Kids don’t need it to fish in Michigan, but a voluntary youth license might be a perfect stocking stuffer to go with that rod or reel this Christmas.

That’s because the license, unique among the Great Lakes states, is not only a vehicle to help teach kids about environmental stewardship, it is also a moneymaker for the state.

Each $2 annual license brings in an additional $9.45 in federal funds – the same amount the state gets from any other fishing license it sells – to the Department of Natural Resources. The funds support sport-fish restoration and management, public access for recreational boating and aquatic education.

Hidden opportunity

The only problem with the voluntary licenses ­is that most people have never heard of them. And that includes the vendors who sell them.

“The DNR really doesn’t market itself that well, and that’s why nobody knows about it,” said Mark Stephens, education program coordinator of Project F.I.S.H. (Friends Involved in Sportfishing Heritage), a community-supported sportfishing and aquatic-resources education program based at Michigan State University.

Stephens said his now-grown son had a hard time buying the annual license at sporting-goods stores when he was young.

“He used to go in and ask for a fishing license, and the people behind the counter would tell him, ‘No, you don’t have to have one,’” Stephens said. When he persisted that he would like one anyway, they would turn him away.

Elyse Walter, communication specialist in the Fisheries Division of the DNR, acknowledged that many vendors are unaware of the voluntary licenses.

“We run into that more frequently than we’d like,” she said. “We are so encouraged when people are excited to buy one, and then unfortunately they’re prevented from doing so.

To address that, the DNR is sending announcements and reminders to vendors through the machines they use to print out customer licenses. It’s been an uphill battle keeping the youth licenses on vendors’ minds because they get so few requests for them, she said. “It’s frustrating, but we do what we can.”

Hopefully awareness will increase, she said, because the state receives an excellent return on the voluntary fishing licenses. The DNR publicizes the licenses as reaping “at least double” their fee in federal funds. It was more than that in 2012. Federal funds per $2 youth license actually topped $9.

Return rate varies

That money comes from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, which receives excise taxes on sport fishing and boating equipment, and motorboat fuel, as well as an import duty on recreational boats.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the trust, redistributes the money to the states.

“Each state’s funding is based on number of licenses sold and the total area, including coastal waters, of the state. Michigan, in 2012, received approximately $9.45 for every license sold,” explained Stephen Lee, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Branch of Budget and Administration.

The amount varies year to year. It’s based on the number of licenses sold in other states, as well as the total amount available for apportionment.

Image: Mid-Michigan Steelheaders

Although the per-license amount fluctuates, Michigan typically gets about $9 each, said Stephens. His program purchases voluntary licenses for kids who participate in Project F.I.S.H.

That’s a 350 percent return for the $2 investment.

So far, the contribution from the voluntary youth fishing license is not huge in the scheme of things, but it is important nonetheless, Walter said.

The license, officially called a Young Angler All Species License Type 122, kicked off in 1997. The state sold 2,087 in that first year. Since, then the number has ranged from a low of 769 in 2001 to a high of 3,255 in 2010.

As of Dec. 17, the 2012 tally was 3,226.

“It’s the idea that every little bit helps. It’s a small investment, but we reap big rewards on the other end of it,” Walter said.

The large return is only one of the reasons that fishing-related organizations are excited about youth fishing licenses. “We try to promote kids buying licenses when they’re young, because then they’re learning why they’re buying the license: That’s how our lakes are managed, and that’s what pays for our biologists,” Stephens said. “Then when they turn 17 (the age when licenses are required), they naturally buy one because they know where the money’s going.”

How to Buy a Voluntary Kids’ Fishing License

Voluntary kids fishing licenses ­are available at sporting goods stores or online under the license’s official name of Young Angler All Species License Type 122. The annual license costs $2. For anyone who doesn’t have photo identification, and most children don’t, a one-time purchase of a DNR Sportcard for $1 serves as the necessary ID for the initial and any ensuing annual licenses.

Mid-Michigan Steelheaders, a chapter of the Michigan Steelhead & Salmon Fishermen’s Association, buys a voluntary fishing license for every child who participates in its annual Dr. Bill Earl Youth Fishing Program, held in May. In 2012, it distributed 147 licenses, said John Hesse, chairperson of the youth education program for the Mid-Michigan Steelheaders.

“We have an ethics and regulations station that teaches the kids about the value of these fishing licenses,” Hesse said. “We think it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility.

“I think the kids really feel proud to get that license.”

Hesse hopes to expand the program to other Steelheaders chapters throughout the state in an effort to reach more children, and to beef up the DNR’s coffers.

“If we could get that program into 20 different communities, that would bring in considerable dollars to the state, and that would then compound each year that the parents get an updated license for their kids,” Hesse said. “It just makes a lot of financial sense.”

Greg Gumbrecht, president of the Flint chapter of the Michigan Steelheaders, added, “In our club, we try to stress not only getting kids interested in the outdoors and fishing, but to having a sense of integrity with it. Fishing is not all about catching fish.”

This article originally appeared on Great Lakes Echo and is republished with permission. 

Images courtesy Mid-Michigan Steelheaders, Poster courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources

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