Social Fish-Tancing? Study Finds Big Bump in Fishing License Sales During First Year of COVID

The boat landing on a misty morning on Allequash Lake.

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was quite a bit of buzz about what came to be called the “anthropause” or the idea that, as humans sheltered in place, Nature got to take a breather while wild animals enjoyed a break from things like traffic noise and crowded trails.

A Center for Limnology graduate student holding a bass she caught on a lake.
Ashley Trudeau, Center for Limnology.

But, says Ashley Trudeau, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology, there was no pandemic-related pause for panfish or other popular sportfish species – at least in Wisconsin.

Trudeau collaborated with scientists from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WiDNR) on a study recently published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management that found “a huge influx of new people into recreational fishing” in Wisconsin during the early months of the pandemic. That growth was evidenced by a large increase in sales of what the WiDNR calls “first-time buyer” licenses, which offer steeply discounted rates for anyone who has never bought a fishing license or hasn’t had one for the previous ten years.  

While sales of fishing licenses across the board saw a modest rise of 7 to 8 percent in the spring and summer of 2020, sales of licenses to first-time buyers who lived in Wisconsin rose 71 percent and, perhaps more surprisingly, sales to first-time buyers from out-of-state rose 35 percent and accounted for the vast majority of the increase in nonresident fishing license sales. 

Of course, buying a license is easy enough and can be done at home on a computer. Trudeau and her colleagues also wanted to know if this increase in fishing license sales led to a real-world increase in effort. Did anglers actually head out fishing on Wisconsin lakes?

Getting at those answers was tricky, Trudeau says, “because we typically rely on talking to people for these types of data and we were not allowed to do that.” 

Luckily, she was able to turn to a more socially distanced dataset. 

In the years prior to the pandemic, Trudeau had been collecting data on the number of cars at boat landings on several lakes in Vilas County, a lake-rich area in northern Wisconsin with a thriving recreational fishery. That gave her team a rough idea of what a normal level of activity looked like. These car counts also gave them an opportunity to keep collecting data in a COVID-safe manner, because it was something they could do from their own vehicles without interacting with the public. 

As she sheltered in place back at her home in New Jersey, Trudeau was able to continue the study in Vilas County thanks to her northern Wisconsin collaborators eagerly volunteering for the chance to get out of the house and do some car counting. 

“It was funny,” Trudeau says, “because [before 2020] I was thinking ‘Why are we doing these boat landing counts? It’s a lot of work for data we’ll probably never use.’ And then we ended up using it and we could compare these 2020 counts with other years to see how things changed.”

While traffic at boat landings on many lakes went down, it increased dramatically on lakes surrounded by public lands.

While Trudeau says she “assumed people would listen to the news releases like, ‘please don’t travel to Vilas County,’” that didn’t seem to be the case on the fishing front. Many lakes – especially those surrounded by public lands, rather than private properties – saw more vehicles at boat landings and other access points in the spring and summer of 2020 than in previous fishing seasons. 

Why this pattern showed up in the data is unclear, Trudeau says, because her team couldn’t talk to anglers to understand their choices. But it does seem to indicate that many anglers – both long-time and newly licensed – viewed fishing as an acceptable form of social distancing amid the public health advisories and stay-at-home orders. 

But the flurry of additional fishing was short-lived. According to agency reports,Trudeau says, the increase in 2020 licenses didn’t carry over to subsequent years, with sales moving back closer to pre-pandemic levels.

While the pandemic may not have gotten these new anglers hooked on fishing, it did inspire a lot of people to at least give it a try. And that begs the question of how humans will respond to the next pandemic or other global event that upends our normal routine. Whatever they choose to do, Trudeau says, a lot of them will probably head outside to do it. 

Sure, hunkering down, ordering grocery delivery and working from home were part of the societal response to the pandemic. But so was an increase in outdoor recreation.  

In Wisconsin, at least, folks went fishing. 


Cover Photo: Allequash Lake. Courtesy, Ashley Trudeau

The full article is available online at the North American Journal of Fisheries Management