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Camera Gives Anglers Fish-eye View
By Leif Enger
February 2, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Sportfishers have a new gadget to try out, if there's any room left in the boat. A Brainerd man is introducing a device that goes beyond sonars and depth-finders, and actually lets you watch the fish take your bait - or ignore it, as the case may be.

JEFF ZERNOV'S LIKE AN INVENTOR out of an old movie. He has the giddy chuckle; the faintly unbalanced ocular glint; you sort of expect him to rub his hands together...

Zernov: Hee hee - this is the coolest thing to hit sportfishing since rods and reels!
We're out in Zernov's ice-fishing house, on Clearwater Lake near Brainerd. Grinning under a bushy orange foxfur hat, Zernov unveils his newest gadget - a watertight camera the size of a Dixie cup. It's called the "Aqua View."
Zernov: All sportfishermen have dreamed of this: what's it really look like underwater?
Without ceremony he unwinds a cable and lobs the camera through a hole in the floor.
Zernov: Is this cool? Hee hee - so there's what the bottom looks like around us - golf-ball-sized gravel, very clean, those white specks there are clams or shells - whoop, we just saw a little pollution, is that round thing a pop-top down there?
With the camera suspended six feet off the bottom, Zernov grabs a short fishing rod and lowers a jig into the water. It quickly disappears - then reappears, bright as a button, on the five-inch TV screen beside the hole. Immediately tiny striped fish cruise into view.
Zernov: There, you see that? I just got a little perch just came in and hit me - see him right there by the bait? Hee hee hee! Now there's a cloud of perch there, hee hee!
Now you're probably thinking: So what? Underwater video's been around since Jacques Cousteau. Since James Bond. And you're right. But Zernov's camera is the smallest available. A good-sized bass could swallow it. It's the simplest to use, and the cheapest, even at $1500. In short, it's the first designed for the sportfishing crowd - a multitude fabled for spending money on glittery new gear.
Zernov: Last night my wife and I were trying to sit down and have dinner and I got three calls, one from Virginia and two from Wyoming, people who'd read an article I did in the Walleye Insider, and all people wanting to order so I'm scribbling on the newspaper Visa and MasterCard numbers. It's gonna be a fun run.
Zernov has intuition about these things. In the early 70s he helped start a new magazine called In Fisherman; it now has a circulation of 350,000. In the late 70s, he left In Fisherman to start a new company. His product? Electronic depth finders. Go to the lake next summer and count how many boats don't have one. Zernov believes, once again, he's got the next big thing.
Zernov: Anytime I look at something I say, I can do it better ... the faster I can do it, the better job, that's what I live for.
The Aqua View does have its critics. Some purists think it takes technology so far as to be unsporting. Even Zernov's old employer, In-Fisherman, seems cool to the camera. Editor Doug Stange says sportfishers already have depth-finders, sonars, global positioning systems...
Stange: It's gotten to the point where now people are having a difficult time managing all the technology and all of the knowledge we already have. I don't think the average fisherman, though he might be curious, first of all is going to be so curious that he's going to buy a lot of these.
Zernov admits his system's expensive right now - just as depthfinders were, when he got into that business. In two years, Zernov expects to be selling the Aqua View for a third of its current price. And to the purists' question - isn't the camera "bad form?" - Zernov replies, "Nah."
Zernov: Is it gonna cause you to catch more fish? No. It doesn't turn the fish on and force him to bite. For me, it gives me a greater appreciation for the sport. I spend more time in the boat with a camera now than in a boat with a rod. I have more fun looking at the fish than catching them.
Also, other markets are cropping up. Biologists want the Aqua View for lake bottom research. Law officers used a prototype last fall to search for drowning victims. And Zernov's designing a light filter to enable the camera to detect zebra mussels - somebody's bound to want that.
Zernov: I don't think that it's necessarily a blessing. It drives my wife buggy. I keep a pad of paper and pen by the bed and two, three times a week I wake up, I've got a new design for something. So it's sort of a curse I have, that my brain continually comes up with new ideas and unfortunately I'm the type that I have got to take them to market. (Enger:You seem kind of happy for a cursed individual, Jeff.) Hee hee! Life is good, life is good!
Brainerd inventor Jeff Zernov. His first order of three hundred Aqua View cameras will be assembled this month.
Zernov: Oh! There! I caught one! You saw him actually open his mouth and suck in the bait, hee-hee!