MEREDITH, New Hampshire (Reuters) - From his wooden fishing shack on Lake Winnipesaukee's thinning skin of ice, Mike MacDonald doesn't need to think twice about why more Americans are going "fishin'" in the deepening U.S. recession.
"This costs $6 to get a bucket of bait and it will last the whole day," he said, skinning a fish next to a hole drilled into the frozen New Hampshire lake. "Compare that to skiing -- one day of skiing would cost $80 just for the lift ticket."
As Americans forgo expensive vacations, costly dinners and shopping mall splurges, many are opting instead for the quiet simplicity of fishing, according to the sport fishing industry and reports from bait shops and fishermen.
From the icy north to fly-fishing streams in Texas, angling is on the rise. For families, it's an inexpensive outing. Those with a knack for it can trim their grocery bills. And for newly unemployed, it's something to do.
"I'm seeing a lot more fishermen down here," said John Miller, owner of Bob's Sport & Tackle in Katonah, New York. "With the economy the way it is, people are getting laid off from work and don't want to sit at home and do nothing.
"The cheaper alternative," he said, "is to go fishing."
Hard times have had this effect on Americans before. In the last U.S. recession, from 2001 to 2002, spending on fishing rods and reels rose 12 percent to $343 million, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, a trade body that measures how much people spend on sporting goods.
That can add up. When including the cost of fishing rods, tackle boxes, lures, lines and other equipment, recreational fishing in the United States is a $2.2 billion industry, according to the association's data, which excludes spending on fishing tourism, clothing and fishing lessons.
Sports network ESPN added 44 percent more pages than planned to an insert in its "Bassmaster Magazine" aimed at saltwater fishermen because of advertiser demand, the Walt Disney Co-owned network said last week, citing demand from suppliers of equipment and boats to bass enthusiasts.
In Texas, fishing license sales have increased considerably in recent months, said Tom Harvey, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "We suspect it's because the price of gasoline has come down considerably and thus facilitated more driving and boating," he said.
In the Dallas suburb of Lewisville, where there is a stream stocked with trout in the winter, Mike Hamilton, a 47-year-old fly fishing pharmacist, said fishing close to home was something he could do without breaking the bank.
"I'm not into spending a whole lot of money on my recreation," he said on a cold March morning, standing in the stream with fly rod in hand.
In February, amid a bombardment of dire news on the U.S. economy, an annual ice fishing derby on Lake Winnipesaukee drew nearly 5,500 people -- among its best seasons ever and up about 7 percent from last year.
"All you need is a license and then you can come out, cut a hole in the ice and fish," said Steve O'Brien, who has fished there since November. "It's simple and pretty cheap."
Nearby at A.J.'s Bait & Tackle shop, owner Alan James Nute said fish bait sales are up 25 percent this season. He attributes some of that to one of the frostiest winters in memory -- the ice is about a foot thick -- but said the bad economy is also drawing crowds.
"We've had one of our best Januarys and Februarys ever," said Nute. "We've had cold winters before but this winter seems better. I think a big part of the reason is that fishing is just really cheap. Just about anyone can do it.
"Some people's hours have been cut at their work or they've now got weekends free. Or they lost their jobs outright and what else are they going to do?"
In 2007, as the U.S. economy began skidding into recession, spending on fishing rods and reels hit a 10-year high of $356 million, the National Sporting Goods Association said. Data for last year is not yet available.
"The one little treat people are giving themselves these days is getting out and going fishing and getting away from it all," said Mel Berman, who runs a fishing talk-radio show in Florida, a major destination for anglers.
George Taylor, owner of Taylor's Trading Post in Madbury, New Hampshire, said he's seeing more families buying bait. "When the kids have time on their hands, fishing is a good alternative instead of spending money on other things like the movies," he said.
Bait fisherman John Konz, 65, who works at a waste water treatment plant in Texas, said low costs were among the factors that lured him to angling. He rigged up his rod near the bank of a stocked trout stream that cost $5 to access.
"What else can you do for $5 a day or whatever?" he said. "How can you go wrong?"
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Lewisville, Texas; Editing by Doina Chiacu