Fishing – The Third Most Popular Outdoor Activity

rainbow trout in measure netAccording to the 2013 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report (ORP), the most popular outdoor activity focused on the natural world is fishing. Fishing is the third ranked outdoor activity (all types fishing combined) and was enjoyed by over 47 million people in 2012 (Download ORP Report). All types of fishing includes fly fishing, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing and other fishing like kayak fishing.

Fishing is second to bicycling as the two main gateway activities that lead people to try other outdoor activities. We need to introduce people (especially kids) to fishing so they will learn and care about protecting fish and wildlife habitat.

Table 1 includes the top 15 ranked outdoor activities in the U.S. in 2012 plus each individual fishing category. I included other closely ranked categories for comparison. Table 1 is sorted by overall rank and the numbers represent millions of participants age 6 and above.

Table 1. Fishing Compared to Popular Outdoor Activities

Outdoor Activity Participants
(million)
Percent of U.S. Population Rank
Running (Running, Jogging or Trail Running)    53.2      18.5%   1
Running or Jogging    52.2      18.2%   2
Fishing (Fly, Freshwater, Other, Saltwater)    47.1      16.4%   3
Bicycling (Road/Paved Surface, Mountain bike, BMX)    42.3      14.7%   4
Bicycling (Road/ Paved Surface)    39.2      13.7%   5
Fishing (Freshwater or Other)    39.1      13.6%   6
Camping (Car, Backyard, RV)    38.0      13.3%   7
Hiking    34.6      12.0%   8
Camping (Within ¼ mile from home)    29.9      10.4%   9
Wildlife Viewing (>¼ mile from home, vehicle)    23.0       8.0%  10
Camping (Recreational Vehicle)    15.1       5.3%  11
Hunting (All)    14.7       5.1%  12
Bird watching (>¼ mile from home, vehicle)    14.3       5.0%  13
Fishing (Saltwater)    12.0       4.2%  14
Canoeing     9.8       3.4%  15
Skateboarding     6.6       2.3%  22
Fishing (Fly)     6.0       2.1%  23
Trail Running     6.0       2.1%  24
Triathlon (Non-Traditional/Off Road)     1.4       0.5%  42
Kayak Fishing     1.4       0.5%  43

In Table 1, the “Percent of U.S. Population” represent the percentage as compared to the entire U.S. population age 6 and above. For example, fishing may be the third ranked outdoor activity, but only 16.4% of all U.S. citizens (aged 6+) fished at least one time in 2012.


Fishing by Age Group

When broken down by age group, Fishing (all types combined) ranks first among the oldest age group (age 26 and up) with 32.8 million participants, 4th for participants aged 18- 24 with 4.3 million participants and 6th for the youngest age group (6 – 17) with 9.6 million participants in 2012.

The overall sixth ranked activity is Fishing (freshwater or other) with over 39 million participants. This category drops out 12 million people that fish in salt water, leaving 39.1 million people that fished freshwater. By age group, this fishing category ranked highest with the oldest age group (25+) and had 26.6 million participants and ranked lowest with the 18-24 age group with 3.6 million participants.

Saltwater fishing was the 14th ranked activity, one rank behind bird watching and one step higher than canoeing. I watch birds and other wildlife while I fish and I have also fished from a canoe and not from a kayak. I suspect more people have fished from canoes than kayaks.

A total of 12 million people fished in salt water at least once in 2012 and by age group, saltwater fishing ranked highest with the oldest age group (25+) with 8.9 million participants and ranked lowest with the 18-24 age group with 1.2 million participants.

Fly fishing is the 23rd ranked outdoor activity with 6 million participants, which was one category behind skateboarding and just ahead of trail running.


By age group, Fly fishing also ranked highest with the oldest age group (25+) with 4.6 million participants and also ranked lowest with the 18-24 age group with 690 thousand participants. While fly fishing was not a very popular type of fishing, it had the highest number of new participants in 2012.

