(Editor's Note: Today's feature comes from Joe Sills at our companion publication, Fishing Tackle Retailer.)
In Minnesota, fishing license sales are up 45% on the year. In Vermont, fishing license sales rise have climbed 62%. In South Carolina, sales of resident freshwater licenses have risen by about 20%. And in Kansas, license sales are up about 15%—all since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. And though some tackle stores remain closed across the country, one message seems to be ringing loud and clear from coast to coast: people are fishing.
Washington State was an early epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in America, shouldering 841 deaths to date. Much of the state was closed to outdoor recreation in March, and April fishing license sales were down an estimated 70 to 80%; however, after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a partial reopening of activities including fishing on April 27, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reported $300,000 of license sales in a single day, according to the Chinook Observer.
“Outdoor activity is up across the board,” says Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Chief of Outreach and Communications Jennifer Wisniewski. “Before COVID-19, people would go out to eat, go to the mall, to kids ballgames and pro ballgames, you name it. All of those things aren’t happening, and what else is there to do? Those who own a boat and are off work or working from home have more time to get to the lake. Of course, we are really encouraging people to get out and discover or rediscover hunting and fishing.”
Wisniewski adds that fishing license sales in the Volunteer State are also up over last year’s figures, though nonresident sales have decreased. In total, Tennessee has sold 697,418 hunting and fishing licenses this year—an increase of more than 100,000 from 2019. According to Wisniewski, the state agency does not know if sales figures are due to increased participation or the result of people getting back into outdoor sports after Tennessee’s shelter-in-place orders expired on May 1.
Gary Harsel runs Live Bait Vending, a Pennsylvania-based business that builds vending machines for tackle stores meant to be filled with live bait. While many tackle stores around the country remain closed, Harsel says they are looking to his machines to provide new anglers with bait while their doors are locked.
“It’s almost embarrassing to say this with what is going on,” says Harsel. “Right now, we are the busiest that we have been in 22 years. Why? Because in a lot of places you’re allowed to go to Lowe’s or Walmart, but not a bait shop. In order to sell their product, people are buying our vending machines. It is sad to be busy because of this. I really hope it is over soon, but we will take it.”
Harsel says that his machines—which generate an average of $300 to $400 per weekend for retailers—have been one of the few sources of income for some stores, and his numbers back that up. Live Bait Vending sold more machines in April than it did in all of 2019. Three times, Harsel has had to order new machines from his Des Moines, Iowa manufacturing facility. “My biggest customer has 76 machines, and he told me that he’s never had a better opener,” he adds.
In Park Falls, Wisconsin, St. Croix Rods Director of Marketing Jesse Simpkins says his company has seen an uptick in sales in recent weeks. “We are not sure that is due to stimulus checks or more people being focused on U.S.-built products, but we have indeed seen a nice increase,” Simpkins tells. “We have seen more questions about which series are produced here in Park Falls in the past two or three weeks than almost any other question.”
Bullet Weights CEO Joe Crumrine says terminal tackle sales to distributors are up. “I believe there are more people going fishing right now than in years past, based on the orders we are receiving,” adds Crumrine. “We are seeing most of our customers ordering more than forecasted.”
On March 26, Z-Man became one of the first manufacturers to halt operations for employee safety as COVID-19 began to sweep the nation. President Daniel Nussbaum says Z-Man began reopening with a five-person skeleton crew in late April and has now brought all of its employees back online in staggered shifts. “We’re requiring face masks, cleaning work surfaces and common areas at two hour intervals, and enforcing social distancing.” he says. “It’s a lot of work, but probably the new normal for a while.”
According to Nussbaum, sales tapered off quickly six weeks ago; however, he says the situation has improved weekly. “We’re pretty much swamped right now. A big part of that is that we got behind while running a skeleton crew, but for the most part, people seem to be using this downtime to get on the water and fish. The weather has been great this spring in most parts of the country, and many of our distributors, dealers and sales reps report that business has been great.”
Like many manufacturers, Z-Man is facing supply chain disruptions domestically and abroad. However, Nussbaum now has reason to remain optimistic about the season.
The apparel category was hit particularly hard by COVID-19. AFTCO CEO Casey Shedd says the story of one of the nation’s most popular apparel brands is a tale of two worlds. “The wholesale business has not rebounded yet on our end,” explains Shedd. “It experienced very dramatic declines in March and April as retailers understandably pulled back. So far, in May we have seen a slowing of the wholesale decline, but we aren’t yet to what I’d call recovery. We do a lot of business with apparel-only stores in more densely populated areas, and many of those stores are starting to open up just this week. Some are still not open.”
Shedd contrasts his wholesale business with a success story from the online side. “Our own web business and the web business of many of our customers has remained strong throughout the period. Unlike many other clothing companies, we didn’t rely on AFTCO.com in-season discounts to accomplish that. This helped our accounts sell product through their own websites, as they didn’t need to compete with us.”
Shedd says his customers have specifically cited stimulus checks as a reason for purchases, recounting one California resident—a hospitality worker that hadn’t had time to fish in years—that used his check to purchase soft plastics, a new rod-and-reel combo and an AFTCO performance shirt.
For retailers, increased demand at a time when their brick and mortar space largely sits empty presents a unique challenge. Those who can are adapting to curbside pickup and delivery service. Others are relying on machines like Harsel’s to stem the bleeding. And soon, many will be among the first guinea pigs for relaxed social distancing restrictions that will allow customers back into their aisles.