Hook & Bait

By Published on .

Most Popular

When Johnny Espinoza learned how to fish last spring, he wasn't exactly surrounded by the great outdoors. The then 11-year-old's introduction to fishing took place in a city playground, which was less than half a block in size and only a five-minute walk from his Los Angeles home. The playing field was transformed into a makeshift “campground� where counselors pitched tents, gave lectures on water safety and taught urban youngsters like Espinoza how to bait and cast a pole using Hula Hoops laid out on the ground.

The “camping trip� was courtesy of Wonderful Outdoor World (WOW), a project sponsored by various public and private groups (such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Walt Disney Company) to encourage outdoor sports, including camping and fishing, among urban youth. While the number of outdoor recreational activities has risen in recent years, the number of people choosing to fish and hunt has dropped significantly. Once the domain of white males, the fishing and hunting industries are now reaching beyond their core demographic in a bid to gain popularity with the next generation — the multiethnic, urban, video-obsessed and easily bored. “This is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry,� says Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group for outdoor industry suppliers. “Hunting and fishing have to be introduced at an early age in order to become lifelong activities. Baby Boomers grew up participating with their families, but Gen X and Gen Y grew up with the computer and television instead.�

Indeed, enthusiasm for hunting and fishing among young people has been declining since the early 1990s. Angler participation rates among those ages 18 to 24 dropped to 13 percent in 2001, from 20 percent in 1991, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, just 9 percent of the country's 34 million anglers are between the ages of 18 and 24, down from 13 percent a decade ago. Hunting has had similar declines, with overall participation among 18- to 24-year-olds, dropping to 6 percent last year, from 9 percent in 1991. Those ages 18 to 24 make up just 10 percent of the nation's 13 million hunters today, down from 14 percent in 1991. Moreover, a special report by the Fish and Wildlife Service in February 2000 found that blacks and Hispanics are far less likely to hunt and fish than the general population. Industry experts warn that unless more boys and girls — black, Hispanic and white — are recruited, these time-honored wildlife sports could die out.

There are several reasons for the decline. For one, kids today grow up with a different type of parent — one who is more pressed for time. The rise in dual-career and single-parent households means there's less opportunity for a weekend-long family outing. Joe Mueller, spokesman for the Greater St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, sees this in his own family. Raised by an avid duck hunter and fisherman, Mueller grew up taking part in both sports. “I just don't have the time — and neither does my wife, who works part-time,� Mueller says. “We can't just get up at 4 in the morning and go.� Not surprisingly, neither can others: In 1996, 809 out of 13,000 of the region's Boy Scouts were awarded fishing merit badges. Among last year's 15,000 members, only 543 earned the badge.

Then there are our increasingly indoor, sedentary lifestyles. In some schools, computer classes have replaced physical education, which used to be almost universal but today remains in roughly one-fourth of public schools. What's more, the rise in Internet usage has contributed to a decline in overall outdoor recreation among some teens. A 2001 study conducted by RoperASW for the Washington, D.C.-based American Recreation Coalition (ARC) found that the drop in outdoor recreation participation was most pronounced among 18- to 29-year-olds, whose “frequent participation rate� (defined as participating in an outdoor activity several times a week or more) dropped to nearly the same level as that of 30- to 40-year-olds. “Computers have had a huge impact on people's outdoor recreation,� says Mike May, spokesman for the North Palm Beach, Fla.-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA). “Four hours can go by on a Saturday afternoon — writing e-mails, working on school projects, surfing the Internet, playing games — time that could have been spent hunting.�

Additionally, there's a plethora of competing activities, — everything from doing homework and taking college prep courses to playing video games and participating in other sports. Those youngsters who actually do manage some physical activity are dabbling in a wide variety of sports, spending less time on more activities, says Derrick Crandell, president of the ARC, a national nonprofit federation of over 100 recreation-oriented groups. In 1988, the SGMA tracked more than 60 sports; today it counts 103 activities in its survey. Among them are: camping, hiking, rock-climbing and edgier “extreme� or “adrenaline� sports such as kayaking, windsurfing and mountain-biking.

Despite their waning appeal, however, hunting and fishing continue to mean big business. In 2001, both sports generated $70 billion in revenue — from travel expenses, club memberships, licenses, guns and ammunition, binoculars and fishing gear — up from $53 billion in 1991, according to estimates from the Fish and Wildlife Service. And even though participation in hunting has declined over the past 15 years, wholesale revenue from firearms and hunting equipment rose slightly between 1995 and 2000, to $1.9 billion from $1.7 billion, according to the SGMA. Hunters are also spending more money on licenses: $614 million in 2000, up from $439 million in 1991. Anglers are spending more on fishing licenses, tags, permits and stamps issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2000, they shelled out $491 million for such items, up from $375 million in 1991.

