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How to Fish with a Drone

13 mins
Drone Blog
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Fishing isn’t something I know a lot about, but drones are. So when I came across the idea of using a drone for fishing, I had to find out more. A little bit of research turned up some really interesting information about another great use for drones – how to use them for fishing. It looks like so much fun that I think I just might have to get into fishing.

One way to use a drone for fishing is to scout from the air to locate fish in the water below. Another more direct way is to use the drone to drop a bait line in the water, either from the shoreline or from a boat, getting the bait and hook much farther than you can by casting it. 

In my research I learned that fishing with a drone is not quite what it sounded like to me at first. I had a mental image of a drone hooking and landing a fish. It turns out the drone is a tool to help find the fish, or else to help put the bait where the fish are. Some people question the ethics of using drones to fish, and my mind’s not made up yet on that question. But it does seem to make it easier for the fisherman, so depending on whose side you’re on, that could be exactly what you’re looking for. 

Using a Drone to Scout for Fish #

The first and most common use of drones by fishermen (or fisherwomen!) is to scout from the air to locate the fish. Drones have the obvious advantage of a top-down perspective, both to see a wider coverage area, and a clearer view than you can get at the angle looking basically from the surface of the water. 

When you’re right down by the water, either in a boat or on the shore, you can only see through the water a few yards around you. You have a limited view of natural features around you as well. It’s really hard to spot where the fish are, and you have to rely on finding them through pure chance, time-tested experience, trial and error, or most likely a combination of all three. 

Put a drone up in the air, and your vantage point suddenly changes, and you can see a comparatively vast area of the water around you. Not only does the vantage point improve your ability to see where the fish are, it helps you understand what they’re doing, study their habits. You can spot schools of fish from the air much more easily than you can from the deck of a boat, or even watch from above as fish will rise to your bait and swim away again untempted. 

As you learn about the behavior of the fish by watching how they react to your baits, or what areas they tend to gravitate to, you can adjust your methods, perhaps changing the presentation of your bait, or where you head at a particular time of day. 

From the air it’s also easier to see the topography not only of the surrounding land, coastline, marshland, wherever you’re fishing, but also the topography of the seafloor or lakefloor, and the conditions and currents of the water. It’s really sort of surprising how well the fish show up under the water when looking down from above. This information is important for understanding where the fish will be and how they behave, and can help you locate fish better, both in general, and on any given occasion. 

For example, from the aerial perspective, it’s easy to spot a color-change line where an incoming current is stirring up mud and sand. Some predator species of fish will tend to be patrolling this line, and if you fly your drone along the color-change line, it’s fairly easy to spot the black shadows of the fish in the water.

It’s also advisable to use the drone to scout along a specific perimeter rather than trying to scan whole large swathes of open water. Looking in the open water it’s harder to find anything definitive to work off of, whereas if you’re following a shoreline for clues as to where the fish might be, it’s like looking for game trails in the water – you can see where the fish tend to congregate, where the bait schools are, etc. You are learning the lay of the “land” to understand better how the fish are interacting with underwater features. 

One of the limitations of using a drone for scouting for fish is the limited battery and relatively short flight times. It’s not feasible to just have the drone up in the air for hours scanning the water for fish, as one battery (depending on the drone model) will typically last about 20 minutes. It’s best to use the limited flight time that you have, even with a spare battery or two, to do some checking around perhaps when you first get out in a boat to where you think fish are likely to be. You can do some more scouting again after a while if you’re not getting any bites, to see if there might be some fish nearby, and whether a slight change in position will get you closer to where the fish are. 

Here are a few tips on how to use a drone to scout for fish:

  • Use the drone as a tool to help you learn about the topography of the area you are fishing. Take note of key features. 
  • Scout along perimeter areas – shoreline, weed lines, color-change lines, underwater rock formations or sandbars, etc. 
  • Use the drone as a tool to help you learn about fish behavior and patterns. Take note of where they tend to show up.
  • Put the drone up for initial reconnaissance or to make positioning adjustments. Don’t rely on it to spot each fish you hope to catch.
  • Have at least one spare battery, or preferably two, to have the flight time you need on any particular fishing trip. 
  • Fly the drone at least 30 feet above the water level to avoid spooking the fish with propeller wash vibrations on the water surface. 
  • If you’re scouting from a moving boat, be sure to either have the Return to Home disabled, or set the drone to return to the controller rather than the take-off point. 
  • Practice catching the drone mid-air when bringing it down to land rather than trying to land on a boat deck or a sandy beach. 

Using a Drone for Surf Fishing  #

Another popular and helpful way to use a drone for fishing is by rigging the drone with a bait line that it can carry out and drop as far as half a mile out from the beach, much farther than you could ever cast with a reel. 

While smaller bait fish commonly come in closer to shore, the bigger and better predator fish tend to stay out a bit farther, past the first set of breakers. This zone has historically been tantalizingly just out of reach for sport fishermen trying to land a big fish from shore. But that’s where drones are a big time game changer.

Drones can be rigged to carry a baited line out past the breakers, as far really as you want to go, limited only by the length of your fishing line and the controller range of your drone. Specialized drone fishing rigs will release the line, and presto, your bait is dropped right where you want it to be, out where the big fish are. 

It doesn’t have to be a blind drop, either. Using your 4K camera to look down from above, you can even spot a fish and drop the bait right where the fish is, increasing your chances of hooking the big one. Even if you don’t spot a fish on your flight out to the deeper waters, you can use the camera to see where underwater features such as sandbars are, to have a more informed drop location.

