Minnesota boat dealer Frankie Dusenka remembers when a 16-foot aluminum fishing boat was considered “big.’’ Not on this Memorial Day weekend.
The days when 14- and 15-foot motor boats dominated the lake scene are long gone, surpassed by a bigger-better mentality that includes a fascination with luxury pontoon boats, a brisk business in $80,000 wake-surfing inboard motor boats and a boom in 18- to 20-foot, deep-hulled fishing boats.
According to data from the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota registers 15 watercraft for every 100 people. That’s fewer registrations per capita than were sustained here before the 2007-2009 recession, but still fourth-highest nationally as ranked by the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
In terms of total boats registered, the most recent DNR snapshot from 2015 counted 808,627 registered boats of all kinds.
As the state’s overall fleet of private boats continues to recover in number, many more changes in state boating trends are evident in registration data since 1980. Sail boating has collapsed, kayaking has surged, canoes passed their peak more than a decade ago and paddleboarding has emerged so quickly that the DNR only began tracking it separately in 2013. In that short time, the number of registrations has tripled.
Motor boats make up 68 percent of all registered boats in Minnesota, and they appear to be a big factor in the drop-off in registrations when the recession hit. In 2007, 115 motor boats were registered for every 1,000 people in the state. Two years later that number dropped to 106 and has continued to slide.
“All the boats and all the motors are getting bigger, and they’ve skyrocketed in price,’’ said Jeff Hannay, owner of Hannays Marine in Minneapolis. “But the good news is that everyone who can afford a boat is still buying.’’
Hannay said the middle class that used to make up the bulk of his customer base has been shrinking. In the past year, Hannays has sold only a handful of new, 15-foot aluminum fishing boats. But with a price tag of $10,000 (including a new 30-horsepower outboard), it’s far more than boaters used to spend for the same equipment, he said.
As recently as 1990, small motor boats of this type (less than 16 feet) made up the majority of all registered motor boats in the state, according to the DNR. But the tide shifted and since 2000 the margin of bigger boats to smaller boats has steadily widened.
Hannay said sales of 18-foot and larger fishing boats this year — both fiberglass models and aluminum — are far surpassing expectations held as recently as November. At that pace, Minnesotans could spend more than the $661.5 million they spent in 2015 on new power boats, outboard engines, trailers and aftermarket accessories. Only Florida, Texas and Michigan spent more, according to the manufacturers’ association.
Dusenka said boat owners who had to sell newly purchased boats during the recession are back in the market. And both Hannay and Dusenka said luxury pontoon boats, many 20 feet or longer, probably have had the largest impact on the growth of large motor boats in the state.
“You know the annual boat show?’’ Dusenka asked. “Well, it’s not the boat show anymore. It’s the pontoon show.’’
No place in Minnesota has a higher concentration of boats than vacation-friendly Cook County, home to the North Shore, Gunflint Trail, many rivers and parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. According to the most recent DNR data, there’s almost a 1-to-1 ratio of residents and watercraft in the county.
“That doesn’t surprise me, because nearly everyone who lives around here has at least one boat,’’ said Ada Igoe of Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters.
She said outfitters and resorts help skew the data by registering hundreds, if not thousands, of canoes and other boats for the rental market. For instance, Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters owns seven motor boats and more than 70 canoes, she said. Overall in Cook County, there’s one canoe for every two people.
Similar boat densities exist in neighboring Lake and St. Louis counties, where canoe outfitting is a mainstay.
Ginny Nelson, co-owner of Spirit of the Wilderness outfitters in Ely, said she’s surprised the boat-to-people ratio isn’t greater than 1-to-1. Her business is medium-sized for the region and it maintains about 100 canoes for backcountry rental. Some other fun facts:
Aitkin County is the pontoon capital of Minnesota with 1,165 registered, or more than seven for every 100 people.
Crow Wing County, in the heart of the Brainerd lakes area, has 3,785 pontoon boats registered, or six pontoons for every hundred. Cass and Becker counties are close behind in pontoon boat registrations, each with five of the boats per 100 people.
The biggest recent increase in a type of boat — with the exception of paddle boards — has been in kayaks. The number registered in 2015 is about 85 percent higher than just 10 years ago.
The explosion is partly related to the increasing popularity of kayak fishing. Grant Carston, a leader of the Minnesota Kayak Fishing Association, said the group has grown to more than 700 members since 2013. He said the appeal of the activity includes easy hauling, low price, aerobic benefits, simplicity and solitude.
Personal watercraft, widely referred to in Minnesota as Jet Skis, also have boomed in the state. The numbers skyrocketed from a little more than one registration per 1,000 people to nearly seven per 1,000 registrations from 1990 to 2000. But since peaking at more than 9 registrations per 1,000 people in 2008, the popularity of personal watercraft dropped with the recession and has leveled off.
Canoes peaked in popularity in 2001 and have dropped each year since then. Sail boats have taken an even bigger dive in Minnesota, falling 56 percent since 1990.
Dean Sanberg of Windrider International in south Minneapolis said the decline of sailing was underway before the recession. People have gone away from it because daily excursions can consume three to four hours and other activities are pulling people away. Recruiting young people also has been a challenge, Sanberg said.
As one indication of the decline, mooring balls on Lake Calhoun that were once nearly impossible to obtain are “open to just about anyone’’ because of the low demand, Sanberg said.