Just last month, several conservation leaders across Minnesota worried that fishing and hunting license sales would plummet this year as people stayed home under the shadow of COVID-19, thus threatening fish and wildlife projects across the state that license dollars pay for.

But just the opposite is happening so far.

Sales of all types of Minnesota fishing licenses through May 4 hit 354,080, up a whopping 45% over this time last year and the highest early season sales in at least the last 20 years.

Sales of resident youth licenses, required of 16- and 17-year-olds since 2013, are at 13,110, more than double the sales at this time last year and by far the highest ever.

Sales of individual conservation licenses, good for fishing and small-game hunting, are up 68%, and individual resident fishing licenses are up 60%.

Even nonresident anglers, who are being asked to stay away during the COVID-19 pandemic, are buying more licenses, up 31% over last year.

Minnesota's general fishing season starts Saturday at 12:01 a.m. Minnesota officials are encouraging people to get out and fish, but to do so only in their own communities, not to travel far to get there and to social distance along the way, on docks and at boat landings.

Speculation is that people both have more time on their hands to purchase licenses and that, with many other distractions shut down — from professional sports to restaurants and movie theaters — people are looking to go fishing as an escape from stay-at-home restrictions.

People also may be buying early to avoid having to go into a crowd and stand in line at retailers in the days leading up to the fishing opener.

More youths may have more time to go fishing because virtually all youth activities, including sports and physical school, are shut down.

Dave Olfelt, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday that the big increase in sales — and thus a big increase in revenue for the state’s Fish and Game Fund — is good news. But he cautioned that it’s unclear if more people are simply buying their license earlier in the summer or if it's truly going to end up being more people buying licenses.

“We won’t know really until the end of the season if this increase is new people, or maybe people buying again who hadn't bought licenses for a while,’’ Olfelt said. “But some of the numbers, like the youth license sales, look promising.”

Olfelt said it's also unclear how many nonresidents may cancel trips to Minnesota, and thus not buy licenses, under COVID-19 restrictions as summer goes on.

Minnesota sold 1,100,256 fishing licenses last year. That number has been fairly consistent between 1 and 1.2 million over the past 20 years. The state is believed to have about 1.4 million anglers when seniors and children who don't need licenses are factored in.

You can buy fishing licenses at many sporting goods stores and bait shops or online at dnr.state.mn.us/licenses/fishing or call 888-665-4236.