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Lure of fishing in the pandemic has retailers working overtime

From fancy boats to basic rod-and-reel combos, a pandemic-driven spike in interest in fishing has boosted the industry.

  • By Brian Hartz
  • | 6:00 a.m. December 11, 2020
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Boat and yacht dealer MarineMax is based in Clearwater.
Boat and yacht dealer MarineMax is based in Clearwater.
Courtesy image
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As has been widely reported, the pandemic has been a boon for sales of recreational vehicles and boats as people look to travel and reconnect with the outdoors while avoiding airplanes and hotels. But what are consumers doing with those big-ticket purchases? 

In the case of boats, they’re going fishing — in droves. 

New data released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows sales of fishing licenses have skyrocketed up and down the Gulf Coast. In Pasco County, for example, freshwater fishing license sales increased 22.2%, year-over-year, while saltwater license sales rose nearly 19%. Polk County, meanwhile, led the state in the sheer number — 35,000 between October 2019 and October 2020 — of freshwater licenses sold, generating more than $950,000 in revenue for the state. 

Hillsborough County, meanwhile, with 115,798 saltwater fishing licenses sold, was second in that category only to Miami-Dade's 178,969. 

“I found an industry report from March saying that because fishing is discretionary spending and it was a non-essential business, so they were forecasting sales to be down around 7 or 8%,” says Scott Hamblen, chief merchandising officer at Sunshine Ace Hardware in Naples, citing research by the American Sportfishing Association. 

Fishing is such a great alternative to other things that we might have done with our disposable income, and while there are a lot of stats and figures that can tell you why people are fishing a heck of a lot more, it’s really about the enjoyment of family.” –Scott Hamblen, Sunshine Ace Hardware

But the tumult of 2020 has defied predictions, leaving retailers scrambling to keep up with demand for fishing gear. Supply-chain issues caused by the COVID-19 crisis haven’t helped, but that also means executives like Hamblen don’t have to cook up elaborate, incentive- and discount-laden schemes to move products. 

“For the guy who’s coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I've got a specific need for a specific thing,’ that is more complicated than ever,” he says. “We are busting our butts to get product for our core customers.” 

Sunshine Ace Hardware Chief Merchandising Officer Scott Hamblen.
Courtesy. Sunshine Ace Hardware Chief Merchandising Officer Scott Hamblen.

Not only is there the core fishing customer, but there's a large bucket of newbies to cater to and nurture. Chuck Cashman, who has been with Clearwater-based national boat retailer MarineMax for nearly three decades and is now Chief Revenue Officer, is seeing more first-time buyers than at any other time with the company. “It’s the highest percentage I can ever recall,” he says. “Long term, it’s wonderful for the industry, all the industry that's around boating, whether it's fishing supplies, fishing licenses, boats — there's a lot of new people that are getting out on the water.”

Sales are biting, no doubt about it. The long-term challenge, of course, is to ensure the surge of interest in angling is a long-term wave, not just a splash driven by current events. Retailers like MarineMax, Sunshine Ace Hardware and others, in tackling that challenge, aim to get new, pandemic-driven customers truly hooked on the sport. 

Bait and switch

The latter part of the equation is crucial. Hamblen, drawing from statistics provided by TakeMeFishing.Org, an organization that promotes fishing education and the sale of licenses in 45 U.S. states, says 20% of licenses sold nationwide were bought by new anglers or people who hadn’t fished in five years or more. Converting them from newbies and dabblers to enthusiasts is key to keeping them coming back for more rods, reels, lure, bait and other gear and accessories. 

The way to pull off that switch, Hamblen says, is through education and service. Sunshine Ace Hardware, for example, employs staff members who possess vast amounts of fishing experience and local knowledge. 

“By going to one of our stores and talking to one of our fishing leads, they’re going to get you to the right gear,” Hamblen says. “But they're also going to tell you, ‘Hey, by the way, here's what’s biting at this time. Here's what you should use as a lure. And by the way, if you go down to this pier, or if you go over here, you can probably catch some stuff and have some fun, but if you're looking for bigger game fish, I'd recommend you go out here.’” 

