How fishermen use their electronics
2/22/2021

Fishermen count on their fishfinding electronics to, well, help them find fish. Fair enough, but how do they use them, which functions are important and which are not? Turns out, that depends—and anyway, technology and younger tech-savvy fishermen are changing the seascape. Marine Electronics Journal asked avid angler and veteran electronics and boating editor Chris Woodward for some insight. Here’s part one:

By Chris Woodward


As he arrives at his offshore waypoint, the charter captain glances at the horizon, visually lining up two buildings on shore to the south with a tower and a row of trees to the north. A formless blob of red pixels scrolls across the sounder screen, an artificial reef. He motors upcurrent of the sunken wreck and drops anchor.

He has been here countless times before. He knows that the current’s direction and strength mean grouper will hang near the stern of the wreck with the amberjack on top. He focuses all his attention on describing the bottom fishing routine to his anglers while he baits their hooks.

Only this time he finds no fish. His choices: motor around looking at the sounder or try a different hotspot from his log. In the end, he knows his methods will work. They always do.
    
Rising tide

For decades, this typical saltwater angler has relied on his experience and reports from other fishermen rather than his electronics. If he turned them on at all, he used them to find a specific fishing spot with his plotter and then verify his position over a reef or other structure using his sounder. His display always showed a plotter screen and a sounder screen side by side, with a water-temperature reading.

"The average fisherman has great expertise in fishing, and his focus is on the details of that. So he wants his electronics to do ABC, but doesn’t necessarily care about DEF,” says Raymarine/FLIR Marketing Manager Jim McGowan. "There’s an art and a science of catching fish, and we fall into the science. People are more into the art of it.”

However, McGowan and others see a new tide rising. The wow factor introduced by side-imaging, 3-D and live sonar has sparked a competitive edge, something virtually all anglers share.

"If you can combine the knowledge you have as to what these fish are supposed to be doing, and back it up with electronics, you’re way ahead of the game,” says Capt. Greg Hildreth, a long-time inshore and offshore fishing guide from St. Simons Island, GA.

Hildreth stands at the crest of that new tide: He has run the same 7-inch Garmin unit on his 25-foot charter boat for seven years, but is poised to jump headlong into high-res side-imaging sonar. "I’ve always just used my electronics to get me to a spot, running offshore, and then once I get there to show me the bottom. I know I’m missing out,” he admits.

Fellow tarpon guides in the region run side-imaging units. "When these tarpon are out in deeper water in the channel, the guides are finding fish with side-scan. They can tell how deep they are and how many are there,” he says. "I’ve got to have some of that.”

Money talks

But not all saltwater anglers treat electronics like they’re a necessary nuisance. "Pro captains who run larger sportfishing boats tend to know a little more about what they want or are interested in before we ever start a conversation,” says Braden Shoemaker, Furuno Southeast Regional Sales Associate. "But this makes sense as it is their job.”

Shoemaker also sees a trend among offshore anglers toward buying more powerful fishfinders capable of 2kW or 3kW output. Some tournament fishermen even invest in commercial-grade sonar that’s omnidirectional. When finding fish might result in a multi-million-dollar tournament payoff, it makes sense to know your technology.

Tournament captain Mark Maus runs three Simrad units aboard his 36-foot Yellowfin. His electronics save him valuable time finding bait and locating fish during competitions. He says saltwater fishermen are looking for simplicity, and he sees the market gravitating in that direction with streamlined user interfaces and better auto settings—particularly on more advanced products such as radar.

Just look how far anglers have come, he says. "I remember my father used to drop a bar of soap to find hard bottom,” says Maus, a fourth-generation Florida angler, who is also sponsored by Simrad. "He would drop it on a rope, and it would come up with sand or coral.”

He also acknowledges that when operating a smartphone, he’s just as ‘unevolved’ as many of the old salts whose progress with marine electronics has been incremental. "We’re set in our ways. If I wasn’t who I am [a sponsored tournament angler], I would be one of those guys.”

While offshore saltwater anglers-who can cover hundreds of miles in a fishing day-might put more emphasis now on their electronics, inshore anglers find less motivation to adapt. The same marsh shoreline that produced redfish on a rising tide yesterday should produce today.

But new technology seems to be changing minds. And as younger anglers jump into the market, suddenly the technology that literally defines their generation holds broad appeal.

"They ask a lot of questions,” McGowan says. "How much memory does it have? How do they network together? Can I link it to my phone? Can I transfer data? People ask me literally every single day: ‘When will Element [units] stream to my phone?’”

Fresh approach

For freshwater anglers, the technology tide rose a few years ago. "For freshwater fishermen, it’s all about electronics, especially with LiveScope,” says David Dunn, Garmin Director of Sales and Marketing. "We can’t build them fast enough. We tripled our forecast since January and still can’t keep up. At the Bassmaster Classic, we took first, second and third. All three pros called out LiveScope on stage.”

Pro bass anglers must stay very in tune with electronics trends. Currently they’re focused on Humminbird MEGA Imaging and Garmin Panoptix, which includes LiveScope technology, says James Hall, Editor of Bassmaster Magazine. Crappie anglers gravitate toward LiveScope too; panfishermen want side-imaging, kayak fishermen like to record sonar and generate their own charts, and walleye anglers want all their technology working together as a system, such as with Humminbird’s One-Boat Network, he says. (Hbird pic)

In general, though, many purely recreational anglers are "like the old saltwater captains. They have a map with a little line that tells them how to get back, the machine tells them how deep they are, they’re satisfied,” Hall says.

Technology definitely drives retail sales, says Scott Heffernan, Vice President of Sales for TheGPSStore.com. "We see the largest increases when there’s new technology. And the latest has been in sonar,” Heffernan says.

On a scale of electronics knowledge in the marine world, he says that sailors often seem to have the most product savvy followed by the coastal fisherman. "I think the large majority of sailors spend a lot of time on their boats. They get away from the greater population and from the places where they can buy things. They also spend more time in researching and studying,” he says.

But defining such a knowledge scale seems to elicit differing opinions among industry experts. Raymarine’s McGowan, for instance, sees powerboat cruisers at the top of the list of knowledgeable buyers. "They use their boat like an RV; they’re actually going places. They know their navigation and radar inside and out,” he says.

Behind cruisers, sailors seem to grasp the highly technical, followed by tournament and hardcore fishermen. "I’d say that [those top three] are probably the top 20% that do the research, weigh the pros and cons, get all the specs and lay them out,” he says.

Garmin’s Dunn says fishermen would top his list: "I think fishermen learn their electronics faster and more in depth than any other boater. That’s based on what we see at shows, even if we’re talking weekend warriors. They don’t get to fish every day, so they want to maximize their time.”

Next week: Savvy buyers and user-friendly electronics


About the author

Chris Woodward is Executive Editor and Boating/Electronics Editor for the Bonnier Fish Group of publications, which includes Sport Fishing and Salt Water Sportsman. She is also a former board member of Boating Writers International. For her job, she has fished domestic and exotic locations, both offshore and inshore. Most consistently, she focuses on fishing the saltmarshes near her home in coastal Georgia.

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