Redefining the Number of People Who Fish

Report Says Many More People Fish Than Was Known, But Not Every Year

Photo © Ken Schultz

At a recent meeting that I attended, one participant, a state fisheries agency representative, gave an assessment of funds available for future research and access improvement projects in her state. She cautioned that her assessment was based on having the same amount of license buyers as in the past, noting that if the number of licensees diminished, so would the funds available for certain projects.

That lead to a discussion about the general factors that affect angling participation. Those factors are not entirely predictable. Angling participation annually and over longer periods hinges greatly on local and national economic conditions, the quality of local angling, and the state of access opportunities.

Annual License Numbers

Currently, 33 million people over the age of 16 are believed to fish annually in the U.S., a number that has risen slightly in recent years after a period of slow decline. The state agencies who manage recreational fishing have a fairly good idea how many people fish annually in their states, thanks to data from mandatory resident and nonresident license sales.

They don’t have an absolute number because not everyone who goes fishing is actually counted. Some states don’t require licenses of people under or over a certain age. Some don’t require licenses of people who fish on private waters.

And some may not require a license for people who fall into certain other categories.

What About Turnover?

Nevertheless, state and federal resource administrators as well as industry and angling-interest associations have long relied on license-sale numbers to depict the level of angling participation and determine whether that participation is going up, down, or sideways.

Lurking in the background was the subject of how many recruits come into the fold each year, how many leave, and how likely were new recruits to stay as well as lapsed anglers to return. Annual turnover was speculated to be a fair amount, but no one knew. 

Surprising Results From Study on Who Comes and Goes 

In the summer of 2015, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), a trade organization primarily made up of manufacturers, released the results of a study it commissioned on angler habits and loyalty. That report, U.S. Angler Population, Who Comes and Who Goes, had these surprising results:

  • 46 percent of anglers who fish in a given year do not fish the following year
  • 49 percent of anglers only purchase a license once every ten years
  • the typical angler buys a license about three out of every ten years
  • 41 percent of resident license buyers do not renew the following year
  • 63 percent of nonresident license buyers do not renew the following year
  • 4 percent of license buyers purchase a license every year (ten out of ten years)
  • female, 18- to 24-year-old, and urban-based anglers lapse most often
  • about the same number of people join and leave the license-buying pool each year

Redefining Angler Numbers

Of special note is the finding that avid anglers comprise a very small percentage of the greater angling population.

The fishing tackle industry plays heavily to, and relies greatly on, that dedicated core.

More notable is the fact that the number of people who buy fishing licenses over a period of time (three, five, or ten years) is far greater than the number of one-year license buyers. This means that if you categorize anglers as people who buy a license over a longer period of time, the number is far more than was realized. It also means that a significant portion is comprised of casual or less frequent participants. Perhaps it’s necessary to redefine the angler population based on multiple-year license purchases, and rely less on single-year figures.


ASA President Mike Nussman nailed it when he observed that the challenge was keeping people fishing, and noting that the report “confirms we need to keep working on making fishing a better experience by improving access, quality and convenience.”

As a trade group, his organization wants to grow annual participation, not only for business purposes, but also because greater annual participation means more license sales. Stable or increased license sales means that state agencies can continue efforts to provide quality experiences, as well as enhance access and undertake projects that help fish and their habitats.

I’m certain that regardless of economic conditions, people will fish more often if and when they have high-quality experiences. The essential component of that is hooking and landing an ample number of fish when they go fishing.