Boat sales are on the rise. Boat service centers are bustling.
Winter-weary residents are purchasing hundreds of fishing licenses and boat registrations.
Now if the weather would just cooperate.
“It’s spring fever,” said Margaret Hedin of Kootenai County’s licensing bureau.
Every year, the rush to the water starts with the first warm weather.
The bureau registered about 180 boats in the months of January and February, and 471 boats in March. In the first 10 days of April, the bureau has registered 412 boats.
Last weekend, Fins and Feathers fishing shop sold “hundreds” of fishing licenses, said owner Jeff Smith.
“We were packed,” Smith said. “It was our busiest weekend so far.”
Sgt. Dan Soumas of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department had to wait in line for a half hour last weekend to launch a sheriff’s boat at the Third Street dock, he said.
As soon as the sun comes out, Yacht Club owner Bob Hall notices that his clients come out, too.
“The phone was ringing off the hook Monday and Tuesday,” Hall said Thursday. “With the sunshine, people get the itch.”
Although rain and cool temperatures are forecast through Saturday, Sunday promises to have some sun and temperatures in the high 60s, according to John Livingston of the National Weather Service.
The water will take a while to catch up with the air temperatures. Last weekend Soumas stopped a guy riding a personal watercraft in a T-shirt and shorts, with the life jacket out of reach under the seat.
“I said, ‘You’re done. Go back to shore’,” Soumas recalled. “If he falls off in 40-degree water, he’s got maybe 5 minutes - maybe.”
That’s why Greg Mills, co-owner of Kootenai Saw and Cycle, advocates the buddy system for people riding personal watercraft.
“I recommend they go out with two people,” Mills said. “Never go out without a life jacket, never ever. I wish that was the law, that you have life preservers on.”
Mills has been selling more wet suits now that people are interested in riding Jet-Skis earlier in the season.
“More people are riding longer, or making a longer season out of it,” he said.
The average Idaho boater burns up 174 gallons of gas per year. Most of that is in two or three months of warm weather.
Yet, Smith of Fins and Feathers has noticed that the fishing season is becoming more year-round.
“We’re busier in November than we used to be,” he said. “We’re seeing more activity. Some of it has to do with there’s more people here, and part of it is we have more fishing opportunities.”
This time of year is when the fishing really improves. Two fishing derbies are scheduled for this weekend - one bass fishing derby in the chain lakes area and a salmon derby on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Sgt. Soumas is trying to patrol earlier each year, though his seasonal help doesn’t arrive until the end of May.
“We put more deputies on the water than anyone in the state,” Soumas said. But with 44,840 acres of boatable surface water and only 12 marine deputies when fully staffed, “I feel like we need more people.”
Last year a fisherman drowned in April. With earlier season patrols, Soumas hopes to prevent such tragedies by making sure people have the right equipment on board.
All boats must carry enough life jackets for everyone on board, fire extinguishers, lights and whistles or horns. The Idaho State Parks and Recreation Department publishes a comprehensive brochure of boating laws.
Soumas warned that early season boaters should be watchful for debris and hazards in the lake from the winter floods.
The Spokane River is particularly hazardous now because of shallow water and the fact that warning buoys were washed away in the flood.
“We would like people to stay out of the river,” Soumas said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: North Idaho boating registrations and permits