When the pandemic hit, in-person business dried up for Joe Slaton, who runs Mother Lode Turkey Calls. He whittles devices out of wood that make turkey noises, or calls.
“I do a lot of sales at outdoor sports events and they kind of shut that down,” he said. “We normally would have a booth and have my calls laid out and I'd sell my calls that way.”
Shortly after the first stay-at-home order in March, he went hunting in the hills near Sacramento and something caught his eye. It wasn’t a turkey.
“During the weekends you would run into some people, that's when mostly everybody hunts because they work during the week,” he said. “This last spring nobody was working. So everybody was hunting almost every day.”
Even though Slaton’s business has moved primarily online, the pandemic overall has increased demand for hunting and fishing in the state. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports a nearly 10% increase for hunting licenses from last year, which reverses a declining trend over the past few decades. Hunting groups say laws around ammunition background checks and phasing out lead ammunition contributed to a decline in hunting over the years.
Peter Tira, a spokesperson for the department, says Californians have bought nearly 1.2 million annual resident fishing licenses — the most since 2008.
The jump in sales of hunting and fishing licenses is in part due to the pandemic, but also because the hunter education program a person has to go through to get a license has moved online.
“People have time on their hands,” he said. “COVID-related fears and lack of opportunities all contributed to what we believe to be kind of a renewed interest in hunting. Folks wanting to become more self-reliant.”
With so much free time, or need for food, people are fishing and hunting more so they can fill their fridges and freezers with meat, says Holly Heyser, spokesperson for the California Waterfowl Association.
“[People are] getting away from the relentlessness of the doomscrolling, the bad news, how hard it is to go to the grocery store,” she said. “The beautiful thing is nature is our grocery store for many of us.”
What Heyser finds interesting about the increase in hunters is that about 14% of them are first timers. She attributes that to the socially distant nature of hunting. Her group usually has a program that teaches people how to hunt safely, but the pandemic shut it down.
“That 14% are people who have probably never hunted before,” she said. “That's a lot of new people who need help. It's really hard not being able to help them.”
The effects on hunting haven't all been positive for nonprofit groups like the Knights Landing Sportsmen's Club, which provides pheasants for people to hunt in the Sutter Basin area. The group had to cancel a striped bass derby and a rifle tournament, said Michael Wademan, president of the group.
“There's a lot of people that just weren't interested in being in groups,” he said. “They're staying at home more.”
But since the nature of hunting is an isolated sport, Wademan says the club is still operating its pheasant program.
“If you're hunting with people, you're not standing right next to them,” he said. “We have noticed an increase in membership this year, and also an increase in interest.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It has been corrected.
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