The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the state of Kansas, both health-wise and economically.
However, it appears as though there is one industry in Kansas that has seen a sharp uptick since the pandemic began — the outdoors industry.
According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, the state between March 1 and June 1 of this year sold nearly 100,000 residential fishing licenses — 99,777 to be precise — up drastically from the 2019 numbers from that same time frame (63,266).
Residential hunting licenses sold actually decreased slightly from 2019 to 2020, falling from 2,338 to 2,147. However, there was a sharp spike in residential combo hunting/fishing licenses, up to 11,049 in 2020 from 8,870 in 2019.
The sharp increase in interest in the outdoors come as good fiscal news for the agency, which in April saw the sale of out-of-state turkey hunting permits suspended after Gov. Laura Kelly passed Executive Order 20-21 to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
The state also took a big financial hit in 2019 with widespread flooding preventing camping and cabin rentals in many state parks.
That hasn’t been the case in 2020.
"We are monitoring sales closely," KDWPT fisheries division director Doug Nygren said Tuesday. "First of all, last year was a down year for fishing license sales due to the flooding and loss of many access sites to launch boats and fish from the shoreline. So compared to 2019, we are way up in fishing license sales. This increase is especially important because it is off-setting the revenue lost from suspension of sales to nonresident turkey hunters."
Nygren said that, as of Tuesday, the total year-to-date income for all license sales was nearly identical to what it was in 2019, despite the loss of that out-of-state revenue this year.
"Sales for 2019 were $20,671,888 compared to $20,552,696 so far this calendar year," Nygren said. "This includes state park revenue, hunting and fishing revenue and boating revenue."
Perry Reservoir in Jefferson County is among several lakes in Kansas that have seen heavy boat and bank traffic for several weeks, with the crappie spawn driving anglers out in droves and pleasure boaters now getting their first taste of summer.
In fact, Kansas Crappie Trail organizer Dylan Faulconer said during the June 13 tournament on Perry that many anglers in the 25-boat field — the best turnout of the season — were a bit limited in what they could do because of the high number of pleasure boaters out on the lake, which has the potential to cause other problems, as well.
Perry notoriously became a COVID-19 hotspot in May after at least 10 people from multiple counties became infected following a group event on the lake that reportedly involved lots of "drinking and closeness," drawing the ire of Shawnee County health officer Gianfranco Pezzino. On one Facebook post about the outbreak, Pezzino wrote "What a mess – Be smart, people!"
Hopefully this time around, people are taking the proper precautions to prevent a repeat occurrence. Bathrooms are of particular concern from a sanitization standpoint.
In Morris County to the southwest, the story is similar.
Ginger Cansler-Taunton, who runs the Council Grove Marina, said she has seen a sharp uptick in attendance at Council Grove Reservoir this summer, as well, both in terms of anglers and campers.
"We have seen a huge difference already this season," Cansler-Taunton said. "Ever since the campgrounds have opened, every weekend has been like a holiday."
Because of the influx of anglers, keeping her store stocked has been a challenge for Cansler-Taunton.
"It’s hard to keep bait and tackle in stock," she said. "First-time kayakers, boaters and fishermen are coming out excited to try something new. And those that haven’t done it in years. Instead of dad going fishing alone, the whole family is on the boat. People are remembering how much fun it is to be outdoors with family and friends, away from electronics and the television."
Ben Jack, archery manager for Sutherlands Outdoors of Topeka, 2210 N.W. Tyler, said his department has seen an increase in interest from people looking to get into archery, as well.
" ... the popularity of hunting and archery has grown quite a bit," Jack said. "We haven't had a problem as far as being stocked up with product, but that has to do with the great vendors I am set up with. Through constant communication and having a finger on the pulse of the outdoor activities, we have been able to plan out shipments and adjust what we stock given the current environment."
Much farther west, Finney County is getting set to cash in on the increase in outdoors-related activities, with Wildwood Park near Garden City set to have a soft opening Monday. Activities available there will include camping, fishing and sand volleyball, with more recreational opportunities planned for the future, such as a sanctioned disc golf course and sanctioned horseshoe pits.
Rediscovering the outdoors
Cansler-Taunton’s husband, Phil Taunton, hosts the "What’s in Outdoors" radio show on KVOE-AM (1440) in Emporia and is currently running a contest for young outdoors enthusiasts in northeast Kansas to submit their best outdoors-related stories and pictures for a chance at several great prizes.
One of the stories submitted to his contest tells of how COVID-19 has helped rekindle a teenage girl’s interest in the sport of fishing and is worth sharing.
"With COVID-19, many people are trying things that they have not done or have not done in a while," wrote Alison Forgy, 15, of Topeka. "A hobby I have started again is fishing. I used to fish with my grandpa at my grandparents’ cabin at Council Grove lake. We would sit in the boat house and fish rain or shine. The biggest fish we ever caught was a 14 pound catfish. Since we did not have a scale to weigh the fish, we went to find one from one of the neighbors.
"Once we found one, a parade of neighbors and a Bassett Hound followed us back to our cabin to weigh the fish. I think of my grandpa when I fish today. I find myself asking him in my head to give me a good one and sometimes I think he throws me a big one to catch. I now enjoy fishing very much and look forward to fishing every time I go to our cabin at Council Grove."
If you know me, you know I heartily approve of stories involving fishing and grandparents.
To compete in the contest, youths will need to submit their best outdoors story, a short narrative of 200 words or less, along with a photo, T-shirt size and contact information to What’s in Outdoors with Phil Taunton at email@example.com. Entries also can be dropped off at Bluestem Farm and Ranch Supply in Emporia or at the Council Grove Marina on the Council Grove Reservoir.