Bass-Spying Frenzy Spurs Battle Between Fishfinder Makers

Piloting his 20-foot BassCat over the murky Potomac River, Rick Kortlang had a sweeping view of the bottom: He pointed out a line of rock, with what he said were probably catfish swimming just above. In shallower water, he saw a patch of bait fish, making it a good bet that largemouth bass were lurking.

Kortlang, a 58-year-old retiree, was scouting fishing holes this month with a little help from his fishfinder -- a gadget with global-positioning technology, a clear view of what’s happening in the water around the boat and a price tag of about $1,300.

“It’s all about the toys,” said Kortlang, who fishes in the area three times a week and enters local bass tournaments about once a month for “fun and bragging rights.”

Kortlang isn’t the only one seeking an underwater edge. The companies that make GPS-based fishfinders like his are locked in court battles, trading accusations that the others have copied the very features that have brought many of these machines to the lure-dangling masses -- including clearer displays, downscan views that let anglers differentiate between rocky and sandy bottoms, and technologies for monitoring things that move underwater. One big battle is over so-called side-view technologies that let a fishfinder display not just what’s under the boat but in the water around it.

More than a half-dozen U.S. patent-infringement suits have been filed in the past year between the five top makers of marine electronics, including three complaints lodged in June and one in July. One is scheduled for trial in August.

Fishfinder Wars

“There’s been a bit more of a competitive rivalry in recent years,” said Jonathan Ho, an analyst with William Blair & Co. in Chicago, who covers makers Flir Systems Inc. and Garmin Ltd. “You want to have the leading technology so you can displace the other players.”

The battle for market share is giving fishing its own version of the smartphone wars. Flir’s Raymarine sued and was sued by Furuno Electric Co. Furuno also has sued Navico Inc., owner of the Lowrance and Simrad lines, which in turn has sued Raymarine. Garmin was sued by Navico, Johnson Outdoors Inc. and Furuno.

Much is at stake. There were almost 46 million people who fished in the U.S. last year, said Frank Peterson, chief executive officer of Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia. Licensed anglers generate more than $46 billion in retail sales, according to the American Sportfishing Association. In 2011, the most recent figures that are available, anglers spent $469.8 million on depth finders, fishfinders and other electronics, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Shipwreck Hunters

The latest fishfinders -- which start at less than $100 and run to $5,000 for a 12-inch LCD screen with echo sounder, radar and an engine-performance monitor -- are generations removed from expensive depth sounders that represented the bottom as a simple flashing light. They give even skiff owners the kind of bottom-mapping prowess that was once limited to the likes of shipwreck hunters and the military.

Devices that provide side views have been around only a few years but are already must-haves, said David Precht, vice president of editorial and communications at B.A.S.S. LLC, which runs the Bassmaster Classic and other professional bass tournaments around the U.S.

“You don’t have to drive over a school of fish to find them,” Precht said. “You could just drive along and see dozens of yards out.”

Fantasy Bass League

Side-view models are particularly effective in shallower waters such as rivers or near ocean shores. They’re catching on at a time when bass fishing has been elevated into a national spectator event -- with championships for high schoolers and tournaments on ESPN2 that have helped turn fishermen including Kevin VanDam and Skeet Reese into millionaire celebrities. There’s even fantasy bass fishing: A spot on the B.A.S.S. website lets spectators win prizes guessing which pros will have the biggest catches.

All that has some equipment manufacturers trying their luck in lakes and rivers. Raymarine and Simrad, both traditionally geared to saltwater fishing, have expanded into freshwater. Humminbird and Lowrance products are the dominant devices for freshwater fishing, said VanDam, who counts Humminbird among his official sponsors.

When VanDam started competitive fishing 24 years ago, he had only a rotary-flasher depth finder on his 18-foot boat. These days, he’s got a 21-foot fiberglass boat with a 250-horsepower engine and $10,000 worth of technological equipment. “Electronics-wise, the sky’s the limit,” said VanDam, 46, a four-time winner of the Bassmaster Classic.

Growth Market

Manufacturers see a growth market in devices for the boat, much as navigation systems have taken off in automobiles. Garmin introduced new models early this year to pump up sales in its marine division, where a 7 percent increase to $222.9 million in sales last year helped to offset a 13 percent decline in its auto and mobile division.

