The Automatic Identification System receiver on tournament pro Capt. George Mitchell's Snake Dancer came at his sponsor Furuno's request for a temporary installation of the FA30 for boat-show demos. But after that he wouldn't give it back. "I won't fish without it," says Mitchell.
So how does a device designed to track freighter and commercial traffic benefit recreational fishermen? Anglers need three things after they are tackled up: skill, luck and information - and in many cases, good information makes up for a lack of the other two.
AIS allows Mitchell access to a large reservoir of information. For tournament anglers hitting unfamiliar waters with a hope of finishing in the money or for weekenders hoping to leave the office on Friday and fill the fish box before Sunday night, AIS can open wide that limited window of opportunity.
Here's how it works: AIS picks up a VHF signal from a ship's transmitter and displays, on the receiving boat's plotter screen, an icon and a data panel showing, among other things, the transmitting ship's name, size, course, speed and Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, which is its "phone number" on VHF and allows anyone to call it directly. While it may not do an angler any good to know the M/VFree Spool sailing under the flag of Singapore, is carrying a load of coal to Newcastle at 12 knots, that information does offer inroads to valuable information.
"The MMSI number and name allow you to call a vessel directly and address it by name. That gives you instant credibility," says Mitchell. "If you get on the radio and say, 'Anyone in the anchorage?' no one is going to answer you. If I say, 'Freighter Magic Fingers, this is recreational boat Snake Dancer approaching on the starboard bow; we'd like to catch bait off your anchor chain,' they'll talk to me."
Once you have properly opened the lines of communication, the information begins to flow. For instance, you can find out how long they have been at anchor, which can be useful. "Let's say I'm in Port Everglades, [Florida,]" says Mitchell. "If they have been anchored there for two days, I know I'll find blue runners under the ship. After three days, I've got goggle-eyes early in the morning. After five days, I'm thinking cobia, king mackerel and a lot of other stuff."
You can coordinate this information with your seasonal knowledge, Mitchell says: "On the full moon in August in Port Everglades, I know if I find goggle-eyes on a ship, I can catch them, cut them in half and drop them back down on the bottom, and I'll be getting big mangrove snapper."