I grew up fishing offshore in the 1970s, and I remember having to remain quiet as my father, or a charter captain, concentrated on following a compass course while timing our progress with a stopwatch at a specific rpm. Usually we were looking for a wreck or reef to fish, and if we didn’t have land-based guide points to line up to tell us where we were, running a known course at a certain speed for a specified amount of time was how we found stuff.
Without radio or satellite-based guidance, that’s all we had. When coming home, we could usually rely on a primitive radio direction finder to home in on a known radio signal and give us a general bearing, but they were useless when headed offshore. Dead reckoning, as the process is known, has become something of a lost art. Although it’s good to know how to do it even now, most of us don’t miss it much. It was far from accurate, and we often missed our mark entirely.
Even when we did find something, archaic sounders (universally referred to as Fathometers in those days, even though that was a Raytheon trademark) didn’t show much. If we managed to get on a hot bite, it was hard to tell anyone about it because old marine radios were still the go-to communications equipment — early VHFs were just appearing.
Then there was weather. We relied largely on television for our weather back then, and TV weather reporting tended to be general and land-oriented at best. If we were lucky, we might get a one-sentence marine forecast, but on numerous occasions, I recall heading offshore only to encounter deteriorating conditions, which produced a less than wonderful ride home. Sound familiar to you?
Fortunately for us, technology has come to our aid, to the point where virtually all of the aforementioned problems have a relatively sophisticated solution. The past two decades have supplied us with a mind-boggling array of technological advances that make our fishing, and our lives in general, better. We all claim to yearn for the simplicity of yesteryear, but I think we are secretly glad most of that has gone away.
When contemplating how to frame this story, one fact became abundantly clear right off the bat: It would be incredibly difficult to write about only five technological innovations that have helped us fish better and more efficiently. What would the categories be? How would we define those categories, and who would decide?
As we usually do, we called a number of our long-term friends in the industry and some of Marlin’s contributors to get their opinions. Many of their answers were obvious and predictable, although absolutely true, but some surprised us. So here’s our view of the things that have been most beneficial to us, as dedicated bluewater anglers, in terms of recent technological advancements, in no particular order.
Where do I begin? I could write a book on how technological breakthroughs in marine electronics have changed our lives, but let’s start with my navigation example mentioned earlier. Loran came along and helped us find things, first with Loran-A and then the far more sophisticated Loran-C. Then came sat-nav, then GPS, and it’s been all downhill from there, in a good way.
Now any yahoo with a set of coordinates and a GPS can navigate to a particular spot, although he still might not know what to do when he gets there, but savvy captains have made use of the advances to catch more fish, and those advances are many and varied.
“Sonar technology has become amazing,” says Marlin contributor Capt. Karl Anderson. “Side-scanning sonar helps us locate schools of bait and schools of pelagics like tuna, where the marlin feed. Multibeam, multifrequency transducers give us detail like we’ve never seen before.” Compressed high-intensity radar pulse (CHIRP) has forever changed the game by creating transducers that slew frequencies across the spectrum, providing incredibly sharp detail no matter what target the beam intercepts. Different frequencies mark different things better, from baitfish to rock bottoms, and with CHIRP, all echo returns come back with incredible clarity.
Digital radars make up for a somewhat reduced range with incredible detail and target separation, making spotting birds at a distance easier than ever. LCD screens get larger, brighter and clearer each year, and they come with photo overlays, 3-D viewing capabilities and user-programmable chart technology. Bluetooth connectivity lets you play music through your multifunction display, plus Ethernet backbones let you view video, monitor engine data and basically connect almost everything on the boat for a wealth of information at your fingertips.
Even the lowly VHF has become a complex and useful tool thanks to Digital Selective Calling; Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology tells us where everyone is, where they’re headed and how fast they’re headed there. Safety has never been more of a priority — or easier to accomplish.
The creation of the World Wide Web might be the single most important advance ever. Think about it: Where did we find the information we now get so easily from the Web before it existed? It came from disparate, sometimes sketchy and often only periodically reliable sources.
We can now receive highly accurate weather updates from the Web, along with extremely detailed fishing forecasts, from companies such as ROFFS, Hilton’s and more. We can obtain real-time intel on warm-water eddies, temperature breaks, chlorophyll concentrations and more. Before the Web, you could sometimes get it via fax machine, but for most of history, the only way to know where to fish was to go out, look around and try to find the edge yourself.
The Web has also given us fishing-based websites like marlinmag.com and many others, which provide breaking news about who is catching what and where. We often know of a spectacular catch within minutes of it occurring. And social media enables us to brag as often and as quickly as we see fit. Remember the days of carrying dog-eared photographs around to show someone what you caught? Gone forever, given the advent of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
You can even sometimes follow the radio chatter from a favorite tournament; the technology exists to broadcast the committee-boat radio transmissions as it communicates with boats calling in fish. I find it amazing that I can listen to boats talking with a base station in Costa Rica through the Web.
