Fishing surging because ‘there’s nothing else to do’

DUBUQUE, Iowa — It was early April when fishing gear started flying off the shelves at Mak’s Bait Shack in Dubuque.

“It was night and day,” said owner Matt “Mak” McFadden, speaking about the sudden increase in demand for fishing supplies. “Anything outdoors became way more popular, (and) fishing was included in that.”

As COVID-19 struck down group activities and indoor pursuits, the great outdoors beckoned, and many citizens took the bait — literally.

The number of general fishing licenses purchased in Dubuque County in the first half of 2020 increased by 30% compared to the same period in 2019, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Dan Kirby.

And many of those anglers flocked to stores like Mak’s Bait Shack, where McFadden has found himself unable to keep basic fishing gear in stock.

Not only has demand skyrocketed, but domestic manufacturing shutdowns combined with overseas shipping delays have led to a supply chain backlog.

“All these companies could still ship (products), because shipping was deemed essential, but nobody could manufacture on the back end,” McFadden told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “When the customer demand is high, but … nothing is getting manufactured, it comes to a grinding halt real fast. You can’t buy it if nobody’s making it.”

Randy Stark, the owner of Stark’s Sport Shop in Prairie du Chien, Wis., also has had “tremendous difficulty” keeping up with the demand for hooks, rods, reels and sinkers.

“The shortages of inventory and product from every industry that we deal with here at Stark’s is just off the charts,” he said. “It’s something we’ve never dealt with before. I would look for eight different reels, and there’s absolutely none available. None. Zero. It’s crazy.”

Although most manufacturers have resumed operations, the distributors still are playing catch-up, McFadden said.

“At the time that we put the order in with one (supplier), they said they were 25 to 30 days behind on shipping,” he said. “We’re on day 49, and we haven’t even received a 16th of that order.”

McFadden, Stark and Kirby all cited increased free time as a factor in the fishing surge, as well as the appeal of an outdoor, individualized activity during a time of social distancing.

“I think the interest has been there,” Kirby said. “It’s just that with many other things … not available, (people) are seeking out things that are a safer alternative.”

That was the case for Robert Freund and his grandsons Martin and Jonathan Denlinger, all of Dubuque.

Freund said the three always enjoyed fishing but “never really got the chance” to go more than once a month before the pandemic hit.

Now, they bait their hooks at least once a week. On a Thursday afternoon, they were fishing near Lock and Dam No. 11 in Dubuque.

“There’s nothing else to do,” said Martin, 11. “Really, all we have to do at our house is chores.”

Freund said the supply shortage wasn’t an issue for him and his grandsons since they already had the gear they needed — all except worms, which he buys fresh each time they head out to the river.

But even the worms might present a problem soon, said McFadden and Stark. Both owners have been told by suppliers to expect an upcoming shortage of nightcrawlers.

Ninety-nine percent of the popular bait is harvested in Canada, McFadden said, and the continued Canadian border closure is creating another supply chain backlog.

“With Canada being closed, the people that pick up the nightcrawlers aren’t able to get into Canada to do the work,” Stark said. “I’ve been told that that is a factor.”

He said the price of bait already is climbing.

Both Stark and McFadden are grateful for the increased business, especially after several summers of high water and limited fishing seasons. But it’s a “double-edged sword,” McFadden said, especially since there’s no way of knowing what’s coming down the pike.

“There’s no product for us to buy because the pipeline is empty,” Stark said. “And it’s going to take time for the manufacturers to refill that pipeline, and nobody knows how long that’s going to be. There’s no end in sight.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)


Starting at $4.39/week.

Subscribe Today