Fishing (and outdoor sports in general) have exploded in popularity as more people discovered the sport during the pandemic. TV viewership of fishing tournaments increased as well.
Winter’s arrival has done nothing to cool the trend; in fact, say industry experts, ice fishing is gaining popularity as well.
“Absolutely COVID has led to more interest in ice fishing,” says Ben Blegen, Program Director and a member of the USA Ice Team (a part of the United States Angling Confederation).
And, he notes, no studies are necessary. “For this answer, I look no farther than the fishing section at my local sporting goods store. The depleted stocks of fishing gear, specifically ice fishing rods, tackle, clothing and bait doesn't go unnoticed. My local bait shops here in Minnesota are too feeling the pressure of having to keep up with depleted stocks of ice fishing gear, clothing and rods.”
Over the course of the pandemic, he adds, more people have discovered the outdoors – and although the weather is cooling down, they are still finding ways to explore.
“As most people understand, COVID has led to few possibilities for people to get out and enjoy their normal activities and routines. It's no secret many people have turned to outdoor activities, such as ice fishing, as a great way to social distance and experience nature in a way they haven't had a chance to before. With even more limited opportunities in the winter to find indoor activities that require social distancing, ice fishing seems to be a winter activity more people are trying out this year than ever before.”
Unfortunately, the outlook for on-ice tournaments may not be quite as good. According to Minnesota’s MPR News, the logistical challenges of putting on ice fishing events are compounded by the pandemic; in fact, the state's largest ice fishing contest is going virtual this winter. The 30-year-old Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza typically draws about 10,000 anglers (estimates have been between 8,000 and 13,400) to Gull Lake every January.
Angie Nelson, a committee member with the Brainerd Jaycees, said this winter, organizers decided COVID-19 restrictions would make it difficult to host the event safely.
"Our ice holes that we pre-drill are 10 feet apart. We knew that the issue wasn't with the contestants on the ice,” Nelson said. “The issue is with the tents, the weigh-in tent and the ticket tent, and when people gather around the stage. It's hard to socially distance."
The rules of the virtual competition make it possible for participants to fish on any frozen lake in Minnesota, provided the species of fish they enter are native to Gull Lake as well. And the tournament still intends to give out $150,000 in prizes. Participants will use a tournament app to enter their catches, and fish will be judged by length.
The virtual event won't have the large-scale economic impact it typically has but Nelson and other organizers are hoping for a few hundred people hitting the Brainerd area for the weekend anyway. The event typically raises $100,000 to $250,000 for local charities.
Other organizers aren’t waiting to be told that putting on their events may be problematic. According to the Star-Tribune, the DNR typically fields about 100 applications for permits (required of any ice fishing contest expected to draw over 150 participants). By mid-January, only 50 applications had been received, and of those, 20 had been withdrawn.
But, says Ben Blegen, there are still hopeful signs.
“I am not seeing an abnormal increase in virtual tournaments over the traditional in-person tournaments we are all familiar with. This is specifically due to tournament directors being able to follow outdoor social distancing and CDC guidelines without complications.”
It's the very large events, he adds, that seem to have the most difficulty; unfortunately, those tend to be fundraising activities and tournaments.
“In these types of derbies, it is harder to implement CDC guidelines because the amount of competitors or anglers cannot be controlled. These events need the larger number of contestants because they benefit from the entry fees associated with participation. Professional fishing tournaments, such as the North American Ice Fishing Circuit, limit the number of anglers and has an extensive set of rules the anglers must follow in order to participate. This makes it easier to implement any small changes concurrent with CDC guidelines. “
He also notes that there is great potential for the future, once things return to normal.
“Throughout the past winters, I have the opportunity to fish many different lakes and destinations throughout the ice belt. This year particularly, I have noticed there is a huge increase in numbers of people out on the lakes, more specifically kids.”
Recreational anglers can turn into competitors, after all, and even weekend anglers’ pilgrimages to ice fishing meccas like Minnesota can bring in dollars to the industry.
And while large contests may need to adjust, says Jon Hansen, fisheries program consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, ice fishing itself is still a safe, fun outdoor activity to do during the winter.
“We still really want folks to get out fishing,” he said. “We just don't want a whole bunch of people gathering from a bunch of different households in one spot.”
And, Blegen notes, judging by the traffic, ice fishing will remain popular. “The lake landings in many different states are packed with parked cars and vehicles not able to travel on the lakes. I live about 15 minutes south of a very popular lake here in Minnesota called Lake Mille Lacs which is just off a popular highway, HWY 169, that leads to many northern Minnesota lakes from the Twin Cities. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the increased traffic flow from all the vehicles pulling fish houses and pickups carrying ice shacks has increased about 200 percent in my observation.”