Sales of fishing gear have boomed so much during the pandemic, Hamblen says, that Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware, part of the Sunshine Ace family, recently opened a full fishing department at its Bradenton store. Moreover, buyers span a wide range of demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds. That’s because, he says, fishing — unlike, say, golf — has an extremely low barrier to entry. You can buy a basic rod-and-reel combo, tackle and other basic essentials for less than $50, usually, and on the Gulf Coast you certainly don’t need a boat to go fishing. 

Also, Hamblen reports, fishing’s gender gap has narrowed significantly, thereby enlarging the customer base for savvy retailers.

Courtesy. Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware, part of the Sunshine Ace family, recently opened a full fishing department at its Bradenton store to keep up with demand. Alan Mcpherson is an associate in the store.
Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware, part of the Sunshine Ace family, recently opened a full fishing department at its Bradenton store to keep up with demand. Alan Mcpherson is an associate in the store.

 “In Florida, 25% of all anglers are female," he says. "You tend to think of fishing as an old man’s sport, but female growth is outpacing male growth.”

Hamblen says that trend speaks to how fishing has evolved from being viewed as a solo or group pastime for men into an activity for all generations and genders.

“Fishing is such a great alternative to other things that might have done with our disposable income,” he says, “and while there are a lot of stats and figures that can tell you why people are fishing a heck of a lot more, it’s really about the enjoyment of family.”

Cast off

Families with enough disposable income to buy not just fishing gear, but a boat to go with it, have been flocking to MarineMax, one of the nation’s largest boat retailers. The company posted $1.51 billion in gross revenue in fiscal 2020, up 21.77% from $1.24 billion in 2019. 

Much of that surge has come from sales of fishing boats, says Cashman, the chief revenue officer. He says sales of fishing boats made by the likes of Hatteras, Boston Whaler and Nauticstar are up 25% year-over-year. 

“We’re seeing tremendous interest, historically high levels of interest, from buyers who just want to get out on the water right now,” Cashman says. “Sales of fishing boats and, in many of our stores we'll sell fishing gear, fishing tackle, all of that is just off the chain.” 

The pandemic and how it has restricted many social activities has played a big role in why sales are up, which is why Cashman believes many families are buying boats as more of a means to an end, not just as a status symbol or a way to impress people.

“One of the things about boating is that it’s a platform,” he says, “so we’re also seeing ski boat sales pick up right alongside fishing boats. These are boats that have very specific purposes.” 

MarineMax, Cashman says, has “100%” increased its inventory of fishing gear so boat buyers can pick up everything they need to get lines in the water and catch fish. But like Hamblen at Sunshine Ace Hardware, there have been supply-chain issues. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it means MarineMax doesn’t have to heavily discount its boating and fishing accessories. 

“Manufacturing has been affected by COVID-19,” he says, “so sometimes just having the right product at the right place at the right time is incentive enough.” 

The spike in sales of fishing gear and boats — while certainly a pleasant surprise for companies expecting a pullback in consumer spending — is a trend worth watching. Will it continue after a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available and some semblance of normal social life can resume? No one knows for sure, but Hamblen and Cashman concur that the huge gains made during the pandemic will only help sustain long-term interest in fishing as a family activity worth the investment of time and money. 

“New buyers will tell you they boated or fished as a kid, and that’s who becomes the next generation," Cashman says. "There's some strong statistics that say if you boated or fished as a kid, you have a higher likelihood to boat [as an adult].”

Whether on a boat or on land, fishing, indeed, is a hobby passed down from generation to generation. But the onus is on retailers to make sure families are successful with it, so they’ll keep coming back to the hardware store or boat dealership. 

“Helping people enjoy the sport is what's going to guarantee repeat business,” Hamblen says. “If they enjoy their time on the water and their kid says, ‘Hey, that was fun. Let’s go again,’ that’s what’s going to deem whether they come back and buy more lures and stuff. Don Wynn, our founder, would always say, ‘If you take care of your associates, they’ll take care of the customers and the rest will take care of itself.’”


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