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The Electronic Angler

Technology can greatly enhance the fishing experience — but only if you read the manual.

By Larry D. Hodge

Ah, fishing. It’s such a simple pleasure, far removed from the clang, clamor and constant communication of the modern world. It’s just you, your favorite fishing buddy, the fish and a little bit of paradise.

Really? What planet are you fishing on?

Electronic devices have burrowed into our lives so deeply that we tend to forget how pervasive and helpful — nay, essential — they have become. Let’s look at some of the ways electronics might be used in the course of a typical fishing trip.

  • You visit the TPWD Web site to get lake information.
  • You visit another Web site to check on the weather.
  • You visit a fishing Web site to get tips on where the fish have been biting and what baits they like.
  • You e-mail your fishing partner to set a meeting time and place.
  • You set your digital alarm clock so you won’t oversleep.
  • Next morning you board your vehicle (with computer-controlled ignition and fuel injection) and head out.
  • You navigate to the lake using your on-board navigation system, which uses satellites orbiting the earth to pinpoint your position.
  • At the lake, you use a combination GPS/sonar unit to find fishing spots and locate fish.
  • When your daughter catches a six-pound bass (which you weigh on your digital scale), she calls a friend on her cell phone to share the good news, takes a picture of the fish with the same device and slips the bass back beneath the waves.
  • The weather radio informs you that the dark cloud on the horizon is accompanied by lightning and high winds, so you return to the dock, using your GPS to help you navigate safely.

Let’s review. On one ordinary fishing trip, you’ve used your personal computer; a telephone system operated by computers; a worldwide network of computers linked by phone lines and satellites; a clock controlled by a radio signal from an atomic clock in Fort Collins, Colorado; numerous computer chips in the bowels of your automobile and boat; a network of satellites orbiting the earth 11,000 miles in space and transmitting electronic signals continuously; a fish finder that uses electronics to generate, send and interpret sound signals transmitted into the water; a handheld device capable of sending and receiving audio and video signals wirelessly using a nationwide electronic network; and a receiving unit linked to another nationwide network of radio stations gathering information from radar as well as electronic instruments measuring wind speed and direction, precipitation, barometric pressure and temperature — several trillion dollars worth of electronics in all, in fact. And all this doesn’t even take into account the fact that the clothes you wore and the fishing tackle you used were doubtless designed, manufactured, shipped and sold with the aid of — what else? — electronics.

All so you can catch a fish you don’t even keep. Nor do you give a second thought to miracles of communication undreamed of just a few decades ago.

The days of Hemingway-esque mano-a-mano struggles between an angler with rudimentary equipment and a primal fish no longer exist, save perhaps when kids assault neighborhood creeks and ponds with cane poles, bobbers and cans of backyard worms.

The electronic invasion is not a bad thing. Fishing today is safer, more productive and just as much if not more fun than it’s ever been, and electronics are a big part of the reason.

Finding Fish. Tournament angler Jim Behnken of Garden Ridge uses a recent experience on Choke Canyon Reservoir as an example. “I was talking to someone after the tournament about the way fish in Choke Canyon are positioned on tank dams right now,” Behnken says. “Electronics make it possible for you to go straight to a particular tank dam or channel bend and fish it. Thirty-pound bags [weight of fish caught] are not that uncommon these days, and a lot of the reason we are seeing so many fish caught is because we are using electronics.”

Finding Yourself. “With all the technology that’s out there, the one piece I could not do without anymore is my GPS,” says pro angler Tom Mann Jr. “I’m a structure fisherman, and being able to put in 20 or 25 waypoints within 3 feet of where I want to fish has been a tremendous help to me. No serious fisherman should fish without it.”

Many units combine a fish finder with a GPS (global positioning satellite) unit — and a map plotter. This one electronic marvel can, all at the same time, show you your position on a map of the lake (with the locations of underwater structure marked), the depth of the water, your speed and direction of travel, water temperature at the surface and what’s between your boat and the bottom, be it brush, fish or the meeting place of warm and cold layers of water called the thermocline. Jim Behnken points out another use. “Sometimes I get lost on my way to a boat ramp or lake, and I stop, get out of my vehicle, turn on the GPS on the boat and use it to see where I am,” he laughs.

Software is available for thousands of lakes and rivers across the nation.

Keeping in Touch. You may not think of your cell phone as an electronic fishing aid, but it can be one of the most valuable tools on your boat. Take along (or program in) numbers you might need if you have boat trouble or need law enforcement. Cell phones can be very helpful when fishing with friends in another boat — when they find fish, real friends will call to let you know. Many guides use cell phones, including those with walkie-talkie capability, for exchanging information confidentially with other guides.

