April 29, 2021
Bird numbers are booming, and hunter numbers are on the rise. Awesome news for the waterfowl world. Then… COVID-19. While bird numbers were not affected, the virus prevented things like annual bird banding and the 65-year-long U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey. Ouch.
Springtime hunts were suspended for non-resident hunters in many states, and while this didn’t have a direct effect on many waterfowlers, except those chasing snow geese, it did show how seriously many states took the virus and the efforts they were willing to go to in order to prevent the spread of it.
While the lasting effects of what the virus has done to hunter numbers remains to be seen, early signs in most states are showing a significant uptick. So much in fact, that several states requested aid in 2020 to help better maintain overused public land areas.
Waiting In The Wings
On the other hand, outfitters, especially those north of the U.S. border, have taken a serious hit. In 2018, of the 17,000 licensed hunters in Saskatchewan, 54 percent of those call the U.S. home. Other waterfowl-rich provinces like Alberta, Ontario, and Manitoba, draw U.S. hunters like moths to a flame, and these provinces also took an income hit. While some Americans that cross the border hunt with family and friends, many enlist the help of an outfitter. In 2020, due to border restrictions, Canadian outfitters and other local businesses that profit from hunters in their areas saw a direct drop in dollars. Many won’t recover.
Though most U.S. states have lifted the drastic non-resident travel bans we saw in the spring of 2020, U.S. waterfowl outfitters are far from in the clear. U.S. unemployment rates have hovered around 6 percent; up 2.3 percent from March. With unemployment on the rise and the virus running at full tilt, those with a job and some discretionary income to spare are more likely to hold onto their money or spend it shopping from the comfort of their recliner.
Hitting Close To Home
Many would-be guided hunters opted to save coin and chase birds on public dirt, which, as previously noted, increased the amount of pressure on public areas. This proved especially true in states like North Dakota and Minnesota. Many would-be Canada-goers flooded to these states in hopes of catching early migrations coming out of Canada. Many hoped for dumb, unpressured birds. What most found were crowded public land tracts.
Fueling COVID’s ability to cripple outfitters was the fact that many operations had to shut their doors due to illness. One Nebraska outfitter, who asked to remain nameless, had to cancel hunts for two weeks after he and his three-man crew tested positive for COVID-19.
“I had to refund money and crush dreams,” the Cornhusker outfitter said. “My clients understood, but many, because so many outfitters had openings due to cancellations, booked with someone else. I don’t blame them one bit. However, it’s likely I lost their business. Some were return hunters, but many were first-time hunters, and it’s those first-time hunters that boost our business. We treat our hunters like family, and once they hunt with us, they often come back year after year.”
Outfitters that didn’t have to quarantine had hunters call and cancel due to illness or fear of travel. Throngs of waterfowler hunters across the country are above the age of 60. Many in this group are retired and have discretionary income. Waterfowling is their passion, but many erred on the side of caution this past year and stayed at home. Of course, this is the responsible thing to do, but many operations we spoke with noted how much these last-minute cancellations hurt their bottom line.
A Blow To Business
What about the manufacturers—those we depend on to provide us with stellar products. How has COVID-19 affected them?
Terry Denmon, founder of MOJO Outdoors, has seen plenty of ebbs and flows during his outdoor tenure. Terry was quick to point out, from a manufacturing standpoint, that the pandemic has been a rollercoaster.
“Seeing people get sick—seeing people die—is never good,” Denmon said. “From a manufacturing side, we can’t keep items in stock. Consumers are buying. We got lucky and we started early, so we had some inventory, but then things changed.”
Denmon noted that the Chinese New Year occurred in late January of 2020, right about the time MOJO starts ramping up on orders and building products.
“Chinese New Year is a big deal,” Denmon continued. “Most people take a week off. Before they could come back and return to work, the pandemic was in full swing and factories closed. We don’t get all our goods from China, but like many U.S. outdoor manufacturers, we get a solid amount from that country. We couldn’t get our goods in time, which hurt us. If we would’ve been able to get goods, it would have likely been a banner year for us. I’ve heard the same from other manufacturers. Getting goods was the problem. Orders were up. Interest was up. Demand was great. We just couldn’t make enough product.”
So, why the big influx in demand? According to a survey from personalization vendor Qubit, two-thirds of consumers increased online shopping once the pandemic hit. In July 2020, only 28 percent of those consumers said they would feel comfortable returning to stores. Hopefully, that is changing.
Boom & Bust
The pandemic has been depressing, and people have been forced to spend massive amounts of time in their homes. When people are bored, they buy things. WebMD noted that when people get depressed, it’s not uncommon for the credit card to come out. There is no question COVID-19 has led to a lot of impulse buys. Plus, people want to get outdoors. Waterfowling is a gear-intensive passion, and many hunters, both sage veterans and newbies, purchased product.
My bride and I sat down for an online shopping date. The idea was to put the kids to bed, pop in a movie, and do our Christmas shopping online. Being that our children and many of our family and friends hunt, we visited websites like Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Scheels, and the like. Everything from goose calls to waders to decoys were sold out. Most everything we put in our cart was on backorder or simply out of stock. Hopefully, this will start to change again soon as well.
While there is no way to know what the future holds, for now, it seems COVID-19 will be a part of it, and aside from people wanting to get outside and hunt—both for recreation and to secure their own food—the downsides of the virus so far outweigh the upsides.