License Schemes Needed

Got your license? They are out checking. Photo by author

In 1913 the Indiana legislature passed a law requiring anglers to buy an annual license to fish in publicly owned lakes and rivers.

I don’t know if it was an immediate hit – probably not. No one likes having to pay even a dollar for something that once was free. Over time, however, fishing licenses became accepted if not popular. Millions have been sold. Last year just the basic model resident fishing license was sold more than 300 thousand times here in Indiana – and there were additional thousands of non-resident versions, one-day tags, combination hunt and fish permits and other type fishing licenses sold.

The annual fishing license is a big business for the Indiana DNR. Now costing $17 each, that’s over $5 million in sales. That’s more than five-mill available, just from the sale of the basic fishing license, for the DNR to manage, protect and improve fishing in the state. Except over the past decade, the number of fishing licenses being sold annually is trending down.

Why? The population is increasing. In general, water conditions are getting better in most areas, fishing is getting better in many places and places to fish are growing. How could sales be dropping?

Most businesses facing similar problems adapt, go bankrupt; or increasingly, it seems, look for a government bailout. In fact, the DNR has a long history of going the “bail-out” route. The first, one-dollar license now costs seventeen dollars, each increase voted on and passed through the cumbersome legislative process.

Legislatively, trying to remain solvent by simply raising prices is a failed measure. When licenses cost a buck, bread cost less than 10 cents per loaf, gasoline was 12 cents per gallon. As a percentage of average income, that one dollar license should now cost $65.

It’s time the DNR forgo the bailout method; instead, do what most businesses do to keep their sales and profits strong. They hire a marketing team and change their marketing strategies. The DNR’s current strategy is weak and obviously, isn’t working.

I’m not a marketing expert, but I am a consumer and understand marketing ploys when I see them. I’ll even admit my purchasing decisions are often driven by marketing promotions.

Currently most resident anglers have only two choices of license types – a one-day tag or a so called “annual” license, which really means it’s good from the date of purchase to March 31st. Buy it on April first and it’s an annual. Buy it on January first and it’s good only three months. It’s a good deal on April first, it’s a poor deal on March first.

All driver’s licenses don’t come due on the same date. Why not offer fishing licenses that expire a year from whenever they are bought? Why not sell a two, three or five year license? That’s marketing.

Why do fishing or hunting licenses never go on sale? If I need a spool of line for my reel, I buy it. If I see a spool of line on sale, I might buy it just in case I need it. That’s marketing.

The best thing the DNR ever did was to go to a digital licensing system. Prior to computerized sales, licenses were hand written and offering numerous options and marketing ploys was impossible. Digitally, offering sales or buying options should be as easy as a grocery store putting Campbell’s Soup on sale or installing buy three, get one free offers for Coca-Cola.

The most fortunate thing ever for the DNR’s license sales was when WalMart decided to sell them. Years ago, fishing licenses could be purchased in every little town in Indiana. If not at a ma and pa bait shop, then at the local hardware or feed store. The bait shops are mostly gone as are local license sellers. In many instances they were driven out by WalMart (and other big-box stores) What if WalMart hadn’t opted to sell licenses? There’s more hassle than profit in selling a fishing license. What if WalMart, no stranger to profit driven decisions, quits selling licenses?

Buy them on-line? Sure. After all, even WalMart has been challenged by and is changing marketing strategies to compete with Amazon.com. Why? Amazon is easy, convenient and priced competitively. I just timed myself. It took four clicks and 14 seconds for me to buy a spool of fishing line. Can you buy an on-line license at Amazon? Nope. Why not?

You can only buy a fishing license from the DNR website, but it’s far from being quick or easy. On a high speed desktop computer, it took me 18 minutes, over four dozen clicks of the mouse and numerous scrolls. Then, I had to stop to check my email, continue where I’d left off, eventually filling over three dozen boxes with names, dates and other details.

At the end, I’m charged an extra $2.17 for buying on-line and using a card. If I need a license for my wife, son or daughter, I have to start over for each one.

Will fishing licenses sales continue to slow? With no marketing changes, bet on it.

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Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website www.brother-nature.com or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at www.bronature.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Schoony….
    You’re right about poor marketing but the problem goes beyond making licenses more readily available. A big part of the problem is the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) does a lousy job of promoting or educating potential sportsmen of what its fisheries offer and the efforts its staff has undertaken to improving fishing on various bodies of water. Hence, fishermen lose interest.

    Speaking as a member of the media, I can assure you the DNR doesn’t utilize the media outlets at its disposal, and when it does, current policies make it even more difficult for us to work with the state agency. I’ve covered Indiana fishing for more than 40 years and I have never seen it as difficult to get information about fishing conditions, lake reports, or stocking information.
    For example, under the recent cockamamie policy, the media can no longer contact district biologists directly for interviews, even it’s about something as simple as stocking efforts or local fishing conditions. We’re required to go get permission from Indianapolis or fill out a bureaucratic form. That not only stifles media desires and efforts, especially those with tight deadlines, but it puts additional pressure on biologists who want to work with the media in their region. And when fishery biologists want to issue a press release about their efforts to the public, it is heavily scrutinized and takes valuable time to develop and gain its release.

    Ironically, State Parks sends out a constant barrage of press releases about potluck dinners, crafting programs, festivals and other minor events held on properties. I bet I get five or more a week. Give state parks credit for making an effort to keep the public informed while the DFW remains silent.

    Meanwhile, we hear very little from the DFW, and if we do, it’s buried in newsletter or untimely. Fish managers are no longer allowed to contact us directly; they have to fill out a form to gain permission to have those conversations as well.

    As an outdoor journalist near the Indiana/Michigan border, I receive a plethora of announcements – with photos – from Michigan’s DNR that often lead to informative features and columns. Several of those are used in either my newspaper column or my website, http://www.michianaoutdoorsnews.com.

    It’s not rocket science; Michigan DNR knows the media can help it get the word out about – not only the fabulous fishing opportunities that arise from time to time – but touts the tireless efforts of its staff to continually improve them. They also know the importance of selling non-resident licenses, something that seems lost on the Indiana DNR.

    I realize Indiana doesn’t have Michigan’s budget, but if you want to sell more fishing (or hunting) licenses you need to let the public know what you’re doing and get it excited about the opportunities that are available within that region. You do that with marketing 101 – by making them aware of them!

    And finally, I suspect Indiana will be seeking a fishing license increase in the near future. It’s going to be a hard sell when there’s been little effort to promote and sell the product it represents.

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