In the world of sport fishing, this year’s prime product debut venues — ICAST and the Bassmaster Classic — saw plenty of entrants who relied heavily on technology to improve rods, reels, lures, baits and accessories. With ICAST a virtual event this year, attendees weren’t able to touch and test gear as they usually would, but demand for new products has skyrocketed anyway.

That demand is being driven, at least in part, by newcomers to fishing as a recreational pastime. As with so many things boating-related during the Covid-19 pandemic, fishing is being discovered anew as a safe outdoor activity that has social distancing practically built-in. By one estimate from a board member with the American Sportfishing Association, the number of anglers appears to have increased 12 percent so far in 2020, adding 6 million to 8 million enthusiasts to the sport.

America’s rush to wet a line now has companies trying to create additional opportunities to put products into consumers’ hands — and to keep people out on the water fishing. If tackle and equipment with helpful tech can put newcomers on fish, it just might be possible to retain some of them in the sport for months and years to come.

St. Croix Rods took the award for best saltwater rod at ICAST with its Mojo Inshore.

St. Croix Rods took the award for best saltwater rod at ICAST with its Mojo Inshore.

Fishing’s Biggest Boom

About 220 exhibitors showcased 434 new products at ICAST, which the American Sportfishing Association owns and runs. ICAST had a schedule of 100 events during the course of the show, from product debuts to conversations with some of the biggest anglers in the country.

Web traffic on sponsor sites was strong, says ASA president Glenn Hughes; some sponsors saw numbers increase by the thousand each day after the show ended. “People are absolutely coming to our sites, and it’s great,” Hughes says. “When you bring it all together, it has so much more mass and attention. It was exciting to see that at some of the Facebook Live events.”

The pandemic was a driving force behind that traffic and consumer enthusiasm, he adds. “It could be the biggest boom in fishing we’ve ever had,” Hughes says. “Manufacturers tell me it’s unprecedented; sales are off the charts. I’m not talking sunglasses — I’m talking rods, reels, lines and lures. The reels are getting lighter, have better drag, better torque; they’re better-sealed from salt water and have better casting ability.”

Johnson Outdoors won Best in Show for its Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot fishing kayak — a segment whose popularity has exploded.

Johnson Outdoors won Best in Show for its Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot fishing kayak — a segment whose popularity has exploded.

Winning Products

Fishing kayaks are among the products seeing strong demand, which made it timely that this year’s ICAST Best in Show winner went to Johnson Outdoors for its Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot fishing kayak. The AutoPilot 120 ($3,799) and 136 ($3,999) each use a GPS-enabled Minn Kota trolling motor to propel, maneuver and “anchor” with Spot-Lock technology. The 106 — whose Sept. 1 debut was pushed up because of high demand — provides a plug-and-play experience in a smaller, easier-to-transport package. Both kayaks are compatible with lead acid and lithium ion batteries. As of late July, Johnson Outdoors reported that all of its kayaks were on back order through October.

Another winning product was the Legend Extreme from St. Croix Rods. It debuted at the Bassmaster Classic, then won Best in Show for freshwater rods at ICAST. The Legend Extreme was a year in the making, with operations director and lead engineer Jason Brunner working alongside engineer Gavin Falk to quantify the rod’s performance with data.

“We told them we want to build the most sensitive rod that St. Croix has ever produced, and you need to prove it empirically, and we need data to support it,” says marketing director Jesse Simpkins. “He absolutely took that mantle and ran with it.”

Anglr, Lowrance and Abu Garcia created a buzz with a virtual casting combo that retails for $129. The three companies partnered to develop a fishing rod that can plan, record and relive experiences while using data to catch more fish.

The Anglr app acts as a bridge between the Abu Garcia Virtual Rod and compatible Lowrance plotters and fishfinders. Anglers can capture fishing data by clicking a button on the rod, eliminating the need to stop fishing to access navigation displays, logbooks or mobile devices, according to the companies. “We are really excited about the strength of the Anglr platform to be able to support this one-of-a-kind collaboration,” says Anglr CEO Henry Gnad. “For the first time, the technology exists.”

The rod butt includes a Bluetooth device that integrates with the Anglr app. One click of the rod marks catch locations with coordinates, date, time, weather, water and other details. Two clicks marks a waypoint at the user’s current location, and a press-and-hold of the button creates a time stamp and records gear changes. “It’s unique,” Hughes says. “It’s different, and it deserves people taking a look at it. I can see the younger generation going in that direction.”

St. Croix tasked its engineering team with quantifying the increased sensitivity of its new rods. 

St. Croix tasked its engineering team with quantifying the increased sensitivity of its new rods. 

Retaining New Anglers

The Legend Xtreme rod is so sensitive that one pro staffer said it was like sonar, Simpkins says. That kind of technology should help anglers who are new to the sport, giving them insights that, in the past, have taken years for novices to understand.

“He said it’s like it transmits the data up the rod to my hand, so I can literally see in my mind’s eye what the bait is doing, whether it’s transitioning from rock to sand or hitting a piece of grass,” Simpkins says. “It’s transmitting so much information to my brain, so I’m understanding at a much higher level what my bait is doing. When you understand what the bait is doing and impart action on it, you can get the fish to react better.”

St. Croix used a new material, an improved SCV (a super high-modulus, high-strain graphite fiber that adds power with minimal weight) for the basis of the Legend Xtreme, and paired it with carbon guides that are lightweight but rigid, Simpkins says. The carbon-to-carbon connection between the carbon blank and carbon guide foot lets data from vibrations travel up the rod. The company measures the amount of energy sent up the line through the tip and up to the blank by striking the tip of the rod at a specific point consistently every time, Simpkins says. Different guide configurations and studies show that the data being gleaned is consistent, according to the company.

Anglr, Lowrance and Abu Garcia collaborated on a virtual casting combo that can plan, record and relive experiences.

Anglr, Lowrance and Abu Garcia collaborated on a virtual casting combo that can plan, record and relive experiences.

The rods retail for $630 to $650. The saltwater version that debuted at ICAST, the Mojo Inshore, won an award for best saltwater rod. The company upgraded the material to SC III, so it’s lighter and more sensitive, and it changed the tooling to Integrated Poly Curve mandrel technology. Flat sheets of material are rolled around the mandrel, which then is baked and cured to set the resin before manufacturing the rods. Designed to eliminate transitional points in the rod blank, IPC-engineered rods feature smoother action, increased strength and greater sensitivity. “It’s a more accurate, more forgiving rod when utilized around fighting fish,” Simpkins says. “It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it.”

Simpkins, who is on the ASA board of directors, says the goal going forward is to retain the anglers that this type of technology is drawing into the sport during the pandemic. “Our job as an industry is how we’re going to keep those people,” he says. “I don’t care if they buy a $30 rod from Walmart or our $650 Xtremes, as long as they’re going fishing. Once they’re going fishing, my job is … to make them understand why my product fits their needs.” 

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.

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