The Wings of Change

The Wings of Change
Anglers today operate in an ever evolving, complex world, subject always to the effects of the wings of change.

This is the first in a three-part series analyzing how the many changes in technologies, equipment, clothing, gear, tackle and lures have affected Texas' saltwater anglers over the course of the last three decades.

Since the early 1990s, many aspects of our lives have changed, some more significantly and permanently than others. Certainly, the list of changes runs long for those of us who participate in the sport of saltwater fishing. Taking a metaphorical look back some thirty years at a typical day for an angler with their own boat reveals the scope and magnitude of this evolution. As a starting point, it helps to think of something that remains the same, despite the passage of all this time; a day of fishing starts before the date arrives, in the planning of the event.

In the dawn of the internet age, planning a day of fishing generally involved getting out some faded paper bay-maps and scouring a few fishing logs scribbled in tattered notebooks to recall data about trips taken during the same time-frame in previous years. This kind of planning had a positive effect on efforts in the long run and still would today. But thanks to the ease of browsing the internet on many devices, including our seemingly magical cell phones, today's anglers have better resources available to use in planning trips.

Fishing forums have perhaps moved past their peak in popularity, and I doubt many people now turn to them for advice when considering when, where and how to fish on a given day. People do look at images on Google Earth when trying to learn new places to fish and to remind themselves of the general layout of places familiar to them. Some likely use data they've implanted in the software to study efforts made in the past at specific locations. Meticulous planners can also look at recent and current data related to tide levels, water temperatures, salinity levels and wind-speeds and directions at the places they're planning to visit on their upcoming trip.

All these modern online tools serve anglers much more effectively than did the marginally reliable tide charts and fishing reports printed in magazines and newspapers, which our hypothetical angler heading to the dock in the 1990s could have used when planning a trip. Moving forward in the fictitious narrative to the actual day of the excursion and describing our angler's basic equipment, we discover a similarly significant evolution from the boat, motor and trailer our captain would have used. All these items cost much more than they did thirty years ago, but today's angler arguably gets better bang for the buck, even considering inflation, compared with our 90s captain.

The pickup truck driven by our angler to the boat ramp in the predawn hours of a Saturday morning those decades ago likely pulled a trailer built on a frame composed of galvanized steel. Some years later, most trailer-builders ditched the steel for aluminum, and today's boats typically ride on lightweight, sturdy trailers with axles and wheels better able to withstand the relentless, corrosive effects of saltwater environments. In similar ways, the hulls of the boats sitting on the trailers of yesteryear differed from the ones made and used today.

In the early 90s, a fiberglass center-console boat made specifically for use on our coastal waters typically had either a true or modified V-shaped hull. A small percentage had a special pocket behind the transom, which would allow for planing off in shallower water, when combined with a jack plate, which was a relatively new thing to put on boats of that kind at the time. So, some of the boats our captain could have pulled to the dock on the impending imaginary day might have allowed him to function safely in relatively shallow water, but many did not.

As the metaphorical wings of change continued to beat between then and now, boat manufacturers began tweaking hull and motor designs to create boats that would run and jump on plane in shallower and shallower water; eventually, the race to the bottom hit a hard finish line. Once boats became capable of running in mere inches of water, even literally in mud for short distances, boat designers became involved in another competition. Changes in the main rules governing fishing tournaments contributed to the importance of this new game. As soon as almost all tournament organizers began requiring their contestants to launch from the same ramp, in a predetermined order, speed became the new obsession for people fishing the events, also among the people trying to sell them boats.

Today, many companies design hulls to maximize speed, attaining values like those maintained by cars and trucks on our highways, while doing so in silly-shallow water. Partly because the hulls of modern bay boats have such capacity for speed, today's anglers can go farther from the dock in a day than they would ever have thought possible just three decades ago. This fact, combined with the reluctance of tournament organizers to put limits on where their contestants can fish, has allowed anglers to blast off from Matagorda Harbor at the crack of dawn, then return to the scales in the afternoon with fish caught at Rocky Slough. The changes made to the motors over this same span further enhance this truth.

Returning to our mental movie of a captain heading out for a day of fishing in the early 1990s, we find a man cussing and shaking his head while trying to coax a coughing two-stroke outboard to start and continue running on a chilly morning. Because carburetors mixed air and fuel in those motors, captains often faced a task which included manipulating both the choke and the throttle to get them up and running smoothly, sometimes requiring them to start the engine several times before they'd keep running at idle speed.

As three decades of moons rose and set, motor makers improved the quality and functionality of outboard motors, first eliminating the need for carburetors, then replacing the two-stroke systems with four-stroke systems comparable to the motors used in automobiles. All of this has made modern outboards crank instantly and purr quietly, much like the engines in our cars and trucks. Significantly, they do so while consuming much less fuel than did the thirsty beast hanging on the transom of our 90s angler's boat.

Once our fictitious captain succeeds in getting his motor running, he leaves it idling while he parks the truck, then returns to disembark on his day's journey. On the way to the place he's decided he should start, he uses his mental map of the layout of the hazards present along the path, a Q-beam and possibly the compass mounted on the console of his craft, to safely make his way. Of course, if fog suddenly rolls in, the Q-beam will reflect blinding light off the particles in the mist, and when the boat comes off plane, the compass will spin, transforming our captain into a dog chasing its tail.

Whether in marginal or perfect navigating conditions, a modern captain can and should utilize the most amazing tool that's changed the way coastal anglers operate today. The array of satellites serving the GPS system, establishing coordinates all over the face of the globe, when enhanced with saved waypoints and tracks, can make navigating the sometimes treacherous bays and salty waterways relatively safe and easy. I still advocate using a Q-beam or an LED Light Bar to illuminate the path lying ahead, because one thing about safe navigating practices has not and will never change; every competent captain should maintain a vigil by looking ahead while driving a boat across inshore waters.

Some captains seem content to lock their faces on the GPS screen while screaming ahead at speeds requiring them to wear helmets to keep the wind from ripping off their eyelids, but this practice can turn fun into grief in an instant. That said, no one could seriously contend GPS technology has done anything other than make boating safer and easier for anyone who takes the time to learn to use it properly. One of the most important advantages this amazing and powerful technology provides is the ability to stop the boat in precisely the same place, time after time, regardless of the environmental conditions.

Especially for captains who put a priority on wading over fishing from the boat, setting up the GPS with waypoints designating both recognized sweet-spots and sensible places to park the boat close to them provides a productive way to control some of the most important variables in a fishing situation. Even in darkness made darker by the presence of thick fog and mist, a captain equipped with a properly enhanced GPS can access spots in Texas' most treacherous bays safely, then stop in the perfect place to slip over the gunwale to start the day. In order to hold the boat in place after it comes to rest on the water, our 90s captain needed to toss an anchor over the gunwale and tie its rope to one of the cleats.

A modern captain can use a much better method to keep the boat from moving during the wade. Significantly, today's captains can also use modern technologies to prevent returning to the boat if and when they decide to move to another location, or simply to keep the boat closer behind them while they wade. Using a hydraulic anchor system like a Power Pole equipped with a remote which can be worn around the neck on a lanyard makes wading anglers' lives easier and increases their average levels of productivity.

(to be continued)