A New Angle

By Published on .

The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation aims to reel in more anglers. Will the lure of the simpler pleasures hook them?

For better or worse, the looming recession could prove a catalyst for relatively inexpensive leisure pursuits, such as fishing.

It evokes images of Huck Finn, of Andy and Opie ambling down to the pond, and of stoic Midwestern geezers biding their retirement in a lazily drifting boat. It is one of those sepia-hazy, dew-appointed pastimes of that “simpler America� that fewer and fewer people can remember, of a rural republic vs. a global empire. At very least, it is something your dad used to do.

Fishing seems an anachronism in this one-button Internet-access, multitasking world, where cell phones and laptops enable work's creeping encroachment into leisure hours, and where two kids in every classroom are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Who, after all, has time for such lazy, uncomplicated, Zen leisure between 70-hour work-weeks, two careers per household, and children coming of age? How does such a rustic notion strike a chord with a largely urban, techno-centric population buffeted by dog-eat-dog lifestyles accessorized by the latest, hottest, hippest? And yet, the irony of this setup is that it may provide an inarguable, self-sustaining rationale for the pitch of the new ad campaign for the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF), in spite of the difficult waters the organization is attempting to navigate.

A nonprofit consortium of industry associations and government agencies, the RBFF raised a few eyebrows this spring with its “Water Works Wonders� campaign. Introduced on big-ticket national media, such as CBS's NCAA tournament coverage, the TV component of the campaign offers richly photographed, idyllic images of people of all sizes and colors idling in each other's heartfelt company. Different voices, young and old, bid, “Take me fishing …and make me feel 16 again,� or “…because my wedding will be sooner than you think.�

At first blush, it is an evocative, heart-massaging campaign, its peaceful images and lyrical copy a welcome oasis on cluttered adscape of noisy product pitches. This is not mere happenstance. The RBFF, which did not respond to interview requests, took up its charge three years ago with an exhaustive battery of research into why people fish and why they don't do so more often. The number of active anglers decreased from 35.6 million people aged 16 and older, to 35.2 million between 1991 and 1996, according to the Department of the Interior. While not a precipitous decline, it is ominous when compared with a 20 percent growth in the angling population through the 1980s.

In its own series of regional telephone surveys conducted by Responsive Management, a research firm based in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the foundation discovered that 55 percent of past anglers cited time constraints as the reason they had curtailed fishing. Of those, 69 percent cited work obligations as the locus of their time constraints. So at least among those who'd fished before, the point of disconnect almost informs the lure of angling. That is, amid our hectic schedules, we are primed for a much-needed respite, if only we can find the time and impetus.

Further research supported the notion of fishing as disconnection with our vocational lives in favor of reconnection with the private. According to Responsive Management's data and a 1980 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, 35 percent of anglers in 1999 cited relaxation as their reason for fishing, vs. 14 percent in 1980. Thirty-three percent cited “being with family and friends� in 1999, vs. 19 percent in 1980. Meanwhile, the traditional sporting or utilitarian purposes for angling declined proportionally. Only 7 percent of anglers cited sporting as their reason for fishing in 1999, vs. 20 percent in 1980, while those who angled to catch fresh fish declined from 28 percent in 1980, to 5 percent in 1999.

And so we see some social validation of the comic stereotype of the fisherman dropping his line to crack a beer, jaw with buddies, or simply, in the Buddhist interpretation, push off from cognitive business. As a result, receptive ears might well be fielding the pitch.

“One of the most common tensions of our time is the contrast between living in this upgradeable society, where everything is faster and faster, and a sense of, as I've called it, ‘Stop-the-World-I-Want-to-Get-Off,’� says Myra Stark, senior vice president and director of knowledge management at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.

Stark sees fishing as a pastime that can easily fall under the aegis of a broader middle-class trend toward a more deliberate, simpler existence. Witting or unwitting apostles of Thoreau, these citizens have come to re-examine their lifestyles from three separate, yet often interconnected, paths: spirituality, nostalgia, and voluntary simplicity. Spirituality has cropped up less as a religion-specific phenomenon and more as a yearning for touchstones outside the mundane; a “spiritual individualism,� Stark says, “a little bit of yoga, a little bit of religion, a little bit of communing with nature.� Nostalgia's psychological engine is, as Stark defines it, “yearning for a simpler, better time.� Both notions weave in with what is perhaps a more distinctive social/consumption wave called “voluntary simplicity.�

This latter-day Waldensian notion began in the early 1990s as a fringe, green-tinted rejection of the Babylonian couture of the 1980s. Though not all embracing Thoreau's pure asceticism, many adherents of voluntary simplicity have basically bowed out of the rat race, and taken to lower-paying jobs in exchange for less stressful, less consumptive, and more eco-friendly lifestyles. By 1997, the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, New York found that 12 percent to 15 percent of Americans were practicing voluntary simplicity, qualified as actively reducing their families' consumption and expense, and separating quality of life from material goods. “These are very strong trends in this country, and fishing fits in with them perfectly,� says Stark.

The foundation's own research would seem to bear this out. In a block of regional studies, 62 percent to 69 percent of non-anglers said they would be encouraged to fish if asked to do so by a child, while 58 percent to 65 percent said they would respond positively if invited by a friend. Meanwhile, at least 80 percent of past anglers in all regions said they would go fishing more often if invited by a child or a friend.

But the big question is whether the RBFF can lure enough past and prospective anglers out of the rat race, especially monied Baby Boomers who will soon have more and more time on their hands. Fishing rates per age group peak at the 35- to 44-year-old range, with around 22 percent of that group active in the sport. Those in the 45- to 54-year-old category hold relatively steady: 20 percent of them still go fishing. The number drops to 15 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds, then 9 percent of those 65 and older, as they opt for more packaged, all-inclusive vacations that require less autonomous action. The RBFF would seem to be fighting the age wave of the Baby Boom, as it grows the 55- to 64-year-old group by some 47 percent over the next decade.

Still, we should keep in mind that generational proclivities often re-map current age patterns. This Aquarian generation may be among the most amenable to the tug of nostalgia and voluntary simplicity, not to mention heartfelt entreaties to quality moments with children and grandchildren. And beyond that, for better or worse, the looming recession could prove a catalyst for both the voluntary simplicity movement and relatively inexpensive leisure pursuits, such as fishing. The voluntary simplicity movement gained its footing amid the lean economic times of the early 1990s, when, as Trends Research Institute director Gerald Celente puts it, it qualified as “involuntary voluntary simplicity� for many families. And while it has held relatively steady since 1997, the southward trend of the economy and the latest tsunami of downsizing may usher more consumers, voluntarily or not, to simpler pleasures.

“It's like all these great songs you hear from the 1930s, about how ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free,’ and sentiments like that, because people couldn't afford the other things,� says Celente. “These days, we're of a consumer mentality that, the more money you make, the more things you can buy, therefore the happier you are. But if you don't know if you're going to have a job next year, you're not going to go into debt as readily, and you're going to rethink what the best things in life are. [In such a context] things like [fishing] are only going to grow.�

Indeed, disconnect may just be the most immediate utility of a gradual return to America's lakes and rivers. Who knows — as the Wall Street bubble continues to deflate, more anglers may, as they used to, look to their poles and lines to put food on the table.

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