Titanic-recovery technology ready for anglers eyeing smaller catch

Fishing goes high-tech

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2005

EUFAULA, Ala. — Side-imaging sonar, technology used to locate the wreckage of the Titanic deep in the North Atlantic, is now available to anglers who just want to find a good fishing hole.

Such systems have been used for years in naval warfare, scientific research and underwater mapping, but until recently they were far too costly and cumbersome for the average fisherman.

That has changed with the recent introduction of new ''fishing systems'' offered by Humminbird, a leading manufacturer of electronic fish finders.

The company hopes the new $2,000 side-imaging sonar systems will become as essential to serious anglers as the tackle box, fishing pole and can of worms. It also predicts the systems will be a hit among divers looking for sunken ships, recovery teams searching for drowning victims, underwater archeologists and anyone else who needs a view of the depths.

''It is cutting edge,'' said Gary Caputi, editor of Saltwater Sportsman Magazine. ''Nobody else has done anything like this.''

Fish-finding technology had improved only incrementally since the mid-1980s, when sonar fish finders with liquid crystal displays were introduced, said Mark Gibson, Humminbird's global products manager.

Sonar fish finders project sound waves directly below the boat and produce two-dimensional images on a display that shows the contour of the water's bottom, the depth and blips representing fish or other objects in the water.

Humminbird's systems not only beam down, they also send sound waves to the side at a 30-degree angle. Their signals are fed into a microprocessor that produces three-dimensional images of objects up to 100 feet below the boat and 240 feet to either side. The images appear on a display similar to those found on laptop computers.

The systems also can be linked to global-positioning navigational gear so anglers can mark prime locations and return to them.

Structures are considered the most desirable spots because fish tend to congregate around them, either to hide from predators or to be predators.

''We were looking for something revolutionary,'' Gibson said. ''We were thinking from the angler's perspective — 'What would I want my fish finder to show me?' I'd want it to show me an image of what's exactly under water.

''Side imaging provides both the high-resolution images and works in all water, whether it's clear or muddy,'' he said.

During a recent demonstration on Lake Eufaula, Gibson and Dave Betts, Humminbird's research and development manager, cruised slowly across the 45,181-acre lake as detailed images appeared on the display.

They saw a sunken barge and a pile of logs that had spilled out as the vessel went down.

Lake Eufaula, which stretches for 85 miles along the Alabama-Georgia boarder, was created in 1963 by damming the Chattahoochee River. The rising water covered buildings, trees, stumps and all other vestiges of human habitation.

Gibson and Betts have found a submerged swimming pool, a bridge foundation, the remains of a hydroelectric plant and scads of stumps and trees. They can also see schools of fish or larger fish individually.

In military and commercial systems, which can cost more than $100,000, the transducers are either built into a ship's hull or mounted in a torpedo-shaped ''towfish'' that is too heavy for the average angler to handle.

Humminbird's transducer unit, only six inches long and weighing only a few ounces, can be mounted to either the front or rear of a regular fishing boat.

Developed in the 1960s, side-imaging sonar provided some of the first images of the Titanic, the ocean liner that went down in 12,460 feet of water with 1,500 passengers and crew members in 1912.

The technology also was used to locate the wreckage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, which went down off Martha's Vineyard in 1999, and again in 2002 to produce some of the first clear images of the USS Monitor, the Civil War ironclad that sank off the North Carolina coast in 1862.

Chad Lewis, an aquatic biologist with Mainstream Commercial Divers of Murray, Ky., said his underwater construction and diving company uses commercial side-scan sonar systems routinely to locate sunken vessels. He was impressed by the quality of the Humminbird images.

''It can't do everything that a high-dollar sonar unit can do, but the image quality is up there with a $100,000 unit,'' he said.

Pat Hahs, who uses side-scan sonar to map the bottoms of popular fishing areas in western Kentucky, said the Humminbird system produced higher-quality images than his commercial system.

''Fishermen will find it extremely valuable,'' said Hahs, who produces detailed underwater maps on CDs to help anglers find productive fishing sites.

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