Many a MeatEater reader and crew member has ventured into sporting goods and fishing stores this summer only to be met with empty rod racks and sparse shelves. Most leave without the gear and tackle they sought, wondering what gives. Did the pandemic break overseas supply chains? Is the industry collapsing? Or are so many people getting into the sporting pursuits that retailers literally can’t keep their shelves stocked?
I reached out to some executives in the outdoors industry to find the answer, and while there are many factors at play, it turns out that the latter is mostly true. At the risk over-generalizing, it appears that the coronavirus crisis has actually spurred a notable increase in fishing participation across the country. Growth in hunting license sales may follow this fall.
Jon Barker, CEO of Sportsman’s Warehouse, has been closely tracking consumer buying patterns throughout the pandemic. He told MeatEater that his business and others like it have experienced three basic phases of the COVID economy.
“As soon as the pandemic started to really reach a peak and they were shutting down the across the country around mid-March, we saw a significant increase in visitors to our stores requesting specific products,” Barker said. “One category is personal protection, firearms, both handguns and shotgun, and related ammunition. As the NSSF and NRA have communicated, [there were] an estimated 2.5 million first-time firearms buyers during that period.”
The next phase, Barker said, was a rush on “essential sustaining goods,” such as generators, water filtration systems, freeze-dried foods, and other items for surviving some form of prolonged quarantine or potential societal collapse. But by the second and third week of April, as the weather shifted across the country and some COVID-related guidelines began to relax, recreational outdoors gear began flying off the shelves.
“We started to see people participating in outdoor activities at a greater rate than we historically had seen,” Barker said. “And that was across the categories. We started to shooting sports increase. We saw turkey licenses in certain states set new records in April for sales. We saw fishing start to really ramp up and we saw hiking, camping starting to ramp up. Now, what we experienced in those categories, and as you can tell from what you’ve seen on the shelves, we are continuing to see new individuals into fishing, new individuals in camping and hiking. The quote goes something like this: ‘I haven’t fished since I was a kid,’ or ‘I haven’t fished in 15 years and I want a combo rod reel,’ or, you know, ‘I want to get back into fly fishing.’
“As you’ve seen on the shelves, and it doesn’t matter what sporting good story you go into, you’re going to see a very, very thin inventory across especially the entry level or mid-price point rod-and-reel combos, and then your terminal tackle and lures also very thin.”
Jim Coble, founder and CEO of 13 Fishing, saw the pandemic roll across the country from the wholesaler perspective but gathered many of the same lessons.
“Some vendors, as you know, were shutting doors. It was as bad as it could get, it was doom and gloom,” he told MeatEater. “And then kind of like a light switch, it went back on when everybody said all of a sudden fishing was an essential activity. It seemed as though everybody took that to heart. We went from a situation where we were going, ‘Oh, crap, how are we going to manage this? You know, cashflow is going to get tight. Everything’s going to just be a train wreck,’ to saying sorry in a matter of minutes to customers begging for thousands and thousands of things.”
Coble echoed Barker in noting that new and novice anglers made up a large percentage of the recent purchases, although advanced anglers certainly have not stopped spending. He said 13 is working overtime to keep combo rod-and-reel rigs stocked, but they can’t seem to keep up with demand.
“A lot of the new anglers coming in, for lack of a better term, are intimidated when they walk up to a fishing section and they’re getting into it for the first time. They have to look at a rod, reel, line, and everything and try to put them all together. Sometimes the easiest thing to do for somebody new is just look up, grab that combo that has that rod and reel, oftentimes it even has line on it, and walk out the door.
“We were getting calls from, oh my gosh, you-name-it customer, Walmart, Bass Pro, whoever,” Coble continued. “And it wasn’t for, ‘Can I get 50 combos?’ ‘Can I get a hundred combos?’ I mean, it was ‘How many combos do you have? What do you have in standalone rods and reels that you can put together for combos for us?’”
