By Ron Ballanti
“Hey Ron, did you find something?”
I was expecting this radio call the moment I spotted the floating kelp paddy, throttled back and slid in to see whether there might be any dorado, yellowfin tuna or yellowtail patrolling the area.
“What’s going on?” my longtime fishing buddy asked again, this time with an increased tone of urgency. He knew there were three reasons I would stop my boat out here in the middle of nowhere: some kind of mechanical problem, to answer the call of nature or I had found what both of us were looking for.
I knew that if I didn’t respond before a third call, he’d be a little annoyed. Even though I had a rod in my right hand as my fly-lined sardine streaked past the paddy, I reached awkwardly across the cockpit with my left to grab the VHF handset.
Just as I was about to answer, a tuna slammed the bait. With a microphone in one hand, a rod in the other and a tuna quickly emptying my reel, I needed my best cockpit yoga move to bump the reel into gear with my free elbow and set the hook. Finally, I responded: “Can’t talk right now, kinda busy.”
That’s all he needed to hear. He was soon running full blast to join me. Nothing more had to be said because he’d been watching my boat’s AIS signal on his plotter since we left the harbor together in the predawn hours.
This is one example of how today’s electronics can help boats work together to catch fish through communication and cooperation. It also highlights one of the great challenges anglers face when employing this technology. Whether fishing the coast, islands or offshore, “buddy boating” with friends is a great way for two or more boats to work together for mutual benefit. After all, the more eyes and ears you have on the water, the greater the chance of success.
Here’s the rub: You want to share important information between partners, but you want to keep it among friends. And if you call your buddies on the VHF and give the coordinates of a hot bite, you’ll find yourself with friends you never knew you had. Unfortunately, there are plenty of anglers who put way more effort into finding other hooked-up boats than into finding their own fish. You want to make their job as hard as possible. This means being smart about how you communicate with each other, whether you’re using your voice or not.
Speaking in Tongues
Marine VHF radio is like audio Internet. There’s a ton of information flying around, and most of it is garbage. Still, smart anglers monitor the key fishing channels for their area because every now and then, among all that noise, somebody actually reports weather conditions, sea surface temperature breaks or other useful intel you don’t want to miss. In addition, VHF remains the fastest, easiest way to communicate with your fishing buddies, especially when you’re out of cellphone range. Before you speak, however, remember what you’ve learned from every television cop show: Anything you say can and will be used against you.
It’s for this reason that anglers often create their own codes to confuse prying ears. These can develop organically over years of fishing together. For example, when we’re fishing Santa Monica Bay and my buddy says he’s catching fish “up the line,” I know he’s working a spot up the coast from me that we fish together on a regular basis. Code words also can be formally organized among friends. Without getting too explicit, when I get a call with a certain sexual innuendo, it’s time to switch to channel 69 for important information.
Switching VHF channels is the most common tactic to throw off eavesdroppers, but in truth it only discourages lazy fishermen. Whether the call directs the intended recipient to “switch to our secret channel,” “go up one” or, as Furuno-sponsored tournament angler Capt. George Mitchell offers, “go to the other channel, minus Eddie’s birth month,” scanning radios will find you once you continue the conversation. It’s a cat-and-mouse game for those who follow radio chatter — one most anglers, myself included, play from time to time when the fishing gets tough.
To help facilitate private conversations, some anglers find marine electronics shops that are willing to add unauthorized “expansion channels” to their radios. Tweaking a VHF to broadcast and receive on channels that don’t officially exist, except to other radios set up the same way, keeps other boaters from overhearing you. It’s also technically illegal and will void the warranty on your radio, so weigh these considerations before going down that road.
Most modern VHF radios are DSC-enabled, a safety feature that adds a cool but often overlooked wrinkle to angler communication. Utilizing DSC, or digital selective calling, requires obtaining a nine-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity number and connecting the radio to a GPS/plotter. (Arranging an MMSI can be done through Sea Tow, BoatUS or the Coast Guard.) Once it is done, receivers of your DSC VHF calls will see who you are and where you are.
You can make a direct boat-to-boat call from your radio to the MMSI number of your buddy’s radio. He will receive an alert, and when he answers you’ll be talking on the DSC channel you selected when you initiated the call. Although the initial contact is “discreet” in that you don’t have to hail him on an open channel and say “go here or go there,” the conversation can be overheard over the channel you use to speak.
Perhaps the best use of DSC for fishing is a function referred to as position polling, position request or “buddy tracking.” Some manufacturers have enabled their radios and/or plotters to “see” each other using DSC VHF. If you have this capability you can enter a friend’s MMSI into your system and track the boat’s position on your connected chart plotter. You’ll be able to see your bearing and the distance to his position (and vice versa). When you both know where the other guy is, you can share information on a hot bite without mentioning specifics about location.
Talking by Other Means
You can avoid prying ears by making a fisherman-to-fisherman cellphone call. Of course, this is the best way to ensure privacy, but cell service can be dodgy on the water, and if you lose coverage and your phone endlessly searches for a signal, you’ll soon find yourself with a battery that’s worn down to the nub.
“Cellphones made secure communications easier, but service pretty much stunk out on the water,” says Mitchell, the tournament fisherman. “So we added Wilson cellphone booster antennas to improve our ability to talk and text, and it works fine as long as you have service.
“The bottom line is one of your best safety devices is also a secure communication mode — the satellite phone,” Mitchell adds.
