How COVID Caused a Nationwide Shortage of Fishing and Hunting Gear

Sam Lungren
Sep 2, 2020

Many a MeatEater reader and crew member has ventured into sporting goods and fishing stores this summer only to be met with empty rod racks and sparse shelves. Most leave without the gear and tackle they sought, wondering what gives. Did the pandemic break overseas supply chains? Is the industry collapsing? Or are so many people getting into the sporting pursuits that retailers literally can’t keep their shelves stocked?

I reached out to some executives in the outdoors industry to find the answer, and while there are many factors at play, it turns out that the latter is mostly true. At the risk over-generalizing, it appears that the coronavirus crisis has actually spurred a notable increase in fishing participation across the country. Growth in hunting license sales may follow this fall.

Jon Barker, CEO of Sportsman’s Warehouse, has been closely tracking consumer buying patterns throughout the pandemic. He told MeatEater that his business and others like it have experienced three basic phases of the COVID economy.

“As soon as the pandemic started to really reach a peak and they were shutting down the across the country around mid-March, we saw a significant increase in visitors to our stores requesting specific products,” Barker said. “One category is personal protection, firearms, both handguns and shotgun, and related ammunition. As the NSSF and NRA have communicated, [there were] an estimated 2.5 million first-time firearms buyers during that period.”

The next phase, Barker said, was a rush on “essential sustaining goods,” such as generators, water filtration systems, freeze-dried foods, and other items for surviving some form of prolonged quarantine or potential societal collapse. But by the second and third week of April, as the weather shifted across the country and some COVID-related guidelines began to relax, recreational outdoors gear began flying off the shelves.

“We started to see people participating in outdoor activities at a greater rate than we historically had seen,” Barker said. “And that was across the categories. We started to shooting sports increase. We saw turkey licenses in certain states set new records in April for sales. We saw fishing start to really ramp up and we saw hiking, camping starting to ramp up. Now, what we experienced in those categories, and as you can tell from what you’ve seen on the shelves, we are continuing to see new individuals into fishing, new individuals in camping and hiking. The quote goes something like this: ‘I haven’t fished since I was a kid,’ or ‘I haven’t fished in 15 years and I want a combo rod reel,’ or, you know, ‘I want to get back into fly fishing.’

“As you’ve seen on the shelves, and it doesn’t matter what sporting good story you go into, you’re going to see a very, very thin inventory across especially the entry level or mid-price point rod-and-reel combos, and then your terminal tackle and lures also very thin.”

Jim Coble, founder and CEO of 13 Fishing, saw the pandemic roll across the country from the wholesaler perspective but gathered many of the same lessons.

“Some vendors, as you know, were shutting doors. It was as bad as it could get, it was doom and gloom,” he told MeatEater. “And then kind of like a light switch, it went back on when everybody said all of a sudden fishing was an essential activity. It seemed as though everybody took that to heart. We went from a situation where we were going, ‘Oh, crap, how are we going to manage this? You know, cashflow is going to get tight. Everything’s going to just be a train wreck,’ to saying sorry in a matter of minutes to customers begging for thousands and thousands of things.”
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