fishing license document

Why You Should Buy a Fishing License

This is how your purchase benefits the long-term health of your favorite waterways.

Don’t begrudge paying for a fishing license to wet a line. Whether it’s in your home state or across the border with another, that money goes a long way toward preserving the nation’s recreational waters. 

Why buy a fishing license? Believe it or not, all proceeds from fishing license fees go toward conservation and restoration. In fact, fishing (and hunting) license sales make up the largest portion of sportsmen's contributions to state fish and wildlife agencies, eclipsing more than $1 billion a year nationally. Deposited into each state’s wildlife funds, the monies raised from license sales go directly to projects that protect wildlife and fish hatcheries—work that includes habitat management, education outreach on waterway/wildlife conservation, boating and fishing access, fish surveys and research, plus fish stocking.

It’s worth viewing the fees the same way that wildlife agency officials pitch them to anglers: as a donation toward the health and preservation of a state’s fisheries. They represent a small measure that pays big dividends for protecting and enhancing both fish and their habitat. And that feedback provides a loop that’s unique to fishing. 

“It’s one of the only outdoor recreation sports that gives back to our country's waterways,” says Stephanie Vatalaro of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF). “One hundred percent of fishing license sales helps protect and conserve our waterways on public lands.”

Beyond fishing’s obvious recreational and mental benefits, this sport-perpetuating cycle is why state agencies, nonprofits and other stakeholders make such concerted efforts to grow the sport and encourage new anglers to take it up. The math is simple: Increase the number of anglers who buy licenses; increase funding for conservation. The RBFF, for instance, sponsors events like June’s National Fishing and Boating Week. Meanwhile, multiple states hold annual free fishing days to get more people hooked. 

And the results of those efforts? In 2021, fishing participation in the U.S. exceeded 50 million for the second time in 14 years. Equated to license sales, that looks like a 3.2 percent increase over the last decade (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), with more than 30 million people buying a license last year alone. Simply put, when more anglers buy licenses, more habitats benefit.  

"It’s great to see so many new and returning anglers every year,” says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Martha Williams. “Anglers have always been a force for conservation, and we appreciate their continued support to sustain aquatic resources for future generations.”

Fly fisherman in waders

Sustaining that growth for the future also means broadening access. Williams notes the USFWS’s renewed focus on, “inviting a larger and more diverse community of engaged anglers to become stewards of our natural resources.” And there’s no reason for everyday anglers to wait on federal agencies to act alone. Adds RBFF’s Vatalaro: “When you take a friend fishing or ask your customers to do the same, you’re supporting the development of future lifetime anglers, which is good for conservation.” 

In terms of turning new folks on to the sport to ensure its future, few can attest to fishing’s individual and collective benefits more than Bob Johnson. At 78, Johnson is happy to dole both technical advice and hard-won perspective as concierge extraordinaire at the Bait & Tackle Shop of the Ohio Public Lands location near Columbus.   

“One hears the grumble, ‘Why do I have to have a fishing license when I already pay enough taxes?’” says Johnson, who began fishing a whopping 74 years ago at age 4. “Or, ‘I only fish one or two days a year, why do I need a license?’ Well, the answer is simple: State fishing license fees pay a significant portion of the cost of state and local conservation programs, including land acquisition, stream, lake, and wetlands restoration.

“And the national excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment,” Johnson adds, “that also comes back to each state as grant money to fund additional programs related to wildlife management and education. All this generates a massive amount of revenue for fisheries conservation.” 

And these revenues also serve non-anglers. Johnson notes how habitat improvements from license sales enhance the experience for hikers, birdwatchers, kayakers, “and just plain folks sitting beside a cold running stream to enjoy a picnic.” 

Examples of such improvements include Pennsylvania’s new striper migration map, a fishing derby, bass studies and new access at French Creek. In Virginia, there’s now fishing reports for different species and waterways. In Ohio, fishing license revenue makes the steelhead fishery possible, and it helps the state Department of Wildlife net Mosquito Lake walleyes to gather eggs and milt for hatchery production to stock Buckeye State waters, where other improvements include the DOW’s recent acquisition to increase the Woodland Trails Wildlife Area to a 1,152-acre contiguous block of habitat. 

As Johnson puts it, though, the lasting improvements ripple beyond the environment: “Fishing teaches patience, reflection, active observation, and appreciation of nature’s beauty,” he says, “while encouraging the conservation of that same beauty and quiet.” 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.