BAXTER -- The driver's seat of Al Lindner's bass boat looks a little like a cross between an airplane cockpit and the sonar room of a submarine.
When Lindner heads out to chase fish, his arsenal includes two kinds of depth finder, a global positioning system -- even an underwater camera.
"There's some fighter pilots from the Korean War that wished they had some of the electronic equipment that today's better-equipped boats have," Ron Lindner, Al's brother, said as the pair navigated Perch Lake.
In the last five decades, the Lindners have seen their sport grow from a simple line-and-hook pastime to one that uses sophisticated technology to improve the odds of hooking a fish. And while the Lindners are professional fishermen, plenty of amateurs have the money and passion to outfit themselves just as thoroughly.
As the level of technology has increased over the last 50 years, so has consumer spending. The latest available figures show between 1991 and 1996, U.S. anglers spent $37.8 billion on fishing, up $10 billion from the previous five years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Census and the American Sportfishing Association.
They're sinking their money into things like Global Positioning System devices, which can precisely mark a good fishing spot via a network of satellites. In the old days, anglers sighted landmarks and relied on their memories to get close on a return trip.
"Never before in history has a fisherman been able to come back to the exact same spot he fished at until the GPS," said saltwater fisherman Ken Dumong, of Stuart, Fla. "You just punch in the numbers and you can come back anytime you want."
A new generation of depth finder can display a liquid crystal image of the terrain underneath a boat. Although the display has some lag time, anglers who know their stuff can size up the lake bottom and decide how best to fish it. The depth finder even shows images of what could be fish.
In the days before the depth finder, professional angler Gary Roach remembers casting a weighted line with knots to mark feet. And then there was the really old fashioned way:
"You'd fish the color of the water," Roach said. "On the light side was shallow water, on the dark side it was deep."
Some anglers are also finding new uses for an older generation of depth finder called a flasher. Flashers have been gaining popularity with the ice-fishing crowd in the Great Lakes region, said Steve Baumann, president of Minneapolis-based Vexilar Inc. The flasher is a dial-shaped depth finder with a real-time display that tracks underwater movement using sonar. Fish show up on the dial as flashing blips at various depths.
"With ice-fishing, you're at a stationary platform looking down at the same spot so it's very easy to see when a fish moves in," Baumann said.
Boats nowadays are faster than they used to be -- allowing anglers to cover a lot more lake -- and some of them are smarter. Smart Craft technology, which made its debut in 2000, is a computerized system that incorporates GPS with fuel management.
"It tells you how far you can go with the remaining fuel and how much fuel you need to get to a mapped-out GPS point," said Kurt Willows, system development manager for Wisconsin-based Mercury Advanced Products.
Rods, reels, lures and even fishing line have all improved, too.
Graphite rods are lighter and more sensitive than the old cane or metal poles, relieving stress on a fisherman who's cranking bait all day and giving him a better shot at detecting a hit.
Modern reels are made with different types of metal suitable for the type of fishing an angler does. Fishing lines are also made from different kinds of materials and are much more tougher and durable than the old cotton lines.
Lures that imitate wounded prey have been around a long time, but now companies offer lighted lures, an innovation that has some conservationists wondering if all the new technology is stacking the odds against the fish. The Minnesota Legislature considered bills the last two years that would have banned underwater cameras.
"People argue that depth finders and flashers and underwater cameras won't make the fish bite, but they do help you find the fish. And that's going to help improve your success," said Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who sponsored the anti-camera legislation.
"If it keeps on advancing like this for the next 30 years, there is no way this fishery is sustainable," Bakk said.
Even the Internet has had an effect on fishing. From www.crappie.com, to www.big-fish.com, anglers have taken to the Web to share information and tips, as well as where to buy the best equipment. Even Yahoo! has a new fishing link where Web surfers can check out the best times to find biting fish -- of any species in any body of water.
In Minnesota, northern pike, bluegill and crappie populations have declined over the last decade. Ron Payer, fisheries director for the state Department of Natural Resources, attributes the declining numbers to a cumulative effect of technology and the growing skills of anglers, said DNR fisheries director Ron Payer.
"The individual technology probably isn't a make-or-break, but the cumulative impact certainly is going to increase the harvest opportunities, especially for bigger fish," Payer said.
The Lindners and others argue that safety is the main benefit of devices like GPS and depth finders.
"I'd say the critics have not been on public waters trying to catch fish. They're just tools to help you, but there's still a lot of skill involved in truly understanding what this technology is," said Hunter Cole, director of sales for Alabama-based B.A.S.S. Inc.
"It's like your cell phone. If we were to take that away, could you live without it? Of course you could. But it makes things a lot easier," Ron Lindner said.
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