Madison company brings science to fishing
Fish-finding gets scientific; writing algorithms to help pinpoint the search
A technology-focused start-up company in Madison traces its roots to a really bad fishing trip.
Strategic Fishing Systems LLC was formed in 2007 by three guys who describe themselves as "avid outdoorsmen who are passionate about technology." Strategic Fishing Systems won the 2012 Governor's Business Plan Contest in the information technology category.
The lousy fishing ended up being a great motivator for company founders Brian Haymart, Dan Reed and Ryan Rist.
"We're good friends and we were out fishing on a lake that we had never been to, Lake Leelanau in Michigan," Rist said. "The wind was a little bit tricky. We fished the whole weekend and it was miserable. Maybe we caught a couple. It was just terrible.
"After that trip, we said there's got to be a better way to find where the fish are."
The answer they settled on: Algorithms.
"Our goal is to help recreational anglers catch more fish by providing them with cutting-edge technologies normally reserved for the government and scientific communities," the company says on its website.
Rist said he considers Haymart an expert fisherman.
"We call him the fish whisperer," Rist said. "He basically took on the task of building an algorithm that predicts where the fish are going to be."
Algorithms are often-complex computations that derive from a fairly simple concept, said Jordan Ellenberg, mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"An algorithm is a set of instructions for doing something. It's instructions for carrying out a task," Ellenberg said. "It has a fancy name, but that's what it is.
"Even in 2013, computers are much, much stupider than people," Ellenberg added. "So, the instructions that computers require have to be spelled out in a very formal way. That's what an algorithm is. It's instructions that are so clearly specified that even a stupid computer can understand them."
An algorithm, though, is only as good as the data that it is crunching.
That meant the founders of Strategic Fishing Systems needed to gather information on thousands of lakes. The company's founders decided to start with Minnesota and Wisconsin.
They needed information about each lake. How deep is it? What does the underwater terrain look like? What part of the lake has the most sunlight exposure? What about weeds? Is the lake bottom made up of sand, rocks, muck or a combination of the three?
Haymart, Reed and Rist decided they needed a partner to produce some of the data they needed.
They partnered with LakeMaster, a company based in Little Falls, Minn., for the lake data, Rist said.
"We ended up using their data and using our research and background building algorithms to find where the fish are likely to be."
"Our science side has built these algorithms based on the species of fish," Rist added. "We know that walleye for example prefer deep water and they will move into more shallow water at night. So, looking for walleye in the evening in the summer is going to be a lot different formula than looking for bass in the spring."
The product that resulted goes by the brand name Contour Elite. It now covers more than 1,000 lakes across more than 20 states. The software is sold by state and by region.
Strategic Fishing Systems licenses its software to LakeMaster, which in 2011 became a part of Johnson Outdoors Inc., the Racine-based global outdoor recreation equipment company.
The three founders still own 100% of Strategic Fishing Systems. Contour Elite retails for $149.
Developing software that handles so much information and presenting it in an easy-to-use package was not easy, Rist said.
"We had a couple technical issues, and we had to come up with a way to compress all the data because we were dealing with such a large amount of data."
They figured out a way to do that, he said, adding: "We ended up getting a patent for some of that innovation."
The software is for use primarily on personal computers and the company is bringing a mobile app to market for use on iOS and Android devices, Rist said.
The product works as advertised, Rist said. "We've definitely had pros, guides and average fishermen come in and validate that it's working for them," he said.
"There's an old saying we kind of started the company on: 90% of the fish are in 10% of the lake. It's just a matter of knowing where that 10% is."
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