Unfortunately, these increases reflect rising costs rather than real growth. So, in an effort to generate meaningful growth, hunting and fishing organizations are scrambling to find solutions. The National Wild Turkey Federation, a conservation and hunting education nonprofit based in Edgefield, S.C., has been expanding its 21-year-old JAKES (Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship) program, increasing membership dramatically, to 175,000 in 2002 from 833 in 1988. The group buses in more than 7,000 inner-city youths to its annual national convention. In addition, a Women in the Outdoors program not only aims to get more women involved in the traditionally male-dominated sport but also to recruit more mothers. Membership has grown to 35,000 today, from 1,300 in 1998. “With the growing population of single mothers raising children, we see this as an opportunity to generate long-term interest,� says James Earl Kennamer, senior vice president for conservation.

In 2001, the Alexandria, Va.-based Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF) partnered with the Ohio Division of Wildlife to launch a pilot program aimed at increasing fishing participation. The RBFF ran a national campaign that included a commercial depicting a young boy's plea, “Take me fishing — because I'm growing up too fast,� in conjunction with local marketing efforts targeting former fishermen. After the ads ran, sales of fishing licenses rose 4 percentage points, following 14 straight years of decline, and generated an additional $560,000 in revenue for the state.

While the RBFF's commercial plays on parental guilt, other programs take a mentoring approach to kids who don't have involved parents. Big City Mountaineers (BCM), a nonprofit that offers outdoor excursions to urban teens, was founded in 1990 to serve two crime-ridden neighborhoods in Miami. Today, BCM operates in more than 25 metropolitan areas, receiving financial support from such companies as JanSport, REI, Galyan's Trading Company and Mountain Hardware. The program offers excursions in which experienced adults accompany inner-city youths out West, teaching them to fish and camp while fostering an appreciation for the outdoors.

Despite such strides, however, efforts to get more urban kids interested in hunting and fishing must overcome formidable obstacles. Wildlife sports face a litany of political, geographic and economic challenges. Politically, hunting faces vocal opposition from both gun control and animal rights advocates, resulting in anti-hunting curricula in schools (which affects early interest and enthusiasm in the sport) and in stricter gun laws (which make it more time-consuming and difficult to secure equipment). Geographically, a combination of suburban sprawl, development of exurban areas, and public land leases tied up by wealthy individuals, private clubs, corporations and groups of middle-class individuals means that hunting grounds are both more distant and more expensive.

Although the percentage of adults, as well as kids, who hunt and fish has dropped dramatically, both sports do continue to maintain a considerable following. A 2000 American Sports Data study found fishing and bowling tied as America's most popular activities, claiming 53.8 million participants in each. Still, the long-term outlook remains somewhat grim. While occasional outdoor sports participation remains steady among older Americas, the number of dedicated enthusiasts is down. According to the SGMA, the average number of days of participation in hunting among people age 6 and older who hunted at least once a year dropped 35 percent between 1987 and 2000, from 25 to 16.5 days per year.

“When I was growing up, if I wanted to go hunting or fishing, I just asked my father or grandfather or a neighbor,� says David Knots, executive vice president and CEO of the Wellington, Colo.-based International Hunter Education Association. “Nowadays, if you want to go fishing, kids often don't know where to turn, and it requires a lot of effort. People say, ‘Heck, I'll just take up golf because it's easier.’�


Additional reporting by Katarzyna Dawidowska.

WHITE MALES OUTDOORS

Hunting and fishing remain overwhelmingly white male sports.

HUNTERS ALL HUNTERS BLACK HUNTERS HISPANIC HUNTERS FEMALE HUNTERS
13,034,000 297,000 428,000 1,190,000
ANGLERS ALL ANGLERS BLACK ANGLERS HISPANIC ANGLERS FEMALE ANGLERS
34,071,000 1,600,000 1,564,000 8,912,000
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2001

ON THE PROWL

A look at the average person who has hunted or fished during the past 12 months.

HUNTERS ANGLERS
Average age 39 42
Median age 38 41
Average income $51,000 $50,000
Median income $45,000 $41,000
$50k-$75k 34% 33%
$75k and up 12% 13%
Non-high-school grad 17% 16%
High school grad 37% 35%
College grad or more 17% 18%
Executive/professional 11% 14%
White-collar 20% 21%
Blue-collar 43% 39%
Married 63% 65%
Parent 69% 77%
With kids under 18 at home 47% 49%
White 94% 89%
Black 4% 8%
Other 2% 3%
Democrat 19% 31%
Republican 38% 28%
Independent 40% 37%
Conservative 48% 47%
Moderate 31% 29%
Liberal 15% 19%
PC in home 67% 63%
Used PC at home in past 30 days 64% 58%
Used PC at work in past 30 days 36% 34%
Homeowner 64% 62%
Source: American Recreation Coalition/RoperASW
In this article: