Rob Southwick can't help but laugh when he hears people talk gloom and doom about the future of fishing.
"A recession is actually good for the sport," the industry researcher said as he wandered the new product booth at July's International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades show in Orlando. "The sale of fishing licenses is actually up."
There was some anxiety leading up the world's largest tackle show — better known as the ICAST show — being held for the first time in more than a decade at the Orlando County Convention Center. But once the doors opened and 7,000 visitors flooded the floor to see the more than 400 exhibitors, optimism prevailed.
Mary Jane Williamson, communications director for the American Sportfishing Association, was buoyed by the recent uptick in license statistics.
"We are up 7 percent over last year," she said. "In a tough economy, people want to go fishing. It is an easy sport to get into. It doesn't take a lot of money to get started. And all you need is a lake, river, stream or ocean nearby to get going."
Southwick said that in times of economic uncertainty, people tend to stay closer to home and do what is familiar to them.
"Participation tends to go up and down, like a roller coaster," he added. The number of anglers nationwide peaked in the late 1980s at about 45 million, said Southwick, whose research puts that number at about 40 million now.
"The baby boomers are the last generation to grow up when they could just grab a rod and go fishing," he said. "Society has changed. There is more competition for things to do."
Industry experts estimate that those 40 million anglers generate more than $45 billion in retail sales each year. That translates to a $125 billion impact on the economy and the employment of more than 1 million people.
"People want to get outside and enjoy the outdoors," Williamson said. "There is no better way to do that than to go fishing."
While the sale of boats and other big ticket items have softened with the economic downturn, the sale of less expensive durable goods has increased. One would assume that if license sales are up, so would the sale of hooks and other terminal tackle, especially in Florida, which has 2.77 million anglers, more than any other state, according to American Sportfishing Association research statistics.
"We are having a great year so far," said Chris Russell, the marketing and product director for Denver-based Eagle Claw. "To go fishing, you need hooks, weights, swivels, all the basic stuff.
"People may not go out and buy a $400 fishing reel, but they will get the basics or they can't fish."
Russell said he thinks the trend is changing.
"People may not be able to go on a cruise this year, but they will take the family camping," he said. "And if you are camping, you have got to bring along the fishing gear."
Another company that has seen a solid sales increase in 2009 is Shakespeare, a sister company of industry heavyweights Berkley and Abu Garcia. Shakespeare sells introductory rods and reels for everybody from 2-year-olds to senior citizens.
"You can get a child into fishing for as little as $10," said Cara Finger, who manages the company's juvenile brands. "Then all you need is some earthworms and you are ready to go."
Shakespeare has introduced countless youngsters to fishing through its lines featuring Disney princesses, fairies, Barbie and Spider-man. The prices range from $9.99 to $14.99 and sell like hotcakes, she said.
Manufacturers and industry officials would like to see sport fishing numbers return to the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s. And industry insiders such as Southwick think it can be done — with some hard work.
"Many of the baby boomers are no longer fishing," he said. "And that myth that you retire and go fishing … well that is really just a myth.
"There is only one way to get those numbers back up there," Southwick said. "And that is to get kids fishing. They are our future."
Times Outdoor Editor Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.