Ten years ago, fancy fish finders were about as common in most catboats as a box of crankbaits. Contrast that with today's tournament rigs and guide boats, which often contain GPS-enabled side-imaging sonar, electric trolling motors with autopilot, oxygenated livewells the size of hot tubs, and anchoring systems that deploy with the flip of a switch.
Among a myriad of catboat customizations, perhaps nothing has become more essential than trolling motor navigation and anchoring systems. The day may come when anglers no longer need forearms like Popeye; when the tap of a button replaces the act of chucking massive lead anchors.
After years of dropping and hoisting the hook, systems such as Minn Kota's iPlot make you love the latest technology. Its Spot Lock feature might be the best thing to happen to catfishing since the invention of the No-Roll sinker. Maybe even better.
Thanks to fancy computer programming, the trolling motor talks to the GPS, and together they keep your boat glued to a waypoint and hauling in catfish. Some call it virtual anchoring, but there's really nothing virtual about it.
Imagine cruising along a river channel, monitoring sonar when a cluster of catfish shows on the screen. You respond by punching the anchor icon on your remote control. You're instantly pinned in place, hovering over the fish for as long as your trolling motor battery lasts. No motoring upwind, repeatedly repositioning, hoisting 30 pounds of lead overboard or guesstimating current to get your boat stationed on the sweet spot.
Mapping & Navigation
Johnson Outdoors — owner of Humminbird, Minn Kota, and LakeMaster — created a new category of integrated electronics last year when they released iPilot Link. It was a walk-off homerun. Melding three technologies into a centralized control module, Link allows your trolling motor to communicate with both your Humminbird sonar unit and high-definition LakeMaster GPS maps. The result is a boat-control system that locks onto specific depth contours, enabling your Minn Kota to pull the boat along prescribed paths. Find, store, program, and revisit your most productive fishing zones, while the navigation system keeps your boat in productive water.
Anything that frees your hands and mind to focus on catching fish is valuable, and that's why iPilot Link is such a great fishing tool. Take command of this marvelous system with either the LCD enabled iPilot remote or via your Humminbird sonar. The iPilot remote-control displays navigation information. Four models of iPilot Link are compatible with Terrova, PowerDrive V2, and Riptide trolling motors.
Digital maps are the third link in this 3-way navigation system. LakeMaster now offers maps for most states, including new Digital GPS Map Cards for Ohio, Indiana, the Great Plains, Mid South, and South East. Some contours are in 1-foot increments. Functions include "depth highlight," which indicates productive contours in contrasting colors, and "depth offset" that can be set to correspond with fluctuating water levels in rivers and reservoirs.
Tapping further into the world of wireless, Navionics — another manufacturer of top-end digital lake maps — now offers Nav Module. This iPhone/iPad app allows users to plan fishing trips wirelessly, and receive real-time maps and route data on the water or off. Nav Module can be downloaded from Apple's online app store.
You'd have to be living under a rock to be unaware of Humminbird's new 360 Imaging. If you were a catfish, it wouldn't make any difference — because you'd still be visible on the unit's screen. This technology holds awesome potential for catfish anglers. While side-imaging requires the boat to be moving, 360 Imaging refreshes the sonar screen with updated underwater imagery even when stationary.
A rotating transducer module mounts on the transom, where it scans a 360 degrees around the boat. Anglers drifting downstream can see approaching fish and structure up to 150 feet in any direction. While anchored, it's even possible to monitor fish movement almost in real-time, and place baits near them. As more than one angler has remarked, "360 is like having fish radar on your boat." It's compatible with current Humminbird side-imaging units equipped with an Ethernet connection (1198c, 998c, 898c, 798ci), and retails for $2,000.
Offering both side- and down-scan technology, Lowrance's HDS Gen2 Touch series adds touchscreen functionality to its family of multifunction displays, including 7-, 9-, and 12-inch screen sizes. The HDS Gen2 also has powerful chart-plotting capabilities, integration of Lowrance's comprehensive range of performance modules, and Broadband Sounder and StructureScan HD fishfinder technologies. Retail prices range from $1,299.99 for HDS-7 Gen2 Touch to $3,249 for HDS-12 Gen2 Touch.
While underwater cameras aren't traditional tools among catmen, more anglers are finding them helpful in select situations. In clear to stained water, cameras are great for examining woodcover and other specific spots, particularly for determining cover density and layout, as well as detecting individual large catfish.
