Fishing is recreation that’s also big business. According to the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing has an annual financial impact of $129 billion, and supports nearly a million jobs.
Much of that revenue is earned by gear and tackle companies, which are constantly innovating to create products that make it easier to catch fish. And good for them. Without their drive and genius, we might all still be standing on the bank with cane poles.
But a strong argument could be made these guys have done their job too well, and fishing as we know it — both low-key weekend angling and high-stakes tournament competitions — has been permanently transformed, and not necessarily for the better.
Back in what now seems prehistoric times — you know, a decade ago — anglers had to read water and correspond that with their knowledge about how changing seasons affected bait and fish migrations in order to have success on the water.
Now, however, with the technological advancement of forward-facing sonar, like Garmin’s LiveScope, anglers don’t have to cast and hope for bites to prove their hypotheses correct. They need only look at their electronics, which show them in real-time exactly how many fish are holding on a particular stretch of structure or cover.
There’s no more wasted time spent casting to barren water. If your electronics show you there are no fish there, you simply pick up and go to a different area that’s more populated.
That certainly sounds good, especially for anglers who are scouting for tournaments, but the emergence of forward-facing sonar may have some unintended consequences for the industry that won’t ultimately be very good for it.
The most obvious is the exponential increase in efficiency that could lead to significant overfishing. Fish that historically held in areas ignored by most anglers are now discoverable and catchable.
Those are fish that formed a reproductive base, adding annual progeny that was supplemented by fish in more obvious areas that somehow escaped harvest. Now that they aren’t living unmolested lives, what type of impact will that have on spawning success rates? The answer is surely not zero, and shrinking fish populations lead to less angler success, which, in turn, leads to lower angler enthusiasm.
Forward-facing sonar is also dramatically impacting tournament fishing in America. Although high-dollar tours like BASS and MLF get all the headlines, they’re insignificant compared to the thousands of cookie-jar tournaments that occur every weekend on lakes, impoundments and rivers from sea to shining sea. What has historically made these fishing competitions so attractive is their equity. A skilled angler in an aluminum johnboat could feel confident in his chances against a guy in the finest Ranger.
But that’s no longer the case. If you can’t afford forward-facing sonar, you’re wasting your time and are donating money every time you fish a tournament.
I know one guy who has found a hump that, for whatever reason, is attractive to big fish. It’s often barren, but never stays that way for long. Fish move up onto it multiple times a day, and when they do, it’s always to feed.
This angler will spend the duration of every tournament staring at the hump on his forward-facing sonar, and whenever a fish moves up onto it, he catches it.
This isn’t fishing; it’s playing a video game, and it gives an insurmountable advantage to those who can afford the latest electronics.
Advocates say that there’s no guarantee a fish found with forward-facing sonar will bite. You still have to use your skills to fool it, fight it and get it in the boat. That’s certainly true, but how many of those anglers would willingly give up their high-dollar electronics? If it’s not a game-changer, why does EVERY professional tournament angler use it?
Anecdotally, it seems tournament participation is down as traditional anglers realize their chances of success are greatly diminished, and that’s really bad news for the fishing industry.
I’m certainly not arguing forward-facing sonar should be banned. But tournament organizers need to recognize the overwhelming advantage the technology gives those who can afford it, and implement methods for leveling the playing field.
If they don’t, the proud and exciting weekend tournament culture in America will go the way of the cane pole.
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