• U.S.

Technology: The Fish Don’t Stand a Chance

6 minute read
Philip Elmer-Dewitt

When George Poveromo goes fishing, he doesn’t fool around. Entering precise coordinates into the computerized navigation system of his 26-ft. sport- fishing boat, the Miami-based writer speeds directly toward a favorite haunt, a stretch of the Atlantic three miles southeast of Fort Lauderdale. When the computer beeps to tell him he is approaching the spot, Poveromo flicks on a bread-box-size electronic instrument, his “fish finder.” By sending sound waves into the water, the machine, operating much like a radar device, probes for objects beneath the surface. The findings are recorded by a stylus that moves across a rotating paper drum. At first Poveromo sees only the line that represents the ocean floor. Then a group of gray blotches suddenly appears on the paper. Poveromo hastily baits three hooks with mullet and tosses them over. Within 30 seconds, a mammoth tug bends one of the poles nearly in half. The ensuing 15-minute battle ends with the landing of a 50-lb. amberjack.

The catch is a testament to modern technology, but it is hardly unique. Over the long Memorial Day weekend, many of America’s 54 million anglers headed for the nearest river, lake or bay armed with depth finders, pH meters and computerized tackle. The history of fishing is a history of equipment, but with the advent of low-cost electronics, one of the world’s most popular participatory sports has rapidly become its most high tech. “Fishermen are looking for every advantage they can get,” says Robert Sullivan, a salesman at Larry Smith Electronics in Riviera Beach, Fla. “They are saying, ‘Give us more, more, more!’ “

They may already have too much. In the late 1970s, several conservation- minde d states considered restrictions on fish finders, although no bills were ever signed into law. Now even some of the fishermen think measures to protect fish stocks may be needed. “The odds have almost become too lopsided,” concedes Poveromo. “In three or four years, there may be no fish.” One idea: limits on the number and kind of saltwater fish that can be taken on a single day, similar to the regulations states now set for catching freshwater species.

Meanwhile, the technology continues to spread. Rods and reels now sport built-in microcomputers and liquid crystal display screens. Ryobi America of Bensenville, Ill., for example, makes a $95 bait-casting reel with a computer that monitors the spool’s rate of spin during casts and adjusts it as necessary to keep the line from getting snarled. Daiwa of Garden Grove, Calif., sells a $100 spinning reel with a screen that tells how far the line is cast and how fast it is reeled in. The $695 Cannon Digi-Troll, sold by Michigan-based S & K Products, not only drops a trolling lure to a measured depth but can also be programmed to raise or lower it automatically until it finds the fish.

On boats, temperature gauges screwed into the hull guide anglers to cool underground springs in ponds and lakes where fish like to congregate on hot summer days. Similarly, pH meters dragged at various depths help locate acidity “clines,” or layers, where fish are apt to feed. Lake Systems Division’s $630 Multi-C-Lector, in addition to measuring temperature and pH, also detects water clarity clines, using an underwater light meter. It then suggests which color lures are most likely to catch a fish’s eye.

But the hottest-selling angler’s aids are electronic depth sounders like the one Poveromo used to locate his amberjack. Similar systems have been employed by commercial fishermen since World War II. But like VCRs, fish finders have jumped in sales as their prices have plunged, to as little as $99 for the simplest units. Today some 20 manufacturers turn out more than 200 sounders designed for freshwater and salt water. One of the largest, Alabama-based Humminbird, has doubled its sales during the past four years, to more than $50 million in 1987. Its chief rival, Lowrance Electronics of Tulsa (1987 sales: more than $40 million), has registered annual sales increases of 25%.

All depth finders operate on the same basic principle. A control box transmits an electronic pulse to a ceramic crystal called a transducer that is mounted to the boat’s transom or hull. The transducer converts the pulse into a high-frequency sound wave, or “ping,” which it beams downward. When the ping strikes the bottom, or hits a fish, it bounces back up. These echoes are picked up by the transducer and sent to the control unit for processing. Since sound travels through water at a known rate, depth is readily calculated from the time elapsed between transmission and reception.

In the control unit, the results of these calculations can be displayed as marks on paper or as blips on a computer screen. The bottom shows up as a continuous line. Fish may appear as “arches,” or inverted Vs, in which the depth of the arch corresponds roughly to the height of the fish. Some of the newest units can zoom on a target zone, allowing users to pick out a fish hovering a mere 1 1/2 in. off the bottom. Other refinements include alarms that signal a fish’s presence and multihued video screens that are designed to identify various species by a color code — red for dolphin, for example, or pink for bottom feeders like grouper and snapper.

Given the dazzling array of equipment available, some fishermen go overboard. That’s My Hon, a 90-ft. fishing palace owned by Ted Sabarese, a New Jersey computer-company executive, is awash with $210,000 worth of angling gadgetry. Its cabin is a war room of screens, gauges and graphs, including three position finders, a satellite navigation system and three depth sounders. Says Dick Greiner, the yacht’s skipper: “You’re only as good as the equipment you’ve got.”

Not everyone agrees. Many anglers view fishing as an exercise in applied natural history and take pride in their ability to read fish behavior by such signs as the turn of the tide or the flocking patterns of seabirds. Anybody who cares to can still catch fish without all the new equipment. People have been doing it for centuries.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com