Freshwater fishing: Reeling in record revenue and participants

Discover Boating 2018 Content Shoot April 5-6, 2018 Orlando, FL - Lake Harris Nick Gallop - Photographer Usage: Unlimited, exclusive North American use in all media in perpetuity for NMMA/Discover Boating and thier Third-Party Affiliates. Talent is non-exclusive.
By David Gee

Fishing is fun!

I discovered that, or re-discovered that to be more accurate, on a recent trip to Florida to cover my first ICAST; the world’s largest fishing trade show.

They do have a spot at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando to wet a line and try out some of the latest equipment. But that’s not where I ended my 15-year tenure as a lapsed angler.

My reacquaintance with fishing came courtesy of the folks at the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation and Disney. They arranged for me to be met on Disney World property at the dock of the Contemporary Resort on Bay Lake by an enthusiastic professional fishing guide by the name of Mark Chamlee. He showed up with a spiffy pontoon, lots of equipment, a cooler full of ice-cold drinks and some mad boat handling skills.

He was also knowledgeable about where to throw my left-handed casts, which were pretty accurate I must admit after all these years. And he baited my hook when we switched to minnows, as well as expertly removed the four largemouth bass who managed to meet my hook in an hour-and-a-half. What’s not to like, right?! Of course, fishing is fun when someone else is doing all the work.

Seriously though, next time you find yourself at Disney World, and you get tired of exchanging an hour of your life waiting in line for three minutes of thrills at Space Mountain, give yourself a different kind of thrill with some enthusiastic largemouth.

Trend lines point up

I’ll tell you who was else was enthusiastic in Orlando. Nearly everyone I spoke to. From the exhibitors, to the trade associations, to the over 10,000 attendees, I don’t know that I have ever been to an industry show where the news was so overwhelmingly positive and the metrics so amazing.

Here are a few to get us started taken from the Outdoor Foundation and Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation’s 11th annual Special Report on Fishing that provides a comprehensive look at overall trends in participation.

  • An impressive 54.7 million Americans fished at least once during 2020, the highest number recorded since participation tracking began in 2007.
  • The fishing participation rate rose to 18% of the U.S. population, the highest rate in over a decade and a nearly 9% gain versus 2019.
  • With the “COVID bounce,” total outings rose to 969 million, the highest number of outings since 2012 and a 10% increase from the year before.
  • Youth and adolescent fishing participation rose sharply in 2020.
  • Hispanics participated in fishing at a rate of 13% in 2020, the highest ever recorded in the Special Report on Fishing.
  • And nearly 1.8 million more women fished than in the year prior, a 10% increase.

“I think the biggest thing is there’s really been a rebirth in people appreciating the positive effects of doing outdoor activities,” stated Frank Peterson, long-time president and CEO of RBFF at an interview we did in Orlando, which was recorded for an upcoming Boating Industry Insider podcast. “Almost every outdoor activity where you could do it and social distance either with your immediate family or by yourself showed improvements. In fact, 69% of Americans say they emerged from the start of the pandemic with a greater appreciation for the outdoors.”

“People took to the outdoors to stay safe – and to stay sane,” added Stephanie Vatalaro, senior vice president of marketing and communications at RBFF. “People discovered that being outdoors, and particularly by the water, had amazing mental health and wellness benefits. It was something they could do close to home, and at a relatively low cost, and as a result, fishing participation rose to really, really high levels.”

Peterson said fishing has long been a gateway activity to other outdoor activities. Then you tie in this new post-covid sane and safe appreciation. And then add the work from home component for a portion of the workforce, and he thinks it adds up to a bright future.

“Time has always been a barrier,” Peterson told me. “In our special report this year, as in years prior, lack of time was listed as the top reason that caused participants to stop fishing. Now with fewer people commuting, more people have more time for leisure activities. And now I’m hopeful that with this better appreciation, people will continue fishing and boating and engaging in these other outdoor activities.”

Fishing among females

Research data continues to underscore the critical importance of introducing fishing at a young age, as the RBFF’s special report finds 88% of current fishing participants fished before the age of 12. Participation rates among young anglers fall by about half after the age of 12, making families with young children the key to growing future participation.

Women are key to this future as well. Females make up 36% of the current angling population, but comprise 50% of the new participants. And they are teaching kids to fish more than their male counterparts.

“So if women are becoming the teachers of these fishing skills, as well as beginning to represent a higher percentage, and they’re younger, and they’re more diverse, that bodes well for fishing,” says Vatalaro.

At least part of this growth has to be attributed to a group of female fishing influencers, who are not only passionate, but also very adept at sharing that passion via social media. RBFF’s Take Me Fishing campaign partnered with DICK’S Sporting Goods to host a group of those influencers on an outdoor excursion prior to ICAST.

“When the opportunity to partner with DICK’S Sporting Goods came, we knew this was the right move to help further inclusivity in fishing and boating. said Rachel Auslander, RBFF’s senior manager of business development. “We believe that the water is open to everyone, and DICK’S wanted to help advance that ideal.”

The event began with a fishing and boating experience with Joe Lewis and his Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina before the group made their way to another location for camping and kayak fishing adventures.

“We know when women share their experiences it is one of the best ways to help encourage more women and people of all backgrounds to get outside and try fishing and boating,” said Amy Reilly, director of storewide and outdoor marketing, DICK’S Sporting Goods.

The influencers who joined the event included:

  •         Annie Nagel, @anniesfishtales
  •         Ashley Nichole Lewis, @badashoutdoors
  •         Cindy Nguyen, @sidtx
  •         Clara Ricabal, @crazyclara
  •         Jenny Anderson, @girlof10000lakes
  •         Nicole Jacobs, @nicolefishing
  •         Tiffany Denise Risch, @snookiefishing
  •         Sarah Shimanzaki, @outsidevoicespodcast

“Catching trout in the high California Sierras is what got me hooked on fishing with my father as a child,” explained Clara Ricabal, one of the influencers I met at ICAST.  Ricabal is a native Spanish-speaker as a child of immigrants from Cuba, and she is using her bilingual abilities to open opportunities in the outdoors for new audiences.

“I am a public health nurse by training, and I have a great desire to expand upon the opportunities that I have been granted to guide historically underrepresented populations in the fishing world: women, children, and the disabled,” she added.

Rebekkah Redd

Rebekkah Redd, an accomplished angler, photographer, adventurer, writer, speaker, conservationist and TV show host, also emphasized the family connection for her love of fishing that continues to this day.

“I am certainly not a kid anymore, but as an adult with a fast-paced career that includes frquent travel, I can say that fishing and boating has helped me connect with my parents,” said Redd, who began fishing with family as a pre-teen. “It can be the littlest thing like sharing a laugh, or sometimes it’s digging deep into a troubling issue. Looking back, I realize that without fishing we might not have taken the time to have those conversations. Sometimes that’s what it takes, getting away from it all, and being on the lake with no disturbances from the outside world to really slow down and connect with one another.”

Sounds like a great fish story to me. I’m not quite ready to trade in my slalom ski and wakesurf board for fishing gear, but I promise it won’t take another 15 years for me to make another cast.

Like the t-shirt I saw on a guy at Disney World read, “Money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy you a new rod and reel. And that’s pretty much the same thing.”

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