There’s never been a fishing season like 2020. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt from the angler, up the chain through all facets of the global fishing industry, with no segment left untouched.
Though the shared human response of this public health threat has been mutual in many ways, its result on the greater fishing market is uneven at best. Not all countries, or even all U.S. counties, have been subject to the same plight. They differ in everything from fishing restrictions to overall shutdown economics that govern the amount of time and money an angler has to fish.
The disparity of effects reaches into our population demographics as well, with older generations being far more susceptible to COVID-19 in general. Fishing industry research has long suggested that older anglers can broadly affect sales in any fishing related market, as they often have available time and disposable income to spend on a sport that requires ample measures of both. That offers a potentially scary outlook, given we won’t likely be rid of this public health concern for some time.
Yet, the one truth observed industry-wide, on every continent through all age-groups, is that people are fishing in greater numbers through the pandemic. That includes new anglers and those re-introduced to a sport that demands a degree of social distancing to be successful.
License data, though incomplete for many states, suggest anglers fished earlier in the season than they were used to, and put in more angler-hours on average, no matter the locale. That response has been a boon to some portions of fishing, and a bane to others, depending on what end of the rope you’re on. Though, as we settle into what’s becoming a new “un-normal,” it’s good to take stock of where we’re at industry-wide.
With so much supply of raw materials and actual product produced globally, let’s start overseas where the pandemic began creating problems in the overall supply chain. Pure Fishing CEO Harlan Kent, and other leaders at the helm of international manufacturing, started taking stock of how this might affect business shortly after Christmas in 2019.
“This was something we started addressing immediately in January and February, given our operations in China,” he says. “Throughout, our number-one priority had to be safety. The pandemic has had some tragic consequences in many parts of the world where we work, so we first had to protect our employees and customers, then circle back to other portions of our business.”
For most places internationally, that meant shutdowns of plants and factories. “At least initially, we had to cut back on a number of company-wide initiatives to see where this would shake out,” Kent says.
In asking him to rewind back to March 2020, Kent recalls how uncertain the environment was out there. “No one knew where this was going, especially when it was racing through Europe and continuing to infect into the United States, so it forced our business to go into stand-by,” he says.
Even early, however, globally there was an uptick in fishing activity. “And then came the ‘bounce,’” he says. “The Nordic region saw a big spike in sales, then continental Europe. Even with heavy restrictions on activities, folks could still fish.
“Then the Australian market saw a lift, as well as Japan. A passion for fishing is universal no matter the country, despite a global pandemic on our hands.”
The Bounce in the U.S.
That same influence worldwide was starting to be seen in the U.S. during the spring fishing season. Stay-at-home orders dramatically increased license sales early, with states like Indiana, Vermont, Minnesota, and others reporting 25- to 50-percent increases through April and May. Some other states that never shut down, anecdotally saw the same increases, so the effect was somewhat universal.
Jennifer Wical of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources told me: “We saw record numbers this spring and an increase of 35 percent in our youth 16- to 17-year-old licenses. People were definitely fishing more, earlier than we ever had record.”
At least in Minnesota, a look at data suggests that the surge in license sales didn’t continue, at least at the same pace. That said, Wical says, “We’re still up 11 percent overall from last year.” That’s nearly 90,000 more anglers in the land of 10,000 lakes than the previous year, with quite a bit of the season remaining.
What isn’t measured in license sales is overall participation, reflected in everything from angler-hours to fishing activity from anglers that don’t need licenses (under age-16, typically). “From our research, we’re seeing an additional 8 to 10 million anglers in North America alone, because of the bounce, with angler-hours increasing as well,” Pure Fishing’s Kent says.
For the industry, more anglers and more fishing time, no matter how it’s measured, or for what species, means more fishing gear sold.
The soaring participation numbers were also seen as an opportunity by manufacturers to engage an expanding customer base. Through the month of April, a few of Pure Fishing’s core brands, including Berkley and Abu Garcia, launched marketing campaigns based around the slogan “Fish Through It,” which encouraged anglers to continue to enjoy the simplicity of fishing as an escape and that any time spent on the water is quality time. Berkley even sponsored a #FishThroughtIt 14-Day Challenge on the company’s social media channels where simple fishing challenges were posted as a way to keep people focused on fishing.”
Stateside, while there was a lag in COVID-19-related shutdowns from what was happening overseas, it presented “The perfect storm during the heart of our spring season,” says Jesse Simpkins, Director of Marketing for U.S.-based St. Croix Rods. “Fishing tends to be really good during this time nationwide—and people are coming out of winter, anxious to fish. Most people who were shut down, like those at our factory in Park Falls, Wisconsin, which was shut down for six weeks, suddenly had a lot of time on their hands to fish.”