But combo rigs aren’t the only angling items retailers and manufacturers are struggling to keep on the shelves. Lures, line, hooks, weights, bait, and numerous accessories are also hard to come by, as discussed on the first episode of MeatEater’s new fishing podcast, Bent. Rapala, a minority partner in 13 Fishing, is also far behind on orders of their popular crankbaits and other lures.
“The consumables are absolutely getting torched,” Coble said. “Line is hard to come by. My Rapala side, just in the U.S., we’re behind by millions in shipping right now. I mean, it was literally full-on, 24 hours a day shipping, getting out the door as fast as you can, hire as many people as you can, and still tens of millions of dollars behind on consumable shipping. And we’ll catch up at the end of the year on the Rapala side and everything will be good.”
As the end of summer looms and warm-weather and vacation angling wanes, retailers and manufacturers will restock and gear shopping will return to something approaching normalcy. It appears that, perhaps due to the fact that new anglers are currently driving the run on fishing gear, big box stores are showing more tackle shortages than smaller, specialized tackle, bait, and fly shops.
News reports and statement from game agencies from across the country show significant increases in fishing participation during the pandemic. Though some states closed fishing for a while in the spring, many others promoted the activity as a safe and socially-distanced alternative to other forms of recreation and relaxation.
Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said his department has seen a 17% increase in license sales over last year, a notable jump.
“It’s obviously hard to draw any certain conclusions, but we are seeing use at our sites well above normal this year too,” Lemon told MeatEater. “As an agency managing recreation sites, I know we’re not alone. It seems clear that getting outside is part of how Montanans and visitors to the state are responding to the pandemic. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to feel safe socially when you’re outdoors. Maybe more people are realizing just how easy it is in Montana to get outside, especially for anglers. We have around 330 fishing access sites around the state giving people access to not only some amazing fishing, but to some of the most scenic and remote places in the world.”
“A lot of people are somehow reverting back to fishing,” Coble said. “The only thing I can think is that people, parents, they’re getting a bit burnt out on sitting inside, staring at a screen. Just a few short months ago that was OK because you were at work all day or school or sports or whatever. Now you’re literally at home staring at screens all day long—and fishing has become the kick-ass alternative.”
Coble, Barker, Lemon, and others speculate that other reasons for Americans getting into fishing range from a desire to experience nature to anxiety over food supply chain issues. Everyone has their own reasons, but many people across the outdoors industry and fish and wildlife management world wonder how many of the new anglers will stick around.
“I think the fishing industry has been, I don’t want to say stagnant, but it’s not a fast-growing industry, right?” Barker said. “A lot of people aren’t growing up in rural America or maybe they didn’t have the opportunity to fish like we did when we were kids, but I think this is bringing a whole group of new individuals. And not every one of them will come back next year or maybe come back a second time, but some portion will. And for some it will become a lifestyle, and they might spend $69 on a rod-and-reel combo today, next year they might be spending a thousand dollars on gear and they might end up buying a boat. Like any activity, whether you’re into golf or you’re into fly fishing, it starts with one thing and it leads into another and you find it to be somewhat addicting once you start creating memories.”
While some retailers and manufacturers are experiencing windfall profits due in part to the global pandemic, it’s important to remember that another major sector of the sporting industry—outfitters and guides—have not fared so well from the economic shutdown and travel bans. Especially in the discontiguous states Alaska and Hawaii but anywhere far removed from population centers, guides saw summer bookings evaporate at the outset of the coronavirus spread with perhaps a fraction returning when travel restrictions lifted. For anyone among this new wave of anglers or those just looking to experience new species or waters, consider booking a guide—even if those dates are a year out. Your business could mean that outfit can operate for more seasons to come.
As for adventures near home, if you can’t find what you need, ask a store if they can order it or ask a friend if they can loan it to you. If you’re like some of us and have accumulated more fishing gear than you could break and lose in a lifetime, lend it out. Sharing gear is certain to provide a wealth of fish karma next time you go out.