Iowa hunting, fishing license sales for 2020 bring in $3.6 million more than 2019

Jump may be COVID-19 blip or trend reversal

Neil Aubart (right) and his brother-in-law Kyle Burroughs, both of Fairfax, jig for fish at Pleasant Creek State Recreat
Neil Aubart (right) and his brother-in-law Kyle Burroughs, both of Fairfax, jig for fish at Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area in Palo on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. The pair landed some keeper crappies. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa sold 24 percent more fishing licenses in 2020, boosting state revenue and reversing what had been a downward trend in the pastime over the last decade.

Fishing enthusiasts say they hope increased interest in fishing during the COVID-19 pandemic will continue as Iowans discover — or rediscover — how casting a line and waiting for fish to bite can be good for mental health.

“It’s very relaxing,” said Gary Smart, 66, of Marion, who is a member of the Cedar Rapids Bassmasters. “There’s nobody out there bothering you.

“Even in tournaments, there are days you don’t catch nothing. But you’re out there, you’re away.”

You can’t get much more socially distant than sitting on a frozen lake ice fishing. That’s what Kyle Burroughs, 37, of Fairfax did last week in Palo with his brother-in-law Neil Aubart.

“I’ve been having good luck these last couple of weeks,” Burroughs said.

The men use an auger to cut a hole through the ice, then drop in a sensor that uses sonar to find underwater structures, such as humps, rocks, fallen trees or drop-offs, where crappie like to hide.

If they find a good spot, they fish there; if not, they move on.

“The electronics and technology these days, you know if they are there are not,” he said.


Burroughs and Smart noticed the increase in anglers last summer, when boat ramps were bustling, sporting goods stores were picked over and it took months to order a new boat.

The Department of Natural Resources sold 439,531 resident and non-resident fishing licenses in the 2020 licensing year, which went from Dec. 15, 2019, to Jan. 10, 2021. This is up more than 84,000 licenses from the previous licensing period.

The increase isn’t unexpected — COVID-19 has caused more people to seek outdoor activities of all kinds — but it follows a long-standing decline in interest in fishing.

The Gazette reported in May 2019 Iowa fishing licenses had fallen 14.5 percent from 2009 to 2018. While 2009 was a big year for fishing because of the economic recession, 2020 had 18,600 more licenses than 2009.

Alex Cross, DNR customer service and licensing supervisor, said in 2019 the downward trend was because families had so many activities, including kids’ sports and travel, competing for their leisure time. But with camps canceled and vacations scaled back in 2020, more Iowans found time for fishing.

Cross said he didn’t know whether the trend will continue in 2021.

“We certainly hope that anglers will continue to partake in the activity and purchase their fishing licenses,” Cross said last week.

“However, it’s hard to predict due to the future of the pandemic, weather and other factors. We work hard, internally, through the R3 initiatives (recruit, retain, reactivate) to provide outreach to current, future and lapsed anglers.”

Fees, licenses and permits made up 17 percent of the DNR’s $378.4 million budget in fiscal 2020.


Fishing and hunting license revenue were $37.4 million in license year 2020, up $3.6 million, or 11 percent, from 2019.

An unexpected boost in fishing and hunting licenses helps the DNR stock more fish in lakes and ponds, restore more habitat and make more improvements to state parks, Smart said. It also helps the state’s economy.

“It generates revenue that trickles down all the way,” he said. “More people are fishing, more people buying equipment. It’s jobs, it’s money all the way around.”

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