Time to wet a line is great, but we still need rods, reels, and other fishing components, and with manufacturing on hold? “We were lucky to work with state and local government, and in following Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, we were able to keep our most important machinery—our people—employed and building rods in a limited capacity,” Simpkins says. “A little bit of something is better than all of nothing, but we needed to be careful with this gift we were given. At the end of March, we were wondering if we’d ever re-open, with major retailers shutting down and independents unable to open.
“Now, we’re seeing a surge in participation unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” he says. “We’re thankful for the customers we have, new and old, and remind anglers that there are few activities like fishing, which, because of the Dingell-Johnson act, takes excise taxes from the sale of our products and puts them back into restoring habitat, fish populations, and sport fishing as a whole.”
According to Shimano U.S. President Dave Pfeiffer, who has worked in the industry for more than three decades, they saw many of the same early shutdowns in their U.S. business. “Except for southern states, which saw an increase in activity through April and beyond,” he says. “From April on, nationwide, we’ve seen the most unprecedented dip then spike in business I’ve ever seen.”
That growth appears to be across the board in all markets, from saltwater to freshwater, and in all states and regions nationally. “Many saltwater fisheries don’t even come onboard until the end of June or July, so we’re not even yet reflecting license sales and increase in participation in those markets,” Pfeiffer says.
Like Simpkins at St. Croix, Pfeiffer is hopeful this is part of a longer-term trend beyond COVID-19. “We’re seeing people make sizeable investments in their fishing,” he says. “We’ve looked at boat and other fishing-related sales, and they’re through the roof. You don’t buy something like that and quit fishing next year. We’ve worked hard to look both upstream and downstream, assessing the availability of raw materials all the way down to point of purchase to make sure this boom is something we handle wisely.”
Challenges and Silver Linings
Of course, manufacturers need to make good on all this demand by producing, which is made more difficult when you shut down for any amount of time, let alone long weeks and months in some instances. Matt Jensen, Director of Marketing for Rapala USA, spoke of the same positive set of circumstances, but also noted challenges along the way.
“We have a record amount of business in the order bank, but you don’t catch-up from a shutdown overnight,” he says. ”We’re seeing commercial shipping slowdowns, and when you lose a few weeks of that strong employee base that does the picking, packing, and shipping, it takes time to even out that backup. We also had containers in transit during COVID-19, which meant that when we got back to work, there was a fair amount of inventory to unload and sort.”
Yet Jensen points out some additional silver linings, saying, “We’re seeing a new efficiency and productivity from all of our employees, across the board. Most of us are working from home, and when people love their jobs, we work together better as a company.”
Business is booming, and though there are challenges, it seems that most of the industry has a buzz and excitement generated from the sales, but also from the new working arrangements that give employees more chances to fish themselves.
In that regard, like Rapala, Pure Fishing Brands have had to get creative to close this gap between orders in the pipeline and orders out the door. “We’ve had to come up with new solutions more quickly than at any point in our history,” Kent says. “From reworking our Distribution Centers to make them safer, to shipping direct from our plants overseas and domestically, necessity has been the mother of invention. We’ve seen innovation in the way we do business on a massive scale and we will be better for it in the future.”
The Sales Channel
Amid the struggles to keep up supply while it’s rapidly being depleted at retail, comes the thought that the next season is right around the corner. In northern U.S. markets, that means ice fishing, and Jon Marshall, Co-Owner and Operator of Marshall & Hanson Sales and Marketing Firm, shared his insights on what that means for his clients in the winter fishing market: “Like the rest of the industry, we had to pivot quickly, going from in-person meetings and distributor shows, to Zoom meetings and more phone calls.
“At first it was looking tough, with retailers ordering conservatively; but then everything turned around,” he says. “Open-water anglers were cleaning off shelves, going from store to store, then eventually going online to get whatever they could. Maybe more importantly to the industry, they weren’t paying steeply discounted sales prices to do it.”
Some of that likely had to do with the stimulus, a $3.2 trillion injection of capital into the economy the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Great Depression. “I was in a retail store that was literally being picked apart as soon as re-opening happened, Marshall says. “There was a rack of rods that the store owner had to shoo customers away from because they were already purchased via phone and Internet orders. People were grabbing things off shelves without looking at the price tag.” That demand has driven a solid bookings season for ice products, despite the inability to meet in person and work across the table from someone.
