Anglers need fisheries — waters with fish — and access to them. But fisheries need anglers, too.
License sales provide most or all of the money that state agencies use to manage fisheries and provide access. Anglers spend a lot of money on boats, fishing tackle and fuel that cycles through the economy and also generates tax dollars for state and federal governments. Some of those federal tax dollars are returned to state fisheries agencies to augment license revenues. Although not as easily measured as license sales and tax revenues, anglers provide political and social support for healthy aquatic resources needed for productive fisheries.
For these and other reasons, a large and growing number of anglers is important to the sportfishing industry and fisheries managers. But the number of anglers is not growing, and the participation rate in fishing — the proportion of the population that fishes — is dwindling rapidly.
Numbers of freshwater anglers ages 16 and older peaked at 38.4 million in 1985. Since 1990, freshwater angler numbers have fluctuated between 25 and 30 million. Some leaders in the sportfishing industry are encouraged by a slight upward trend in angler numbers in the past 10 years. I have always admire optimists, but the participation rate has declined from 26% in 1985 to 14% in 2016. The decline in participation is especially important, because it diminishes the political support for fisheries and healthy aquatic resources.
Tried and failed
These changes have stimulated efforts to recruit, retain and re-activate anglers, but despite focused efforts by agencies and the sportfishing industry — activities such as urban fishing or fishing in neighborhood programs, fishing derbies and fishing education programs — angler numbers have changed little, and participation rates continue to decline.
No single action is going to increase angler recruitment, but research by Dr. Leslie Burger and Dr. Wes Neal at Mississippi State University and Bob Lusk, owner of Pond Boss, a pond management service in Texas, suggests that a resource in your backyard or down the road may help build new anglers.
Recruitment of new anglers generally begins at an early age, as more than half of new anglers begin fishing by age 15. Concurrent with trends in declining angling participation, the fishing initiation rate for children has been declining nationally. In 1990, 53% of children ages 6 to 19 years old had participated in fishing, compared to 43% in 2010.
The researchers administered surveys to pond owners who actively managed their ponds for quality recreational fishing. Pond owners from 36 states responded, with 50% of the responses coming from Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.
About 90% of the respondents reported at least one child fished in their pond in the previous year, and 7% indicated that 20 or more children fished in their pond in the same year. Ninety-four percent of respondents personally took at least one child fishing, and respondents averaged 12 trips with children per year. Most of the fishing trips were with relatives (sons, daughters, nephews, etc.), but 55% of pond owners provided fishing opportunities to family friends. The pond owners’ fishing mentorship also extended to trips to other private ponds and public waters.
The researchers provided a bunch of interesting statistics, but the one that really caught my attention was that 75% of children who were taken fishing by a survey participant continued to fish on their own, either as a youth or an adult. Other studies have concluded that repeated engagement of youth in angling activities may increase the likelihood of continued participation into adulthood. A family or neighbor’s pond provides that opportunity.
Will the pond in your backyard or down the road change trends in angler recruitment? Probably not alone, but it certainly could help. The U.S. has an estimated 4.5 million ponds; if only 10% of those ponds help recruit just one new angler each year, almost a half-million new anglers would be added annually.
Take a kid fishing. It could be the best insurance you can get that you — and them — will have good fishing in the future.