Small enough to fit in a coat pocket, Aqua-Vu's Micro series reads and displays underwater video on a 3.5-inch color LCD monitor. With 50 feet of camera cable and quarter-size lens, this diminutive camera can be adjusted to view at different angles and has built-in infrared lighting for low-light conditions. It's powered by an internal lithium-ion battery that runs up to 6 hours per charge. A USB cable allows recharging in the field with a power source or solar charger. The Micro Plus DVR also has an internal SIM card that records up to 16 gigabytes of digital video that can be reviewed or uploaded to a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Retail is $300 to $500, depending on the model.
For a larger screen, MarCum Technologies offers a range of camera options, including its new LX-9 Digital Sonar/Camera Combo System. Complete with an 8-inch LCD, Sony camera optics and fully customizable sonar/camera screen views, the LX-9 is the most sophisticated viewing system to date, retailing for $1,200.
For solid boat positioning in shallow water, push-button hydraulic anchoring systems keep your boat locked in place. Power Pole, the original shallow water anchor system, deploys quickly and quietly, stabbing and grabbing bottom with a semi-rigid spike. Its newest product, the Drift Paddle, connects to a Power Pole arm. For slowing your drift in deeper water, the Paddle can be an alternative to a driftsock while trolling or drifting and its angle can be adjusted to seven settings. Constructed of a UV stable polymer that flexes, the Paddle is deployed and stowed with a Power Pole remote control. The Power Pole retails for about $1,500; the Paddle for $225.
Minn Kota's Talon is specially handy for anchoring in shallow rivers, on windblown flats, or any scenario in which frequent repositioning is necessary. With a waterproof remote control or foot switch, the Talon's spike is lowered vertically into the substrate and retrieved. Built-in pressure sensors determine bottom hardness, and apply appropriate pressure. Offered in 6-foot 4-inch and 8-foot 4-inch models, the Talon mounts quickly and easily to a variety of transom adaptors. Retail starts at $1,300.
Due to its recent release, few catfish anglers have experienced Humminbird's 360 Imaging technology. Tournament angler John Jamison imagines using 360 while working baits downstream in a river. With the probe pointing downstream, he envisions watching for upcoming structure breaks, cover objects, and individual fish, and adjusting his presentation accordingly. A similar approach could be used while drifting a reservoir, aiming the beam ahead of the boat for precise bait positioning. While anchored, anglers could use the system to monitor fish movements around the boat, directing baited rigs toward each target. Its potential impact on catfishing is exciting.
Continued after gallery...
Loose pods of channel catfish are shown slightly supended beneath the boat and approximately 30 feet to the right.
Numerous small channel cats are spread across this section of a medium sized river, making it an ideal location for an active presentation.
Deep Reservoir Flat
Several large cats are revealed on this deep reservoir flat, while a suspended pod of shad shows up at about the 8-o'clock position.
This side-imaging capture depicts a very large blue catfish feeding on suspended shad.
This grouping of clearly marked cribs serves as great habitat for flathead catfish. Note, too, the old sunken boat near the top right.
In bass tournaments, dead fish are merely penalized several ounces. But on the Cabela's King Kat and Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest circuits, dead catfish brought to the scales are disqualified. It's a progressive move designed to protect large catfish. Consequently, many anglers now use oversized livewell systems that pump pure oxygen, a critical element in preserving catfish health. Others cool re-circulated water by forcing it through refrigeration coils. A review of several options:
> KoolWell Livewell Cooling System: Reported to lower water temperature in a livewell by 7 to 10 degrees, the KoolWell is a 12-volt system that works on wells up to 25 gallons — retail $190, koolwell.com.
> Flow-Rite: This line of livewell systems and accessories includes an interactive Livewell Builder's Guide on their website. Options include various spray heads and power nozzles for filling and re-circulating water, drain and overflow valves, and a variety of pump sizes — flow-rite.com.
> KeepAlive: Marine grade systems use medical grade oxygen regulators to infuse livewell water with oxygen. Their website is also a great resource for designing the optimal livewell system — keepalive.net.
> The Oxygenator: A patented process separates hydrogen molecules from oxygen molecules, releasing the hydrogen in bubbles, while dissolving tiny oxygen nano-bubbles into the water. Among a host of options, the Heavy Duty Commercial unit is designed to manufacture 100-percent pure oxygen for 30- to 75-gallon tanks — retail $250, keepfishalive.com.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler and regular contributor to In-Fisherman publications.