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Sports Saturday

Outdoors in a pandemic: Signs point to a rise in traditional outdoor pursuits, and it may stick

There’s been a rise in fishing, hunting and foraging during the pandemic and at least some of the increased participation is expected to stick.

Even with fishing on the Chicago lakefront shut down for more than two months by the pandemic, there’s been a renewed interest in fishing in Illinois; here a powerliner set up on the South Side at dawn on March 25, the day Mayor Lori Lightfoot began shutting down the Chicago lakefront. Credit: Dale Bowman
Even with fishing on the Chicago lakefront shut down for more than two months by the pandemic, there’s been a renewed interest in fishing in Illinois; here a powerliner set up on the South Side at dawn on March 25, the day Mayor Lori Lightfoot began shutting down the Chicago lakefront.
Dale Bowman

Whether hooking a crawler piece or fathead minnow on a No. 12 hook under a small float or foraging for morel mushrooms with family, people are remembering their roots in the outdoors.

With the stay-at-home edicts, the shift toward more traditional pursuits of foraging, fishing for food as much as for sport, and hunting for food as much as for sport morph into more than childhood memories.

“Oh, yeah, I think with this whole thing going on, I noticed an increase in fishing,’’ said Greg Dickson, proprietor of Triangle Sports and Marine in Antioch. “It is like during the oil embargo and the market crash, people come back to fishing, a grass-roots activity. I have been doing this a long time, so it doesn’t seem much different than those other times [of crisis].’’

He sees the shift.

“Long term, I think this will be positive,’’ he said. “People grew up doing this, then life gets in the way, now they come back to it, a grass-roots thing.’’

“There’s a food aspect, we’re facilitating Mother Nature’s cupboard,’’ said Dave Kranz, owner of Dave’s Bait and Tackle in Crystal Lake.

He said already this spring he has went out and caught 10 meals of fish for members of his extended family.

“I know guys who say they are having crappie for breakfast, normally they would be working in the morning,’’ Kranz said. “I believe the outdoor grocery store is open.’’

One thing Kranz has noticed is that even some longtime anglers are so used to catch-and-release that nobody has taught them how to clean and fillet fish.

Early on, the shutdown of the lakefront put a knife in fishing around Chicago.

“But the forest preserves are pretty damn busy,’’ noted Tom Palmisano, one of the owners of Henry’s Sports and Bait in Bridgeport. “I see a bump in fishing. People are fishing other places. Lakefront fishermen aren’t doing much. The rest of the world is fishing. People are buying fishing licenses who haven’t bought them in their lives. They are using fishing as a way to get out and recreate. If weather is good, people are coming out.’’

Heidecke Lake, an IDNR sites that reopened May 1, has drawn crowds, such as these shore anglers (social distanced) out even on a Wednesday and a sign of increased fishing. Credit: Dale Bowman
Heidecke Lake, an IDNR site that reopened May 1, has drawn crowds, such as these shore anglers (social distanced) out even on a Wednesday and a sign of increased fishing.
Dale Bowman

Numbers back that up.

On Wednesday, Rachel Torbert, deputy director for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, emailed, “To date, we are up approximately 13,000 fishing licenses for the year.’’

She emailed that sales of hunting and hunting/fishing combo licenses ‘‘are steady.’’

Rich Sleziak texted that Slez’s Bait in Lake Station, Indiana, is the busiest he has seen it in 33 years.

“People fishing every body of water,’’ he texted. “Busy all day, every day, rain or shine.’’

The fishing-license numbers from Indiana are skewed because Indiana made its 2019-20 licenses valid through June 4. The number from Indiana that jumps out is an increase of more than 25 percent in spring turkey licenses to 28,334 in 2020 from 22,553 in 2019.

A file photo of turkeys in the field; there’s evidence of more turkey hunting this spring during the pandemic. Credit: Dale Bowman
A file photo of turkeys in the field; there’s evidence of more turkey hunting this spring during the pandemic.
Dale Bowman

“Indiana has seen a small increase in overall spring turkey licenses the first week of spring turkey season over the past five years, including this one,’’ emailed Marty Benson, spokesman for the Indiana DNR. “We don’t know the specific reasons; however, research has shown that hunters report lack of time as one barrier to hunting. With the pandemic, with other activities being postponed or canceled, one factor could be that hunters may be finding more time to hunt. Also, the good weather we had on opening day this year could be a factor.’’

Only two trends in outdoor pursuits stick in my memory in recent decades with the kind of jump shown in Indiana’s turkey hunting.

“The Hunger Games’’ movie came out in 2012. Archery participation rose 20 percent within a few years, according to an Archery Trade Association story. I can attest to the impact “The Hunger Games’’ had on young women and girls. Our daughter, just entering her teens, became involved in archery for years. I started shopping for a Mathews bow to get her into bowhunting. She stopped short of that, apparently that is part of another trend for another day.

The movie “A River Runs Through It’’ came out in 1992. Brad Pitt made fly fishing cool. Forbes credited it with a 60-percent increase in the fly-fishing industry.

As to whether the shift to more traditional outdoors pursuits will stick, Kranz said, “I have seen a lot of teenagers, 16 and 17, that have never bought a license before. There’s no baseball, nothing else for them to do. I have sold a lot of entry-level push-button combos. It is going to stick. Some of these will stay with it.’’

Even with the Chicago lakefront and Riverwalk (shown here is a file photo of a lunch scene with anglers) being closed during the pandemic, there’s evidence of an uptick of angling in Illinois. Credit: Dale Bowman
Even with the Chicago lakefront and Riverwalk (shown here is a file photo of a lunch scene with anglers) being closed during the pandemic, there’s evidence of an uptick of angling in Illinois.
Dale Bowman