It’s 6:30 a.m. The tournament start boat has just given you the green light and you steer your Ranger 518 out into the cold, gray, open bay at 60 miles an hour.
A half an hour later – about 25 miles into your 70-mile run – it happens. A dense fog rolls in, completely obscuring your view of any shoreline landmarks that help you find your way to your secret hot spot. You slow your boat. Trepidation sets in, but not panic. Calmly, as you skim across the flat, metallic water, you rest your eyes on the global positioning system mounted on the console. You know you will get there; without even seeing, you know exactly where you are.
Fogged, but not hemmed, in
Bass fishing, like all outdoor activities, is a slave to the capricious master, Mother Nature. Rain, wind, heat, cold, even snow – all of these factors affect not only how the fish are biting, but the comfort and safety of the angler as well.
To the pro tournament angler, one of the more menacing of nature’s whims is fog. A silent predator, a devious fog bank can swallow your bass boat whole, spin you around, and spit you back out on a sandbar miles from where you were going. Forget about making the weigh-in deadline, you just want to know what state you’re in.
For this reason, Operation Bass officials are understandably jittery when they see a blanket of fog covering their tournament site at morning takeoff. To be sure, no Operation Bass tournament director will send anglers into unsafe conditions like a heavy fog (February’s day-two takeoff at the FLW in Biloxi was delayed until 11:30 a.m. precisely for this reason). But there’s no telling what conditions anglers will run into once they cruise out into big water.
The Biloxi FLW tournament fell heavily under the spell of fog. All tournament long, anglers were battling poor visibility, making navigation difficult. Add to that the marathon runs across the Gulf of Mexico some anglers were making to reach their spots – anglers reported running up to 100 miles – and the potential for a lost fisherman or a boat running aground was greatly increased.
And there were incidents. Pro angler Pete Thliveros spent a morning early in the tournament helping fellow pro Dion Hibdon pry his boat loose from a sandbar. So did Rob Kilby, one of five pros angling for a $100,000 trophy check on the final day. He unselfishly spent an hour helping a fellow competitor off a sandbar during Saturday’s intense competition. (Kilby still finished in third place for the tourney.)
Then there was the case of pro Carl Duvernay, a local angler from Ocean Springs, Miss. On day one, he became turned around in the fog while traversing the gulf and was forced to call his wife to guide him in.
Considering the fog that plagued this particular tournament and the large waters involved, one lost – and quickly recovered – boat is, realistically, a pretty good safety record. So why did Duvernay get lost while so many others found their way?
Most of the field used a GPS for navigation, but he was navigating without one.
The GPS revolution
These days, using a GPS to fish for bass is more than de rigueur, it’s necessary – especially for pro tournament anglers who often run distances many of us weekend anglers won’t even fly.
A common GPS will electronically plot a course for a boater by mapping global coordinates into its computer. These coordinates, known as waypoints, will guide the boater from point A to point B along the shortest path possible. A combination of these points creates a route that an angler can lock into his GPS and follow every time he wants to visit a certain spot. Lowrance models of GPS can remember up to 750 waypoints along a route.
The GPS works by using a network of satellites to triangulate points on the globe. Twenty-four satellites, launched by the U.S. Department of Defense, can calculate a location anywhere on earth. Lowrance models of GPS, like the GlobalMap 1600 and 2000, have screen maps to provide the angler more than just a numerical coordinate of a location, but a visual of the area as well. And it doesn’t matter where you use it either – unlike, say, a cellular phone – because the entire earth is mapped into the system, complete with local landmarks identified onscreen.
“In the fog, you can really drive to your spot without ever really looking away from your screen,” says Daren Cole, a marketing representative with Lowrance Electronics.
The GPS revolution began roughly 10 years ago, after the Department of Defense launched its satellites. Since then, the accessibility and functionality of commercial systems have improved dramatically. For example, as far as Lowrance is concerned, a hand-held GPS that once started at $700 to purchase now costs a maximum of $200. Also, in addition to worldwide mapping, the systems now come with other navigational features like compass bearing, distance, time to arrival and ground speed.
GPS and the art of fishing
The impact of the state-of-the-art GPS, as well as other technological advances in fishing like precision sonar depth finders and hyper-silent trolling motors, has transformed the industry, say some. With sonar units, anglers are able to pinpoint their hot spots, which often involve submerged – thus, invisible – structure like humps, rocks and logs. They then record the coordinates into their GPS units and return there time and time again.
“They’re not just for maneuvering in the fog, but also for marking fishing locations,” explains Wal-Mart FLW Tournament Director Gale Stearns. “GPS has impacted the fishing industry a bunch. With just a compass you can’t mark fishing spots. But if you can get to that one little spot where you know there’s fish and catch your limit, it could mean the tournament.”
Effectively, the technology behind GPS has led anglers to fish open water successfully. Before the advent of GPS and sonar, fish-finding tactics were comparatively archaic.
“My first depth finder was a 12-inch cinder block and a rope,” says Jerry Stakely, tournament director for the EverStart Batteries Series. “Back then, you basically spent more time throwing crankbaits and spinnerbaits in shallow water. We were leaving 90 percent of the fish in open water.”
Technologically more complicated than a block and a rope, experts say the modern GPS is surprisingly easy to use – maybe even more so than the simple navigation techniques of yesterday. Large readouts and straightforward button commands make the systems user-friendly even for the novice angler.
Explains Cole, “If you’ve got a thumb, you can work one of them.”
Still, even though GPS technology has greatly influenced the way people fish, anglers would agree that we haven’t completely surrendered the art of fishing to the machines.
“What fishing has evolved into now is a science,” says Stakely. But he says an angler’s know-how – of the waterway, the fish and how to catch them – is ultimately more important than the technology he has. “The GPS can tell you where to go, but it can’t tell you what sits in front of you. You know, the human factor can ruin anything.”
A growing appreciation for GPS
For the anglers of February’s Wal-Mart FLW Biloxi tournament, the navigational improvements the GPS has brought to the industry are indispensable. As anglers often cruised blindly into the fog, the huge water and battering waves of the Gulf of Mexico were made endurable by the comforting glow of their GPS screens. Innumerable competitors, when they stood onstage at day’s end, made it a point to thank their GPS sponsor companies.
Affable pro Gerald Swindle, who finished fourth for the tournament, said he couldn’t have made his run and fished competitively without his GPS to guide him.
“Not only are we putting everything on the line everyday, we’re putting our lives on the line,” he said. “You try to run 60 miles in the fog when you can’t see the front of the boat.”