Bait drop rig  #

The most popular drone fishing bait dropping rig is known as a Gannet release system. There are versions ranging from about $75 to around $200, depending on which drone model they are compatible with and the release mechanism. Essentially, the Gannet release system is a payload that clips on to the bottom of your drone, usually on the landing gear or legs. Some versions have pressure release systems for the fishing line, and some are plugged in to the actual drone to be able to release the line at the push of a button. 

If you don’t want to invest in a purpose made line release system, you can make your own homemade version using a fishing line between the landing gear/legs of your drone and an outrigger clip. Either way, you ideally want to balance the bait line directly below the middle of the drone to keep the wait of the baited line balanced evenly between the four propellers. Getting unbalanced can cause the drone to have flight issues, or the line can get tangled with the propellers. Both of those scenarios probably mean a drone lost to the water. 

It’s a good idea to use a drop loop setup for your line to help make sure the line and the bait are kept well away from the propellers, as well as helping keep things better balanced. Basically, this means that you will have a loop several feet up from the baited and weighted hook that you attach to the drone that will carry out the line. The loop will ideally be about 2 feet long, and the baited end hangs at least an additional 9-15 feet below that. The main line back to the rod on the beach extends back from the loop. Simple enough to rig, this setup is the best insurance you can have to keep your drone from taking a swim.  

How much weight your drone can carry will determine the size of the bait you can use, as well as the length of fishing line you will be able to haul out to. A DJI Phantom can lift up to 1.4kg, but it’s not recommended to carry the max weight repeatedly as it may damage your drone’s motors. A recommended max bait weight of 800g (for a Phantom) will keep your drone in good condition over extended use. 

Using a Drone to Fish from a Boat  #

Boat fishing with a drone involves some of scouting, and some of bait dropping, as described above. You can scout with your drone to find where the fish are, either the ones you’re hoping to catch or the schools of baitfish that they are likely to be hunting. You can use the drone to learn about the underwater features near you, benefitting from the unique aerial perspective that the drone offers. 

You can also use the drone to drop baited lines from your boat, in the same way that you might use a kite or a balloon. These fishing tactics are helpful in getting the bait out to the fish without scaring them away with the noise of boat motors, and a drone has the same ability, with the added advantage of not being dependent on the wind. It can go where you direct it to go. Not only that, but you can see where you’re putting your bait, and decide where and when to drop it based on what you can see through the drone camera feed. 

Just remember if you’re flying a drone from the deck of your boat to disengage the return to home function, or set it to return to the controller and not the take-off point, to avoid having your drone “land” itself in the middle of the water. Practice flying with your baited line when you’re not over water to get the feel of it, and practice catching your drone mid-air rather than trying to land on the deck of the boat. 

Is it Legal to Fish with a Drone? #

The rules for ethical angling are dictated by the International Game Fish Association, which was set up in 1940. With different rules for saltwater, freshwater and fly fishing, the guidelines put in place by the association are only one level of legality to be aware of. Each state within the US, and each country worldwide can also create their own laws as to how fishing can be done. 

According to the International Game Fish Association, things such as outriggers, downriggers, kites, etc. may be used to trail baited lines, provided the line releases from the device the moment a fish bites. Drones have been approved for use in fishing by the International Game Fish Association, so long as the line releases before or upon the event of a fish striking the bait. It is not legal to use a drone to pull in a fish that you hooked with a line attached to the drone. 

The legality of fishing with a drone then will depend on your state or country, or possibly on local ordinances. In Florida, for example, it is legal to fish with a drone as outlined by the International Game Fish Association. However, in Miami there is a local ordinance against drones carrying any detachable cargo or weapon. Arguably, a drone carrying a detachable fishing line is breaking this ordinance. In Orlando, drones are banned from flying within 500 feet of a gathering of 1,000 or more people, and cannot fly within 500 feet of any city parks. This may mean that you need to choose your fishing site carefully to abide by these ordinances if using a drone. 

By way of another example, in Texas, the use of a drone for recreational or sports hunting, including fishing, is banned. This includes using a drone to locate or scout for fish, as well as using it to drop baited lines. So if you were hoping to pick up drone fishing and happen to be in Texas, sorry, it’s off limits there. Before you go out and buy a drone to take up drone fishing, be sure to check into the state laws and local ordinances where you plan to fish to make sure it’s legal there. 

Is it Ethical to Fish with a Drone? #

The International Game Fish Association is primarily concerned with ethical practices in fishing, and they have deemed that fishing with a drone, provided it releases the line when a fish bites, is ethical. Not all are convinced however. Some argue that using a drone to locate the fish, and then to deliver the bait to precisely where the fish are, is too much like cheating. The attraction of sport fishing is the thrill of the chase and the challenge of tracking down and locating the fish. If a drone makes it so easy to locate the fish, is it still a challenge and a chase?

There’s also the question of conservation. If drones make it so much easier for novice fishermen and experts alike to catch highly sought after predator fish or endangered species, does that put those marine populations under greater risk of exploitation? 

Whether or not you choose to fish with a drone yourself, or prefer to catch your fish with more traditional methods, is still a matter of personal choice, at least in most places. As with any new technology, the benefits and possible harms need to be weighed, and often unintended consequences are discovered only much later. For now, drones used for fishing can be generally regarded as ethical, though for some purists, it’s taking things a little too far in favor of the fishermen, and doesn’t give the fish a sporting chance. 


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