Jeff Byrne is no stranger to Minnesota fishing. With over 38 years of experience in the industry, Byrne is used to crowded waters and bustling bait stores.
But nothing like this season.
Byrne, who owns Cabin Fever Sporting Goods in Victoria, said in a normal season, he orders supplies and gets them that same week. Now, supplies are coming in every four or five weeks.
“It is like opening week every week,” Byrne said. “We don’t know how long this will last.”
Many fishing businesses in the southwest metro have seen sales over the last two months they have never seen before.
Prior Lake Bait and Tackle has seen a dramatic increase in almost all of their fishing sales.
Ryan Wood, store general manager, said fishing license sales this year have already eclipsed the last two summers combined.
“Last May was the best month this store has ever had,” he said.
He credits the free time people have due to the pandemic as a big reason for the sales uptick.
“Everyone has a lot more time to fish,” Wood said.
As of May 22, the number of fishing licenses sold increased 26 percent from last year at the same time, with over 556,000 sold, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources License Center. In particular, there was a 69 percent increase from 2019 in angling licenses for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Store owners attribute the rise in popularity among youth to the free time the pandemic has forced upon them.
“People couldn’t really do much, and tons of them wanting to fish,” Wood said.
In Carver, a new fishing store barely got off the ground before the pandemic shut it back down.
Old Carver Fishing Bait and Tackle opened in mid-March, but had to close shortly after due to the COVID-19 outbreak. They reopened in late April and, like other businesses, have seen a bump in customers.
“We’ve seen an increase in people going out and fishing this year,” said Jesus “Chuy” Godinez, Jr., who owns Old Carver Fishing with Ricardo Guzman.
For live bait, most area fishing stores have one thing in common.
They get their bait from Ken’s Bait Service.
“They are fantastic,” Godinez said.
Owner Ron Meuwissen grew up in the bait industry. His father, Ken, started the business in 1950 and brought on Ron in 1976. “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” Meuwissen said. “I don’t know anything else.”
Stores like Cabin Fever and Old Carver are just two of an estimated 100 businesses Ken’s Bait distributes to, according to Meuwissen.
Typically, he sees waves of sales in a season. Some months boom, others don’t.
This year is different.
“There has been a lot more people fishing,” he said. “I’m expecting to have better business all summer.”
In terms of the most popular bait requested, Meuwissen said shiners, along with worms and leeches, lead the pack.
While the number of people fishing is rising, the live bait distribution is staying consistent.
Sean Sisler, DNR Commercial Aquatic Programs and Fish Health Consultant, said the number of live bait harvesters, specifically minnows, has been level during the pandemic. There around 250 to 300 minnow dealers in the state, compared to 900 to 1,000 minnow retailers selling the bait.
Cabin Fever gets its supply from Ken’s Bait four times a week, just as it does in an average season.
In Prior Lake, Wood said Ken’s Bait Service supplies them bait twice a week.
WILL SURGE CONTINUE?
With how favorable business has been for local fishing stores thus far, some expect it to come back to earth slightly as the summer progresses.
“(Business) is going to taper down a little bit, but we still are going to see an increase from a normal July and August,” Byrne said.
Given that fishing doesn’t require close contact with others, and allows people to get out of the house, Meuwissen sees the wave of new fishing enthusiasts lasting past the pandemic.
“This is one of the most socially distant things you can do,” he said. “I think (the fishing surge) will last past COVID-19.”
Sales are up. Licenses are up.
The pandemic hasn’t stopped the fishing industry. It has only boosted it.
“The pandemic has been unfortunate for some businesses,” Byrne said. “But it has increased ours.”