The story as the 2020 open-water fishing season approached seemed to be that everyone and their mother were buying fishing licenses this year as part of the much-heralded push to get outdoors during the pandemic.

Two weeks before the May 9 walleye opener, Minnesota fishing license sales were up 48% over the same time in 2019, and the story went viral.

But what earlier appeared to be a tidal wave of new anglers coming into the sport, or former anglers getting back in, has slowed to a much more modest increase with sales over the summer flattening out. It now looks like many people were simply buying their licenses early in the year of COVID-19.

Through Labor Day weekend, total fishing license sales in Minnesota hit 1.07 million, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. That’s up only 10% over this time last year.

Still, it’s the highest license sales through Labor Day since 1.08 million in 2009 and is the third highest in the last 20 years, also behind the top year, 2006, which saw 1.14 million licenses sold.

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Dave Olfelt, who heads the Fish and Wildlife Division at DNR, told the News Tribune that it’s never been clear who was driving the pandemic-fueled boon in early license sales.

It’s “a really good question about who’s new or returning (to fishing) after a hiatus and who bought early, and one for which we don’t have a good answer,’’ he said.

Olfelt said the state can expect to sell about 130,000 more 2020 licenses into March, when next year’s licenses go on sale. That would put 2020 among the higher years in the past two decades and would reverse a flat or even slowly declining trend for fishing license sales.

“If we get the same sales this fall we will be at about 1.2 millon for the year, and we haven’t been there since 2009,’’ Olfelt told the News Tribune. “Not earth-shattering, but certainly better than a decline.”

While many types of hunting licenses have seen dramatic decreases in sales over the past 20 years, fishing license sales have remained fairly consistent, varying only by about 130,000 from the highest year — 1.2 million in 2009 — to the lowest year — 1.06 million in 2001 — or less than 11% difference.