By Pat Lefemine, Founder of Bowsite.com
Everything was going well as we entered 2020. The economy was screaming with record breaking market gains, the lowest unemployment in decades, and the best consumer sentiment in years. I was feeling good about things too. After months of searching for a new hunting property I was about to close on a sweet little farm in Ohio. What could go wrong?
When I first heard of the Coronavirus, I reacted like most people - yet another flu-like virus emanating from China. I blew it off. It was not until the first stock market hit that I began paying attention. By the second stock market hit (a few days later) I was starting to worry. Not about the virus really, but about over-reaction.
A month later we were living in the twilight zone. The stock market was hammered. Businesses were forced to shutter. The Canada border was closed. And politicians were making some very strange decisions. An example was the Governor of Michigan who deemed the sale of lawn fertilizer illegal, but lottery tickets and alcohol were deemed acceptable. Michigan even made it easier to buy Marijuana by allowing curbside pickup - but if you buy Scott's Tru-Green or go fishing - you would be arrested. In California and New York, you could be arrested for simply walking on the beach. Things got crazy, fast.
I won't judge anyone's reaction to the Covid-19 virus. If you live in NY and have elderly parents - or a child with a compromised immune system - you likely feel very different than a rancher living in Wyoming. As of this writing there are 90k US deaths linked to Covid-19, and 1.5 million confirmed cases in the US. The Northeast is affected far worse than other areas of the country. I am currently in New York and it's a far different vibe than Ohio, where I was staying until just a few days ago.
So how does this affect us as hunters? Well, that remains to be seen. There are some things we know, and some things we can only guess. One thing is certain - there will be an impact. Let's take a look at how this has, or may affect hunting:
In a normal year I would start looking at flights now for my fall hunts. While September is around the corner, a lot can change in the next four months. It is safe to say that if you can drive to your hunts you are better off. Airline travel is chaotic right now. Schedules have been drastically reduced and nobody knows what the future of air travel looks like. I am planning to drive.
Lodging will also change. Motels may adopt policies that limit occupancy, require masks, etc.
This is tough to predict. As of this writing the Canada border is still closed for non-essential travel. Killing a spring bear is not considered essential no matter how strongly we may disagree. Canada outfitters basically lost the entire spring bear season and that is a blow to Canadian outfitters. I would be surprised if they lose the fall season too, but much of the damage has been done, and it will take couple years for them to recover.
US-based outfitted hunts are different. I cannot imagine these will be impacted for outfitters operating in rural, red states. For blue states like Illinois there may still be social distancing impacts - or worse - a prohibition on non-residents entering the state. I think that is a low probability if things continue to improve, but if there is a sharp rebound in Covid-19 cases it could all change. Maintain communication with your outfitter every month and make sure to ask them what the contingency plan is if you are unable to travel into that state.
Foreign hunts are a completely different matter. I have spoken to a couple of Safari Outfits and it is all about getting to Africa. Unlike the US or Asia, Africa has far fewer Covid-19 cases than we do so the risk of getting Covid while you are in Africa is extremely low. You cannot drive to Africa or Australia and their season is just about to open - so I am concerned about the impact to the Safari industry.
Given the trend in Covid-19 cases as of this writing (May 2020) I can't imagine a scenario where a hunter could not drive out of state to hunt elk, deer, or bear. There may be some exceptions. States like California, Washington, or Illinois may have some restrictions or prohibitions in place when the season opens. The likelihood is higher if there is a sudden increase in infections and States react to that.
As far as limited entery tags, most of the draws took place already and my guess is the applications are down. You might have better odds this year. I imagine that if Covid-19 cases spike before hunting season, and a state like Colorado blocks nonresident hunters from travel, they will refund the tag fees or roll you into the following year. If you drew a sheep tag in Colorado and they cancel the season that would absolutely suck! I think there's a very low probability of this happening.
One area that may be particularly hard hit is leasing. With so many people out of work, retirement accounts hurting, and an uncertain economy, I imagine that many leases will become available with lots of bargains. If you're a hunter that's not a bad thing, but it's yet another hit to farmers and ranchers who depend on the additional revenue.
Hunting Gear Manufacturers
Given that most of Bowsite's revenue comes from manufacturers of hunting gear, I can say firsthand that I am very concerned about the industry. We have lost several sponsors this year. Solid brands that are taking measures to stay in business like slashing ad budgets, laying off employees, and consolidating their product lines.
There are three issues at play here. The first is uncertainty in the supply chain. Will they be able to obtain the raw materials needed to manufacture their products? The second is whether their state has them shut down during the period where they should be ramping up production for the fall season. I would hate to be an archery manufacturer who has a factory in NY. Believe it or not, I know of several. The final issue is also the biggest - and that is the economy. Unemployed hunters are not going to buy a new bow this year. They will not buy a new set of outerwear, and they will likely keep shooting the same arrows they used in 2019. Economic conditions have a profound impact on discretionary spending and hunting gear falls within that definition.
My prediction is the biggest brands will have a tough year but will survive. Brands that were stressed before Covid may vanish or get gobbled up by bigger brands for a fraction of their former value. This may not be noticeable for a while, but I am aware of several companies that will not be here this time next year.
How about Bowsite?
This year will be rough for us. We lost a lot of Outfitters, some key manufacturers (who will likely not survive) and even some of our biggest sponsors have slashed their advertising budget. We will survive but we are considering our options including running non-hunting Ads (which I have resisted for 22 years) and am also considering a premium registration level where we provide additional services like non-public forums, private group topics, an advanced search function, thread-owner-tools, and a new classified ad system for validated visitors only. We are seriously considering this option.
Like you, I remember 9/11 well. We lived through that very dark period and came out stronger as a country. I also remember the 2008 financial crisis which shook up the industry yet most survived. This will pass, and we will have plenty of time to assess whether we reacted appropriately.
On a personal note, I was able to close on my Ohio property one week before my employer sent us all into a work-from-home arrangement. I used that opportunity to live at my Ohio property where I got a lot of work done on my house and getting the fields ready for my food plots.
Due to stay at home orders, a lot more people have been out hunting than ever before. While my son was not happy about the volume of turkey hunters he bumped into, more people hunting is a good thing.
One benefit that will likely expand is the opportunity to work from home. For those of us who work in offices, this is a very real possibility. If your employer allows you to work from home imagine the benefit if you are allowed to work from your hunting cabin during the fall months? This could be a game-changer for many hunters.
Most importantly, this strange period of isolation gives us all a bit more time to spend with our family, or just alone in the woods - without the normal distractions that got in the way.
This will pass, and we will all look back at this sad period as yet another life event that we all lived through - together. I wish all of you a safe and healthy 2020 and like you, can't wait for this crazy period to end. The season will be here before you know it and my guess is we'll all be looking forward to getting out of the house and into the woods.