Capt. Skipper Gentry, of the Florida-based charter boat Carolina Gentleman, concurs. As a guide who regularly takes anglers to the Bahamas on extended big-game journeys, he relies on his KVH V3 satellite phone to keep himself and his clients in touch with the world back home via calls and email. It also provides a way to reach out to those Gentry wants to share fishing information with.
Today’s smaller, more affordable receivers and reasonable voice/data plans make satellite communications a more practical solution for medium to large sportfishing boats.
“I’m able to use a regular cordless telephone with a U.S. phone number to make and receive calls aboard my boat,” says Gentry. This makes sharing information easy and private, whether he’s tipping off fishing buddies on shore or chatting with other boats.
Developed primarily to monitor vessel movement in heavy-traffic areas, the Automatic Identification System is perhaps the easiest way for boats to keep track of one another. There are two categories of AIS equipment. Class A technology is used aboard commercial vessels that are required by maritime regulations to utilize AIS at all times. It is more expensive and, without getting too technical, differs primarily in power and the way it prioritizes and organizes incoming AIS messages from other vessels.
Lower-power Class B equipment is for smaller vessels and recreational craft. It is typically offered in two configurations: receiver and transceiver. Receive-only units let you track vessels broadcasting Class A and B signals, but they do not transmit your position to other vessels. In layman’s terms, you can watch but you can’t be seen.
Transceiver units transmit your boat’s AIS signal while receiving Class A and B signals from other boats. You will have the ability to see information about broadcasting vessels, including position, direction of travel and speed, as will vessels that are “following” you. The ability to monitor Class A traffic provides an added layer of safety, such as when you’re drifting shipping lanes at night.
Though there are Class B AIS units with dedicated digital displays, a simple black-box setup is all that’s required (along with a separate receiver antenna) to receive AIS position signals from other boats and display them on a connected chart plotter. The SI-TEX Metadata MDA-1 transceiver is a good representative of this technology, a waterproof “box” about the size of a deck of cards and selling for less than $600.
As I mentioned earlier, AIS transceivers connected to a plotter are a great way for two or more boats to fish as a team while keeping an eye on each other throughout the day. Just be aware that the lower-power Class B transmission has a range of about seven miles.
Having this information overlaid onto a chart plotter is a powerful advantage for astute anglers. “The benefit goes far beyond just knowing where your friends are,” says Ken Cirillo, C-MAP senior manager, light marine sales for the Americas. “If you’re using our high-resolution bathymetric fishing charts you can ‘picture’ your buddy’s boat — and others transmitting AIS — over detailed bottom contour maps. This adds another dimension for you to observe, as you can start to see patterns of where boats are fishing and hooking up.”
Maybe your friend is getting repeated jig strikes along one edge of a ridge or you notice an entire fleet working along a line offshore, indicating a potential temperature break that’s concentrating baitfish or weed lines. AIS gives you a window to follow what’s happening — who’s trolling, who’s stopped, who’s running — and electronic charts can help you determine why.
“When you watch boats with AIS on your plotter, you know what depth they are in and can make an educated guess about the conditions, especially when you have satellite weather overlaid on the plotter,” says Mitchell.
Playing the Game
Most of what we’ve talked about here is how to be discreet when sharing information with friends. I’ve referred to what goes on every day on the fishing grounds as a cat-and-mouse game. Just know that there are times when you want to be the cat and times when you want to be the mouse. In other words, all is fair in love and fishing.
In the heat of a summertime offshore bite, your VHF can be a non-stop source of noise and information. The trick is telling the two apart. I’ve been burned plenty by chasing “radio fish,” but I’ve also been turned on to a solid bite enough times to occasionally take the chance if the information seems legitimate.
You have to listen to radio chatter with a skeptical ear because, believe it or not, there are fishermen who lie. If a guy is bragging about catching his 100th tuna of the morning on the such-and-such bank, I’m not biting. Some fishermen are kind enough to report that they’ve limited in a particular spot and are heading home, and might even provide numbers to the area. Telling the truth from the B.S. takes a knack you can only learn from experience — and making a few mistakes.
I’m much more likely to believe something I’ve overheard in a conversation that wasn’t meant to give out information. For example, a radio call last season caught my attention. The caller was admonishing a white center console on the 181-fathom bank to stop trolling around the high spot and start drifting and chumming because other boats were catching fish this way and he was messing it up.
We were only a few miles from the 181 and decided to check it out. Sure enough, we found a fleet of boats drifting and catching fish, and we quickly limited out on yellowfin tuna. Picking up on that bit of information was literally a day-changer.
In this game of technological counterintelligence, it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open. Seeing a concentration of boats on radar can indicate something that you might want to be a part of. When we’re hunting floating kelp paddies, a concentration of boats is a good indicator of a target-rich environment. Although they seem random, these fish-attracting mats of seaweed are often concentrated by current and temperature breaks, and a gathering of boats usually is not far behind.
Likewise, keeping an eye on AIS signals from other boats can help tell you what’s going on. Boats moving at 6 or 7 knots are likely trolling and looking for fish. Boats that are stopped might be hooked up or on a kelp paddy.
The game will be a little different for different regions of the country, but if you apply logic to what you’re seeing on the AIS — and relate it to the charts on your plotter — you can determine what boat behaviors mean.
Click through the gallery below to see what advances in marine electronics could mean for you: