Mark Biesinger landed his first fish when he was four years old and out on Ontario’s Matawa River with his dad and brother.
He was as hooked as the little rock bass he’d caught.
Now director of Surface Science Western – where he leads a team of researchers conducting world-class materials analysis for industry and scientific advancement – Biesinger is translating the principles of his vocation to those of his avocation: the science of finding, catching and conserving fish.
Biesinger is an internationally recognized expert in x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), used in surface and materials analysis; author or co-author of more than 70 peer-reviewed publications; adjunct professor of chemistry; and host of a web-based repository of techniques, tips and reference materials to help XPS users worldwide.
He is also creator of The Scientific Fisherman, a website containing analysis and blog posts on the best angling processes and practices: lake and fish science, research-backed tips and tricks, climate action and product reviews.
Biesinger started the site almost a decade ago, soon after he competed a walleye tournament in Northern Ontario. “I finished dead last. I’d thought I was a good angler and realized I had a lot to learn. I thought, ‘I’m a scientist and I work with data in my job, so why don’t I do that with fishing? I need to think like a scientist.’”
More accurately, he wanted to use science to help him think like a fish.
“What water temperatures do they like? Where do they feed and spawn? What spring pattern and winter pattern do they follow? What’s the best catch-and-release strategy?”
Sport fishing is big business in North America. Even apart from the fact elite tournaments can net winners $300,000 in prize money, recreational anglers tend to spend a lot on gear, boats and accommodation. They’re keen on fishing well, and responsibly, Biesinger said. “It’s a balance between protecting the fish and providing opportunity for anglers.”
For all that investment of time and money, recreational fishing has historically relied more on a stash of superstitions and folklore more than on science: Many anglers closely guard the whereabouts of their years-ago favourite fishing hole, even if the fish have long since moved on. They’ll swear by cycles of the moon as predictors of fish activity. Or they’ll cite adages such as, “wind from the west, fishing is best; wind from the east, fish bite the least.”
But Biesinger’s site is a trove of information, from conservation and preventing fish mortality to ideal water and weather conditions. It also begins to address the first and biggest problem for most anglers: figuring out where the fish are. “Finding them is the hardest part, and in the old days, it was very much hit and miss.”
Today, sophisticated technology can identify whether fish are nearby and can map the lake floor for structures such as logs or weeds, where fish like to feed. But that must be layered in with a deeper knowledge of their behaviour in water that’s warm or cool, clear or murky, shallow or deep, sheltered or open, he said.
“You can pre-fish almost from your computer and you can have the best technology, the best sonar, the best GPS – but if you’re not fishing where the fish are, you’re wasting your time.”
Biesinger, president of Forest City Bassmasters, a fishing and conservation club that’s associated with similar clubs around the world, said the approach has helped develop some of the best anglers in Ontario. “It’s also helped me with the leadership of the club because we’ve been able to share messages of conservation.”
They include using scientific principles when creating hatcheries and releasing fingerlings into streams, he noted, with more walleye, bass, trout and even muskie making their way into the Thames River. The club and its associations with other conservationist groups have also added structure into reservoirs to improve habitat, and shared ways of reducing fish mortality during catch-and-release.
Meanwhile, it has also helped with his fishing, even though time he invests in his family, his day job and running angling competitions mean he’s not apt to try to make it his career any time soon. “As a weekend warrior, I do pretty well,” he said.