Tackle Spending Up but Angler Numbers Flat

Jun 27, 2019

(Today's feature, by publisher Jim Shepherd, appeared initially in The Outdoor Wire.)

The latest statistical study we’ve seen on the sportfishing market seems to paint a pretty optimistic picture for the recreational fishing industry. That’s good news as everyone preps for ICAST next month in Orlando, Florida.

The newest research indicates the overall sportfishing tackle market grew a whopping 12% to nearly $6 billion in 2018. According to the study, growth was primarily fueled by rods, reels and combo outfits that grew in both dollars and units sold.

Good news - if you’re a retailer- but for everyone concerned about growing the sport, it’s not all blue skies and a hot bite.

According to the Southwick & Associates (www.SouthwickAssociates.com) angler participation numbers, participation -the number of anglers going fishing- remain flat for 2018. If that is, in fact, the case, does it mean anglers are spending more, but not necessarily proselytizing the sport?

I talked with Rob Southwick yesterday, and he reminded me of something significant for the long-term health of fishing. Angling’s core customers, are doing what blue collar workers do in good economic times: they’re working. They don’t always have the luxury of extra time to take a fishing trip.

It’s something that’s been true for decades. In the boom years of the 70s, workers -including me- didn’t have time for “get aways” - we were working. Our bosses and the business owners were enjoying more leisure time - because with good times, the business was, basically, running itself.

I have a tendency to look at what’s happening in the outdoors from my time in the golf industry. Golf is a sport where spending and participation have been directly tied to two things: age and income. More money and more time is good- until you have an audience that’s basically aged out of the sport. Today, golf is a sport on the ropes on the consumer side.

That isn’t necessarily the case here. Especially when you consider that the blue collar workers might not have the luxury of the time to fish more; but their increasingly optimistic financial situation enables them to move to higher quality purchases they’ll be able to enjoy when they do have leisure time.

Like every business, there are a myriad of things in play. But it’s not a reach to say that the angling trade has reasons to be optimistic for the future. That allows them to focus on something every recreational business needs to work toward: bringing in new participants.

“Not everyone in the trade may be seeing the large gains across the industry due to inventory issues related to retail mergers and other factors,” Southwick VP Nancy Bacon told me, “but consumers are still spending on fishing equipment.”

The downside of that spending? There have never been so many avenues available to purchase product. Simply put, retailers are having to battle for those customers more than ever before.

Tackle shops, however, enjoy one significant advantage over their colleagues in the shooting sports. One thing that helps offset any price difference is the local knowledge that these shops offer their customers.

When traveling to unknown waters, many experienced anglers only bring their basic gear. They’ll head directly to the local bait and tackles to find out to things: 1) what’s biting, and 2) what getting bitten the most.

That’s information you can use. It’s another compelling reason to consider changing some of the gear you brought for the stuff locals are telling you works best. Fishing Arkansas’ White River a couple of years ago, I was the angler in my boat that wasn’t catching fish, and I was throwing the exact same bait as my companions.

We were stumped, until the guide noticed something. I was using my own gear and my line was tinted. My companions were using his gear and all their line was clear. When he added clear line to my reel, my bite improved- immediately. I tipped him considerably more than the cost of that very small bit of line - but you get the point- the right equipment means results.

Another reason everyone might not be realizing the same gains is the changing demographic of our society.

Today’s young consumer, I’m told, isn’t as aspirationally driven as my aging generation.

They are experientially driven. They want to participate in activities with their friends.

If their friends are fishing, they’ll give it a try. If, however, they don’t find it rewarding, they’ll move on to something that meets their needs.

Keeping them from moving on is the question every subset of “the outdoors” is trying to answer.

We’ll keep you posted.

—Jim Shepherd, Publisher, The Outdoor Wire