The estimable Matt Weiser wrote a piece in the Sacramento Bee earlier this month on the recent increase in sportfishing & hunting licenses in California. Matt knows the inner workings of California's Fish & Game Programs well, so I was surprised that he didn't dig deeper into the numbers and offered only general theories, like a possible rise in women's participation or the growing locavore movement. As Matt notes, California does not collect demographic information on license buyers, but especially compared to those states that don't even require sport licenses CA has some lessons to offer.
First, the SacBee uses the total number of licenses sold as a proxy for the number of fishermen, which isn't exactly correct. California, like many other states, sells both annual licenses and limited day licenses. If you're going out on a six-pack for a day of fishing, you may just buy a one day license rather than an annual license; three daily licenses is still cheaper than a full year license for the occasional fisherman. So, annual licenses sales offer a better base estimate for the number of fishermen. Those sales are indeed up, although only back up to the 2004 numbers of 1.3 million.
That is certainly an underestimate because it doesn't include anyone under 16, who doesn't need a license, and those occasional fishermen. While we may not be able to accurately count fishermen from daily license sales, it's their increase driving California's trends. One, two, and ten-day licenses are more popular now than they were eight years ago, making up 37% of sales. It seems that more fishermen are choosing to see what the season is like before they wet their line, rather than committing up front for a full year.
Combine this with the trends Matt Weiser explored, and you have a sense that the face of fishing is changing. Right now, the best info we have on where and when people fish comes from the five year federal surveys of outdoor recreation. Perhaps by the time the next survey comes around, in 2011, we'll have a better picture.
If you want to see the original numbers visit DFG's license statistics branch. The graph series labelled "other" includes a series of special permits DFG phased out in 2004.