Seems to Be Something Fishy Here : Licenses: Population on the rise, interest in the sport is high, but registration of anglers has dropped dramatically.


It was a dark and stormy Wednesday in Long Beach, a nice setting for a mystery. Working people who should have been at work were lined up, with the parking lot full, waiting for a fishing tackle show to open.

The mystery: Why is there concern that fishing is dying?

The suspicion: Too many fishermen don’t buy fishing licenses.

California Department of Fish and Game figures show that in the past 10 years, while the state’s population has ballooned from 24.267 million to 29.760 million, the sale of resident annual fishing licenses has shrunk from 2,295,079 to 1,492,692--a one-third drop.


Although the latter figure for 1990 is not quite complete, it’s close enough to represent only 5% of Californians, or slightly more than half of the percentage--9.5%--who bought licenses in ’81, while some evidence indicates there are at least as many people fishing as ever.

Rick Loncarovich, an analyst for the DFG’s licensing branch in Sacramento, said fishing license sales are down all over the country. But that isn’t to say fishing is down. In a survey of saltwater fishing conducted by Chico State for the DFG, only 77.8% of the anglers said they bought a fishing license. Presumably, 22.2% admitted they hadn’t. But how many didn’t admit it?

By the DFG’s own estimates from field checks, 25% don’t have licenses, which is in line with an American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Assn. survey figure of 25.8%. Others think that’s conservative. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that nationally it’s as high as 48%.

One reason offered is that licenses, which have jumped from $5 in 1980 to $21.50 in California this year, have become too expensive, while fishing is as good as ever.

The Blake Jones Trout Derby at Bishop in the Eastern Sierra this month drew 657 entries, up 51 from 1990.

Martha Miklaucic, manager of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce, said: “Our car counts and transient occupancy tax (revenue) from the season opening (in late April) until September have been steadily rising.”

Bob Fletcher of the Sportfishing Assn. of California said that there has been a shift from private charters toward open party boats, but added: “Last year was such a good year that everybody made a little money.”

Fred Hall said attendance at his fishing shows, including the one in Long Beach, is holding up, although he declined to disclose figures.

“We never vary,” Hall said. “We will be up or down 5,000 from year to year, but it’s always there. Rain doesn’t change it. You know fishermen. They’re crazy. They’ll go anywhere for fishing.”

Except they all don’t stop to buy a license first. They’re just saving their money for fishing tackle.

The fishing business is good, with some reservations. Bernie Wenzel, a buyer for Sportmart, one of the nation’s largest merchandisers of tackle, said in Long Beach: “I don’t think we’ve tapped our potential yet. One of the hottest items we have is Berkley Trout Bait. We can’t keep it in stock. And our license sales have been going up.”

Roy Gray, a buyer for Turner’s Outdoorsman stores, said: “We are the most aggressive advertisers in the fishing market, so our business has continued to grow.”

But he added: “Fishing is declining in overall sales. The (drought) situation is very real. The saltwater fishing is keeping everybody in business.”

Richard Hightower, who represents the Fenwick Co. with smaller stores, said: “I see (fishing) declining. The older fishermen are getting tired, and there aren’t many young ones coming up. We need to do more clinics.”

Grant Smith of Sportmart said: “There seems to be a shift toward saltwater fishing the last couple of years. The drought affects freshwater fishing--plus we’ve had good saltwater fishing the last few years.”

Miklaucic of Bishop disagrees. “I am concerned about the perception in Southern California that if there’s a drought, the (freshwater) fishing is no good,” she said. “That’s not the case.”

With the recent heavy snowfalls, many Sierra streams that might have gone dry by summer will be flowing into fall, and high-country lakes will be full.

Bob Tanner, who runs Red’s Meadow Pack Outfit at Mammoth Lakes, shares Miklaucic’s concern. “The only guaranteed places are always going to be the (high-country) lakes,” Tanner said. “Up there, you can’t tell the difference between a wet year and a dry year. They don’t drain off.”

Opening-day crowds have been down the last few years at Crowley Lake, the traditional place to be, but Miklaucic thinks some anglers got tired of fighting the hordes and scattered to other spots.

