Is Technology Making Fishing Worse?

Is Technology Making Fishing Worse?

Whether we like it or not, technology is here to stay. Like a tiny snowball rolling downhill until it becomes a massive avalanche, technological advancements continue to rage forward. And unless hunters and anglers are willing to ride the edge of the torrent, they’ll be buried by it.

This is especially true in the world of fishing, where electronics like forward-facing sonar and live imaging are making many of us endlessly more efficient at catching fish. Even on the tough days, tech-savvy anglers are finding and catching fish when those without are going home skunked. The question is, are technological advancements making anglers too effective?

Crashing the System

Part of the appeal of fishing is the element of mystery. You’re casting a line into an alien world, blinded by the boundary of the water’s surface, unable to see exactly what’s going on below. In the past, being a good angler was about understanding fish behavior without the benefit of actually seeing how they behave and react to baits and lures. It has always been a sport that required a combination of knowledge, faith, and a little bit of luck to be successful—yet angling technology seems to be taking this all away.

“One thing that this technology has done is that it has sort of lowered people who understood fish and fishing quite well and made it an even playing field,” professional fishing guide and tournament angler Wil Neururer said. “Fishing guides and tournament anglers who make a living by learning about a water system and fish behavior are suddenly finding themselves on the same level as weekend warriors who have the time and technology to drive around and find fish on their sonar.”

Of course, the argument here is that folks with fish finders and sonar on their boats can find the fish more easily but can’t always make them eat. They still require fishing skills and an understanding of the best baits and lures to use for different species in order to be successful. However, with advanced enough electronics, these anglers can get on top of and stay on top of fish and simply play a game of trial and error with baits and techniques until they find success.

“Instead of learning about fish behavior and the subtle changes in their actions on a day-to-day basis in order to be successful, you’ve got guys with gas and time chasing fish around and trying different stuff until they find something that works,” Neururer told MeatEater. “It’s like they’re road hunting for fish and not putting in the time and effort to gain the knowledge that some anglers have taken a lifetime to learn.”

The idea that technology is somehow removing both the skill and the art from fishing isn’t the only concern. In many places, technology has made anglers so effective at catching fish that they may actually be hurting populations and are possibly even catching fish that shouldn’t be caught.

Hurting What We Love

When you’re fishing without electronics, you often have no idea where the fish are. Fish have these little places that they can escape to and areas where they can hide from anglers and be caught on other days. These sanctuary spots are essential for population growth and survival, especially on heavily pressured waterways. However, with these new technologies, fish are left without sanctuary, and many now worry about the effect this may be having on populations, especially species that are harvested for food.

“Here in Minnesota, the DNR takes care of fish like walleye, so it’s not such a big concern,” Neururer said. “As fish populations get lower, more walleyes are stocked. However, that’s not the case with panfish. There are a ton of crappie and bluegill in the area with a very big mouth and a very little brain. If you’re telling me that people with the technology aren’t going out there and getting a mess of fish and keeping everything, even on the tough days, I’m having a hard time believing it. Panfish anglers are meat hunters; that’s what they go out onto the water to do, and having a boat equipped with sonar or a Livescope for ice fishing makes them really, really, good at it.”

This is especially concerning during winter ice fishing seasons when panfish have liberal bag limits and are popular targets. During the late winter, fish like crappie, bluegill, and other panfish move into deeper water where they were previously hard to find and catch. Since the advent of ice fishing electronics though, these fish have had no escape as anglers can continue to find and target them throughout the winter, causing concern for many panfish-loving anglers.

Additionally, there is also a fear that modern electronics have made fish that often or occasionally dwell in extremely deep water, like lake trout, walleye, and especially bass, more accessible to anglers during their deep water sabbaticals. Catching these fish increases the chances of their dying from barotrauma after being caught. (For those unfamiliar, barotrauma refers to the injuries that fish sustain by sudden changes in water pressure from being reeled up from deep water.) While not an issue when catching these species in shallow water, those caught in depths exceeding 50 feet of water, where they used to be hard to find and catch, can often die during the fight or after they are released by anglers locking onto them.

