PIERRE, S.D. — Have gun, will travel — even if the economy's shot.
In the heart of South Dakota's pheasant-hunting country, license sales have been strong this fall despite gasoline prices near $3 a gallon and a looming recession. Ditto for hunting license sales in New York, Utah and Colorado. The leading retailers of outdoor gear, meanwhile, say sales of shotguns, ammunition and warm camouflage clothes aren't too bad considering the economy's headwinds.
Hunting's popularity has waned slightly in recent years, and American families are tightening their belts as a recession looms, but businesses catering to hunters say the sport's outlook remains relatively healthy during these hard economic times.
"Hunters may not get the latest product, but they're still getting the things they need and getting out there. Our sales are holding up good," said Larry Whiteley of Bass Pro Shops, a privately held company that is one of the country's biggest suppliers of outdoor gear. "It's a family tradition. You know, deer camp and all that stuff."
Some publicly traded companies that sell guns and other hunting equipment, such as Cabela's Inc. and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., are showing signs of weakness, however.
To the extent that certain regions of the U.S. are noticing a dropoff in hunting and fishing activity — Pennsylvania, Texas and Missouri, to name a few — industry and government officials point to other root causes, such as urban sprawl and poor weather.
Some industry officials say financial struggles might even act as a counterweight to these other forces, because the search for wild game in fields and forests can be soothing for the soul.
"Hunting is part of what you are. It's a relief from all the stresses of society," said Brent Lawrence, a spokesman for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
But just like leisure travelers in general, hunters are expected to stay closer to home and keep their spending in check when it comes to frills they might have splurged on in the past.
The wily Chinese ring-necked pheasant of South Dakota lures about 200,000 hunters every year. Many people fly or drive hundreds of miles to chase them through expansive fields of mostly harvested corn, soybeans and sunflowers, overgrown weed patches, and tall-grass prairie stretching to the horizon.
O'Jay Vanegas, 59, of Scottsdale, Ariz., visited South Dakota last week to hunt pheasants, just as he's done for the past 12 years.
But Vanegas, an auto salesman who expects to earn about $30,000 less this year, skipped the season's opening day because the round-trip airfare from Phoenix had more than tripled from previous years. He predicts other hunters will cut back in similar ways.
"When money gets tight, something has to go," he said. "Hunting is a luxury."
Hunting license sales are flat this year in North Dakota, and down in states such as Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. But officials there blame bad weather: torrential rains, flooding and hurricanes.
The economy also may be a factor in reduced sales of hunting licenses, says Jim Low of the Missouri Conservation Department.
"People may not balk at the $10 price of a resident small-game hunting permit, but $4 gasoline to get to and from hunting and fishing spots ... very likely did affect people's recreational activities," Low says.
George Van Horn, a senior analyst for Los Angeles-based industry research firm IBIS World, says retailers that depend on hunting are holding up well in the slack economy.
A survey done every five years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed last year that 12.5 million Americans hunted in 2006, spending $22.7 billion. In 2001, there were 13 million hunters, and they spent $23.4 billion.
Some companies that rely on the shopping habits of hunters are exhibiting signs of strain.
Cabela's of Sidney, Neb., which specializes in direct marketing of hunting, fishing and camping merchandise, said Oct. 7 it would reduce its work force by roughly 10 percent. The company's CEO, Dennis Highby, said at the time "it was necessary given the macroeconomic environment we are facing."
And late in September Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., cited the economic downturn when it eliminated about 80 jobs at a Rochester, N.H., plant that makes hunting rifles.
Data collected from hunting preserves and the sporting good industry by IBIS suggest people tend not to cut back much on hunting trips in tough economic times because they already have the basic gear like guns and clothing.
"Local hunting, as far as people who live in rural areas and hunt for pleasure and food, may increase just because they've already got the equipment," Van Horn said.
But sporting goods stores, which have reported strong sales of hunting equipment for the past five years, can expect slower growth this year, because enthusiasts that tend to take "big, luxurious trips are going to be cutting back."
Bobby Wiggins, manager of Bear Creek Shooting Preserve at Preston, Ga., said some past customers have cancelled deer hunting trips this year.
"Some of my regulars say they're pinching pennies right now, although I've replaced some of the ones I've lost and it might turn out to be a good season," Wiggins says.
Stowe Samco, owner of Absolutely Pheasants hunting lodge in Tripp County, S.D., which labels itself the "Pheasant Hunting Capital of the World," said his reservations are up 13 percent from last year.
It costs about $400 daily to hunt pheasants at Samco's place. He believes the sagging economy may deter hunters who are less affluent.
"I think the people that are hurt by the economy right now, the people that won't be coming, are probably going to be your $75- to $200-a-day guys. It's tougher for them," Samco says.
Lawrence, of the National Wild Turkey Federation, says most of those who typically hunt close to home have not been deterred by the weak economy. However, he says some who have been willing to shell out big bucks for hunts may stay home this fall.
"They may not make the big trip to go elk hunting in Colorado or duck hunting in Canada," Lawrence says. "But for the most part, tried and true hunters are still getting out there."