Cyberfishing the Potomac
Updated: May 6
I met Dan on two separate attempts at shad fishing on the Potomac River. The first time we fished the same bank, he outfished me exponentially. This time, when I saw a familiar truck in the parking area as I rolled in, I almost turned out to fish a different spot. My fragile ego couldn’t face the bitter truth again. Sitting in the truck thinking about it, I considered the possibilities. There’s more than one black F-150 in Charles County I told myself. So I bit the bullet and headed out to the river bank.
Sure enough, it was him. The possible courses of action started to cycle through my head. I could skip out and go fish elsewhere, or I could skirt up river before he noticed me. Fish in bitter seclusion, knowing, just knowing, he’s catching all the fish down river. Or I could swallow my pride and learn a thing or two.
So I walked down to the bank about 10-15 yards away from Dan (we still hadn’t introduced ourselves), and started making those side glances you make when you want to catch someone’s attention until it worked. He nodded, I nodded back.
With what was likely a poorly faked half-recognition, I described to him how I thought we were fishing here together a few weeks back and how he had out fished me in an imaginary competition he didn't even know he was a part of. He told me he’s been coming here a few times a week since the shad came in. He prefers the early bass season, but this holds him over until the water warms up a bit more.
We talked a bit more in those sorts of back and forth generalizations about fishing (talking about fishing is a lot like talking about the weather) and then his rod bent and his drag started to peel. He pulled in a nice fish. I congratulated him.
Then out of the blue I asked him if he would mind if I just… watched him fish for a few minutes. I was more startled than he was at the odd request. Most people go fishing to actually… fish… not just watch other people fish. But he didn't seem to mind the idea (Deep down I think most of us anglers are proud to show off our expertise in one situation or another).
He cast out a few times without getting a hit, while we generalized a bit more. I guess my hawkish behavior may have been distracting him into some of that performance-inducing anxiety that we all dread.
“To be honest” he said, “I didn't figure it out just by standing here and casting like a dummy” (some of this is paraphrased, but those were his exact words). Turns out, he had honed in on how to look and think like a fish.
Dan pulled out his phone, and started flicking through videos, nodding me over to take a closer look at his screen. I thought he was about to show me YouTube clips of other folks fishing. The videos were actually his videos, but not the sort of videos I’m used to watching. They were underwater shots. He pointed out a school of shad on the screen, and told me they weren't just a random school of fish- these were the fish in this exact river, he said.
The videos were a bit fuzzy, definitely not the sort of professional fishing movies which rack up millions of views on youtube. So I asked him how he got the videos. He grinned, pointing to his go pro.
I’ve got my own go pro collecting dust on a shelf in my studio. I never really broke into the habit of filming with it, but I do know it’s not exactly waterproof. The confused look on my face must have registered as a tell me more kind of look, which he happily obliged.
He pulled out a ziploc bag, with the kind of pride a grandparent might when unfolding wallet pictures of their grand kids. There was a thick layer of many pieces of duct tape across the section above the zipper, and he pointed out the small pinholes where he apparently runs a fish hook through.
The brilliant- almost stupid simplicity of the idea hit me like a lightning strike. A depth finding, fish finding, video recording, redneck engineered million dollar idea for the cost of a ziploc bag (plus a go pro, of course).
“The way I see it, it's no different from a fish finder.” Awestruck, I wholeheartedly agreed with him.
When you think about it, a fish finder is as ubiquitous as the motor itself on most fishing boats. If you're going to use technology, then by all means use technology. As it turns out, he wasn’t as much interested in seeing what the fish were doing, it more started with seeing what his lures were doing. And that really stuck with me. He started using it not to look for fish, but to look at his own technique.
When you throw a lure out into the water, you lose sight of it within moments. You don't really know how your lure is acting until it becomes visible again close to where you're casting. A lot can be happening in the interim space there. With every shape, size and style of lure claiming to mimic every possible fish movement under the surface, you have to just trust that the lure is doing what it claims to be doing.
What Dan started out doing with his gopro/ziploc was learning the way his lures were moving through the water. He described his approach in throwing out a line with the camera attached (he said depending on where he’s fishing he’d actually walk out and place the camera beneath the surface). Then he’d skillfully toss a lure on another rod close enough to the camera to see what the action was like, depending on how he retrieved it.
The goal was to figure out ways to better emulate a bait fish- or any fish for that matter. Which is a really intriguing thought when you think about it. It's basically like performance analysis of you and of the thing you're doing. It be like analyzing your golf swing and also analyzing the rotation of the ball while it's in the air.
When we don’t catch any fish (a common outcome for me, especially), it’s easy to say there’s no fish there. After all, unless the fish are literally breaking on the surface, we really can’t say one way or another what’s beneath that murky water at any given moment.
Instead of laying the blame on the fish, Dan was taking the redneck engineer’s approach (Dan was definitely more of the engineer, less of the redneck) to better improve his fishing. It’s a pretty noble, self-reflective approach to an otherwise simplistic sport.
The whole approach sounded admittedly a bit tricky, and he readily admitted that a lot of the videos are just murky water. But like anything, once you hone the technique, he was able to start getting more reliable footage of his lures in clear water. The footage he keeps are those videos. Spying on schools of nearby fish was apparently an added bonus.
We chatted for a few more minutes. I wanted to see it in action, but he didn’t seem interested and he didn’t bring up the idea so I had to move on. I was there to actually do some fishing myself, after all. So once the conversation started wrapping up, I decided I’d head upstream to get some distance and ponder the mind-shattering moment. I finally introduced myself (we were still strangers at this point), and asked him if he’d mind if I shared his idea. He said go for it, but to not use his name (it wasn’t Dan, shocker). We left it at that.
I walked up river, mind in a daze, settled in and started fishing. Thinking. Brainstorming. I pulled out my phone, and thought to myself I wonder if I have a ziploc bag in the truck…