Expensive fishing electronics require proper touch
DULUTH — John Hanna started messing with 12-volt electronics when he was in high school, installing stereo equipment in his car.
Pretty soon, his friends were asking them to rig their rides as well.
"Eventually I started on my boat ... And then I had friends wanting me to do their boats. It was sort of a hobby that's expanded,'' Hanna said.
That hobby grew into Psycho Billy Marine Service — we'll explain the name later — a part-time job for Hanna, a Duluth resident and supervising carpenter for Johnson Wilson Constructors during the day.
This time every year, Hanna's phone is buzzing often with eager boaters who want new electronics and other devices installed on their boat — installed so they actually work and don't fall off and don't start a fire.
"I get these calls and the guy says, 'Every time I turn on my depth finder the horn goes off and the motor stops,''' Hanna said, with maybe a little hyperbole. "The problem is most guys look under the dash, find the first red wire they see and splice into it. Not good."
Hanna was lying on his back connecting a transducer to a new sonar unit in a big aluminum charter boat, talking as he worked.
"If you just look around you'll eventually find the fuse panel and there are usually accessory (plugs) you can patch into pretty easily, and it will work right,'' Hanna said.
Hanna's wiring doesn't just look professional for looks. There's a method to making sure wiring is secured properly.
Hanna talks about "bird's nests'' of electronics wiring, often stashed up under some hard-to-reach cubby or under a dashboard, including the part of the line with the lin-line fuse.
"If it was me, and I'm up at Isle Royale or whatever, and it's rough and and a fuse goes out, I want that someplace I can reach quickly it to replace it,'' Hanna said.
He's seen some bad connections, too, including one time a boater replaced a fuse with a piece of aluminum foil.
At Marine General on London Road, owner Russ Francisco sells sonar/depth/fish-finder units that start at about $100 and top-out at more than $5,000. And he's selling more of then near the $5,000 price-point than $100. Electric trolling motors can approach $3,000. Downriggers — up to $2,000 each. Radar — up to $5,000.
People are buying the top-end stuff "every day," Francisco said.
"People are upgrading. They're buying new boats. They talk about how fishing is declining, with fewer people ... But not around here, not around the Great Lakes," he said. "People are getting into this technical, mechanical fishing. We're seeing a lot of younger people getting in now."
The technology is intimidating at times, with TV-sized sonar and GPS screens 15 inches, even 16 inches across that broadcast down imaging and side-scan and 3D underwater readings. Marine electronics companies like Lowrance, Humminbird and Garmin are pushing software upgrades on an annual basis — sometimes more often. Francisco's staff will do software upgrades, but they don't do installation. That's when Francisco sends his customers to Hanna and a few other reputable boat riggers in town.
Francisco noted Hanna has met with factory reps, attended classes and does extensive research, constantly re-educating himself on changes in electronics.
"Some people, like me, like to work on their own boat. But I won't get mine in the water until August. So if you want it done now and you want it done right, you call John or whoever,'' Francisco said. "It's partly an intimidation thing, when you are talking $1,000 or more for a unit, some people are afraid of messing it up. But I think mostly it's a time thing. People don't have the time. They want it done now and they want to go fishing."
From selling to installing
Nick Roningen worked at Marine General selling electronics for years. For the past four years, he's also been installing the stuff on the side as Roningen Boatworks..
"I decided this year to break off and do it (boat rigging) full time, at least through the summer,'' said Roningen, who works out of a pole barn at his house, but will also make house calls to boat owners' garages and marina slips.
Like Hanna, Roningen has been busy doing a lot of "upgrades'' as anglers keep their boats, but replace older on-board technology with new.
"The sonars especially, the screens are getting bigger and better displays, and the bigger screens are getting cheaper,'' Roningen said. "Plus, the features are changing so fast. They can do things now that they couldn't just three or four years ago."
Installing the new generation of electronics isn't that much harder, Roningen noted — red and black wires haven't changed. But transducers have become more complicated, as has programming the new units.
