Instilling the value of purchasing a youth license into the next generation is paramount

By Randy Claramunt, MDNR Fisheries Division Chief

In the three months since becoming the new Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division chief, I have been working on numerous topics that were both expected and the responsibility of the position. But there is one domain in which I see great potential I hadn’t anticipated: youth fishing licenses. I believe we have a huge opportunity to protect the future of Michigan’s cherished fisheries by increasing sales of voluntary licenses.

In Michigan, no one under the age of 17 is required to purchase a fishing license. However, it has long been recognized that having an option for youth anglers to purchase a fishing license for a nominal fee is a simple yet powerful step toward instilling ownership in the resource they can enjoy for years to come.

Money earned from sales of volunteer youth fishing licenses also has the potential to support youth fishing programs; there are many such programs in Michigan, but they often need financial and operational assistance. Fisheries management is supported almost entirely by license sales, both directly from the cost of the license and indirectly from a federal excise tax on sportfishing gear that is allocated back to the state based in part on the number of licenses sold.

There are many benefits to having a voluntary youth fishing license, and we’re proud to have it back in our license selection. The conservation community advocated for this license in 2000 and again in 2021 after the youth fishing license was eliminated in 2014 as part of the restructuring of hunting and fishing licenses.

youth fishing license

Even with the voluntary youth license listed as an option, we have found that very few anglers are aware of it, resulting in a limited number of these licenses being issued each year. Since the license’s inception in 2000, the number sold in a year has ranged from 201 to 3,216, averaging 1,481 per year. In comparison to the approximately 1 million fishing licenses sold annually in Michigan, sales of voluntary youth fishing licenses amount to less than 0.15% of all fishing licenses sold (see Table).

Since the goal of the license is to introduce youth anglers to the responsibility of purchasing a license to help protect and enhance fisheries in Michigan, more anglers need to know about it. Our first step in building awareness was to cross-promote the voluntary youth fishing license by adding a prompt for those purchasing the mentored youth hunting license on the DNR Hunt Fish app. There is also an option for customers to add a profile for another angler in the Hunt Fish app, making the purchase of a youth license very simple and straightforward. I did this for my own youth angler in a matter of minutes!

Is the voluntary youth fishing license a well-intended program without real-world application? Or is the license, and youth fishing involvement for that matter, indicative of the level of interest for the next generation of anglers in our state? I believe it is neither, but instead is a unique, accessible and timely opportunity for our angling community to invest in fisheries by supporting youth anglers.

At first glance, increasing participation in the voluntary youth fishing license might appear trivial, both in implementation and impact. However, the responses to my inquiry on building support for this program to date have been anything but trivial. DNR Parks and Recreation Chief Ron Olson has encouraged us to evaluate programs that would increase the availability of youth fishing licenses at select state parks where fishing interest from families is high. In addition, there is potential to partner with businesses to provide support and funding to assist youth fishing programs and boost awareness of volunteer youth fishing licenses at their retail stores.

Even with all of the voiced support for increasing participation in the voluntary youth fishing license, we are far from moving the needle. At just $2 per youth angler, the cost of the license is likely not the impediment to participation. The challenge will be to get buy-in from parents and guardians of would-be youth anglers to assist with license purchasing.

That exact linkage and support are key to our future success and support for Michigan fisheries, but it will also be our ultimate challenge. Without anticipating that this would be an emerging issue for me as chief, I fully understood that future successful management and protection of our fisheries are inexorably tied to the level of youth participation in fishing.

According to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation 2022 report, 86% of fishing participants fished before the age of 12. We must create and nurture relationships with youth anglers to grow our support as they become adults who purchase annual fishing licenses and understand why those purchases matter. With declining angler participation and growing apathy for the lack of investment in our amazing fisheries in Michigan, we must start at the beginning, with our youth.

youth fishing license

In my personal experience, a $2 license for my youth angler was the best money I’ve spent in a long time! It’s a small investment that can spark early pride in ownership and care of natural resources, build critical connections with parents and guardians, and make the voluntary youth fishing license the conservation opportunity of a lifetime.