J.D. Lehr, left, of Wyoming Township, Minn., talks fishing with a Gods Lake Lodge guide just after sunset in June 2007 in northeastern Manitoba. Fishing was good and guests caught hundreds of trophy walleyes. ((Chris Niskanen/St. Paul Pioneer Press/Canadian Press) )

Where the Kennebecasis River in southern New Brunswick narrows, fathers and sons for generations have taken a canoe off a truck or car, placed it in the water and gently floated with the current downriver, fishing for some of the finest, tastiest trout on the East Coast.

It's a scene that's repeated in every corner of the country on rivers, streams and lakes, but in light of recent Statistics Canada numbers one has to wonder if these poetic, bonding moments with family and nature are waning, finally losing out to the thousands of distractions that permeate modern society.

Statistics Canada reported that in 2005, there were 2.5 million resident anglers in the country, compared to 3.3 million in 1995, meaning there were over 825,000 fewer anglers over that time period.

The largest drops were in Ontario (275,000) and Quebec (370,000), with those two provinces accounting for three-quarters of the total loss. There was some good news, however, as recreational angling went up in Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Nunavut.

Raymond Zee, the chairman of the Ontario Chinese Anglers Association, based in Markham, Ont., said his group has grown stronger over the years, and that more and more people are joining the ranks of the anglers.

The cultural connection to fishing is what is keeping the numbers high among Zee's group.

"There are a lot of Chinese immigrants where back home fishing is really a common past-time. When they come here there are a lot of lakes and a lot of opportunities for fishing," said Zee, who enjoys fishing pike because they "are easy to catch and they are fighters."

Cyril Pelley, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Outfitters Association, said his province faces the same issues as other areas — mainly other interests that keep people away — but resident anglers are helped out by the easy access to fishing spots.

There are some questions being raised about the results of the study. Mike Melnik, a media liaison with the Canadian Sportfishing Industry Association, which represents the country's fishing tackle industry, wonders if the number of people fishing has remained the same but the number of fishing licences has dropped.

Who is fishing

The average age of anglers was 48, and almost three-quarters were men.

"These results coincide with public perception that recreational fishing is a predominantly male activity, and comparable results have also been found in surveys in the United States and Australia," Statistics Canada reported.

The average age of male anglers has gone up by six years since 1995. The average age of female anglers was 44 in 2005 and 40 in 1995.

In Zee's group, the gender of anglers is almost evenly split, as most treat fishing as a family outing.

"A lot of time the whole family goes out and that's why you would see a lot of women going out," he said.

The best anglers in the country seem to live in P.E.I., which led the way in fish caught per angler.

On average, according to the Statistics Canada study, each resident angler caught 64 fish in 2005.

"Anglers in Prince Edward Island were the most successful, with an average of 90 fish caught per angler. Other provinces with anglers who caught more fish than the national average were Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia," said the report, which based its numbers on based on the results of the survey of recreational fishing in Canada conducted every five years by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, "in co-operation with all regional, provincial and territorial fisheries licensing agencies."


Evan Arppe and Jim MacDonald enjoy the early morning sunrise as they fish along the shore of Lake Ontario in Kingston, Ont., in April 2007. ((Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press) )

The number of fish caught per person increased to 64 in 2005, from 60 in 1995. But the total number of fish caught decreased by 20 per cent, said Statistics Canada, and "the total harvest dropped from 196 million in 1995 to 156 million in 2005."

"One-quarter of fish caught by resident anglers in 2005 were trout. Other popular species were walleye (17 per cent), perch (17 per cent), bass (13 per cent), northern  pike (eight per cent) and salmon (three per cent). The remaining 17 per cent comprised other less common fish such as  grayling, char and whitefish."

Trout were the most likely fish to be kept, with 60 per cent of the fish destined for frying pans. Overall, half of all fish caught in 1995 were kept, but that number had declined to 40 per cent by 2005.

"Possible reasons for the increased use of this practice include anglers viewing it as a conservation technique, legal requirements in some jurisdictions to catch-and-release and lastly because some fish are not fit for human consumption because of mercury or other sources of contamination," said Statistics Canada.

Expenditures decline

"Total direct expenditures for recreational fishing in Canada declined from $1.8 billion in 1995 to $1.6 billion in 2005. Expenditures per angler increased from $533 to $652 per angler during the same time frame. However, when adjusted for inflation, the average expenditure remained roughly the same at $513 per angler. Thus the drop in expenditures is a result of the decline in angler numbers; anglers are still spending at the same levels over time."

Total catch down, fish caught per angler edges up

"Although the number of fish caught per angler increased to 64 fish in 2005 from 60 in 1995, in just 10 years, the total number of fish caught decreased by 20 per cent. The total harvest dropped from 196 million in 1995 to 156 million in 2005."

Source: Statistics Canada 

Zee said that anglers in his group, which numbers about 300 right now, will fish in Lake Ontario if they are catching and releasing. They fear the fish in the lake are contaminated because of pollution. If they are fishing for food they go to lakes that surround the Toronto area, lakes such as Lake Simcoe, which is north of the city and has bass and trout.

Stores still doing well: association

The impact of fewer recreational anglers has an economic impact, according to Statistics Canada.

As Statistics Canada explained, "Each angler is spending about the same amount of money as 10 years ago. However, the reduction in the total number of anglers has lowered total expenditures on recreational fishing."

But Melnik suggested the fishing industry is as healthy as ever. One outdoors-based store in Toronto had three million visits in one year.

"If fishing was in that much trouble you wouldn't think they would be opening that kind of store and having that kind of response in its first year," said Melnik.

"Could it be [a] non-compliance issue? People are still fishing but maybe they are not buying licences. We're not saying that is the case but we scratch heads as an industry association and say, 'Hang on, everyone's doing well. There has been great growth over the past 10 years…and yet there's a decline in recreational fishing?'" asked Melnik.

"Either those people are buying four times as much as they used to or people are fishing and maybe not getting the message that they need a licence. We totally encourage to abide by regulations in their provinces."

He said there was "tremendous growth" in the last 12 years for rod reel sales and tackle sales.

Pelley, who is based in Springdale, more than 530 kilometres northwest of St. John's and uses a plane to get to prime fishing spots. He said the high Canadian dollar is hurting outfitters' business, as travel and other items cost more, so some people from out of province are staying away.

But resident anglers in Newfoundland and Labrador are still fishing at a high rate because of easier access to fishing areas brought about by the opening of more logging roads to people, said Pelley, who has the nickname of "Captain Cog."

The big challenge in keeping recreational fishing numbers up is the one posed by the internet, where one can fish without leaving the comforts of home, pointed out Pelley.

"Now the computers are taking over," said Pelley.

The key to keeping the numbers from plunging is to tell people about the joys of fishing, he said.

"It's all about the outdoor experience, nature in its purest form," said Pelley, adding he wouldn't trade his life of flying by airplane to favourite fishing spots in remote areas of his province for anything.