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Fishing's Lure Lost on Young

The family-friendly pastime can't compete with busy schedules and higher-octane sports. Devoted anglers look for ways to reel in new fans.

February 13, 2006|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

The bright yellow and gray fishing lines perform slowmotion shimmies in midair before whipping out onto a shallow pond in front of the clubhouse of the Long Beach Casting Club.

It's early evening, and overhead stadium lights illuminate half a dozen middle-aged and elderly anglers practicing fly casts. The light gives the dancing lines a magical glow.

Former club president Jeff Sadler stands on the porch of the Craftsman-style clubhouse and points out the obvious: "The occupation of the average member is 'retired.' "

Inside the clubhouse, where a fly-tying class is in session, the demographics aren't much different. Seth Averill Murphy, 11, is the only youth among two dozen or so adults hunched over wooden tables, wrapping thread and feathers around insect-size hooks.

It's also a common scene at lakes, streams and ponds. Fishing is losing its appeal to America's youngsters. As a result, the sport is foundering, dropping in popularity behind bowling and working out at the gym.

Fishing once was a venerable pastime, passed on from father to son and grandfather to grandson. Today, desperate lake operators, fishing clubs and tackle manufacturers are funding youth fishing programs in a losing effort to reel in the next generation of anglers.

Blame the 70-hour workweek and the proliferation of twoincome households, trends that cut into fishing time. Blame after-school activities and part-time jobs that keep youngsters away from the serene sport. And blame teens who are bored by the prospect of landing a bigmouth bass from a secluded lake cove or hooking a feisty brown trout from a rock-lined creek in the Eastern Sierra.

"What's going on? You name it, it's going on," said Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Assn., a Virginia-based trade group that funds several programs for young anglers. "Look at the way people live their lives these days. There is tremendous competition for their time."

At the Long Beach pond, Sadler, a retired computer processor with salt-and-pepper hair, watches the graceful casts and recalls how his father and grandfather taught him to fly-fish in the lakes and streams near his boyhood home in Kansas.

But when Sadler became a father, he said, he couldn't pass his love of fishing on to his son, who preferred fast-paced pursuits like water skiing and mountain biking.

"Fishing never came up high on his list," Sadler said.

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President Hoover once described fishing as "the great occasion when we can return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers." Norman Rockwell memorialized fishing with paintings that depict a doting father, a fishing cap on his head and a pole in his hand, teaching his eager son to fish.

But after a boom in popularity in the four decades following World War II, sport fishing began to fall out of favor, according to surveys and fishing license sales.

A 2004 survey by the National Sporting Goods Assn. found that participation in fishing dropped 10% from 1994 to 2004 and was surpassed in popularity for the first time by camping, bowling and exercising with gym equipment.

In 1994, 45.7 million Americans said they fished at least once. That number dropped to 41.2 million in 2004, according to the survey. By comparison, 52.2 million Americans said they worked out with gym equipment in 2004 and 43.8 million bowled that year, the survey found.

Freshwater fishing, the sport in which most youngsters learn the basic skills, has suffered the steepest decline, while saltwater fishing has remained relatively stable. Fishing conditions ebb and flow each year, and industry officials say there is no proof that the sport's decline is due to a lack of fish.

Some anglers secretly celebrate the sport's decline, rejoicing in the smaller crowds they encounter at the best fishing spots. But fishing clubs and park rangers warn that the long-term effects on the sport could be devastating.

A drop in fishing license revenue and tackle sales means less funding for government-run habitat restoration programs and state hatcheries that stock lakes and streams. Sport fishing, a $116-billion industry, is also the economic engine that sustains many small towns in the Eastern Sierra.

The decline has varied from state to state. California, second only to Florida in generating retail sales and tax revenues from fishing, has had one of the steepest declines, with license sales dropping 15% from 1994 to 2004.

Fewer anglers also means fewer outdoor activists.

"People who fish care for their lakes and streams," said Bob Wiltshire of the Federation of Fly Fishers, a Montana-based nonprofit group. "We will lose that direct connection."

And then there are the social consequences of the decline. Surveys show that the top two reasons people fish are to have fun and to spend time with family and friends. Catching a fish is near the bottom of the list. Fishing, then, is a social event, a family bonding experience that is on the wane.

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