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Reel unbelievable: Fishing, boating industries still playing catch-up with pandemic-driven demand

Reel unbelievable: Fishing, boating industries still playing catch-up with pandemic-driven demand


Kara Rowe says none of her 20 years in the fishing tackle and supply business compares to the year 2020. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s not a surprise. But no one could have predicted the extent of the changes — or a silver lining.

“No one has ever seen anything like this in this industry, and it has taken everyone by surprise,” she said. “Pegs (holding fishing tackle) are empty everywhere. People send me pictures from Academy and Walmart asking if we have something. We’ve had some (empty shelves), too.”

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reported a 30% increase in fishing license sales in March 2020 over the same month in 2019. April sales were up 49%.

The challenge for the fishing industry — and for many other suppliers of a wide variety of outdoors and sports-related gear, from roller blades to boats and RVs — is that most inventories are planned and ordered well in advance of the season. The springtime months are big for retail sales and the slow season for manufacturers retooling for the next season’s line-up and attending trade shows.

When the pandemic led to closings of businesses and schools and put a halt to summer sports that usually keep families on the move, people turned to outdoor sports. The trend wasn’t a surprise but the degree of demand was unheard of, and that it still continues likewise is unheard of, according to industry spokespeople.

Many shelves and pegs that normally hold baits and lures in sporting goods stores remain empty. Even live minnows have been hard to come by, Rowe said. Hatcheries only plan to grow a certain number of fish for deliveries, and it takes time to grow more. As manufacturing companies begin to open again, including Chinese industries, supplies are starting to come back, but slowly.

“Usually right after the July Fourth weekend it just dies. It’s hot and nobody wants to go out. People are getting ready for school. But it has stayed pretty busy this summer.”

Rowe said retailers are getting about a third or a little more than what they need to meet demand, but things are slowly improving.

“It’s a good problem to have, considering everything,” she said.

Boats of all kinds are in high demand but with a selection of used boats coming on the market as new 2021 models begin to roll off production lines the supply is coming around. Stan Jones, owner and sales manager at Nichols Marine in Tulsa, said not to hesitate if you find the boat you like.

“It’s definitely a seller’s market,” he said. “I had a couple in here last week that said they liked a boat but they needed a couple hours to think about it. They called back and it was already sold.”

Jeff Warren, general manager at the Broken Arrow Bass Pro Shops, said boats, kayaks and all outdoor gear are in high demand, although supply trucks come in every day and the organization has gone to great lengths working with longtime suppliers and bringing in new products to fill gaps as well.

“To say this is unprecedented is underplaying it,” he said. “It’s really incredible.”

Supplies naturally fell short with unprecedented spring demand, but the situation continues with high demand, he said.

“We get at truck in almost every day so we have supplies,” he said. “What’s happening is the product is rolling in and it’s just blowing out the front door at the same time.”

Rod-and-reel combos for beginning anglers were some of the first things to be sold out and the demand for other gear continues to grow, he said.

“Fishing is addictive, that’s the name of the game,” he said. “You get that beginning combo and then you want that tackle box and a couple of different lures and then you need a bigger tackle box and more lures and that’s how it goes for everyone.”

The silver lining to the pandemic and closures and economic hardships is family time and connections with the outdoors, Warren said.

“So many families and kids have been out there fishing for the first time; this is something that will have a lasting effect on the industry,” he said. “Those kids aren’t going to want to put those rods down. People will catch things and love it and we will see people continue to go outdoors. It’s probably the greatest thing we’ve seen for fishing in a long time. It’s just sad that it’s coming out of something that’s not so good. I guess it’s one silver lining in the whole deal.”

Video: Mayor G.T. Bynum gives an update on Tulsa’s COVID-19 response.

COVID-19 basics everyone need to know as the pandemic continues.

Kelly Bostian



Twitter: @KellyBostian

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