Hanna says he works about 75 percent on walleye boats, and that sonar and GPS units are his most common device. But he's also worked on big, 35-foot cruisers, equipping them for Lake Superior cruising and fishing.
"It seems like this year I'm getting a lot of repeat customers. People who I set up their boat a few years ago who are upgrading their (electronics) or maybe have a new boat,'' he said.
He's also installed SiriusXM Radio receivers, downriggers, marine radios, electronic kicker motor controls, transducers, antennas, stereos, trolling motors and much more.
"We put $20,000 or more worth of new stuff on a big Grady White for the big lake, just about everything you could imagine,'' Hana said.
One desperate boater called him from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He needed Hanna's expertise "and basically said name your price. So I did, and he took it,'' Hanna said. "He couldn't do it himself and he couldn't find anyone else."
When Al Mattila of Virginia bought a new 20-foot HewesCraft boat eight years ago, he had Hanna rig it — downriggers, marine radio, sonar and more for the heavy-duty aluminum boat he uses for guiding on Lake of the Woods.
"I buy a lot of my stuff at Marine General and I think they put me on to him,'' Mattila said.
This year, Mattila is upgrading to four new electronic downriggers and a new Lowrance sonar and GPS unit with 3-D "structure scan'' and a 12-inch screen. So he called Hanna to do the work.
"I suppose I could do it myself, but I really don't have all the right equipment, And to be honest I just am too busy at work,'' said Mattila, who works at a taconite plant.
On a sunny afternoon last week, Hanna and his next-door neighbor, Brennan Mears, were working on Mattila's boat, installing a TrollMaster device on a 9 horsepower Yamaha "kicker'' motor that allows the driver, using a remote control, to fine-tune the trolling speed by fractions of an mph.
"They have pretty good directions for this stuff. I think most people could do it. But when they take the (cowling) off the outboard and look at it, some people just say 'no way,''' Hanna said. "And that's why I've been spending a lot of my nights and weekends lately doing this. It's that time of year.''
Hanna was driving in a newly acquired vehicle (new to him, not new) pulling a newly acquired boat (also not new) behind when he turned on the radio for the first time. On came the Johnny Cash song "One Piece at a Time,'' a humorous ballad about a guy who works at car assembly plant and steals parts, one piece at a time over several years, to build his own car at home.
That car was called the Psycho Billy Cadillac.
Hanna felt the timing of the song was a sign from somewhere so he adopted the name. It's not only the name of his boat rigging business but the name of his Lake Superior fishing boat and his radio handle when he's on the water. He's even named a fishing tournament in Bayfield after Psycho Billy.
Now you know.
Nick Roningen can be reached at 218-393-8048. "Psycho Billy" John Hanna can be reached at 218349-7224.
Boat rigging basic tips from Psycho Billy
• If in doubt, always use (patch new wires into) a fuse panel.
• Stay away from splicing into wires that are handy to splice into.
• Never pile a bunch of wires on a battery; its is a recipe for a problem down the road.
• Beware buying boats from the third or fourth owners, you get three or four times the jury-rigging.
• Ask questions. Marine General is a wealth of knowledge.
• Go online and do research.
• Go fishing with a guide, ask questions, take pictures of ways other people set things up.
• Attend a Western Lake Superior Trollers Association meeting. Those folks are great.
Boat rigging tips from Nick Roningen
• Use marine grade wiring; basic 12-volt wiring doesn't hold up to wet environments and corrodes faster.
• Always use an inline fuse for electrics, don't bypass them. They're cheap insurance for expensive equipment against power surges.
• Use an electrical wire threader — a stiff wire you can tape electrical wiring to for threading through tight spaces.
• Make sure your battery is charged and keep it charged when not in use.
• Test-run your boat at home using a garden hose adapter before using it the first time to avoid headaches. The boat landing is a bad place to learn something is wrong.