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Story by Doug Smith / McClatchy Newspapers, Published January 24 2011

Candid camera: Technology improves underwater fishing cameras

Prior Lake, Minn. - Look at all the fish down there,” exclaimed Tom Zenanko, sounding like a kid who just discovered presents under the Christmas tree. “There’s literally hundreds of them.”

The small sunfish and crappies swam among the weeds 10 feet below the ice of Prior Lake. But Zenanko had a portal to the underwater world: He watched the action with an underwater TV camera and monitor as he jigged for fish in a portable shelter.

Underwater camera systems, invented about a dozen years ago right here in Minnesota, have become almost as common as jigs and minnows in ice fishing houses. They’ve added a new dimension to ice fishing, have likely helped some anglers catch more fish and have provided hours of entertainment for thousands of anglers hunkered in ice fishing houses.

“I don’t think ice fishing would be where it is today without the camera,” Zenanko said. “It’s the greatest education tool to get kids involved in ice fishing. It’s entertained millions of people.”

Zenanko believes the cameras also have helped anglers better understand the seldom-seen world below the ice.

“It’s almost beyond our comprehension,” said Zenanko, 53, of Shakopee, who helped develop a new underwater camera for Bloomington-based Vexilar Inc., the famed maker of sonar fish-finders. “The lake is literally alive; it’s living, breathing life down there. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Thirteen years ago, the Minnesota Legislature almost banned the newfangled devices, which had just come on the market. The Department of Natural Resources opposed them, too. Former state Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls argued that the underwater camera took technological fishing advancements too far.

“When does something cease to be a sport?” he asked in 1998. “Part of fishing is the unknown. The death knell of fair chase is using the camera in the act of catching a fish.”

But the DNR eventually backed down, as did legislators.

“I knew you can’t fight technology,” Lessard said last week. But Lessard and others also say the fears that underwater cameras would lead to overfishing of lakes was unfounded.

“Has it hurt anything? No,” Lessard said. “It’s more of a fun thing, like watching deer feed.”

Jeff Zernov, 58, of Brainerd is considered the father of underwater TV cameras. He was at the forefront of the dispute back in the 1990s when he launched his Aqua-Vu camera system, considered the first self-contained underwater viewing system. He recently sold his Nature Vision company but remains active in the underwater camera industry.

“Has the camera had any measurable or definable impact on the resource? The answer is probably yes and no,” Zernov said. “Some of the issues raised back then, like selectively harvesting only the biggest fish, is a fact. I know guys who do that. You can watch fish come up and pull the bait away from smaller ones and target the larger fish. It’s had that impact.”

But, Zernov said, other technology has had a much greater impact on helping anglers catch fish, including GPS and mapping programs, which allow anglers to find fishing hot spots. (“It’s turned everyone into a great fishing guide,” he said.) And sonar fish-finders likely help anglers catch fish more than underwater cameras do.

“If anything, the Vexilar (fish-finder) is the unfair advantage,” Zenanko said. “It can help catch fish in any environment, at any depth, at any time of day.”

And both Zernov and Zenanko say that if the DNR determines the cameras or other technological advancements are impacting a lake’s fishery, it can impose bag limits or other restrictions.

“We want people to catch fish,” Zenanko said.

The multimillion-dollar underwater TV camera industry has gone through growing pains. It exploded in the late 1990s after Zernov launched his Aqua-Vu system. Zenanko calls Zernov “one of the great geniuses of our electronic age.” “He created all this excitement,” Zenanko said.

Other companies rushed into the business. Prices fell to less than $100 for some units. “They were toys,” Zenanko said. “They didn’t work very well, and then they went in the dumpster.”

But the cheap cameras hurt the industry.

“The camera market literally imploded,” Zenanko said.

Companies collapsed. Zernov sold off Aqua-Vu in 2009. Now, there are a handful of major camera makers, including Aqua-Vu, MarCum, Vexilar and cFish.

Vexilar plunged into the underwater camera business in 2010, said Zenanko, who works in marketing and sales for the company.

Today’s underwater camera systems are far superior to the early ones.

“There’s been a quantum leap in technology that allows them to be lighter, more compact and 10 times more energy efficient,” Zenanko said.

Vexilar’s basic unit sells for around $500. A combination TV camera-sonar fish-finder unit sells for about $800. Most high-end camera systems are between $300 and $500, Zenanko said.

Various brands offer different features. “Everyone tries to have a bell or whistle that makes them different,” he said.

Back at snow-covered Prior Lake, Zenanko watched a school of sunfish and crappies gather below at his tiny jig tipped with a maggot. While he saw lots of fish, getting them to bite was another matter. Several came up, mouthed the bait, then spat it out.

“You can see ‘em, but the fish still have to bite,” he said.

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