This year, for the first time since the “Blind Anglers International Tournament” (BAIT)
commenced in 1988, I was the first fisher without sight to compete alone in his/her own boat. Needless-to-say, my participation was the source of significant interest among the anglers, pros, volunteers and the press.
The tournament takes place each year on the Ottawa River and is hosted by the Nangor Resort.
On average, 35 pro fishermen participate with their bass boats – each taking on board up to two anglers without sight. The winner is the boat with the largest six Pike/Walleye caught during the day of fishing.
BAIT organizers were a little perplexed when I first made it known that I wanted to entre this year’s tournament with my own boat. It took some back-and-forth discussion, but in the end we settled on a number of conditions that were acceptable to all.
To ensure that my Boat wasn’t unduly thrown about at the start, it was agreed that I would start last. This was fine with me as it also gave the pros and other anglers a bit of a handicap. Also, since the Blind Fishing Boat is not equipped with a live well, and since all fish weighed had to be alive, a second boat with a live well, operated by my good friend Marco Potvin, accompanied me throughout the day. At first I was a little concerned about having a second boat tagging along with me for the day – not wanting it to limit me in my ability to cast freely in all directions, but this proved not to be the case as Marco was more than careful never to let his boat get to close to mine. Marco was subsequently registered as my “pro partner” which meant he too could fish — adding his considerable fishing talent to my efforts to bring in the largest catch of the day.
Marco and I quickly determined that we could fish considerably more shoreline with two boats by “leapfrogging” our way along. This also meant we were able to skip having to create numerous GPS points of interest as Marco would instead simply call over and say “move down”. At that point, I would manoeuvre my boat back into deeper water and around the back of Marco until I was once again positioned along the shore where upon Marco would yell over, “stop”.
How did I know in which direction I needed to manoeuvre my boat, many might wonder? Well, by listening. I could always here when I was close to shore by the sound of the waves breaking on the beach or weed beds, the wind and the songs of the various birds in the trees, the smell of the weeds, and the different way land reflects sound. With Marco calling from his boat, I was able to triangulate my position allowing me to navigate relatively independently.
The Nangor resort is located on a fairly large section of the Ottawa River. We had two choices, either stay within the bay in which the resort was located, (the bay was about two miles long), or leave the bay and entre the river proper. Since the river itself was about two miles wide at the mouth of the bay, and since the nearest smaller bays were another mile or two beyond the mouth of our bay, we elected instead to fish our bay exclusively. We had learned from several veterans of the tournament that a number of past winners had also taken this approach. Our strategy also meant more time fishing and less time travelling, which was a consideration given that both Marco and I were propelling our boats with Minn Kota trolling motors.
We left the beach and motored about one mile down the bay to get to what looked like some promising fishing grounds. This meant our navigating in relatively open water for about 20 minutes. Since Marco’s boat gave off almost no sound, I simply pointed my boat in the direction Marco suggested, took a compass heading, and set off. I’m pretty good at keeping the boat on a straight course, and Marco needed only to provide me with new coarse headings as we “motored” along.
Now, under ideal fishing conditions, I would be using pre-set GPS positions to navigate by. However, since our plan of attack could only be formulated once we arrived, and since that day there was almost continuous lightening, we were unable to get out on the water to create the GPS points. Thus, I navigated throughout most of the day by using “dead-reckoning” and the course headings Marco would call over.
An additional challenge was thrown our way during the dinner the night before. BAIT organizers approached Marco and I and asked if we would mind taking a journalist on-board Marco’s boat for the day, and if it would also be O.K. if a zodiac driven by a camera man could follow us for part of the day as well. What could we say. While I was a little nervous of having such continuous scrutiny, I also realized that we couldn’t say no. Thus, Marco and I were fortunate, as it turned out, to have Mark Anderson, one of Canada’s leading outdoor writers; join us for the day, and Fred, of Cattroll Photos, snapping tons of digital photos. Both were under contract with Canada Outdoor Magazine – the feature story is to run later this fall.
While Fred only made a number of brief appearances with his zodiac, mark took the opportunity to test out some Northern Pike 8” streamers he had tied for him by a friend of his from the N.W.T. I have to admit, the swishing sound of Mark’s fly rod was the loveliest of audible beacons Marko could have chosen for his boat – I’ll never forget the sheer peace we all experienced that day with the virtually zero noise impact our two electric boat motors, the fly rod and Marco’s and my spinner baits produced.
