Pandemic-era rush to parks continues, hunting license sales up, fishing down

By: - July 24, 2021 10:00 am

Fishing is popular at Big Creek Lake north of Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowans are continuing their pandemic-era rush to state parks, and resident hunting license sales are the highest they’ve been in at least three years.

Some fishing license sales have been below last year, when pandemic restrictions made lakes and rivers some of the few places where people could safely be out of their home.

This summer, nearly half of Iowans are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. The state has lifted most restrictions. Plans for full classrooms and football stadiums are in place.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources records show Iowans logged 7,676,696 visits to state parks this year through June 30. That is 1.8% higher than last year’s record pace, which included 7,540,119 visits by June 30. 


Waders enjoy a day at Ledges State Park near Boone on Aug. 8, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Last year’s centennial of the state park system saw a record 16.6 million visits. In the previous decade, visits ranged from 13.7 million to 15.5 million a year. 

The 2020 park rush saw Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs lead with 3.2 million visitors. Others among the most-visited were Gull Point along West Okoboji Lake, Big Creek near Des Moines, Backbone near Strawberry Point and Walnut Woods near West Des Moines.

This year’s leaders so far include Lake Manawa, Gull Point, Big Creek, Backbone and McIntosh Woods at Clear Lake. Manawa has logged 1.5 million visits, more than twice Gull Point’s 625,329. Most of the other leaders have logged between 200,000 to 300,000 visits through the first half of the year.

At this point last year, Manawa had recorded 1.6 million visits, and Gull Point, 646,000. So both were down slightly this year, in the early going.

The number of camping reservations statewide through July 20 was 35,939, an increase of 25.5% from last year’s 28,629 for the same period.

Hunting licenses rise in some categories

Resident hunting license sales are the hottest of the past three years, while fishing license sales pumped up by the pandemic have cooled, state records show. 

Through July 12 of this year, the state had sold 13,374 resident hunting licenses, up 18.9% from 11,244 during the same part of 2020. In 2019, before the pandemic, sales at that point in the year hit 6,739, roughly half the clip the licenses are selling this year. 

But another large category of hunting license sales, the resident license combined with a habitat stamp, came in at 13,206 through July 12. That is down 15% from last year’s figure of 15,531 at this point in the year, and lower than the pre-pandemic 2019 year-to-date figure of 13,485. 

Nonresident adult hunting license sales were up 46.5% at 1,611 compared with 1,100 at that point last year, but lagged the 2019 year-to-day figure of 2,487. Nonresidents had purchased 13,160 hunting license/habitat stamp combinations, up 16.5% from the same period last year (11,296) and easily the highest of the past three years. In 2019, the year-to-date figure was 11,175.

Habitat stamp fees help pay for county and state habitat areas.

Fishing license sales lag in some categories

Fishing license sales had mixed results through July 12.

Resident fishing licenses were down 20.4% from the level in early 2020 as the pandemic unfolded.

This year’s sales were 183,535, down from 230,578 at the same point last year. The early part of 2019 saw 164,159 resident fishing licenses sold.

Iowans had purchased 341 seven-day licenses, down 11.2% from 384 in 2020 but higher than 2019’s year-to-date total of 273.

A boy fishes at Raccoon River Park in West Des Moines on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Nonresident fishing license sales were off slightly at 23,134, down from 23,213 last year. In early 2019, before the pandemic, sales were 17,787 through July 12. 

Nonresident seven-day fishing licenses were the highest in at least three years, at 1,406. That compared with 1,175 last year and 1,243 in the same part of 2019. 

One of the biggest categories, a hunting/fishing/habitat stamp combination, saw 41,224 sales, down 3.9% from last year’s 42,868. 

By July 12, sales of the collectible “hard card,” which has wildlife art on one side and a list of the carrier’s licenses on the back, hit 48,416. That was up 10,4% from 43,862 in the beginning of last year, and far above the 17,617 in 2019.

‘Difficult to pinpoint’

DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said state staffers aren’t sure why the license numbers have fluctuated.

“It’s too difficult to pinpoint why the numbers are different,” Murphy said. “However, we know many more people had extra time on their hands last year due to the pandemic to be able to get reactivated into hunting and fishing or take them up for the first time. Beyond that, we can’t necessarily pinpoint as to why they are up or down from last year — that’s the ultimate question!”

The state has continued to have high deer numbers. And DNR recently reported that the pheasant nesting forecast this year suggested pheasant numbers may be up again slightly this season.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.