The Bassmaster Classic Outdoor Expo, a big attraction connected to the annual marquee bass tournament, went on as planned in early March in Birmingham, Alabama, while certain vendors on the show floor offered Shimano products, the company opted not to have a display booth.
“We shut down our shows early in the spring season, nearly two weeks before state lockdowns were happening,” says John Mazurkiewicz, who heads up Shimano’s public relations efforts. “From the Bassmaster Classic, to our big show in Houston, you have to remember that so many portions of our industry are family businesses. The people-first mentality was important to us and our clients because without the people, you don’t have a business.”
The Retail Environment
With all the focus on materials to manufacturing, it’s important not to forget the customer-facing side of the fishing industry at retail locations throughout the nation. Whether a big-box retailer, or a small independent, the varied state and local regulations had a hand in just how drastically they were affected. Many were granted exemptions and considered “essential” retailers, especially if they sold guns or ammunition, or had a strong enough connection to food sales. That helped many of the larger retailers with a mix of business goals, keeping fishing aisles open through other parts of their retail sales.
Marshall notes that some of his farm and ag-supply clients were able to continue with less disruption than many of his independent stores. “Customers were going in to buy dog food and work equipment, then putting fishing items in the cart as well. In some parts of the country, there was no other way to get fishing tackle in-store,” he says.
Doug Staley, Fishing Buyer and General Manager of Joe’s Sporting Goods in St. Paul, Minnesota, was an interesting case as an independent that didn’t have to shut down but did anyway. “We sell in a metropolitan area where COVID-19 was picking up, and we felt inclined to shut down for a time to prepare,” he said. “We had almost too much customer traffic in the gun shop and had to make sure our employees and customers both were safe.”
What started as laying groundwork for social-distancing recommendations, floor sets, and paperwork quickly became preparation for Internet sales. “When stores everywhere started shutting down, our Internet orders exploded,” Staley says.
Soon after a soft, unadvertised reopening, Joe’s started offering curbside pickup. “It was a challenge to figure out what ‘blue, tiny jighead with the tinsel tail’ meant in terms of going in-store to pick it up and bring it out for customers, but they really appreciated it,” he says.
Of course, there were challenges, too. “Our employees had to get used to wearing masks, and we had to install Xs at 6-foot intervals at checkout for customers to maintain social distance. We installed plexiglass dividers between the till and shopping areas, too; so with all those changes and the curbside pickup, it’s been hard on employees.”
There was also stress for retailers like Joe’s that missed the spring fishing shows. “Those shows typically are a big driver of our business, and there was definitely a point early-on before the boom where we were wondering how we’d make it,” he says.
Now, the big turnaround is posing a problem of a different sort. “The retailers are putting a big strain on the system, as the pipeline doesn’t have enough product in it,” Staley says. “I’ve never run out of plain hooks from multiple manufacturers before. And I’ve never seen a run on 6- to 8-pound monofilament like we’ve had during COVID-19.”
Jensen notes the same thing: “Retailers are making monthly orders out into the future to get at product that simply isn’t there, just so when it does come back in stock they refill as quickly as possible.”
It’s tough to predict the fishing industry’s future. Yet, folks commenting here offered similar thoughts on the boom in participation being a big deal, but retaining those anglers being even bigger. According to Staley, “Eventually, people will be going back to their team sports, summer camps, and concerts, and we hope as an industry we’ve shown them a good time. We hope we’ve treated them right and they had a good experience so they’ll stick with it.”
All signs point to an evening-out of supply chain issues given time, though recent surges in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in many areas of the U.S. have some in the industry concerned. Further shutdowns could affect availability of raw goods, but also cripple the ability of skilled labor to assemble those components. Having no materials to make spinners is a problem, but so is no employees at work to put them together.
So, as a whole, the industry is excited about the uptick in sales and participation, but wary of challenges they face in a new world with different restrictions than have ever before been placed on their companies. In many respects, the virus has shaped our inflection in fishing popularity, and will continue to exact uneven responses “upstream and downstream,” as Shimano’s Pfeiffer observes.
What may be harder to see coming are the ripple effects in associated businesses. But the strong passion for fishing, reflected in that increase in fishing participation, has most companies in an upbeat frame of mind.
*Joel Nelson, Cannon Falls, Minnesota, is an exceptional multispecies angler, an angling tactician who writes about the outdoors and appears in videos and on TV, teaching all things fishing (joelnelsonoutdoors.com).