Fishing enters world of high-tech

Brent Frazee
The Kansas City Star
Garmin Striker 7dv. Garmin International, which is based in Olathe, Kan., manufactures electronics that lifts fishermen into the high-tech era.

The moment you step into Brent Chapman’s boat, you feel as if you are in a floating computer room.

There are four Garmin high-tech electronic units humming, each set for a different function.

One is used to scan the water that lies ahead, giving Chapman a video-game-like look at the structure and even the fish’s movement. Another gives him a high-detail look at what lies below.

Another function uses GPS, satellite technology, to chart a dotted-line course back to waypoints — places where he has caught fish before. And still another gives him a view of what lies to the side of his boat.

All of this in vivid, living color.

Welcome to the high-tech era of modern fishing. As major companies such as Garmin International race to come up with the latest technology, fish are running out of places to hide.

Never before have fishermen such as Chapman, a bass pro from Lake Quivira, Kan., been able to spy on the underwater world as well as they can today. Some fishermen view this as an exciting new era. Others look at all of the new technology as an unfair advantage.

But regardless of your viewpoint, one thing remains clear: No one has figured out a way to get those fish to open their mouths.

“It’s unbelievable how far technology has come since I started fishing,” said Chapman, 44, who has been on the B.A.S.S. tour since 1994. “Years ago we had little flasher units and we thought that was pretty cool.

“Now companies like Garmin have come out with ways to chart your own lake, see what lies ahead of your boat, see the bottom in detail…

“You just wonder what they will come up with next. It’s a fun time.”

Humminbird SmartStrike for Mid-Atlantic states.

Carly Hysell, media-relations manager for Garmin, agrees.

“Everyone here calls it video-game fishing,” she said. “With our Panoptix units, you can see the lure hit the water and you can see how the fish react to it.

“Some of the pros find it a little frustrating, though. It shows that the bass are there; that they’re at least fishing the right water. But sometimes, they’ll try everything and they still can’t get those fish to hit.”

So how do these things work?

To understand the advances in high-tech fishing, you have to go back to the starting point.

Sonar —an acronym for Sound, Navigation and Ranging — has been used by different government and private entities for years to search the depths. Units rely on transducers, which emit sound waves into the water. Once that signal is broken by objects, it is shown on a screen. The harder the object, the stronger the signal.

That unit can show bottom contour, cover such as rocks, weeds and brush piles and, of course, fish.

Sonar came into the recreational fishing world in the late 1950s when Carl Lowrance of Joplin, Mo., and his sons, Darrell and Arlen, came out with the Little Green Box, the first portable fish finder. It featured a transducer that was dropped into the water and a battery-run box with a dial on it, showing signals of what lies below.

It featured a strong signal showing the bottom and weaker signals for other objects that broke the cone-shaped field. If those signals weren’t constant, it indicated that it was probably fish swimming around.

The first units were crude, but they started a trend where many fishermen moved away from the bank and toward midlake structure, which was a virtually untapped resource. As more fishermen found success, major companies used sonar and came out with more sophisticated electronics.

Fishermen have apparently taken the bait. With a wide range of price points, from several hundred dollars to more than $2,000, there is seemingly something for every level of fishermen.

“These electronics have changed the way we fish,” Chapman said. “If you fish in B.A.S.S., you have to have good electronics on your boat and know how to use them or you’re gong to be at a disadvantage.”

An image from Lowrance's Structure Scan 3D.

The accuracy of modern electronics is often connected to midlake fishing. But even in shallow water, they can be a big help.

Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., proved that when he won the prestigious Bassmaster Classic recently. He keyed on a shallow, log-filled flat in the Elk River off Grand Lake in Oklahoma. He used Lowrance’s StructureScan 3D to pinpoint the location of many of those isolated logs and subtle dropoffs that he cast to.

With the side-scanning range and the clarity of the 3D picture, he picked up fish cover that he might not have otherwise known was there.

“I was fishing clear water and I didn’t want to move too close to the logs and fish I found,” Evers told The Star. “My StructureScan allowed me to scan up to 125 feet to either side and find those submerged logs and little changes in the bottom. That’s where I caught the bass that won the Classic.”

But the units aren’t just for high-profile bass tournaments. Recreational fishermen who chase crappies, walleyes, catfish and white bass also are using electronics to find fish.

Chapman points to an experience when he and an uncle were fishing on Lake Quivira this winter. They spent a couple hours fishing brush piles with little success. Finally, Chapman noticed a faint signal of a big school of fish in the middle of a cove far ahead.

He followed those with fish with his Panoptix until the signal became stronger. His other electronics showed that a large school of fish was hanging on the bottom, far from the brush. To make a long story short, Chapman and his uncle ended up catching 68 crappies in an hour.

Bill Carson, field marketing manager for Johnson Outdoors, of which Humminbird is a part, remembers the day he and others were doing a promotional video for one of the company’s products call Smart Strike. He plugged in information such as the species he was seeking, the time of day, the season and the conditions. The unit offered him spots on the lake that would be well-suited for those conditions.

He headed to one of them and began trolling with an umbrella rig for stripers. With the camera rolling, he got a jolting strike and proceeded to pull in an 18-pound fish.

“We couldn’t have planned that any better,” Carson said with a laugh.

When Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira fishes on the B.A.S.S. national circuit, he often is surrounded by high-tech electronics to show him where the fish are hiding.

Not everyone is convinced that the high-tech wave that is engulfing fishing is a good idea.

In a Facebook post that was picked up and widely distributed by Jay Kumar’s BassBlaster website, longtime pro Randy Blaukat said: “I don’t think the current explosion in technology is a good thing for our sport. I say this because technology — and the need to keep up with it to compete even on a weekend level — is turning bass fishing, especially tournament fishing, into an elitist sport.”

Blaukat called for tournament directors to control the amount of electronics fishermen can use.

“I think it is a huge injustice to our sport for tournament directors to allow an unlimited amount of electronics on a boat,” he said. “For some anglers to be able to afford $15,000 in electronics while some anglers can barely afford two very simple basic units creates an uneven playing field.”

But like it or not, that appears to be the way the sport is headed. Representatives for electronics companies say they are working to come up with units that are suited for all price points. For example, major companies have some units that can be purchased for as low as a couple hundred dollars and as high as several thousand dollars.

“Our biggest challenge is teaching people to use these electronics,” Carson said. “We estimate that 80 percent of the people who buy our units don’t know how to fully utilize them.

“That’s where our field staff and pro staff members come in. They have to educate the public, whether it be with short videos or social media.”