Within just a matter of weeks in 2020 angling went from lockdown to one of its busiest summers ever. So, what were the reasons for this success and who were the biggest winners? From the success of the Angling Trust’s #whenwefishagain campaign, to retailers’ innovative solutions and the tidal wave of new and returning anglers with initiatives such as “Take a Friend Fishing”, it’s been an emotional ride! Dom Garnett caught up with some key figures to reflect on how angling emerged from the Covid crisis with fresh hope.
Now that the dust has settled and we hit autumn, it seems a fitting time to look back on what has been the most surprising and uplifting summer of angling in a lifetime. Sitting at home in March under lockdown, who would have thought lakes and river banks would soon be crowded, fishing licence sales would rocket or that maggots and boilies would be selling out faster than family packs of toilet roll?!
We can allow ourselves a wry smile now, but it all looked so different in the spring. While it’s difficult to pin this massive, complex comeback to one factor alone, there are several key players that deserve huge credit. So, where do we start?
1. “When we fish again” makes a compelling case for angling!
As worrying as it was that just about every sport and outdoor hobby was banned in the early stages of lockdown, there was a big opportunity for fishing. The Angling Trust grasped the initiative early, however, to produce one of the best pieces of promotion the sport has ever seen! The #whenwefishagain campaign, made the case with compelling evidence for angling as a safe, healthy sport.
Angling’s emergence as one of the first permitted post-lockdown sports was no coincidence, but a concerted effort that made the case directly and effectively to government. Other activities only wished they’d taken the proactive, professional approach of angling under new Trust CEO Jamie Cook.
Not that it was a case of “job done” as soon as we could wet a line again, because the Trust was also quick to seek clarification on night fishing, boat fishing and other areas. Our phones went into meltdown as we helped all manner of you with your queries and challenges, while our Covid-19 Support Hub proved an invaluable resource.
Steadily, we then progressed to the next parts of a thoughtful, phased approach. Match fishing was yet another key area where the country’s top anglers got behind the Trust’s logical approach. With sensible guidelines and exemplary behaviour from the vast majority of anglers and fisheries, competitions soon returned to the fore.
2. Participation surges, as the nation’s mental health takes centre stage
Quite understandably after a period of lockdown, the national debate centred on issues such as mental health, exercise and the outdoors. As someone who endured the whole nightmare in a fourth floor flat with a noisy baby, I felt this as intensely as anyone, but it was fantastic to see wellbeing and the great outdoors finally elevated to their rightful importance in national debate.
As restrictions were eased, the climate was perfect for ideal socially distanced way to get outdoors, angling’s blend of excitement and relaxation. As Clive Copeland, Angling Trust Head of Participation reflects: “Lockdown kept people indoors and often had a detrimental effect on mental health; as we emerged from this people were desperate to get outside and boost their wellbeing. Angling is perfect for this!”
“Because angling doesn’t discriminate, is relatively cheap and accessible to all abilities, backgrounds and income demographics, it is beautifully simple and universal as a sport. Everyone can easily access the benefits of it, especially in terms of mental health and wellbeing.”
3. A golden era for famous anglers and TV coverage?
Talking of angling as a sport for everyone, you only have to look at the variety of participants to see that it appeals to everyone from Premier League footballers and A-List actors, through to paramedics, drivers and dustmen! In fact, you might be surprised at some of the names on our recent blog, including Liam Neeson, Johnny Vegas and Cerys Matthews. How many other sports have such universal appeal?
While angling rarely seems to get much yardage in the national press, it has been a brilliant time for televised angling, too. From Monster Carp to River Monsters, fishing is reaching more people than ever via screens. Fantastic to see!
If there’s one unlikely hit show that has truly hooked anglers and non-anglers alike, however, it has to be Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing. Could its wide appeal be down to its focus on friendship, laughter and health, rather than just the actual fish? Judging by the number of non-angling friends who love it, I suspect that’s a yes!
Here’s a great summary of what angling means to so many of us in difficult times, from Paul Whitehouse himself:
“I think lockdown made everyone value their freedom to get outdoors so much more. For a lot of anglers, I think it goes right back to childhood, because that was the first ever time you had the excitement of getting out of the house and exploring on your own. It’s especially great to see so many people rediscovering that feeling, including quite a lot of people who hadn’t fished in years.”
