Fishing Online for Michigan's Last-Minute Anglers

Anglers can purchase fishing licenses from the state's Department of Natural Resources on the spot if they remember to bring their smartphones along for the trip.
by | July 19, 2011

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

In Michigan, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has made it super easy for its residents to buy a one-day fishing license at the last minute. Citizens can even do it before they go out on any one of the state's thousands of lakes, as long as they've got cell reception. Through Mobile Fish, all an angler needs to do is point his or her smartphone browser to the DNR's mobile website, and buy their license. This allows the state to secure the cost of the license while allowing the angler to pursue his or her fun.

The need for an easier way to secure last-minute licenses came up two ways. First, the DNR noticed that a lot of licenses were being purchased late at night. "The guy is buying it Friday night at 11 p.m. at Kmart or Walmart and he has a start date for the license to be at 6 a.m.," says Tom Weston, director of, which hosts the DNR website.

Second, boat captains of chartered trips, who didn't want visitors running to the bait shop at the last minute to buy licenses, started selling them on board. Customers could fill out a paper form and give $7 to the captain. But, Weston says, "that money took its time getting back to the state government office." Since the DNR is partially funded through user fees, any delay in the department recouping its money can cause problems. This slowdown helped the DNR see it needed to make it easier for anglers to purchase a license, be it the night before or minutes before.

"The goal was to make it easy for an angler to buy a license literally minutes before they started fishing," Weston reiterated. "The second goal was to see if the developers at could actually build a mobile website that could accept payment and turn out a license within minutes. This is now the building block for our overall mobile strategy on"

The DNR rolled out Mobile Fish in 2009 as a sort of soft launch. "Think of it as beta testing," Weston says, "so that we can carefully monitor how it was working before launching a bigger campaign."

Then in 2010, the state began advertising it via social media and press releases, says Christine Schwerin, manager of DNR's Marketing and Outreach Division. A big change in the mobile site's promotion began this past April, when the DNR used a matching grant from the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation to buy targeted advertising to help the department attract past, current and future anglers. Using Google AdWords, DNR targets advertisements specifically to mobile phones whose owners are reading or searching for fishing information in Michigan.

Using these online advertisements, DNR only pays for the ad if someone actually clicks on it, which is much more cost-effective than, say, purchasing an ad in a magazine for a lump sum up front. The fact that the department can be extremely specific in who it targets means it's essentially capturing users at the moment they're looking for that specific, related information.

The DNR hasn't yet determined whether the 24/7 mobile app is creating an increase in fishing license purchases. As of mid-June this year, the DNR had sold a couple hundred licenses through its mobile site for the 2011 season. Because spring was more cold and rainy than normal, Schwerin says, they'll get a better idea of the return on their online investments after the summer months are over. Overall, Michigan sells about 1 million fishing licenses every year. "Naturally, we have to make sure that we're offering lots of opportunities for anglers to purchase those when and where it is convenient for them," Schwerin says.

Michigan isn't alone in offering the ability to purchase fishing licenses online 24/7. California, Mississippi and Wisconsin, among others, offer similar features. "[Mobile Fish] makes it very easy to sell licenses and sell them 24/7. This will grow in Michigan -- that is a guarantee," Weston says.

In June, DNR and released another mobile app to the Android Market, BlackBerry App World and the iTunes App Store called the MI Camping and Recreation Locator. "This free app is designed to allow users to search for Michigan state parks, forest campgrounds and boat launches," Weston says, "and to date we have had over 12,000 downloads."


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