Ordinarily, spring would be a hectic time for 15-year-old Alison Forgy.
Softball, school events, time with friends — so many commitments, so little time.
But this year has been far from ordinary. In the era of COVID-19, many sports, school and church events, and gatherings were put on hold to battle the disease.
So Alison turned to a hobby from her early childhood: fishing.
“I used to fish with my grandpa all the time when I was younger,” the Topeka teenager said. “But I got away from that when I got busy with other things. I didn’t fish one time last summer.
“But with this coronavirus, I was looking for things to do, and I started fishing again at our family’s cabin (at Council Grove City Lake). I remember why I liked it so much when I was younger.”
In many ways, Alison’s experience represents one of the few good things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. People are turning — or returning — to fishing as never before.
Fishing license sales are soaring, business is booming for tackle and bait shops, parents are taking their children fishing for the first time, and “lapsed” fishermen are rediscovering the appeal of the outdoors.
“We’re seeing a beautiful silver lining to this coronavirus we’re going through,” said Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “When all else has been taken away, a lot of nontraditional users have turned to outdoor activities such as fishing.
“The reality is, a percentage of those people will go back to their normal activities when the restrictions loosen. But we’d like to think that we will retain some of those people who had good experiences.”
Booming license sales
Fishing license sales in the Four-State Area tell the story.
• In Kansas, the sale of resident fishing licenses jumped to 99,777 from March through June 1, an increase from the 63,266 sold in the same time frame last year.
• In Missouri, the conservation department waived the requirement of a fishing license from March 27 to April 15 in an effort to get people outdoors. Even with that, sales of combination fishing and hunting licenses through May were up by almost 5,000 from what they were at that point in 2019.
• In Arkansas, fishing license sales were up 40% from April 1 to May 31 compared with the same timespan last year.
• In Oklahoma, sales of resident annual fishing permits are up almost 50% from where they were at this point in 2019.
Those totals don’t take into account the youths who are fishing for the first time and don’t require a license.
Many parents are taking advantage of the slowed-down lifestyle to introduce their kids to the outdoors.
Brian Lawson of Emporia, Kansas, is an example. He noticed his son, Kacen, 6, glued to television and the computer, watching videos, and decided it was time for a change. Lawson, 35, was brought up as a fisherman himself but hadn’t been out much in the past 10 years.
“We were always too busy,” he said.
But the COVID-19 pandemic changed that. Lawson arranged for the Easter Bunny to bring Kacen a beginner’s rod and reel, and the change was immediate.
The youngster went to the backyard and started practicing his casting and became obsessed with all things fishing. That included watching fishing shows and videos instead of children’s programs.
“'River Monsters' is my favorite,” Kacen said. “It’s more serious.”
Soon, father and son were out fishing for some river monsters of their own. They started on farm ponds, then moved to the Neosho and Cottonwood rivers. Using bait he had dug up himself, Kacen caught a 12-pound flathead catfish on one of their trips.
“We’ve probably gone 15 times since Easter,” Lawson said. “I think I’ve gained myself a fishing partner.”
Retailers also are seeing the surge in fishing interest.
Gary Robinson, manager of the fishing, hunting and camping departments at Bass Pro Shop in Olathe, Kansas, is excited about the number of beginners who have flocked to the store.
“I have been with Bass Pro Shops for 20 years, and I’ve never seen as many first-time fishermen as we’re seeing,” he said. “On weekends especially, it’s like Black Friday in here.
“Families are coming in, asking what it takes to get started, and we’re educating them.”
It’s good for sales too. Ordinary stock such as rod-and-reel combos, hooks, bobbers and split shot are flying off the shelves. And managers are having a hard time keeping up with demand.
“We’ve had some shortages of items we never thought we would see,” Robinson said. “A lot of stores are seeing this increased demand, and distributors are having hard time keeping up.”
In the long run, though, that demand is a good thing, Robinson said.
“We’re seeing a lot of people excited about fishing,” he said. “It can get hectic, but it’s fun to see so many people interested in something we love.”
Brent Frazee is an outdoors columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.