However, it should be said that as electronics like forward-facing sonar and the like are so new, research on the effects they are having on fish populations is still ongoing, and any issues will hopefully be corrected as more information is gathered.

“From a biological perspective, I know there’s concern being expressed from biologists in many states on how it may affect catch and harvest rates,” fisheries biologist Shawn Good said. “And fisheries managers may need to update things like daily bag limits to account for increased angling success. I’m sure there will be more research on whether this technology is having measurable impacts on harvest-oriented fisheries in the future as the technology becomes more affordable and its use increases.”

Good believes that any effect that technology will have on fishing will be limited to only certain species during certain times and will not affect fishing as a whole. Yet he does believe that the dependence many anglers have on fishing technology is changing the appearance of fishing as a sport.

“From a recreational fishing standpoint, there are types of fishing that I don’t think this technology will change that much,” Good told MeatEater. “But for schooling fish like crappie and perch, technology changes everything. I will also say that I’ve heard some interesting comments from friends who are bass fishing fans and like to watch the pro tournaments on TV. They are saying that it’s now boring to watch bass tournaments because you’re just watching the back of the angler, head bent down for 8 hours a day, staring at a screen, and jiggling a bait in the face of a bass suspended 40 feet down.  These same anglers are saying they’re probably not going to continue watching as much if that’s what’s being shown.”

Technophiles In Fishing Tournaments

In addition to making fishing tournaments less entertaining for spectators, they are also having an impact on success rates for the participating anglers. Since the introduction of fish finders to tournament angling in the 1970s, catch rates have increased ten-fold, making having electronics aboard boats almost a requirement for anglers who want to keep up with the competition. However, the evolution of technology and the introduction of live sonar and other optics has allowed many pro-anglers' success rates to reach an almost unhealthy level. This has led many pundits to believe it can both be an unfair advantage as well as a detriment to fish populations on bodies of water where tournaments are held.

“I fished in the Masters Walleye Circuit on Leech Lake, my home water, back in 2018, and I took 5th place,” Neururer told MeatEater. “That was the first time I’d ever heard of live sonar and other similar systems. The guys who won the tournament were using them, and they beat us all by like three or four pounds which was crazy. So, of course, everyone started jumping on the bandwagon, and now not just guys winning the tournament have it, they all do. It’s got to put a whole new level of pressure on the fish in places where big tournaments are held.”

Neururer believes that this pressure comes from some of the best anglers in the world having access to this technology and being able to absolutely hammer fish populations that weren’t hit nearly as hard in the past. Over the years, he’s seen firsthand evidence of this in many of the tournaments he competes in.

“When I first started fishing tournaments, the winning weights were all in the mid-20-pound range,” Neururer said. “This year, out of 70 people who fished in the MWC tournament on Leech, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t have mid-30 pounds of fish in their boat! I mean it might just be me, but doesn’t that seem that catch rates have gone up substantially since these technologies have been introduced?”

Neururer does admit that it still takes some fishing skill and guile to actually bring the fish to the boat, but he also sees technology increasing catch rates in difficult conditions and believes that it’s a slippery slope.

“The old argument is that they only help anglers find the fish and that they still have to make them bite, but if that’s true, it seems they’re all suddenly biting. Now, don’t get me wrong, these new electronics are crazy and amazing tools, and using them in shallow weed flats and finding schools of walleye in nine to 12 feet of water in these clear, zebra mussel waters where they’re super skittish is awesome. But honestly, how many times do we have to win fishing tournaments before the fish have to win? This technology has a real chance to bite us. We have started to lean into it so hard and love it so much that I can see different water bodies and fisheries really taking a beating from them.”