Furuno, based in Hyogo, Japan, got about 80 percent of its 71.6 billion yen ($700 million) in sales last year from marine equipment. Flir’s Raymarine unit generated $163.2 million in sales for its Wilsonville, Oregon-based parent company in the same period. Navico is closely held. Marine electronics accounted for 58 percent of the $426.5 million in sales last year for Racine, Wisconsin-based Johnson Outdoors, and almost all its profit.

“Competition in this business is primarily focused on the quality of sonar imaging and display, easy to use graphical interfaces as well as the integration of mapping and GPS technology,” Johnson Outdoors said in its annual report.

Humminbird Complaint

The companies are developing even more features, like cameras and entertainment systems, said William Blair’s Ho, who has a “market outperform” rating on Flir and an “outperform” rating on Garmin.

Johnson Outdoors, in a complaint filed July 18 with the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington, said it spent five years developing its side-viewing devices, which have garnered awards and become “Humminbird’s most important and profitable products” since they were first sold in 2005. Garmin’s echoMap and GPSMAP sonar displays and other products are copying the technology, said Johnson Outdoors, which is seeking to block import of the products to the U.S.

In a separate legal complaint against Garmin, Navico says it spent more than six years and millions of dollars at its Tulsa, Oklahoma, facility to develop its downview technology -- which it says generates “sharp, picture-like images” of things like fish, sunken trees and rocks.

Garmin Suits

While other companies license the technology, Garmin has simply incorporated the inventions into its own devices without permission, Navico claims. In 2012, Navico says in its complaint, Garmin hired seven former Navico engineers, including the three whose names were on the patents, opening a new office in Tulsa. Garmin in 2014 released new models that included downview technologies, Navico alleges.

Wes Owen, a spokesman for Schaffhausen, Switzerland-based Garmin, said the firm wouldn’t comment on litigation. In a July 29 ITC filing, Garmin denied incorporating any of Navico's technology into its products and said the three inventors weren't involved in developing the products at the heart of the case.

Shane Harrison, a Raymarine spokesman, Jeff Kauzlaric, a spokesman for Furuno’s U.S. unit, and Pat Penman, a spokeswoman for Johnson Outdoors, said the companies don’t comment on litigation. Andrew Golden, a Navico spokesman, didn't comment.

Some of the latest cases are already resolved. Navico dropped its efforts to block imports of Raymarine products made in China, and Furuno is no longer fighting with Garmin. Furuno is still seeking an import ban on Raymarine products in a case scheduled for trial beginning Aug. 25 at the ITC.

Speed Fishing

Fish still have a fighting chance, say VanDam and Reese. They and other anglers say the latest underwater spy gear doesn’t give them an unfair advantage -- the devices just help them to avoid wasting time. In the televised Bassmaster tournaments, fishermen have a deadline to find the five biggest fish they can reel in. Fish are kept alive in a tank, weighed with ceremony and then returned to the water.

The trick for anglers is finding locations that might interest a bass, such as grass, an underground tree or pile of concrete. The fish rely on sight, smell and taste, so it takes skill to outwit them, Reese said.

“Even though they are tools to locate fish, they don’t help you catch,” said Reese, 45, the 2009 winner of the Bassmaster Classic. “I don’t use it to look for fish -- most of the time I’m looking for the habitat.”

Potomac Veteran

Kortlang, who lives in Springfield, Virginia, said he has been fishing the Potomac since he was six. He knows where to look for bass depending on the time of year or phase of the moon. Even so, when it comes to his regular outings or the monthly tournaments held by Potomac Bassmasters of Virginia, he’s not giving up his two fishfinders, which he figures ran him a combined $2,300.

One sits at the front of the boat and the other by the steering wheel. Each Lowrance model renders the bottom in video-game clarity, showing colorful inverted V’s (what he thought were catfish, or maybe carp) or a round cluster of dots (the likely baitfish).

“It’s just another tool, like the fishing pole or the boat, to find what you’re looking for,” Kortlang said. “Just because you find them doesn’t mean they’ll bite.”

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