Angling for Fun (and Profit) in Viral Times

With so many activities curtailed by COVID-19, fishing is attracting even more people to the state’s waters.

Casting a line at Liberty Park in Vestavia Hills. Photo by Joe De Sciose.

Alabamians love to fish and in 2020, state anglers cast lines in record numbers. In a year when everything else shut down or cut back because of the coronavirus, recreational fishing not only endured COVID-19, it thrived because of it.

Business was slow at first. Like virtually every other activity in the world last spring, Alabama’s fishing community bunkered down. “In the early days everything just stopped,” recalls Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “We were in lockdown mode.”

Fishing is a great excuse to get away from it all. Here, anglers fish for bass at Lay Lake. Photo by Art Meripol.

There were no travel sports, Disney World, airline travel, family visits, nothing. People started looking for activities to do. The beaches were closed but the water was open. Bannon adds, “From a private anglers’ standpoint, boating/fishing went through the roof.”

Blakeley Ellis, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Alabama, says, “It’s been fascinating to watch. When people could do little else they took to the outdoors. Tackle shops were soon empty. Even today, dealers cannot keep boats in stock. You buy a fishing boat today, it might be 8 months before you get it. It’s probably backordered.”

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Ironically, today people fish more because of COVID restrictions. But pre-2020 numbers have always been impressive. Ellis cites the 2019 American Association of Sports Fishing’s report: 1.1 million anglers spent $317 million while fishing Alabama.

Bannon reviewed statistics of state-issued (nonresident and resident combined) recreational saltwater fishing licenses: 125,000 issued in 2019 and 136,000 in 2020. License fees start at $25.

Scott Bannon Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division Director “I’m the guy who manages saltwater fishing and works with 30 boats, but I do not personally have one. I love to fish and do so with friends. When people ask about my favorite spot to fish, my answer is ‘wherever my friends take me.’”

The increase can also be tracked by boats. “We recorded 2,000 vessel trips a day during peak times. That’s about a 500-a-day boat increase — and that is phenomenal,” Bannon says.

“Money generated from fishing is more than just license fees,” adds Capt. Charlie Gray, owner of Gray Gulf Charters on Dauphin Island. His 25-foot bay boat leads happy customers to fishing adventures in and around Mobile Bay. Gray is part of Alabama’s saltwater goldmine, which, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation, 2020 registered $3.28 million in recreational fishing licenses.

 “Fuel, ice, bait, hotels, restaurants, all of that and more come in to play and depends on fishing for revenue,” the captain continues. “Fishing is literally a trickle-down business.”

Blakely Ellis Executive Director, CCA Alabama Tips on Catching Fish: “If you see fish but have trouble hooking up or if they are not responding to your bait or lures, try dropping down to a smaller sized hook/lure and a lighter fishing line. You have to be careful that you don’t break them off, but usually, you can get more action with the smaller sized baits and lighter leader/line. Also – stealth can help you a lot when going after these fish under the dock lights.”

As for Alabama’s inland endeavors: “There are approximately 250,000 – 300,000 freshwater anglers in the state,” says J. Chris Greene, chief of fisheries in the Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division. “Approximately $6 million is generated from freshwater fishing license sales in Alabama. This money is used to manage, protect, conserve and enhance Alabama’s numerous aquatic resources, as well as enforce game and fish regulations.”

A prime example of freshwater finery is the “Big Bass Capital of the World” — Eufaula, Alabama. “We look at fishing as our industry,” notes Mayor Jack Tibbs. “We recruit fishing events, especially bass tournaments.” Mayor Tibbs cited a 2017 Auburn University student’s thesis study, estimating Eufaula’s economic impact from fishing was $10 million. He noted that just one tourney can have 150 boats with 300 anglers. 

Jack Tibbs Mayor of Eufaula, Alabama “A favorite is Lake Eufaula using Strikezone lures, and a favorite fish is bass.”

“They stay in our hotels and eat our food for seven days,” Tibbs says. “They bring their spouses who shop our stores. Often anglers come days early to practice in the lakes before the tournament actually starts. That’s a lot of money.”

There are also intangible profits. “Last year, because of COVID’s cancelations of major sports events, ESPN2 had problems filling its broadcasting schedule with content,” Tibbs says. “The network turned to us. We got 20 hours’ coverage of a fishing tournament live from Lake Eufaula. That is priceless; you can’t put a price tag on that.”

In 2021 Eufaula has more than 100 fishing contests scheduled, much to the delight of the mayor. 

Huge contests generate millions of dollars and thousands of fans throughout the state. “The Bassmaster Classic is the most well-known of our tournaments,” says Emily Harley, communications manager of B.A.S.S., LLC. “But the B.A.S.S. organization has a variety of tournament trails, and the Elite Series events will have a huge economic impact on Alabama in 2021.”

The Elite Series will visit three Alabama fisheries this year: Guntersville, Pickwick and Neely Henry. In a typical year, an Elite event generates $1.1 million during the week of the tournament, which drew on average 12,200 fans to each event in 2019.

In a written statement issued by B.A.S.S., CEO and Scottsboro native Bruce Akin notes, “We’re as excited about this schedule as any that we’ve ever put together for the Elite Series. It features a good mix of venues that have become fixtures for B.A.S.S. and a few we’ve been to before but haven’t visited in a while.”

Bruce Akin Chief Executive Officer of B.A.S.S. LLC His home fishing spot is Lake Guntersville, but friends say he fishes best when at stocked private lakes.

Anglers also buy gear — and lots of it. “We have set records on all our brands,” says Joe Brown, senior director of marketing for Johnson Outdoors. With 220 employees in Eufaula, the company manufactures the Humminbird Fishfinder brand and other products — tested in Lake Eufaula. “We are a global company but Alabama is a huge market for us.” 

Johnson’s fishing sales at the end of September 2019 totaled just over $412 million. A year later, sales stood at nearly $450 million — an increase of $37 million since COVID.

Joe Brown Senior Director, Marketing, Johnson Outdoors Fishing “My favorite is bass fishing in Lake Eufaula. I use a lure spinner bait or swim jig. But circumstances don’t always favor that.”

For most Alabamians, fishing is not pursued as a competitive sport, far from it. Fishing is relaxing, escapism, and for many, a tool for COVID coping. “You can social distance pretty dog-gone good in a boat,” notes Eufaula Mayor Tibbs. And people do.

State officials report Alabama has an abundance of gamefish, drawing anglers and their money. “Speckled trout and red snapper are among the most popular saltwater fish sought by fishermen,” notes Scott Bannon. ”Other favorites include red drums, gray triggerfish, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel, and other Gulf of Mexico offerings. 

“It can be freezing cold or burning hot, but somebody’s in the Gulf, casting a line,” laughs Bannon.

J. Chris Greene adds, “The most popular public fishing locations in the state include lakes: Guntersville, Wheeler, Pickwick, Smith, Martin, Eufaula and the enormous Mobile Delta. Largemouth bass is the most popular game fish species in Alabama.”

Whether they’re pros in a tournament or baiting hooks for grandkids, Alabama’s fishing folk are netting more than fish for the state’s reeling economy — creating a boom.

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