An unseasonably warm, sunny Saturday morning turned into the perfect time for three friends from Selah to go fishing at North Elton Pond last weekend.
While Lauro Rodriguez often takes his fishing rod out to various places in the region, it was the first time more than a year for Jacob Swain and Lewis Vijarro. They joined record numbers of people across Washington who have turned to fishing and hunting as a way to safely enjoy going out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Once (the state) opened (fishing) the stores were wiped out for a long time," said Rodriguez, who works at Bi-Mart. "You couldn't find no tackle or nothing."
From the start of the licensing year in May through Dec. 31, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reported through it had sold nearly 45,000 more fishing licenses and 12,000 more hunting licenses than the full year before. The number of new licenseholders — defined as someone who hadn't purchased one for the previous five years — went up by 16% for fishing licenses and almost 40% for hunters.
Those record numbers contributed to unprecedented revenues for hunting and fishing licenses with half the fiscal year still remaining. Licensing revenues make up about a quarter of the department's budget, and they'll also see additional future revenues thanks to increasing firearm sales.
Slow start, busy summer
Wildlife department officials worried about a possible down year when the state shut down fishing and limited some hunting opportunities in late March.
Those restrictions lasted a little more than a month and frustrated many people including Rosenburg Nava of Yakima, who went to Elton Lake with his kids to fish for bass and trout last Saturday. Regional fish program manager Darren Friedel heard some complaints, but it didn't seem to affect enthusiasm when fishing returned in early May.
"We certainly saw crowds," Friedel said. "We saw a lot of families and people that were out who were either new to fishing and hadn't been out in a couple years."
Naches hatchery manager Matt Mathes said they stocked lakes even during the shutdown, although some work was postponed. They eventually deposited their usual numbers of fish, primarily trout, into area lakes, including some higher elevation lakes that require help from volunteers.
Hunting remained mostly open but recommendations to limit travel prevented some people from going out. Many mentored hunts and youth events couldn't be held due to restrictions on groups, and WDFW wildlife program director Eric Gardner said customer satisfaction quickly became a real concern as the missed opportunities piled up.
"We knew early on as long as we were able to eventually get the outdoors open again and get people back out, on the hunting side, most of the numbers would likely rebound," Gardner said.
That proved to be true during the most popular time for people to buy licenses, from July through November. General hunting license sales increased by 8%, while auction and raffle sales grew by 36%.
The department's sales for Discover passes providing access to state land grew by 19%. That doesn't include passes sold by vendors such as Bi-Mart or Ace Hardware.
Friedel said local biologist Paul Hoffarth saw significantly more people fishing for summer chinook and sockeye on the mid-Columbia, thanks at least in part to strong returns for both species. Bigger crowds were also noticeable for Nava when he went fishing for trout in ponds around Ellensburg, but he never had trouble maintaining social distance.
With in-person opportunities unavailable, WDFW allowed fully online hunter education for anyone over nine years old. From when the pandemic started through Dec. 8, nearly 25,000 people completed the program, more than double the year before and 1.7 times higher than the previous record-high, according to Gardner.
Our region's hunter education and volunteer coordinator, Aaron Garcia, said limited opportunities remained for hunters under ten years old to obtain certification. Master Hunters offered some assistance and a few mentored hunts were available outside of the wildlife department through partner groups such as First Hunt Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Of course, all those new hunters needed gear, so firearm sales shot up as well. Taxes on those items provide money for conservation, hunter education and more for groups like WDFW through the Pittman-Robertson Act, which also puts a tax on archery-related sales.
"That's definitely going to help us," Garcia said. "If you look at the department's financial page you can see that our budget hit wasn't nearly as bad as what we expected it to be back in March."
Gardner said Pittman-Robertson funds had been steadily declining in recent years prior to this year's growth from firearm sales, including an 8% increase in December alone. He expects to see an increase from archery as well, although it won't be clear until later due to deferments of those taxes.
At some point, hunting and fishing will go back to competing with other activities for those who shifted to outdoor sports this year.
The wildlife department already faces some challenges in keeping customers, especially since they tend to skew older. Anderson said license sales make up about a quarter of the department's budget, so this kind of growth could provide a significant boost to offset some losses in government funding caused by the coronavirus.
"Having new hunters seems like, are we putting more pressure on the resource?" Gardner said. "But the reality is that we've been losing hunters over time. People stop hunting over a certain age and they keep buying licenses."
Some short-term challenges exist, such as the popularity of hunting declining elk herds in Yakima and elsewhere. Limited permits and decreased odds of success could drive away hunters.
Gardner said increasing online options for education could help and will likely happen to some extent. However, Garcia said the department still believes field work is most effective, meaning fully online certification will be eventually phased out.
Mentorship programs will be critical, and on the fishing side the department hopes to bring back events for kids that were canceled in 2020, including the Yakima Greenway Fish-In. Places like the Naches hatchery offer valuable learning opportunities as well, and more revenue could prevent those hatcheries from being threatened again by potential cuts.
Garcia's developed plans for some new recruiting efforts, such as 10-person online clinics. Gardner added the information acquired for all the new hunters and anglers this year will allow the department to provide incentives and offer promotions to try and keep them interested.
"The things that are competition will be back," Gardner said. "We can't guarantee we're going to have this kind of influx in future years, but man, it would be nice if we could keep the trend going."
Reach Luke Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @luketscribe
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