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State of the Outdoor Union: Improving and Strong

The pulse of the American outdoors remains strong, as recent surveys show people continue to enjoy the hunting and fishing pursuits.

State of the Outdoor Union: Improving and Strong
According to the International Hunter Education Association, between 650,000 and 700,000 Americans complete a basic hunter education course every year. (Photo courtesy of Game & Fishing Magazine)

While it’s tempting to focus on the decline of overall hunter numbers in recent years or the de-emphasis of hunting and fishing in popular American culture, outdoor participation in the United States is looking up. Fishing and target shooting participation is on the rise, while areas previously in sharp decline, like hunting, have begun to level out.

Take a Kid Fishing

Americans took the nation’s waterways by storm in 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), according to the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. An impressive 49.4 million people headed to oceans, rivers, lakes and streams to fish. Fishing participation continued its 11-year upward trajectory, adding 300,000 participants and reaching its highest number of participants since 2007.

Freshwater fishing remains the most popular, with nearly double the number of participants as saltwater and fly fishing combined. Freshwater fishing has grown an average of 1.2 percent since 2016, bringing it to 39 million adult participants in the U.S. These anglers embarked on a total of 632 million fishing trips, and anglers spent an average of 16.2 days on the water over the course of the year.

Saltwater fishing was the second most popular type of fishing, engaging 4.3 percent of the U.S. population, or 12.8 million people. After years of steady growth, saltwater fishing’s participation rate slipped by 1.8 percent from 2017 to 2018. Yet the big picture still indicates growth, as the number of participants increased by an average of 2.4 percent from 2016 to 2018. Not surprisingly, saltwater fishing was most popular in the South Atlantic region, where 35 percent of saltwater fishing participants reside.


Fly fishing has the fewest participants, but has seen the most growth. Since 2016, the participation rate has increased 3.7 percent. Fly fishing also has the highest rate of first-time participants of any type of fishing.


Fishing overall remains incredibly popular with kids. In 2018, 23 percent of American youth—11.6 million kids—went fishing. That number easily eclipses the number of kids who went for a run or jog, went on a hike or went camping.

state-of-the-outdoor-union
In 2018, more kids went fishing—11.6 million, to be exact—than participated in activities like running, jogging, hiking and camping. (Photo courtesy of Game & Fishing Magazine)

Same Hunters, Better Bucks

We have long heard that hunting participation is plummeting and a future without hunters in America is a real possibility. That’s not entirely true. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) data, hunting license sales have more or less leveled off in the last six years, with 15.1 million license sales projected for 2020. Sales have ranged between 15.1 million and 15.6 million in the last six years, with a peak in 2016.

Hunting participation was at its highest in 1982, with almost 17 million American hunters buying 28.3 million licenses. In 2016, just 11 million people hunted, according to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. However, in recent years, that decline has plateaued.

New hunters completing Hunter Education courses is one ray of hope on this somewhat cloudy horizon. According to data from the International Hunter Education Association USA (IHEA-USA), between 650,000 and 700,000 Americans complete a basic hunter education course every year. IHEA-USA sets curriculum standards for hunter education and serves as the organizing body of hunter education coordinators in all 50 states.


Research data reveals hunters are becoming more selective, particularly when it comes to whitetail deer. The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) crunches numbers on whitetail harvests every year. In 2018, the average percentage of 1 ½-year-old bucks killed was 30 percent—the lowest national percentage ever reported. By contrast, in 1989, that figure was 62 percent. In today’s whitetail woods, less than one in three antlered bucks’ shot is 1 ½ years old.

Shooting a good buck versus any buck still is largely a regional preference. QDMA data reveals Arkansas averaged the fewest yearlings taken in 2018, with that age class representing just 9 percent of antlered buck harvest, while Wisconsin reported 53 percent of the antlered buck harvest comprised young deer. Interestingly, Arkansas was the only state in single digits and Wisconsin was the only state above 50 percent.

It’s worth noting that despite Wisconsin’s high small-buck harvest rate, the state dramatically reduced its percentage of yearling bucks killed from the previous year. Overall, the southeast region is doing the best job of waiting for a quality deer, while the Northeast ranks lowest. The national percentage of antlered bucks harvested in 2018 that were 3 1/2 years and older was 37 percent—by far the highest percentage ever reported, according to the QDMA.


Trigger Time

Americans still love our guns, and we’re shooting them more often. In 2018, the adult participation rate in target or sport shooting was 22.2 percent of the U.S. population, or 52.1 million adults. This represents a dramatic increase over the 15.1-percent participation rate in 2009. It also represents the highest participation rate measured by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). This means more Americans shoot guns for fun or sport than hunt, fish, play soccer, football or golf.

The most popular types of shooting in 2018 were target shooting with a handgun (16.3 percent of Americans participated), target shooting with a rifle (13.7 percent) and target shooting at an outdoor range (12.6 percent).

Get Outside

Fishermen, hunters and “non-consumptive” outdoor enthusiasts, such as hikers and mountain bikers, are using public lands and waters in record numbers. For example, according to USFWS data on visits to National Wildlife Refuges, 53.6 million people visited one or more National Wildlife Refuges in 2017—up 7.1 million from 2011. Trip-related spending generated $3.2 billion of economic input in local economies. As this spending flowed through the economy, it supported more than 41,000 jobs and generated about $1.1 billion in employment income. Fishing accounted for 10 percent of those expenditures and hunting about 4 percent.

We have many groups to thank for this boost in outdoor participation. For example, the NSSF has developed the +ONE Movement, which encourages hunters and shooters to introduce new participants to hunting and the shooting sports. Every August is celebrated as National Shooting Sports Month, and the group oversees other promotions such as LetsGoHunting.org, LetsGoShooting.org and StepOutside.org. They’re also a leading organization for industry-related research. Other groups, like the QDMA, have started ambitious mentorship programs to help retain new participants. QDMA’s Share Your Hunt, Field to Fork and Scholastic 3D Archery programs, for example, have mentored 148,307 new or beginning hunters.

As much of the country spent this spring and summer stuck at home, one of the few exemptions—even in places hit hard by the novel coronavirus—was outdoor exercise. Looking forward, we will surely see an uptick in outdoor participation figures when 2020 data becomes available. If that time outside results in more lifelong fishermen, shooters and hunters, we’ll have a least one bright spot in this otherwise dark period in our nation’s history.

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