With bars, restaurants and theaters closed, Vermonters are turning to some age-old pastimes with built-in social distancing: hunting and fishing.
Resident fishing license sales are up by more than 50% over this time last year, and combination hunting and fishing license sales have increased by almost a quarter — a reversal in yearslong trends.
“Hunting and fishing is one of those things people love to do but don’t have time to do,” said Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter.
Now, during the Covid-19 lockdown, they do.
The department had sold about 21,270 resident fishing licenses through April 30, according to state data — nearly 7,800 more than at that point last year. Roughly 3,550 more combo licenses were sold over the same period, a 24% boost. Turkey hunting licenses have been especially in vogue, with sales up 26% in time for the season’s start Friday.
Fishing license sales increased during the economic recessions of 1988, 2001 and 2008, said Chris Saunders, project coordinator for the department.
But, he said, “it’s never been quite like this.”
Most of the climb in fishing license sales has come from “less avid anglers” who don’t buy a license every year, Saunders said. Though, he noted, it’s too early to say how much of the bump will be a “true increase,” rather than a result of people buying licenses earlier than usual. Officials have been actively promoting fishing as “the ultimate social distancing activity.”
Matt Breton, a board member of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ New England chapter and president of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Conservation Group, joined Porter in attributing part of the rise to people having more time.
People cooped up at home, staring at screens, might be more eager to get outside, too, he said.
Another factor might be food security. “For some people, if they’re out of work, putting some fish in the freezer or some turkey in the freezer can be valuable,” Breton said.
Also, cooks looking for a new creative outlet could be more interested in trying their hand at wild meat and fish.
Breton said he’s seen an uptick in people asking him where the best hunting and fishing spots are. That lines up with reports from Department of Fish and Wildlife staff, who Saunders said have noticed more anglers at fishing-access areas, especially in the southern part of the state.
Breton has gotten out himself. The Charleston resident fished for perch on Lake Memphremagog earlier this week.
The department is still allowing non-residents to buy licenses, under the disclaimer that they have to quarantine for 14 days before going hunting or fishing. Saunders said non-resident fishing license sales have been up slightly so far this year, with most of those sales coming from New Yorkers who live along Lake Champlain.
But the department has already refunded some non-resident turkey licenses and is starting to see most non-resident license sales slow down, he said.
Like its counterparts around the country, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has faced funding challenges in recent years linked to declining license sales. Those sales account for about one-third of the department’s $26 million budget, with the rest coming mostly from the general fund and federal dollars.
Porter said he’s not yet sure how much additional revenue the jump in sales will bring in, though “every bit helps,” especially since the department has to match a part of its federal funds.
Like other state agencies, the department anticipates a drop in general fund revenue, which accounts for a quarter of its budget. Officials may also have to cancel annual summer conservation camps, another revenue source, Porter said.
But, at least, Breton hopes, the allure of angling might last.
“Long term, it has the potential to be really good,” he said, “to maybe re-engage folks who have lost touch with how much they enjoyed standing in front of a lake with their kid, fishing.”
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