Few items have so revolutionized fishing and boating like modern marine electronics. Today, the average angler or cruiser with little or no navigational skills can venture far out of sight of land in search of fish or adventure. But if you really learn the capabilities of your chart plotter, radar and sonar, not only can you get to and from your destination, you can also save money by transiting efficiently and scientifically, and return home less tired. Here are some tips from the pros on just how to get the most out of being plugged in.
Plans A, B and C
Headed out to fill the fish boxes? Nobody wants to burn a hundred gallons of fuel for a few peanut dolphin, nor do we want to spend five hours chumming for yellowtail snapper only to release 80 percent of them because they were too small. Hence the need for homework.
First, seek advice from locals who live in the area you plan to fish. Find out what’s been running and what your best bet will be when you go. Plan for a primary target species, with one or two alternatives. Then go back to your electronics, remembering that many of the systems you use on board can also be accessed through your home computer as well for planning purposes.
To start, try something like Roffs Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service (roffs.com). Using this (or a similar) service combined with a weather function (SiriusXM satellite weather is one example) on your MFD can put a bull’s-eye on your fishing area. Science shows that each species of fish prefers a specific temperature range. The weather function provides satellite images of sea-surface temps that guide you to the greatest probability of finding your target species.
Not fishing? Perhaps you’re interested in a sunset cruise to a waterfront dinner restaurant and back, but you see lightning over in the direction you want to go. SiriusXM weather also shows real-time satellite images of lightning so that you can track it. A quick look shows that the storm you see is rapidly moving away from you rather than toward you. The evening is saved. Onward.
We’ve come a long way from tossing a lead line with tallow over the side to determine the depth and bottom composition. Today, you can see individual fish, schools of bait, bottom structure such as wrecks and reefs, bottom composition, contours ahead, behind and to both sides of your vessel, and more. It used to be that we needed to select a frequency for the best bottom resolution, but most manufacturers today offer CHIRP technology. Compressed high-intensity radar pulse sounders combine a special transducer with software in the sounder to emit a broad range of pings instead of one ping at a time.
CHIRP sounders also have a broad range of prices, with the main differences being power and noise filtration. High-end CHIRP transducers can cost $1,500 or more. More expensive CHIRP sounders can reach to 10,000 feet, while less powerful ones need the bottom closer. The noise filtration not only helps in heavily trafficked areas, but it also affords better bottom-lock at cruising speeds. To really appreciate the difference, I suggest you look at standard and CHIRP units side by side, if possible, or check them out on the same day in the electronics’ room at a boat show. That’s when it all becomes glaringly obvious.
In addition to providing eyes through the glurk, radar is essential to tuna fishermen because it provides a long-range peek at flocks of seabirds feeding on bait. That saves inordinate amounts of time trolling blindly on a featureless ocean. Though an open array works best for this function, you can still accomplish the same with a radome.
Speaking of sensitivity, new solid-state HD radars can even see crab- and lobster-pot buoys, a real boon in glutted areas. These radars also fire up instantly because they’re not reliant on a magnetron that requires warm-up time. Another terrific feature comes in the ability to overlay a radar scan atop a satellite/nautical-chart image hybrid. This quintessential bird’s-eye view provides every bit of information you need to navigate safely and then some. For example, bottom contours change from time to time; shoals are dynamic, not static. The satellite view can frequently tell you that the buoys marking a channel are no longer valid; the channel has, in fact, moved. Satellite view readily displays where the deeper water lives at that moment. Remember that hydrographic surveys, in many cases where recreational boating takes place but not commercial shipping, could be hundreds of years old.
When it comes to saving fuel, the advent of NMEA 2000 proved a major breakthrough. An industrywide communications protocol, NMEA 2000 is what lets your engine, bilge pumps, tanks, tabs, engine trim, video cameras, TVs and, yes, even your sound system all communicate with your MFD, allowing you complete control from the helm. Obviously, your fuel-flow monitor will be a crucial facet of saving money. With it, you can determine your boat’s optimum cruising speed in any condition and at every trim angle. You’ll be amazed at the difference even a hundred or two rotations per minute can make in economy. With digital electrical systems aboard, you can turn any system on or off from the helm. That includes air conditioning, ice makers, lights or anything that has a wire attached to it.
Automatic Identification System
Automatic identification system (AIS) is an automatic tracking system for ships that uses a VHF radio band and vessel traffic services (VTS, the monitoring system used in major ports to track vessels coming and going). Today, AIS is available to recreational vessels as well. With it, you can see a ship miles away, as well as get its heading and speed, and thereby avoid any last-minute questions in the case of a crossing situation. With more-affordable Class B (versus commercial-grade Class A) transceivers, it’s an inexpensive insurance policy and provides interesting information too. However, to use AIS, you must have an appropriate antenna. Another reason to consider installing (or purchasing a system with) AIS is the government’s new program of virtual aids to navigation (V-ATONs). This trend will see the removal of some physical buoys and lights, replacing them with notes on your electronic charts. These notices will be broadcast via AIS. In other words, without AIS you will not be able to see these V-ATONs.
Today’s autopilots will spoil you for life. They can automatically compensate for the set and drift I spoke of earlier. You can set up trolling patterns in zigzags, circles, concentric circles or pretty much any geometric shape you want. Generally, a well-adjusted autopilot can steer more accurately than a human, so that factor can leave a helmsman less tired at the end of a watch. And the straighter the set- or drift-compensated course, the less fuel you burn and the more quickly you’ll get to where you’re going.
Finally, there’s the ride home. Simply pull up the waypoint marking the outer marker of your harbor and engage your autopilot. It will help you keep a fresh watch from the helm after a long day, since the autopilot is doing the adjustments for you at the helm.
Learn to use the finer points of your electronics, and there’s virtually nothing but time separating you from becoming a professional mariner.