Pandemic lockdowns forced last year’s International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades to become a virtual experience. This year, ICAST was an in-person event that, among other things, highlighted perhaps the craziest year ever in the fishing industry.

The sport just saw its largest growth ever, according to Frank Peterson, president of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and speaker at ICAST kickoff breakfast. Total participants who started fishing in 2020 rose by 4.6 million, he said, bringing the percentage of Americans who fish to 18 percent (54.7 million). To put that figure into perspective, the goal of the RBFF’s Take Me Fishing effort is to attain 60 million anglers by year’s end. If pandemic activity is any guide, that figure is attainable. RBFF-produced videos saw viewership nearly triple, from 18 million to 54 million sessions.

RBFF president Frank Petersonspoke  about the Take Me Fishing effort to attain 60 million anglers by year’s end.

RBFF president Frank Petersonspoke about the Take Me Fishing effort to attain 60 million anglers by year’s end.

As more people entered the sport, tackle sales soared 40 percent, which translated to a 54 percent increase in funds ($209 million) received from excise taxes on tackle, licenses and fuel. Those funds are distributed to various initiatives and nonprofit organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association, which staged ICAST from July 20-23 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

The cash influx couldn’t have come at a better time. ICAST usually provides the ASA with its largest single source of revenue each year, but in 2020, revenues from the virtual show only amounted to 12 percent of the previous year’s totals. Although the ASA had reserves to remain viable, according to association president Glenn Hughes, the situation forced a “painful” reduction in staffing levels and compensation.

But perhaps the biggest casualty was the face-to-face interaction between buyers and sellers in the relationship-based industry, according to Chris Russell, marketing manager for Plano Molding. “We’ve known a lot of these people for years,” he says, “and we really missed interacting with each other last year.”

2b_60-Million-Angler-RBFF-goal-for-2021

Trying to predict this year’s attendance amid the continuing pandemic, Hughes submitted a budget to ASA board members in September 2020 with projected revenues of roughly 80 percent of the 2019 show. “Two weeks before the show, there were only 7,300 people registered,” Peterson says. “I think people were waiting until the last minute to see if they were really going to pull this thing off.”

In the end, more than 10,000 attendees showed up, and ASA met its budget numbers. Jeff Kolodzinski, brand manager at Humminbird, was among those who were on-site. “I came here hoping to see halls full of buyers, sellers and media, and the crowds and the enthusiasm exceeded my expectations,” he says.

An estimated 110 to 130 international companies did not attend because of overseas travel restrictions. Domestic support among vendors was strong, though some larger marine-industry companies paid for space and then did not attend. Hughes says that larger absentee companies vowed to return next year, with about 30 companies citing supply-chain issues this year.

The rise in Covid-19 cases in Florida did not seem to dampen domestic attendance. The wild card was the spike in cases of the Delta variant, which hit Florida hard during the month preceding the event. (Cases were still climbing at the time of this writing.) The ICAST website addressed the issue with statement: “We are monitoring the situation daily and will ensure our plans follow the recommendations of public health experts and the standards set forth by the CDC and other federal, state and local agencies.”

The opening day industry breakfast was well-attended.

The opening day industry breakfast was well-attended.

Orange County Convention Center had held more than 100 events in the past 12 months, and perhaps 1 percent of ICAST attendees wore masks. According to the convention center, a total of 83 events are scheduled there with an estimated economic impact of $1.5 billion. In a normal year, there are 170 events.

At ICAST, attendees often greeted one another by asking, “So did you get the vaccine?” Depending on the answer, the questioner may have retreated a step or two. Despite the awkwardness, handshakes were the order of the week, followed by a squirt of hand sanitizer. The overall mood was a combination of optimism and appreciation of a return to normality.

The pandemic did result in some unusual changes in spending that may affect the fishing industry going forward, according to breakfast keynote speaker Jay Baer. In addition to the 40 percent increase in tackle sales, pet-store sales were up 20 percent, slipper sales rose 70 percent, and divorces were up 34 percent. Baer sounded a cautionary note, saying many of the gains in the fishing industry came at the expense of other leisure activities. “You can expect them to be ready to spend a lot of time, money and effort bringing them back into their fold,” he said.

American Sportfishing Association 
president Glenn  Hughes. 

American Sportfishing Association president Glenn Hughes. 

Even still, according to an RBFF survey, 90 percent of new anglers want to continue in the sport, and 86 percent of the reactivated want to continue. The key to retaining new customers, according to Baer, is to make fishing less complicated and have more hands-on assistance to help new anglers catch fish.

“The expectations are the most important part, and as a new and casual angler who’s spending a bunch of money on this sport, they expect it to be awesome and easy,” Baer says. “Awesome, sure. Easy, not so much.”

Also making news this year was the ICAST New Product Showcase, whose top vote-getter — for the first time ever — was a fishing lure. Berkley’s PowerBait Gilly fishing lure, designed with help from bass pro Mike Iaconelli, took the show’s top award. 

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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