The economy might be struggling, but hunters and fishermen at a big outdoors show in Westminster on Sunday seemed ready to spend more money on their passion this year, even if they never really gave it up in the depth of the recession.
The National Rifle Association's Great American Hunting & Outdoor Show drew 200 exhibitors this year versus 135 at last year's inaugural event at the same place. Attendance at both events was about the same — around 5,000, said Robert L. Davis Jr., manager of hunter services for the association.
But this year's visitors were more inclined to open their wallets, dealers said.
"I've got a lot of people that want to book and go places," said James Richards, an outfitter who lives in Westminster and runs deer-hunting trips. "Last year we got a lot of people seeking information."
Like gardeners leafing through seed catalogues in December, hunters seized on the end of one shooting season to start planning for the next.
"I usually try to do a couple trips a year," said Kirk Thompson, who with his son Andy, 16, was talking to outfitters. "Because I like to do the hunting and fishing so much, I will spend the money."
Kelly Double saw his Mount Airy-based taxidermy business pick up in the middle of last year, especially "an upswing in people interested in luxury items." Example: He's working on a $1,600 job to mount an American bison.
There was an exception, however, to the upbeat mood. Brownstone Trading, one of the few firearms dealers at the show, had sold only 10 guns by Sunday afternoon after selling about 30 at last year's show, said owner Bradley Vosburgh.
"Last year it was really phenomenal," he said. "This year it was a little slow."
That downturn, however, might have more to do with the political cycle than the economic one. By many accounts, the election of President Barack Obama prompted a spurt in firearms sales by those who believed the new administration might impose stricter gun controls.
Obama "was the best thing that ever happened to the gun business," Vosburgh said.
Lately, however, gun-purchase applications have declined, a trend analysts have attributed to easing of worries about stricter gun laws. If weaker gun sales also reflect dwindling concern about unemployment causing more crime, they may be a contrarian indicator of an improving economy.
It wasn't all guns and trophies. The hunting attitude and lifestyle were also on sale at the Carroll County Agricultural Center. You could buy wildlife artwork. A woman sold elk, buffalo and alligator jerky. Or you could get a Ted Nugent T-shirt from Maryland Brand Management, which recently licensed the rights to the conservative rocker's hunting- and gun-related material.
"The shirts that sell well are the ones where Ted's attitude comes through," said Maryland Brand Management's Garrett Pfeifer. Attitude example: "You Can't Grill It Until You Kill It." Or a shirt with an image of a hunter next to the legend: "You Can't Do This In France."
Robert Resch of Carroll County was checking out artwork and planning a hunting trip to New York.
"If we have a country and it stays here, the economy will come back. Always has, always will," Resch said. "I think it's turned around now, a little."
Bill Crutchfield Jr. wondered whether the outdoors business ever suffers downturns as bad as other sectors of the economy.
Crutchfield had his own booth not because he was selling anything but because he's a celebrity. In 2006 in Charles County, he shot a buck with seemingly more antler points — 28 — than Mammoth Cave has stalagmites, the antler size record for Maryland.
"It seems like hunters and fishermen, if they've got it, they're going to spend it," he said in between signing autographs. And they'll spend it, he said, on hunting and fishing.