FARGO — Henry Drewes remembers when his former boss at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources told stories about when the Lowrance "Little Green Box" sonar first became popular in the 1960s. There was talk about how the new technology, as rudimentary as it seems today, was going to ruin fishing by making it too easy.
The fish simply wouldn't have anywhere to hide as the FISH-LO-K-TOR peeled back the mysteries of a lake. Or so the thinking went.
"And then when the underwater cameras came out in the 1990s, there were discussions about whether the Legislature should make them illegal. People said those were going to make catching fish too easy and they were going to ruin fishing," said Drewes, now a regional fisheries manager for the DNR based in Bemidji.
To date very little fishing technology has been outlawed and, while there are myriad challenges to maintaining quality fish populations in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota lakes, there is yet to be a gadget that's single-handedly "ruined" fishing.
As another ice fishing season is underway in the Upper Midwest, let the discussions begin anew of how the latest gizmo or fancy creature comfort is making the once frigid pursuit of hardwater angling too easy.
Ice fishermen have never had it so good. From pull-behind wheel houses that are warmed to 70 degrees and feature large flat-screen TVs and kitchenettes, to sonar that allows anglers to see sideways in a 360-degree circle, to tracked vehicles that allow access to all but the most remote lakes, to lightweight battery-powered augers that start with the flick of a switch instead of the yank of a rope and a cloud of exhaust — this isn't your great-grandpa's winter pastime anymore.
And don't forget about cell phones and social media, which spread the word about hot bites in seconds.
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"In North Dakota, accessing some of our winter fisheries has changed. With SnoBears and other tracked vehicles that can go just about anywhere, people are getting to some of these more remote lakes that used to maybe only get pressured seven out of 10 years. The other three years access would be close to zero because of deep snow," said North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief Greg Power. "Now anglers can get to them every year and they are good at what they do. They find fish and they catch fish."
The question is whether fish populations can withstand the technological onslaught.
"Every time something new comes out, every few years, it seems like we go through this," said outdoors media personality Jason Mitchell, who got his start guiding on Devils Lake, N.D. "Underwater cameras. Should we make them illegal? Vexilars. Should we make them illegal? Now it's the-side-scan sonars. Should we make them illegal?
"All I know is that at the end of the day, you can't make fish bite."
Anglers can, however, find fish under the ice much easier. And once anglers find the fish, they can attempt to catch them for much longer periods of time than the old days due to being able to stay warm and dry. Aside from the cabin-like wheeled houses, the quality of portable flip-over houses and clothing have advanced exponentially in the last couple of decades.
"Finding fish used to be the big component of the chase. Not so much anymore. There's no doubt technology has put the fish at a disadvantage," said Jim Wolters, a DNR area fisheries chief in Fergus Falls. "In the winter, anglers have the ability to sit on fish 24/7. They might not be biting now, but they'll surely bite eventually."
The concern biologically is over-harvest generally and harvesting of bigger fish specifically. On lakes that don't have restrictive bag limits or size restrictions, panfish like bluegills and crappies are particularly susceptible to anglers taking too many big fish. That can leave populations of smaller fish that, as a matter of survival, begin to sexually mature at a younger age. That creates a cycle of stunted fish.
That's where fisheries science and angler ethics can play a role in blunting the efficiency of technology. State game and fish agencies can lower limits or tighten size restrictions to protect certain species of fish in specific lakes, and fishermen can practice selective harvest — taking only enough fish for a meal or two and returning the rest to the water.
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"The difference I see is that once anglers learn how to use the technology properly, they are so much more efficient. Instead of having to drill 40 holes to find fish, they only have to drill four. Being that efficient, that's when they can really do some damage to fish populations," said Tony Mariotti, a member of Clam Corp.'s Ice Team from Detroit Lakes, Minn. "That's why I think it's important for the DNR to really keep an eye on those lakes that could potentially be hurt by overharvest. They may have to make some adjustments."
While the NDGF rarely changes limits in the state's approximately 420 lakes, it does adjust stocking numbers as needed. In Minnesota, the DNR is currently implementing its Quality Bluegill Initiative in dozens of lakes statewide in hopes that smaller bag limits will help grow bigger sunfish. In recent decades, the state has moved to lake-by-lake management instead of statewide mandates.
Acceptance of reduced limits is growing. Drewes said the QBI had about 85% public support.
"If we would have proposed these changes 20 years ago, we would've been run out of town," he said.
"We've been trying to teach about ethics, catch and release, selective harvest. That's being passed down among anglers now, too, and that's different than years ago," Wolters said. "It used to be people would go out and fill a pail every time they went fishing. Now the discussion is that it's OK to take some fish home, but is it OK to take 20 bluegills or 10 crappies every time out?"
Mitchell said one thing is certain: Technology is not going to stop advancing. It wasn't that long ago when winter anglers were using wooden sticks, braided line and hand augers. At one time, small spinning reels spooled with monofilament line was cutting edge for ice fishermen. Now you can use an underwater camera and a big-screen TV to watch fish below you.
"I think the new technology is exciting because there is always something cool coming out," Mitchell said. "I get excited because it's an opportunity to learn and grow. What's hot today will seem quaint in five years. That's the way it's always been."