July 10, 2006
There's no denying that Gary Parsons' and Keith Kavajecz's past lives swayed their current fishing fascinations. To wit, the brainy pair of professional walleye anglers have turned into technophiles of the highest order, embracing high-powered modern electronics and underwater cameras to find fish and gauge their attitudes, among other priorities, in the campaign to catch them. Leave it to Parsons, a science-besotted dentist who graduated at the top of his class, and Kavajecz, a computer programmer who wrote code at IBM, to deftly transition into alternate on-the-water careers aided and abetted by their analytical minds.
"We've applied a scientific approach to everything we do," says Parsons, who has won three In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) tournaments, a trifecta matched by his alter ego, Kavajecz, whose accomplishments include a 2002 PWT Championship victory on the Missouri River. "Our success in fishing is because of the combination of our educational backgrounds and work experience."
So it goes for a dynamic duo who scout walleyes with Lowrance electronics and Atlantis underwater cameras, playing one technology off the other to locate walleyes, judge their mood du jour and ascertain the optimum patterns to make them open sesame. Theirs is hard-won wisdom that earns them big baskets and not inconsiderable PWT winnings. Whether the goals are competitive or recreational proficiency, you too can parlay P&K's strategies into wiser, more perceptive walleye sleuthing and, therefore, better fishing.
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER...
Despite all their similarities, Parsons and Kavajecz have divergent approaches when searching for walleyes and, subsequently, figuring out how to catch them. For his part, Parsons puts a greater emphasis on his sonar than on his underwater camera.
One place, in particular, for the sonar's utility sans camera is on the spacious Great Lakes. "From an open-water searching standpoint, the camera is a dead-end street," Parsons says. "It's very difficult to lower your camera and get meaningful pictures of walleyes."
Think about it: Schools scatter over miles of open water, often well away from structure, on Lake Erie or Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. Letting out a camera cord to achieve the exact depth, and waiting for a fleeting image of a walleye, are downright painstaking. Besides, if images on sonar are walleyes, Parsons figures he can forego scoping with the camera and focus on trying to catch the target species or even some of the undesirables, to determine what he's dealing with.
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To explore efficiently with electronics rather than frittering away time trolling over miles of nothingness, Parsons switches into high-speed search mode with specific settings on his Lowrance LCX-111C HD. (For detailed instructions, see sidebar, "Sonar Sleuthing" on the next page.)
Around structure, the difference between Parsons' and Kavajecz's methodologies becomes more apparent. While Parsons starts with sonar and yields to the camera almost as a last resort if he can't catch what he's marking, Kavajecz employs camera and sonar simultaneously.
Because Kavajecz keeps the lens near enough to bottom to see it at all times, the drill can get a little dicey: He says he sheared off three camera cords last year. But what his camera use achieves with meticulous viewing takes time. And what he gains in thoroughness, he sacrifices in time spent. Kavajecz might gain an in-depth understanding of three spots, when Parsons perhaps checks 20 or more during a day of tournament prefishing.
Another aspect of their differences is that Parsons tries to catch fish he marks and fine-tune a pattern, while Kavajecz spies both his locator and camera while running lines at the same time to get an inkling of what's happening. With Kavajecz's approach, he identifies species and bottom content, maybe even catching some of the target species, en route to unraveling the pattern. "I'm looking to find where the fish are," he says, "and catch some in an area with the absolute best concentration -- and find out if they're walleyes or a bunch of other fish."
What a difference a mere five years makes in marine electronics. Not so long ago, Lowrance's top-of-the-line LMS-350A, a combo monochrome liquid-crystal sonar and GPS, boasted 200 vertical pixels and 1500 watts of peak-to-peak power. Now the LCX-111C HD, a color sonar and GPS, with internal hard drive and accompanying storage capacity for high-detailed hydrographic maps and charts, ups the ante with 600 vertical pixels and 8000 watts of peak-to-peak power.
From a practical standpoint when searching for walleyes, you were once lucky to mark fish at, ahem, "cruising" speeds of 3, perhaps 4, mph. Fast-forward to today: The 111C shows fish while on-plane at speeds in the neighborhood of 20 mph.
To do so, the first priority is mounting the transducer. Kavajecz's preferred placement with a skimmer-style 200-kilohertz job is 1/4 inch below the plane of the boat. Farther down and an air pocket that shrouds the skimmer interferes with readings, at even minimal speeds. It's also important to position the transducer away from rivets, strakes, or reverse chines that cause bubbles and hinder clear readings.
Beyond that, the fine points are all in the settings. With sonar sensitivity set in automatic mode, Parsons turns it up until the screen turns unreadable with clutter. Then he dials it down 1 or 2 percent until the confusion fades. Parsons says you're going to be in the 88- to 96-percent range.
In "auto" mode, the machine boosts sensitivity on softer mud and decreases it on harder bottom or when you get shallower. Further keys are to crank ping speed and chart speed, both of which affect how fast sonar impulses are dispatched and returned to the unit, to 100 percent. Correspondingly, turning up the ping quickens the rate at which the sonar signal is interpreted by the unit's processors.
Know that when you get going at 15 to 20 mph, fish are not going to show up in tidy horizontal arcs that resemble inverted smiles (they'll do that just fine in slow motion, though). Rather, at such brisk paces fish are displayed in vertical lines, a function of the unit compressing the signal, given the speed. But despite upright marks that resemble twigs, a pixel or two of orange or red on the color screen indicates large walleyes of 6 or 7 pounds or more.
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Meanwhile, the camera is something of a last resort for Parsons on structure -- a means to identify the marks when he's not catching walleyes. Time, then, to scope 'em out.
"On tight structure fishing," Parsons says, "that's where I'll use a camera if water clarity allows." Parsons' guideline for the camera's viewing range based on water clarity is that if you can see a lure a foot below the surface, you can glimpse fish within inches of the lens; when a lure is visible 10 feet away, the camera's range is diminished to two or three feet.
BASS, CARP AND WALLEYES, OH MY!
At Bull Shoals, Arkansas, where Parsons finished 3rd, Kavajecz 9th, and their buddy Bill Ortiz 1st in last year's PWT tourney, the camera was a secret to their success. During practice, they lowered a lens on fish they marked, finding that walleyes mixed with bass, carp, suckers, and all kinds of crazies. The walleyes, however, were positioned about two or three feet higher than the finned assortment. It was a signal for P&K et al. to troll crankbaits above bottom (not knock into it) on leadcore line, and it was a nuance they only could have deciphered with the underwater camera.
On one hand, Kavajecz sets his Motor Guide PTSv, a bowmount trolling motor with echo-location technology that steers the boat, while the kicker motor on the transom provides forward progress at trolling speeds to keep him on a contour where he's marking fish. All the while he watches electronics, tends a camera and, depending on the circumstances, pulls crankbaits, spinners, or something else, despite everything else going on.
By contrast, Parsons stops, pulls lines, and spends time with undivided attention on the camera to check fish position and attitude. On Bull Shoals, the P&K crew found the walleyes finning feet above bottom -- one sign of a positive attitude. Other times, though, Parsons looks with the camera to see if walleyes are pinned to bottom, lazing in mud or rocks in a negative mode that has kept him from hooking up.
However Parsons and Kavajecz differ in disposition, tournament finishes in individual PWT events and one's inclination to scout with electronics before dropping a camera, versus the other's tendency to multitask, they accomplish similar ends with their disparate means. They find fish, gauge their attitudes, and initiate a pattern with a technician's single-minded preoccupation with high science.