Over the next month or so, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission will do the bulk of its license sales for the year as anglers gear up for the state’s trout season-openers, starting with this region’s mentored youth day March 24. It’s the time of the year when sportsmen look forward to getting out on the water with family and friends, hopefully landing a trout or two along the way.
In recent years, most of the news regarding license sales has been bleak, with fewer people fishing than even a decade ago. If there is a bright spot, however, it’s the positive steps the PFBC has taken to recruit and retain our next generation of anglers.
Over the past five-to-six years, the PFBC has focused extensively on developing programs and initiatives to introduce and keep youth interested in angling, with the most obvious example being the mentored youth days. Other tactics the agency has employed include adding a youth and women’s program coordinator to the staff, stepping up its social media efforts and unveiling the First Catch Center, a traveling education center on wheels that will focus on more urban areas to attract new and diverse audiences. If youth license and permit sales are any indicator, its early efforts are already starting to pay dividends.
Steve Kralik, director of outreach, education and marketing for the PFBC, said youth licenses are one of the few fishing license categories that are actually up from year to year.
“Last year we did 33,000-plus mentored youth permits and voluntarily youth licenses,” he said. “This year as of March 3, permits are up two percent year to year and [youth] licenses are up 14 percent overall. Those two categories are up 8.6 percent compared to last year.”
For decades, young anglers were introduced to fishing by a father or uncle who took them out on the water. Today, however, fewer people are picking up the sport and sticking with it on a consistent basis. One of the challenges fish and wildlife agencies face is they have to introduce new anglers at a greater rate than those who stop fishing due to age or lack of interest.
“You have to replace each person who leaves the sport with two, three folks who are entering the sport because not everybody continues on,” Kralik said. “This is something nationally that folks are grappling with. We’re not unique in that regard.”
Where the PFBC stands out, Kralik noted, is that Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has attempted to launch a fishing-related mentored youth program on a large scale in an effort to recruit and retain anglers. After six years of offering the program and capturing data on those who take part, the agency is now approaching the point, perhaps as early as 2019, where it can start assessing if its efforts are working as past mentored youth day participants become of license-buying age.
“There have been a lot of efforts on the hunting side [in regard to] doing things with a mentoring program, but nobody has really tried it in the way we’ve tried it in Pennsylvania,” Kralik said. “We plan to have it evaluated extensively as soon as we have a rich-enough data set to take a look at.”
From the marketing side, the PFBC has ramped up its efforts to reach a younger audience, focusing extensively on engagement through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Combined, those three platforms PFBC now has close to 70,000 followers.
“We’re doing all this to try and associate more closely with a younger audience, the millennials or even younger [ages],” Kralik said. “They respond to the two-way interaction on social media much differently than people of [other] generations.”
While it’s long held family fishing events at state and county parks, this spring the agency will introduce two new First Catch Centers as part of a pilot program with the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. The centers, essentially a van and a boat for on-the-water-experiences, will travel to events and programs throughout Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. Kralik said the PFBC and Texas-based Fishing’s Future are the only organizations in the country taking part in the program.
“The key is this allows us to take [our educational] programming to the people as opposed to going to [only] state parks and county parks,” he said. “It also allows us to tailor the experience to where, if you will, the fish are biting.
“Not only is it good to get the experience in terms of the training and techniques, part of the experience is also catching fish, especially for novices and people trying to move through that continuum from basic to intermediate to advanced skills.”
Come opening day, the agency will also be back on the water with its ambassador teams, groups of 3-4 staff who meet and greet anglers, handing them “Thank You” bags as a sign of appreciation for buying a license. The focus is on excellent customer service, with the hopes that these efforts will keep more anglers — including families with young kids — coming back year after year. In the near future, the agency will also roll out a new automated licensing system that will allow it to offer more interactive and focused engagement with its license buyers.
“We’re trying to get more in tune with the customers,” Kralik said. “We’re trying to do what we can, even though we’re a governmental entity, to use the business principles that we think could lead to increased license sales and increased participation.”
While he knows there’s a lot of work to be done, Kralik is confident his agency’s efforts will pay off down the road in terms of angler recruitment and retention.
“Looking at the demographics over time, there are things that we’re going to have to account for,” he said. “Quite honestly, we have a large number of people who are moving through that bubble and at some point within the next 10 to 20 years will likely no longer be angling.
“It’s incumbent upon us to do what we can to make sure there is replacement at an appropriate level for the folks who are leaving the sport. I think the fight is too important to give up. I think we are going to assess and reassess as necessary and the future depends on it.”
Mark Demko is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @markdemko1.