4. Maggots become “the new toilet paper” as the angling trade bounces back!
Enjoying the great summer fishing revival as much as the actual anglers, tackle shops also benefitted massively from the sport’s huge spike in interest. That said, it was a fast-evolving situation that rewarded those who were flexible and innovative, for example, upping their online efforts or offering tackle collection rather than the usual in-store shopping.
“It has been the busiest year I have ever experienced, bar none!” said Ruth Lockwood, owner of Yately Angling Centre, one of many independent stores reporting a great surge of sales. “Lockdown being relaxed on June 15th certainly helped- with June 16th being the traditional start of the coarse fishing season, it was a bit like reopening on Christmas Eve! We just couldn’t get the stock in quick enough.”
From maggots and pellets, through to rods and reels, a lot of stock completely sold out in the early stages, such was the surge in interest.
“Our local bait dealer commented that it was like the golden era of the early 80s all over again!” says Ruth. “And the really lovely thing was seeing everyone from mums, dads and their kids starting out, right through to pensioners dusting down their rods and rediscovering fishing. I only hope we can keep these people coming back, because it’s been great to see.”
That said, it has not been plain sailing all the way, with long hours and great flexibility required to keep on top of a rapidly evolving situation. “With all the new regulations and endless battle to get stock in, there were weeks where I’d work fourteen hours a day, Monday to Sunday!” says Ruth.
“Mail order and click and collect options helped a lot during the toughest times. We’ve only just slowed down a little in the last week or so- but out of all the trades, we feel blessed that angling has bounced back so well. We get all walks of life in the shop and so we get first hand that it has been tough for so many people. Hopefully fishing has helped people to de-stress and get back to some kind of normality.”
5. Licence sales and club memberships surge, as anglers opt to “Take a Friend Fishing”
With so many people starting fishing or coming back after a long absence, fishing licence sales went up by almost a fifth (17%) over the summer period compared to last year! In simple terms, this is a big injection of funds that will help a cash-strapped Environment Agency to put more back into activities from habitat improvements to coaching youngsters.
The same is true for many angling clubs, some of which have enjoyed a welcome boost to memberships that is wonderful to see. However, we have also been there to support clubs facing difficulties, with solutions from grant applications to crowd funding initiatives.
Of course, anglers also did their bit in all of this by taking others fishing. Set up by the EA and Tackle Trades Association and supported heavily by the Angling Trust and fishing media, the “Take a Friend Fishing” campaign was busier than ever. Thousands of you applied for a free one-day licence and helped to get lots of new and returning rods on the bank (including my friend Tom Kloc, as you can read in our recent blog post!).
6. Travel bans and money fears fuel boom in “staycation” breaks
With Covid cases diminishing and some freedoms restored by July and August, it was completely understandable that many of us craved a holiday! But with so many Brits opting for the staycation rather than risky flights abroad and the threat of quarantine, holidaymakers were quick to capitalise on great fishing closer to home, with no passport required.
Some fisheries became so busy that they became booking only or had to turn people away! Even in the peak of the summer holidays, however, our national parks and wild spaces provided calm and a release from all the stress and uncertainty of Covid. Long may that continue, and long may we all support British fisheries and holiday destinations that will need us more than ever as the entire nation attempts to rebuild and recover.
7. Angling finds a new togetherness!
Last but not least, one of the most refreshing aspects of the crazy year we’ve had is a newfound unity. Overwhelmingly, anglers respected lockdown rules and put away their rods for the greater good. They also put aside their differences and individual issues to back the Angling Trust’s fight to get everyone fishing again. This included some of the biggest names in the sport, including some who had not supported the Trust in years. Suddenly we were all pulling in the same direction and it was wonderful to see.
Of course, the biggest debt of thanks of all has to go to the tends of thousands of ordinary anglers who did their bit. They stuck to the rules and put others first; they raised money for good causes and even offered NHS heroes free fishing. Shops, clubs and fisheries held fast in steering a tricky course, while The Voluntary Bailiff Service and others kept active to protect fisheries.
Of course, things were still on a knife-edge for a while, and the situation remains challenging and changeable. But there are so many reasons to be proud of what we’ve achieved that we simply must build on this angling revival to make sure that we make the most of our recent successes.
The Angling Trust has already seen a rise in membership, while securing funding from the likes of Sport England to help those most in need, including some of the most economically deprived areas of the country.
We still want to do so much more, however, and whether that means improving fisheries and fish stocks across the country, fighting for angling at the highest level and building a better future for all of us, your support is critical.
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