By Brian Arola email@example.com
MANKATO — Although Minnesota had a wave of interest in angling early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, statewide trends suggest participation may be on the decline.
Angling undoubtedly remains a popular pastime in Minnesota, with Department of Natural Resources data showing participation exceeded 1 million each year since 2000. Southern Minnesota accounts for the second most participants of any region — only the Twin Cities metro region boasts more.
The statewide numbers were creeping down closer to 1 million leading up to the pandemic, however, and a burst of enthusiasm in spring 2020 tailed off as the year progressed.
“That surge of participation, we didn’t see it maintained throughout the year,” said James Burnham, a hunting and angling coordinator with the DNR. “We saw it hit big in the spring and then it waned.”
Angling license sales — required for people age 16 and older — were up 11% to 12% prior to Minnesota’s walleye opener in 2020 compared to 2019. In an early pandemic period marked by much uncertainty, Minnesotans seemed to turn to angling as a safe recreational outlet.
By the year’s later benchmarks, including the Fourth of July and Labor Day, participation looked a bit closer to what it had during previous years. State parks saw a similar, gradual cool down after Minnesotans flocked to them early in the pandemic, Burnham said.
Over in Madison Lake, a host area for the Governor’s 2023 Fishing Opener, longtime angler Jim Edwards-Toepel said participation rates seem about steady in recent years. A worker at Corner Bait shop, he said one difference he’s noticed in recent years is the dedication and investment levels of anglers.
“Ice houses are turning into ice castles,” he said. “Equipment is just getting more and more complex and better.”
Still, if you just want to take a pole out and fish from shore or a pier, there are plenty of places to do it, he said.
Edwards-Toepel suspects this fishing opener will be a big one after a tiring winter.
“People are testing their boats out and making sure they run,” he said. “It’s been a long winter.”
DNR data showed southern Minnesota was about in line with statewide trends on angling participation in recent years. The region had about 226,346 participants in 2017, dipped below 200,000 in 2019, then spiked back up to 238,016 in 2020 — the highest total since 2012.
Like Minnesota as a whole, springtime licenses fueled the spike. Minnesota’s spring 2020 surge carried the year as a whole into a recent high for participation, jumping from 1.076 million in 2019 to 1.192 million in 2020.
Prevailing trends leading up to 2020, on top of trends seen in hunting, suggest the numbers could head back in a downward direction once the DNR analyzes 2021 and 2022 data.
“We had over 100,000 people go out in 2020 more than 2019,” Burnham said. “We did see a bump and it was noticeable, but I think we’re going to get back to that declining pattern.”
Hunting numbers started declining earlier than angling. In both cases, demographic trends provide clues into why.
The Baby Boomer generation showed more interest in fishing than both their predecessors and descendants. They essentially fueled a crest in angling popularity, and the prevailing downward trend aligns with when the generation approached aging out of participation.
The Great Lakes Research Center, based out of Michigan Technological University, released a demographic analysis on recreational fishing in Minnesota in 2018. Researchers noted a projected decline in anglers from 2016 to 2035 would “primarily be due to aging of Baby Boomers moving through the system.”
In response, state agencies are focusing resources on recruitment and retention efforts. Since Minnesota has a strong fishing culture and a higher participation rate of female anglers, researchers concluded, “it may be possible to partially address” the decline by recruiting and retaining more female anglers.
Even with the concerning long-term patterns, Burnham said, Minnesota has much to be positive about when it comes to angling. Youth fishing leagues are growing in popularity, and programs are in place to highlight the diverse range of opportunities available in the state.
In that respect, fishing has an advantage over hunting. It’s much less intimidating to wrangle a bluegill than deal with a 200-pound buck.
As Burnham put it, “almost anyone can wear flip flops and go up to a dock with some worms or a can of corn.”
Accessible hunting land might not be available to everyone interested in getting into the sport. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in contrast, you’re bound to know of a fishable body of water near your immediate area.
Angling seasons are also longer than hunting seasons, covering ice fishing in the winters and open-water fishing in the springs, summers and falls.
“There’s a lot of variability and that’s a good thing, because when we’re trying to talk to people who don’t come from fishing backgrounds we need that diversity of opportunities,” Burnham said. “We need to meet people where they’re at and fishing gives us tremendous opportunities to do that.”
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By Brian Arola firstname.lastname@example.org