Falling hook, line and sinker for a recreational sport

Lu Feiran
Fishing, a stereotypical game of retirees, has hooked much younger generations.
Lu Feiran

It is a sunny Saturday morning. Chen Jun dons his fishing boots and hat, collects his favorite rod and other tackle, and drives to a nearby river for a day of fishing.

Chen doesn't fit the common stereotype of retirees who take up fishing to pass the time. The 28-year-old works for an information technology company in the southern city of Shantou. Almost every weekend, he meets fishing friends for a day of relaxation and camaraderie.

"The start of my hobby was quite funny," he says. "Several years ago, a friend of mine took me on a fishing trip. He gave me a short rod so that I wouldn't just sit there idle while he fished. It turned out that my friend didn't catch anything, but I managed to pull in a small harvest of fish. Before I realized it, I was hooked."

Recreational fishing is a rising pastime – especially among the younger generation – in China. According to data on the sport, the hobby generated equipment sales of over 98.5 billion yuan (US$15.2 billion) in 2019, double from five years earlier.

The origins of recreational fishing are diffuse and probably started out as a means of putting food on the table. There is evidence of fly fishing in Japan as early as the ninth century BC. The Roman author Claudius Aelianus (AD 175-235) mentioned the activity in his work "On the Nature of Animals."

Perhaps the most celebrated book on the spirit was the "Compleat Angler," written by Englishman Izaak Walton in 1653. But the commercial side of the hobby didn't take off until the 18th century in the UK, when stores appeared selling rods and tackle.

China has been a bit of a latecomer to the global passion for recreational fishing. Every day along rivers, one can see newcomers with newly bought rods showing up on the shores. They even have online fishermen's forums, like the one on Baidu Tieba, which has 1.6 million users and more than 39 million posts over the years. Most of the users are people 40 years and younger.

According to a 2020 report issued by China Business Network's data consultancy affiliate CBNData, the ranks of recreational fishing are comprised of people born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s. They are both blue-collar and white-collar workers, and most of them hail from the cities of Chongqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Suzhou and Chengdu.

A fishing industry survey conducted in 2017 found that 46 percent of Chinese anglers are between 25 and 44 years old, and 22 percent are even younger.

Fishing tackle can involve hooks, lines, sinkers, floats, rods, reels, bait, lures, buckets and nets. It can be costly, but passionate anglers don't think twice about spending on high-quality gear. Reels can cost over 1,000 yuan.

"Fishing is, of course, more financially friendly than hobbies such as photography, but it still can be expensive," says Chen. "Especially when you start to compare your gear with other anglers, it can become an endless pit for the pocketbook."

Rookies are encouraged to buy cheaper gear, such as shorter fishing rods, then upgrade as they gain experience and become more committed to the sport.

The best fishermen learn to observe weather conditions, landforms and wind direction to determine the best fishing spots. They learn to detect different movements of fishing buoy to ascertain what fish might be in the vicinity.

And then there's the special jargon to master. Luya means "lure," a "black pit" (heikeng) refers to a commercial fishing pond where the owner might ask anglers to either buy or return the fish they catch. Dagui, or "catching turtles," refers to an angler who catches no fish over an entire day.

Chen says fishing is a form of self-entertainment. It gets him out of the house on weekends and lets him experience elements of nature.

"I think that modern technology actually limits entertainment for young people," he says. "It takes more to satisfy them than prior generations."

Fishing has even become a spectator sport. Short videos of people fishing have become quite popular, with tens of thousands of clicks.

"One day at work, I found several of my colleagues were watching luya videos and I thought they loved fishing as well," Chen says. "But then I found out that they had never even held a fishing rod but they were somehow excited watching other people fish."

Such videos usually begin with an angler walking to a fishing spot. They show viewers all the requisite gear, including hooks and lures. Some video uploaders cut the waiting time, showing a fish being caught pretty quickly. Others show the enduring patience of fishermen as they wait for bites and even the frustrations of catching nothing.

Some anglers have become celebrities online, like Deng Gang from central China's Hubei Province.

A professional angler and general manager of a fishing tackle company, Deng has more than 17 million followers on the short video platform Douyin, where he has been crowned the "fishing king."

He is a "black pit" expert who has fished in commercial fishing ponds all over China. Viewers watch him exchange fish he has caught with pond owners for poultry and meat.

Of course, Deng's popularity has become a money spinner. He once sold 1.25 million yuan of tackle in one day on Douyin.

Han Lu, a college senior, says she could watch luya videos for hours, but has never fished herself.

"I just enjoy the moment when an angler yells "I've got a bite!" and then uses his skills to bring the fish in." she says. "I share the excitement, but I don't think I have the patience to sit there for hours, hoping to catch a fish myself."

It's hard to explain fishing addiction to outsiders. There are discussions online about how to extricate family members from the obsession.

Christie He, a white-collar worker in the city of Hangzhou, says she grew tired of eating all the fish her father caught when she was young. And now her boyfriend has become obsessed with the sport, so the scenario is playing out all over again.

"At least nowadays, many fishermen don't bring their catches home," she says, with a sigh. "But my boyfriend spends more time fishing than with me. I don't understand that."

Special Reports