Annual boat show lures, hooks buyers despite slow economy

Fishing expo's vendors benefit from larger crowd, enthusiasts' spending

January 13, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

If war drums and a sputtering economy are keeping consumers from spending on nonessentials, you certainly couldn't see it at the 19th Annual Fishing Expo & Boat Show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds over the weekend.

Either that, or fishermen don't consider fishing a nonessential.

"You only live once," said Richard Hager, 50, after signing the bill-of-sale on a $30,000 fishing boat he spotted during what he and his wife had agreed was not going to be a buying trip.

`This is my third boat," he said. "More power, more size and more luxury - more of the toys. I've been shopping for months. I've been here for four hours, looked at 10 boats ... but this one caught my eye."

Hager, a maintenance mechanic at W.R. Grace Co. in Curtis Bay, said that while the swooning stock market has hurt his finances, his job looks secure. And besides, he said, "You can't take it with you, so you might as well enjoy it."

Attendance at the four-day expo was good, more than making up for the 6 percent decline last year in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, said Bob Dobart, 56, the event's owner and promoter. He declined to give attendance numbers, but said, "I'll be surprised if we're not up 10 percent this year."

The show, which bills itself as the largest fishing show on the East Coast, attracted 25 boat dealers. They had nearly 400 vessels on display, from bare-bones bass boats to blue-water cruisers.

Fishermen were also walking out with new rods and bags full of tackle. Fishing shops and resorts, charter and fishing-guide services all had sales reps there. Some state and local governments were represented, too, with promotional booths.

Dobart worries some about the declining number of children attending the show.

"I think families today are not what families were in the past," he said. "And other things are available to kids today that were not in the past. I have a 13-year-old son and he lives for his computer."

And, he added, the sport-fishing industry has not been entirely immune to the lagging economy.

"Though the show hasn't suffered," Dobart said, "some of the exhibitors have seen the effect ... in sales. There are certainly some exhibitors here that are doing better than they've done for the last few years. But overall, the economy has affected the sale of fishing tackle and boats."

You won't hear that from David Baumgartner, president of Riverside Marine, the biggest boat exhibitor at the show.

"People are still purchasing boats," he said. "We've been surprised across the board. It's not just fishing boats. We sold a cruiser over here. ... And we're selling a lot of first-time-buyer boats."

It doesn't hurt, he said, that interest rates are low, and a new state law allows buyers to pay their sales tax on the difference between the cost of the new boat and the value of their trade-in. And new outboards are becoming more fuel-efficient.

For some, however, money didn't seem to be an object.

Steve Mele, 43, of Silver Spring said he fishes out of Ocean City almost every weekend during the summer. And each trip means pumping at least 200 gallons of fuel into his 34-foot Luhrs fishing boat.

"You translate that into dollars and it was like $350 a weekend," he said. "Yeah, it pinches, but when you go fishing with three other guys, it's not that big a pinch."

Mele was looking at a 29-footer at the show yesterday, but not because the shiny new $109,000 cruiser might be more fuel efficient. (The new one burns up to 30 gallons an hour at full throttle, the salesman said.) Rather, Mele said, his Ocean City marina is closing and it's harder to find a slip for his 34-foot boat.

But others at the show were trying to keep a lid on their spending.

Harold Morgan drove 3 1/2 hours from Stanton, Va. to attend the show. "Bass fishing is my life," he said. "I grew up with it and it's a lifestyle."

He said he fishes 60 to 75 days a year, and he would love to trade his 17-foot, 50-horsepower aluminum bass boat for a new, 18-foot fiberglass job with at least a 90-horse engine. His 1992 boat is "a little old," the 41-year-old welder said.

But, leaning on a $35,000 Nitro 911, a fiberglass beauty with red metallic fleck paint and a 225-horse Mercury engine, he repeated that he was there strictly for new tackle, not a new boat.

With the economy wavering, he said, "it's hard to talk the wife into getting something right now."

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