Many tournament organizations share this view on the subject and are beginning to restrict the use of technology like forward facing sonar during competitions. Smaller bass tournaments like the Despino Tire Bass Tournament in Texas have required that all forward-facing sonar be unplugged during competition, and some organizations like the Professional Muskie Tournament Trail have banned the use of such technologies altogether.

A Whole New World

Despite the criticism by much of the fishing public, there are still a lot of anglers out there who see these new technologies as a good thing. Many, in fact, believe that these advancements are actually helping to create a better understanding of fishing and fish behavior by helping anglers see exactly what they have been missing.

“I rely on electronics heavily now, but I didn’t use to,” Dylan Smith said, who, aside from being a passionate angler, also works as a Facility and Lands Coordinator for Vermont Fish and Wildlife. “I fish all over the Northeast, and I’m looking for big fish and for fish to eat. I used to think that if you’ve got a body of water that you know well, having that stuff on your boat or on the ice with you isn’t that important. But the first time I went out on a lake I thought I knew well with electronics and saw side-imaging; it was a whole new world. I saw structure on the lake bottom, and I saw fish that I had never seen and never targeted before.”

Smith is one of many anglers who believe technology shortening the learning curve for anglers is a good thing. He, along with much of the pro-tech fishing public, uses forward-facing sonar and other similar technologies as tools. They are simply another piece of tackle that can both help anglers start catching fish quickly on waters they are unfamiliar with and, perhaps more importantly, teach anglers more about places they’ve fished for their entire lives.

“I don’t think going out there with side-imaging made me catch more fish, but it helped me learn more about my favorite lakes and has given me new spots to fish,” Smith told MeatEater. “They take away your preconceived notions about areas and reinforce stuff that you’ve done right. They give you a giant reality check as to how waterbodies really look, and that’s a good thing. When you put faith in depth maps and whatnot, and you take that jump to spots where you think the fish are going to be, you’re often just wasting time. But good electronics prove you right or prove you wrong right away, and I think that gives you a distinct advantage and keeps you more engaged in the sport of fishing.”

For many anglers, electronics give them a new way to interact with fish by allowing them to witness their behavior. While new technologies may put undue pressure on already strained fish populations, it is also through this technology that we can see that this may not always be the case.

“When I use Livescope on highly pressured lakes, I can actually see how fish are behaving,” Smith said. “On pressured lakes, you can actually see that fish learn. In places where there’s a high harvest and a lot of anglers, you can see fish move off from baits and retreat into new areas. So yeah, while this technology may make it so that there are not many secrets left, by using it, we can see that it’s still on the fish to create their own catchability. It’s really a cool thing.”

Smith recognizes there are impacts of technology and asks the important question of where the responsibility of regulations will fall in the future.

“I feel that from a fish and wildlife perspective, the question is always going to be, do you regulate equipment, or do you regulate fishing? I think that electronics are an important part of the fishing future because they keep new generations interested, and if there’s a problem with them making fishing worse, we’ll find out how to fix it so we can all keep going fishing.”

To Screen or Not to Screen

There are always going to be two camps divided by the world of angling technology. On the one side are the youngsters, the techies, and the inquisitive part of the fishing public that view technology as a way to discover new things about fishing and as a tool to up their game. Facing them are the grizzled, hard-nosed generation of anglers who have gotten along just fine without it and believe that fishing is the one place where newfangled doohickeys don’t belong. The fact is, though, that both of them are correct.

Fishing has long been a sport of advancement where new and innovative changes—like using rods and reels instead of spears and nets and using lures and flies instead of bait—have helped to make us all better anglers. At the same time, fishing is also a primitive sport where we reinsert ourselves back into the natural rhythms of the world by becoming predators who learn about and outsmart our prey.

Perhaps then it’s possible for all anglers to find some middle ground where we accept technology entering our primal outdoor recreation as a way to make sure fishing itself stays in the mainstream. It can help keep anglers interested and learning about what’s swimming around out there and exactly how they can catch it.

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