When braid hit the market, it gained acceptance first among bass fishermen, then moved into the light-tackle inshore arena. That’s because its primary advantage seemed that it was easier to cast, didn’t twist or stretch like monofilament and it lasted almost forever. Since offshore guys don’t cast much, it didn’t catch on over there for some time.
But eventually someone began to experiment with braid, both Spectra and Dyneema, in the offshore world, and useful applications became clear. “Before braid, we used Dacron for backing on a lot of our reels,” says Robert “Fly” Navarro, a noted mate and tournament organizer. “But we soon figured out that while a 50-wide might hold 700 yards of Dacron backing, that same reel could hold around 1,700 yards of braid of the same strength.” Capacity worries became a distant memory almost overnight.
And although braid has never caught on as a primary line for billfish trolling, it has become the line of choice in another fishery: daytime deep-dropping for swordfish. Solid-core braided line, typically 65-pound-test, has become the line of choice for many of the pros who have developed and mastered this fishery. The solid-core line offers little resistance to current, making it easier to maintain a straight connection from the rod tip to your lead weight, often 1,600 feet or more below the boat.
In addition, the no-stretch nature of braid telegraphs the bite of a swordfish far below, something you’d never see with monofilament line. Often times, the sword bite appears as a subtle tap-tap-tap, with the rod tip barely moving at all. Braid lets you know when it’s time to wind, and the long leaders used by most knowledgeable swordfish anglers make that moment even more critical. Braid has made this fishery possible.
This one might seem like a no-brainer, but many of our experts pointed to cellphones as a major development nonetheless. When cellphones became ubiquitous in the pockets of captains, mates and anglers alike, it changed the way we fished forever.
“Before cellphones, the only way you knew what was going on with other boats was the VHF radio,” says Navarro. “But all of a sudden, I could call all my buddies up and down the line and get an instant report about what they were catching, where they were catching it and what bait the fish were biting. Nobody uses a VHF anymore.”
This has been especially true on the South Florida sailfish circuit, where fleets spread out along the reef for miles at times but never far from shore. Bait moves up and down the reef, and the sailfish follow the bait schools. Knowing where the fish are makes the difference between success and failure, and crews constantly communicate to help each other out and pass along information.
I must admit, this one caught me off guard, but two of the people I polled said basically the same thing: Mezzanines are an important innovation. And these two ought to know.
“Mezzanine seating in the cockpit changed everything,” says Roy Merritt Sr., who is the president of Merritt Boatworks in Pompano Beach, Florida. “We built our first one back in 1994, and when people saw it, a lot of them said it would never catch on. Now, of course, almost every boat built has a mezzanine in the cockpit.”
“Mezzanines have allowed us to build so much more into our cockpits,” adds Paul Mann, president of Mann Custom Boats, of Manns Harbor, North Carolina. “Now it’s easy to add custom refrigeration or freezers, tackle storage, fish boxes — whatever anyone wants. If you ask me what the biggest innovation of all is, it’s the mezzanine.”
Many great innovations exist, of course, and limiting ourselves to five was tough. Here are some others that our panel brought up that probably deserve consideration.
Computer-controlled diesel-engine technology: Today’s high-horsepower diesels bear little resemblance to the diesels of only a few decades ago, and boat speeds, efficiency and all-around performance have benefited greatly as a result. Common-rail fuel injection and computer control have yielded cleaner, more fuel-efficient power plants that get us there quicker and keep our transoms cleaner.
Pod drives: The pods have revolutionized maneuverability and efficiency. They’re not for everyone, but there’s no denying their benefits. And increasing horsepower, combined with multiple-engine installations, keeps expanding the footprint in terms of the size of boats that can use pod drives.
Composite construction: High-tech coring materials make boats lighter, stronger and faster, saving us fuel and allowing boats to cover more ground and reach remote fishing grounds that were once out of reach simply because boats weren’t fast enough to get there and back in a day.
Satellite communications: This really is part of the electronics world, but it does occupy a separate category. Modern satellite phones let us stay connected worldwide with the right service, or within a specified geographic region for those who are not global travelers. Hard-wired domes with base stations are available in multiple configurations, but handheld sat phones work well too. Before the sat phone, we had to talk long range over a single sideband radio — always an iffy proposition. And when was the last time someone even mentioned a sideband to you?
This list comprises some of the most important innovations according to our panel of fishing experts. Many more make every day better for us all, and as the old saying goes, what will they think of next?