Mike Johns at the Tom’s Place store and roadhouse on U.S. 395 near Sherwin Summit said: “We have seen a decline in the numbers (of people), but the business has been up in dollars the last five years.”

So how about those theories?

--The drought. This doesn’t wash. License sales were dropping about twice as fast before than after the first dry winter of 1986-87.

--License fee increases. Hard to say. Sales took their biggest drop--158,558--when licenses jumped from $13.75 to $18 in 1986. Now they cost $21.50. But the Chico State survey indicated that loss of interest and lack of time--not the cost of a license--were the main reasons some people quit fishing. And 62.2% said they would support a $5 fee increase for marine resources management.

--Attrition. Old anglers dying off--no kids coming up? Makes sense. Urban, single-parent families usually are headed by a mother--or father--who can’t be bothered to take the kids fishing. And a survey by the American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Assn. found that 90% of fishermen started before they were 20. After that, forget it.

The one-day license also may be a factor. The DFG started offering them four years ago as an alternative for the angler who went fishing only once or twice a year. At first, they were $5, now they are $7.75, and the 341,116 sold in 1990 no doubt drained some numbers and revenue from the sale of annual licenses.

Or maybe some of those one-day wonders wouldn’t have bought annual licenses, anyway. For many anglers, the saving is worth the low risk of getting caught. It’s common for an angler to say, “I’ve been fishing all my life and never been checked.”

The DFG’s financial problems have been well publicized. But if there were even half a million people fishing without licenses last year, the loss in revenue would have been $10 million--about 7% of the department’s total budget, which includes managing the state’s fishing resources.

That’s why honest anglers complain that they’re paying the bill for the scofflaws.

Everybody doesn’t need a license. Kids under 16 are exempt, and licenses aren’t required on piers and certain breakwaters where many people fish for subsistence. There also is a bill in the state Assembly that would exempt everyone 62 and over.

The DFG would like to catch the others--but how?

DeWayne Johnston, chief of enforcement, said: “One of the things hampered by budget cutbacks is our ability to check whether people are fishing without licenses.”

Johnston said citations dipped from 13,000 in 1987 to 7,700 in ’89, before recovering to 11,000 in ’90.

“The guys in the field say they aren’t finding a higher percentage (of people) fishing without licenses,” Johnston said.

But Johnston has fewer than 400 wardens throughout the state and they have been overburdened by environmental enforcement responsibilities, such as oil spills and stream-bed alterations, that have been added in recent years.

A few states require anglers to wear their licenses as name tags, so they can be easily checked and perhaps bring peer pressure to bear.

Olga Martin-Steele, chief of DFG licensing, said: “To be able to tell whether your (fishing) neighbor has a license may be an effective way to go.”

But Johnston said: “I think it would be a bad idea. It would cause more bad PR than it’d be worth. But maybe a little peer pressure would help to sell licenses.”

Other suggestions include urging tackle retailers--virtually all of whom sell licenses--to remind customers of the need for one; organizing fishing clubs in licensing campaigns, and assigning cadet wardens from the Vallejo academy as a part-time task force to check for licenses.

Anyone caught fishing without a license this year will pay a basic fine of $250 to $500 that can reach $600 with penalty assessments. That threat might bring a lot of the phantom fishermen out of the shadows.

Fishing is as good as ever. The solution might be to catch more fishermen.

California Resident Sportfishing License Sales

Year Population Licenses % Price 1979 23,257,000 2,233,443 9.6 $5 1980 23,780,000 2,255,028 9.5 $5 1981 24,267,000 2,295,079 9.5 $5.75 1982 24,786,000 2,258,995 9.1 $6.25 1983 25,309,000 2,155,264 8.5 $6.75 1984 25,780,000 2,058,900 8.0 $13* 1985 26,358,000 1,955,230 7.4 $13.75 1986 26,999,000 1,796,672 6.7 $18 1987 27,655,000 1,708,685 6.2 $18 1988 28,323,000 1,653,442 5.8 $18.50 1989 29,063,000 1,586,637 5.5 $18.75 1990 29,760,021 1,492,692** 5.0 $20.50

*--Separate trout and salmon stamps discontinued.

**--Incomplete; some agent sales not yet reported.

SOURCES: California Department of Finance; California Department of Fish and Game.