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Innovation for recreation

John Strange explained demonstrated his original fishing machine Autofisher late April Braidwood Lake. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times

John Strange explained and demonstrated his original fishing machine, the Autofisher, in late April at Braidwood Lake. | Dale Bowman~For the Sun-Times

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Updated: June 9, 2011 12:30AM

The familiar, cloying odor of Sonny’s dip bait hung along the shoreline of Braidwood Lake. Using a stick, John Strange stirred goop in the white tub of Sonny’s on the dip worm at the end of his line.

That part is ordinary when fishing for channel catfish. Dip bait, also known as cheese bait or stink bait, is a malodorous concoction with universal appeal as catfish bait.

But what Strange did after he cast isn’t universal at all.

Instead of holding the rod — a light-action casting rod with a 10-pound PowerPro braided line — or placing it in a rod holder, he stuck it in an odd machine, then flipped switches.

Welcome to Autofisher, what Strange called ‘‘a hardware store on the lake.’’

Fishing machines have been around since fishing advanced beyond hand-catching. According to Dan Basore, a world-renowned fishing historian and collector from the western suburbs, ‘‘In fact, the first United States fishing patent was a double hook that snapped.’’

Fishing rods and reels are machines in their own rights. Fishermen form the most gadget-happy group I know in sports. When it comes to gadgets and gizmos, even golfers aren’t close.

One of the most commercially successful fishing machines was the Popeil Pocket Fisherman.

‘‘But old Ron [Popeil] could sell anything,’’ Basore said.

Strange’s device — well, devices — are larger than the Popeil Pocket Fisherman.

The original Autofisher was housed in a wooden box that formed the base for a metal structure. The triggering mechanism was a mercury switch, which interacted with circuits involving 19 AA batteries to set off a spring ram-and-lever system.

Strange showed me his original and latest versions late last month. He began work on the original (above), an idea inspired by ice fishing at the Mazonia lakes, in 2005 and built it in 2006.

His mentor was Tim Wilhelm — ‘‘best teacher I ever had’’ — an instructor at Kankakee Community College.

‘‘It was during one of these courses that it appeared the fishing-machine idea hit him,’’ Wilhelm said. ‘‘If I recall correctly, he was trying to apply some of what he’d learned in class. .  .  . John always showed a sincere curiosity and a creative nature. He also is quite diligent. It seems like it had to have been about 10 years ago when he first shared his idea with me.’’

The original model was crude on many levels. It was built on a tip principle. If the fish pulled hard enough to take the rod past a tipping point, the hook-set was triggered.

‘‘A Rube Goldberg thing, 12 different processes to make it work, more mechanical than electrical,’’ Strange said, correctly noting it was ‘‘overly complicated.’’

The newer model, the one I can’t show, was started in 2008 and built in two weeks. It is more effective and is triggered on two levels. There’s the original tip, and there’s a trigger where a pull on the fishing line triggers the hook-set.

It works wonderfully (17-for-36 on the day he showed me), even with the light-biting catfish so prevalent at Braidwood.

I was fascinated enough to do this story. Strange doesn’t have patents yet — he would like some help with that — and often lost me with his technical explanations. As my wife readily will attest, I have zero mechanical aptitude. Strange, an industrial-maintenance technician at the Kmart Distribution Center in Manteno, does have mechanical sense. And perseverance.

‘‘You have to start someplace,’’ he said. ‘‘That is why they call it R&D [research and development].’’

For more information about Strange and his Autofisher, go to

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