DULUTH -- Just last month several conservation leaders across Minnesota worried that fishing and hunting license sales would plummet this year as people stayed home under the shadow of COVID-19, thus threatening fish and wildlife projects across the state that license dollars pay for.

But just the opposite is happening so far.

Sales of all types of Minnesota fishing licenses through Monday hit 354,080, up a whopping 45% over this time last year and the highest early season sales in at least the last 20 years.

The sales of resident youth licenses, required of 16- and 17-year-olds since 2013, is at 13,110, more than double the sales at this time last year and by far the highest ever.

Sales of individual conservation licenses, good for fishing and small-game hunting, are up 68%, and individual resident fishing licenses are up 60%.

Even non-resident anglers, who are being asked to stay away during the COVID-19 pandemic, are buying more licenses, up 31% over last year.

Minnesota's general fishing season starts Saturday at 12:01 a.m. Minnesota officials are encouraging people to get out and fish, but to do so only in their own communities, not to travel far to get there and to social distance along the way, on docks and at boat landings.

Speculation is that people both have more time on their hands to purchase licenses and that, with many other distractions shut down — from professional sports to restaurants and movie theaters — people are looking to go fishing as an escape from stay-at-home restrictions.

People also may be buying early to avoid having to go into a crowd and stand in line at retailers in the days leading up to the fishing opener.

More youths may have more time to go fishing because virtually all youth activities, including sports and physical school, are shut down.

Dave Olfelt, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday that the big increase in sales — and thus big increase in revenue for the state’s Fish and Game Fund — is good news. But he cautioned that it’s as yet unclear if more people simply buying their license earlier in the summer or if it's truly going to end up being more people buying licenses.

“We won’t know really until the end of the season if this increase is new people, or maybe people buying again who hadn't bought licenses for a while,’’ Olfelt said. “But some of the numbers, like the youth license sales, look promising.”

Olfelt said it's also unclear how many non-residents may cancel trips to Minnesota, and thus not buy licenses, under COVID-19 restrictions as summer goes on

Minnesota sold 1,100,256 fishing licenses in all of last year. That number has been fairly consistent between 1 and 1.2 million over the past 20 years. The state is believed to have about 1.4 million anglers when seniors and children who don't need licenses are factored in.

You can buy fishing licenses at many sporting goods stores and bait shops or online at dnr.state.mn.us/licenses/fishing or call 888-665-4236.

Grouse counts back on

In another round of good news for outdoor enthusiasts, Minnesota DNR staff and other volunteers have been given the OK to conduct ruffed grouse drumming counts. DNR staff had been prohibited from conducting the counts under the state’s stay-at-home restrictions. But changes in those restrictions made April 30 by Gov. Tim Walz specifically allow researchers and wildlife workers to get back into the field for projects that are seasonally critical.

For the DNR field staff, that means things like spring planting projects, but also the ruffed grouse count that involves wildlife experts driving predetermined routes and stopping to listen for ruffed grouse drumming. It’s the number of drums per stop that provide wildlife staff with a long-term trend of overall grouse numbers. Last year 77 surveyors, about half DNR staffers, counted drumming along 131 routes throughout ruffed grouse range in the state.

“We usually start (ruffed grouse drumming counts) April 20 so we missed some of that widow. We usually wrap them up by May 10, so we are gong to have to work fast and squeeze them in,’’ Olfelt said.

Olfelt noted it’s too late to count sharp-tailed grouse, which are already done with their spring mating dance courtship routines.

Some fisheries work may happen

It’s too late to capture and take eggs from spawning walleyes — they’re already done spawning — but Olfelt said some DNR fisheries projects may proceed in coming weeks. Projects such as trout stocking could still occur, he noted, but plans were still being finalized as of Tuesday.