Running for Cover. Not many freshwater anglers use radar (Radio Detection And Ranging), but it’s standard equipment for offshore boaters and is available for freshwater use. It’s worth considering both as a fishing aid and for safety. “You can overlay the radar on your map and see if someone is already fishing an area. It will also pick up birds working over fish,” says marine angler Richard Chapman. “It’s especially useful for spotting storms and seeing how far away they are. You can tie it into your radio and GPS, and if you need help, the unit will show the Coast Guard where you are.”

Seeing with Sound. Many advances in consumer electronics sprang from military needs. Radar was used during World War II to detect enemy planes. GPS was developed as a military navigation system. Sonar (SOund, NAvigation and Ranging) was invented as a way of detecting icebergs — remember the Titanic? — but quickly found a military use in antisubmarine warfare. Not until the 1950s and the development of transistors (invented in Dallas, thank you very much) was a practical “fish finder” possible.

A sonar unit consists of a transmitter, transducer, receiver and display. The transmitter produces an electrical impulse, which the transducer converts to a cone-shaped sound wave it sends into the water. The sound wave is reflected by the bottom and by objects in the water — stumps, fish, old roadbeds, whatever — and received by the transducer, which converts it into an electrical signal it sends to the display. This happens about 200,000 times a second in most sonar units. By a process you wouldn’t understand even if I could explain it to you, the display converts the signals into a visual depiction of the bottom and whatever is between it and the boat. Even better, the display tells you how deep the water is and at what depth fish are.

Hard objects (like a rocky bottom or a submerged, paved road) have a stronger return echo than soft objects like mud or brush. Therefore, hard objects show up as a wide line on the display’s screen, while soft ones show up as a thin line. The sensitivity of sonar units can be adjusted to show the most information without cluttering up the screen with “noise.” Most units have an automatic setting that takes care of this for you.

The Gold in Arches. Displays can be color or black and white. “Color displays are fine, but pixels are everything,” Lake Fork guide Roy Greer told me. The more vertical pixels a display screen has, the better it can show detail. Because most fish are thicker in the middle than on the ends, the pixels showing the middle of the fish appear at a higher point on the display, depicting the fish as an arched line. The more lines of vertical pixels a display has, the smaller the fish it can show as an arch. Many units have a zoom feature that enlarges all the echoes on a screen, making it easier to see arches. Some let you choose to have fish displayed as fish shapes rather than arches.

By now you’ve probably figured out that there’s more to using electronic devices than pushing the on button. Fish finders and GPS units come with an important accessory you should not leave home without: the operating manual. Yes, it’s a pain to read the instructions and practice using the built-in tutorials, but without them you will have little more than an expensive piece of boat dash décor. “I cannot believe how many people I talk to at tournaments who don’t know how to put in a waypoint [a specific location],” says Behnken. “If you will spend a couple of hours learning how to use your electronics, you will be amazed at how many more and bigger fish you can catch. Everyone could become a better angler by learning how to use their electronics.”

Weird Science. Just when you’ve learned to operate and interpret ordinary fish finders, along comes side-imaging sonar, which uses two sonar beams directed to the sides to produce an almost three-dimensional image of what is on either side of the boat. Because the beams are reflected sideways, like rays of light, the image of an underwater tree looks very similar to the shadow of a tree illuminated by early morning or late evening sunlight. The objects are displayed with almost picture-like quality, although a bit skewed.

Anglers use a variety of sound-producing lures on the theory that fish locate food partly by hearing. The Biosonix fish attractor uses recorded sounds of predator fish feeding on prey, played through an underwater speaker, to attract fish to an area and stimulate them to bite. “I believe there are many times when the bite gets quicker with it than without it,” says Bob Holmes, a guide on Richland-Chambers Reservoir.

Interpreting sonar images can be confusing even to experienced anglers. “Looking at a sonar image, you may not be able to tell if a high point is a stump or a brushpile or something else,” says Charles Whited of San Marcos. “I use an Aqua-Vu underwater camera to see exactly what’s down there. It works best in clear water near the bottom. If there are fish on a brushpile, you can see what they are.” Even with its onboard light the camera’s range is just a few feet.

I’m a sucker for tiny technology, so a mini fish finder from Humminbird caught my eye. There’s a castable sensor you attach to your line and a display for mounting on your rod. It’s a Dick Tracy watch for anglers. The display is only 42 pixels tall (compared to 10 times that on many full-size units), so it’s difficult to see details, but you can take it anywhere and don’t need a boat to use it. And it’s just plain cute. Handheld units are available from other companies.

For me, fishing is like expecting a child. I really don’t want to know ahead of time whether the baby is a boy or a girl or whether the fish about to bite is a largemouth bass or a hybrid striper. Too much information spoils the surprise and takes away some of the anticipation. But there’s also fascination in watching the underwater world scroll across a screen and knowing if everything works as it should, something good could happen any second now.

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