A safer way to play: outdoor sports surge

Jennifer Gibbons, of the Village of Marsh Bend, a member of The Villages Canoe and Kayak Club, paddles her way up the Silver River during a recent expedition with the club.

For nearly 20 years, Matt Dunfee has devoted his entire career to getting people outdoors. As director of special programs for the Wildlife Management Institute, one of the nation’s leading nonprofit conservation organizations, Dunfee’s tireless work has addressed shortcomings of natural wildlife resources and facilitated ways for states to further their own conservation efforts. And yet, in just the eight months that the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the country in 2020, the work of Dunfee and other wildlife officials has accelerated at warp-speed rates. “The pandemic has done in eight months what I — and 50 state wildlife agencies — haven’t been able to do in almost two decades,” Dunfee said. “It’s restored my faith in humanity and restored my belief that nature is incredibly important to Americans. Despite what our modern society might have us believe, this pandemic has shown that there’s still a place for nature in the United States of America.”

Americans feverishly sought the solitude and serenity of the outdoors throughout the final two-thirds of 2020, as outdoor sports participation totals surged past previous figures across the country.

At least 32 states reported an increase in some facet of outdoor sports — utilizing end-of-year participation statistics from state wildlife agencies and other outlets to compile resident hunting and fishing licenses, permits and tags — as Americans strived for risk-averse means of recreation.

The sport of hunting particularly thrived throughout the country, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reporting more than 15.1 million licenses sold in 2020 — up 4.9% over the national 10-year average.

“We’d like to say the increases are because people just love the great outdoors, but we all know how isolation and being indoors has forced us into doing different things,” said Greg Workman, acting regional director and spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “But we also know that the hunting and fishing activities that individuals took part in, the boating outings that families took together, all of those moments meant something to those people.

“And in this pandemic, I think we’ve all found that we want to be closer to things that mean something to us.”

The Sunshine State was home to some of the most dramatic increases in outdoor sports participation in 2020, as Florida saw both fishing and hunting license distribution figures hit five-year highs, according to the FWC.

A total of 2,317,375 freshwater and saltwater fishing licenses were approved in 2020, an increase of 8.4% from 2019. Hunting-license sales also rose by 4.1%, with more than 185,000 purchased last year.

Additionally, the FWC reported an increase in boating card issuances of 35.9%, as 74,375 cards were distributed in 2020.

“There’s no doubt that we saw a drastic upward turn in our numbers for the 2020 calendar year,” Workman said. “Because of that, we’ve had to really stretch ourselves and work diligently to make sure our (recreation) areas are open, so that this growing number of Floridians who want to get out there and enjoy themselves can do so.”

Those efforts to facilitate available areas and Florida’s public lands for recreational use began slowly at first, after a statewide shutdown in April halted nearly all of the agency’s work. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the FWC coordinated with county governments across the state to fully open boat ramps and expand land management areas throughout the peninsula, allowing residents to return to their desired outlets of recreation.

“Looking across the board, there’s definitely been a little bit of pressure individually in the upkeep of both management areas and waterways,” Workman said. “We’re deep in the business of managing those fish and wildlife resources for not only their long-term well-being, but also the betterment of people. And it’s clear that the people have sought their own betterment during all of this through those resources, too.”

On a hyperlocal level, an increased desire to get outdoors was more than on display throughout The Villages amid the pandemic, with social clubs largely shuttered for the final eight months of 2020.

That desire appears to continue well into 2021, as all of the guided fishing and nature excursions on Lake Sumter — hosted by The Villages Recreation and Parks Department — are booked full through the end of March.

“I’ve definitely seen an increase in people getting out and fishing here, and there’s no question I attribute most of that as a response to the virus,” said Randy DiSanto, a Village of Summerhill resident and the president of The Villages Freshwater Fishing Club. “A lot of people have been cooped up inside without their usual clubs and social groups going on. But when you come outdoors, you can filter out anything that’s happening around you and it’s truly therapeutic.”

