Hooked on Gadgets

In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail Tournament

To some novices, fishing has become so mired in electronic gadgetry that it may as well be a virtual sport. Boats outfitted with thousands of dollars of equipment zip around, leaving a string of strange blips and bleeps in their wakes -- and dragging home catch after catch. But to pro anglers, like Gary Gray and Rick LaCourse, the technology is just another tool in the war of man versus fish. Another battle will be waged again this week when the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail Tournament returns to Port Clinton, the "Walleye Capital of the World."

"It's not cheating," says LaCourse, a retired member of the Lucas County sheriff's department, who has been fishing professionally since 1994. "Sonar can locate fish, but it cannot make them bite. All it tells you is that there's something between you and the bottom."

That something might not even be a fish to begin with. Or the right kind of fish -- all the largemouth bass in the world won't help you win a walleye tournament. For LaCourse and Gray, fishing is still a relatively primitive sport, and the best anglers don't watch sonar screens but the world around them.

"It's basically looking at what you're up against," explains Gray, who won the PWT tournament in 1998, among a laundry list of other trophies. "If a person does half their homework before they go out there, they're ahead of the game. No matter what you do with all this technology, you still have to go back to the basics of fishing, and that's just a simple thing of a hook, line, and a fishing pole."

And, of course, where to drop that line. The ability to pick a great spot is still the mark of a good fisherman, and for that there's a slew of natural markers, including water temperature, time of year, and where the forage -- fish food -- is hanging out. Once you've picked the spot, the electronics kick in to tell you whether it's actually worth dropping anchor.

"Technology is a strange thing," LaCourse muses. "It's a natural progression of life. It makes it more convenient, but it's not necessary. It's not any more effective than the old methods; it just makes it a little bit easier."

"In what we do, it's a time-saver," Gray agrees. "But I don't care what anybody says, the locals are your best information source. Talk to the locals. Fish where the fish are, not where they aren't. The fishing part is the easy part; the locating part is the hardest."

But all things considered, finding a walleye in Lake Erie should be as easy as sticking your hand in and pulling one out. Ten years ago, the walleye population -- of legal size -- was around 7 million; today it tops out around 50 million-70 million, making Lake Erie one of the hottest walleye spots on the globe.

"I've won quite a bit of money on Lake Erie," Gray says. "I love fishing the system."

"We've got such a healthy lake -- such a clean lake," LaCourse elaborates. "Thanks to the efforts of everybody involved -- environmentalists and everything else -- the lake is so clean that you've got the prettiest body of water anywhere."

LaCourse may be a tad biased, though, being born and raised on Ohio's shoreline. "There's no place like home," he agrees. "But to everybody's mind, what creates a good fishery? Is it the scenery? The way the locals treat you? To everybody's mind, it's always going to be a memory, and there are so many things that create memories, especially in the outdoors. So where's the greatest?"

"The number-one thing is that we have fun," Gray says. "The rest will come with it."

And "fun" is still something that doesn't require a high-tech helper.