Kayak fishing ranked last at 43rd place behind Non-Traditional/Off Road Triathlon with 1.4 million people participating in 2012 and by age group, this category ranked highest with the oldest age group (25+) with 220 thousand participants and ranked lowest with the 18-24 age group with 170 thousand participants.

National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation

The 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation report (NSFHWR) by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  (download pdf) has more detailed information about different types of fishing activity summarized in Table 2.

Table 2. 2011 U.S. Recreational Fishing Participation

Fishing Activity Participants Percent Anglers
All Fishing  33,112,000     100.0%
All Freshwater Fishing  27,547,000       83.2%
Great Lakes (GL)   1,665,000         5.0%
Freshwater except GL  27,060,000       81.7%
Saltwater   8,889,000       26.8%
Fish from Boat  18,017,000       54.4%
Fish from Shore  15,095,000       45.6%
Fish in Lake/Pond  22,791,000       68.8%
Fish River/Stream  11,888,000       35.9%
Fly Fish   4,260,000       12.9%
Ice Fish   1,930,000         5.8%

The 2011 NSFHWR differs from the 2013 ORP by about 20 million fewer participants. Part of this is due to fact that the NSFHWR only tracked anglers 16 years old and older, while the ORP tracked angled 6 years old and older. That still leaves a difference of about 9 million people. But surveys are not exact; they are simply indices to reality. I assume the NSFHWR was more conservative before concluding survey respondents actually fished that year or not.

Regardless of the actual numbers of anglers, the ORP compares fishing activity to all sorts of other outdoor activities. The NSFHWR allows us to compare different types of fishing.

According to the NSFHWR (Table 2), 83.2% of us fish in freshwater and 26.8% fish in saltwater. Remember that the totals will not add up to 100% because survey respondents could list more than one type of fishing.

They separated the Great Lakes (5% of anglers) from all other freshwater fishing, leaving 81.7% fishing in freshwater not in the Great Lakes.

It is interesting that 54% of anglers fish from boats and 46% fish from shore, 69% fish in Reservoirs, lakes or ponds and 36% fish in streams or rivers.

And that only 13% of anglers fly fish and less than 6% ice fish.

See more detailed information of the fish species we try to catch (coming soon).

Does the Outdoor Recreation Report Know Fishing?

I don’t think the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) understands fishing any better than they understand hunting (read Hunting – the 12th Most Popular Outdoor Activity), they just want to sell outdoor gear. Why do I say this? Take another look at the five fishing categories OAI used in the report:

  1. All fishing combined
  2. All freshwater fishing plus other fishing
  3. Saltwater fishing
  4. Fly fishing
  5. Kayak Fishing

That’s it. It certainly makes sense to combine all fishing activity to understand the total number of people that fish, but the other four categories only tell us very general information about where people fish or what equipment they use to fish.

Saltwater fishing is self explanatory, but lumps everyone together from those that drop a line from a pier to those that troll for giant bill fish hundreds of miles offshore.

They also lump all fly fishing together, but techniques, equipment and fish species differ tremendously between fishing in warm freshwater, cold freshwater or saltwater with a fly rod.

Most people I know that fish from a kayak try to catch trout in cold water with a fly rod, but kayak fishing could include any type of rod in salt or fresh water (warm or cold).

I fish mostly with a fly rod for trout while wading in cold streams, but I sometimes switch to spinning gear when I fish for trout or small mouth bass in cold lakes. I may fish from a small boat or from the bank and sometimes I fish through the ice. When I visit relatives in the South, we may go out to the Gulf Stream on a charter boat or fish from the beach or pier.

Despite the unsophisticated groupings of different fishing activities, the ORP is still very useful because it allows us to compare nature-related and/or wildlife-associated activities like fishing, wildlife watching and hunting to other outdoor activities like running, biking and skiing.

If we want young people to care about fish and wildlife, we need to get them to take part in fishing and hunting. If we do not teach them about the importance of fish and wildlife habitat, they will simply view that habitat as places they should be able to drive, ride bikes or skateboard over.

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