Jim Jones, of the Village of Calumet Grove, said his increased participation within the local fishing club has served him well psychologically during these unprecedented times.

“Whether you’re catching fish or not, it’s sort of become a mental vacation for me during the pandemic,” Jones said. “I’m out just about every morning now because it’s one of those things you can do without having to get close to somebody. You’re out enjoying the sights and sounds of nature, and you’re sort of disconnected from the rest of the world for a couple hours.”

A voluntary disconnection is something that’s also drawn more interest in The Villages Canoe & Kayak Club, which had more than two dozen members and prospective participants at its most recent paddle on Jan. 14 along the Silver River in Ocala.

“We’ve seen an uptick in our group’s desire to get out, as it’s really the best way to social-distance,” said Pati DeLand, the paddling club’s president and a resident of the Village of Pennecamp. “And it seems like everywhere we’re going, we’re seeing the RV parks are full, the state parks are loaded and the fishing areas are all packed. I can’t remember a time I’ve seen so many people getting out in nature.”

The influx of outdoor enthusiasts extends nationwide, with several states exhibiting record-breaking increases in participation figures:

California issued 1.2 million hunting licenses in 2020, the most since 2008.

Fishing license sales in Iowa improved 37% from 2019 to 2020.

Wildlife officials in Maine allotted 110,000 deer-hunting permits in 2020, an all-time state record.

New York, a COVID-19 hotbed during the spring months of 2020, saw its fishing license sales increase 30% from March through May over the same period from the year before.

“Super Combo” licenses in Texas, combining statewide hunting and fishing permits, rose 7% from 2019 to 2020.

 The state of Washington graduated twice as many residents from its 2020 hunter safety courses compared with 2019.

“We’ve known we’ve just needed a little bit of something to help push people into doing these activities more and more, and it turns out COVID-19 was that little something,” Dunfee said. “Now, we have a very narrow window to apply what we’ve learned these last few months, and hopefully retain a sizable chunk of those people — who through COVID — chose to get outside and enjoy it.”

Joining the traditional outdoor sportsman activities, recreational outlets such as archery and hiking — with day-use hiking area activity increasing upward of 40% nationwide, according to the Wildlife Management Institute — also saw participation gains during the pandemic.

Those increases have also led to booms in the niches of the outdoor sports gear industry, with enthusiasts stocking up on equipment and apparel.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation reported 87% of its associated retailers saw increases in firearm sales through the first half of 2020, while Reyr Gear, the nation’s leading fly-fishing rod manufacturer, cited a 200% increase in summer-month sales in 2020 over 2019.

Natalie Brooker, co-owner of Brooker’s Bait and Tackle in Leesburg, which is frequented regularly by members of The Villages Freshwater Fishing Club and residents of The Villages alike, said the store’s sales dramatically increased in 2020.

“Our business has really improved throughout (the pandemic), and we’re seeing a ton of new faces,” Brooker said. “We’re getting people who are just starting out because they’ve got extra time on their hands, and we’re seeing people who are picking up the hobby again for the first time in years. We’re seeing people who are just looking for that experience of being outdoors and soaking up the sunshine.”

Capitalizing on the experiences made outdoors during the pandemic will be a primary focus in the new year for Dunfee and like-minded officials nationwide, as individual state wildlife conservation budgets are reliant on funds accrued by license sales and permit fees.

“We know science is coming for COVID, it already is, so the big question is how do we get people to still come back to the outdoors?” Dunfee asked. “We should be cautious of this bump in participation because it’s going to go back down at some point, but can we stop the threshold a little bit higher than it was before? Can we not have to start from scratch and not wait for some world-altering event to get a bump like this again?

“I think we can do that,” Dunfee continued. “I think we can find ways to get people committed to still enjoying the great outdoors, so that someday the outdoors are still there for us to enjoy.”

Staff Writer Cody Hills can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5286, or cody.hills@thevillagesmedia.com.

Read this story and many others in Saturday’s edition of the Daily Sun.