I was the first to hook and land a fish. A decent size Pike, which I managed to net and un-hook myself. Netting my own fish without sight was always something I speculated about, “would I be able to net my own fish without knocking them off the hook”? It turns out the answer is, “yes”! With the help of some newly acquired large diameter, short-handled, curved nets, my netting technique is fine. Of course, the trick is to make sure the fish is sufficiently played out prior to attempting to use the net, but not too tired as I didn’t want to be responsible for a fish’s unnecessary death by exhaustion. I would wait until I heard the fish shake its tail or the bait next to the boat to get a fix on the fish’s position. I also made sure that the net was well submersed so I could come up from under the fish as opposed to straight on. After netting and removing the bait from the fish’s mouth, Marco manoeuvred his boat next to mine and I passed him over the fish for the live well.
The days fishing unfolded relatively problem free. While occasionally Marco, Mark and myself found ourselves in the midst of numerous other competitor’s boats, we had little difficulty extracting the two boats and moving on to other promising areas.
My Boats collision detection sonar came in quite handy in detecting and marking the positions of other boats. Even though my two MiniGuides are rated to have a range of 25 feet, it appears that the water’s surface increases this range by at least double. I suppose the signals are bouncing over the relatively smooth surface of the water. The automobile reverse sensor was also very helpful on those occasions when I had to manoeuvre my boat over to Marco to have a word in private, share some lunch, or to discuss strategy. I could easily lower the sound of the MiniGuides by turning down the master volume on the computer speakers mounted on the seats. The automobile reverse sensor itself is actually quite quiet, having been designed for the interior of automobiles.
My Minn Kota 40 Maxxum trolling motor worked beautiful. It’s so nice to be able to turn the handle one way or another, and to have instant power without first having to crank over a motor. The Minn Kota also pushed my Porta-Bote along quite nicely – fast enough that when heading up wind there was wave slapping sounds coming from the bow. I often had to reduce speed to allow Marco to catch up in his heavier 15-foot aluminums boat – Marco had the extra weight of the live well, journalist, and gas motor. Some day I’d love to try one of those Minn Kota’s with the built-in auto-pilots. I don’t mind steering, but having the added assistance of an autopilot would be nice.
The Porta-Bote itself was also fantastic as usual. It was my first time operating the boat around much larger boats (many of the other competitors were in 20-foot-plus bass boats, and the wakes from those big-boys presented no problem. Standing in the Boat is also easy and safe as the Boat barely shifts when transferring weight from one side to another. The floor itself takes about five minutes of getting use to, but after that the spongy feeling becomes unnoticeable. My only suggestion would be for Porta-Bote to make their seats a lighter colour than black as they can get hot – thank goodness for the flotation seat cushions from The Chandlery.
On the way back for the weigh-in, Marco experienced battery depletion. The day had been quite warm and Marco had been running the live well pump almost continuous in order that our catch – nine in total – would stay alive. Marco didn’t even have enough power to turn over the starter on his 25 hp outboard. Off came the cowling and out came the pull cord rope. I offered more than once to give them a tow as we still had about ½ mile to go, but Marco was determined, and finally successful, in getting his motor fired up just as Mark and I had secured Marco’s boat to mine for a tow. This now meant that I had to follow him in to shore, which was no big accomplishment given that I only had to follow the sound of his outboard.
Our six largest placed us somewhere in the middle of the pack, but the disappointment of not winning was far out-weighed by my being able to demonstrate to the rest of the participants that the Blind Fishing boat actually works. Nothing dangerous occurred and no one was placed at risk. The Boat operated great, and I’ve already made plans for further refinements to my sonar and navigation systems. The Lowrance X510C fishfinder is with Compusult being modified so it can speak, and other developments are also in the works that promise to keep the Boat afloat for years to come.
As usual, what really made my day was being able to fish from my own boat. I felt equal to my competition, and judging from their reaction, I think my status as an equal from their perspective is also well on it’s way of being realized.
The night before the competition, I was asked to address the several hundred Bass pros, volunteer Lions and the anglers without sight. I told them that my boat was a prototype and that even though everything I was using could be purchased commercially, the Boat itself was still under development. I spoke about the various technologies I was using and how my sponsors were making it possible for me to pursue this dream. More importantly though, I thanked the organizers and volunteers for their 19 years of dedication in running BAIT, and then suggested that perhaps in another 18 or so years, fishers without sight might themselves be driving their own boats at this tournament. My prediction was met with thunderous applause