Tony Sebastiano puts together a "Catch Counter," a device he invented that mounts on top of a cooler and counts fish as they are put into it, in his home workshop in Port Clinton on Sept. 1. The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
PORT CLINTON – Tony Sebastiano had a cooler full of yellow perch, the coveted filet mignon of Lake Erie, but he was frustrated, discouraged, embarrassed, and angry with himself.
The life-long Lake Erie fisherman had just returned from a productive outing in the waters off Kelleys Island, and during a customary check by a wildlife officer near the state boat launch at Marblehead, Sebastiano discovered to his shock and dismay his count was off. And it was off in the wrong direction.
The daily limit was 30 fish, and he had 33.
VIDEO: Catch Counter helps anglers
“It was one of those crazy days where the fish started biting and I had them going on two different poles at the same time,” he said. “I was reaching over and opening the cooler with my foot to put fish in, and using a hand clicker to keep count. When the game warden counted them and told me I was over the limit, I said to myself, ‘That’s never going to happen again.’ ”
And it hasn’t.
He had learned a tough lesson, and an expensive lesson with the $80 fine, but anyone who has fished for yellow perch on the big lake, or other higher-quota fish such as blue gill or crappie, has experienced the same fuzzy math. When the fishing is good and the action gets hectic, the count seems to suffer by a couple, up or down.
The retired head of the plumbing shop at Cedar Point went home to his garage workshop and started creating the fishing equivalent of a better mouse trap — a simple, practical device that would keep a precise count of his fish, and let Sebastiano concentrate on the fishing.
“I looked online and there was really nothing out there, so I figured there has to be a better way to do this,” he said.
In less than a week of tinkering, a determined Sebastiano had a working model of a device to count his fish. It involved a chute to send the fish into a cooler, and a flap inside the chute with a counter attached. Each time a fish tripped the flap, the counter advanced.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of mechanical stuff all of my career, and I’ve found that the simpler something is, the less chance you’ll have for breakdowns and problems,” he said. “I wanted to create something that did the job, but without batteries or electricity.”
Sebastiano mounted his counter on his fish cooler, and soon was back out on the lake catching perch. When he returned to the docks in downtown Port Clinton, a tackle shop owner inquired about the funny-looking gadget attached to the top of the fish cooler.
“Once I explained it to him, he said ‘I’ll take 12.’ A week later, he had sold all of those and he wanted a dozen more,” Sebastiano said. “But I didn’t make that first device with any intention of turning this into a business or anything like that.”
Since that prototype was made out of aluminum sheeting and held together with rivets, it involved a lot of labor. Sebastiano looked through one of his plumbing parts catalogs and located a commercial PVC drain pipe fitting that would replace some of the sheet metal. On eBay, he found a pallet load of excess counters at a Chicago facility, and out of necessity, innovation, and the skills of an experienced plumber with a knack for making things work, a product called Catch Counter was born.
Word spread through the area fishing community, and soon bait shops in Ohio and Michigan were selling Sebastiano’s Catch Counter. Then a call came in from Maumee-based tackle supplier Netcraft, whose catalog and website connects with anglers across the globe.
“I didn’t want to advertise — I can’t make them fast enough as it is,” said Sebastiano, who has sold several thousand of the units.
The original version proved ideal for Lake Erie perch, and now, after some tinkering and minor adjustments and a pending patent, an improved “BigMouth” version is now available with a wider throat that handles perch and bluegills fine, and is better suited for crappie.
“First and foremost, it works,” said Netcraft owner Bob Barnhart, who is approached regularly with the latest and greatest fishing gadgets, lures and tackle. “There are other options on the market, but none of them works like this does. It has simplicity on its side, but there is also complexity in putting it together in such a precise manner that it does exactly what it is supposed to do.”
Barnhart said although the Catch Counter, which retails for around $48, has primarily a regional and seasonal market, he sees it gaining traction with fishermen in the Great Lakes area.
“It is ultra-specialized, but if it saves you one ticket for going over your limit, then it more than pays for itself,” he said. “And who hasn’t put fish in a cooler, and then asked ‘How many fish do we have?’ Invariably, you end up dumping them out and counting them two or three times. If you end up one or two fish over the limit, that can make a good day turn into a bad day. I recommend the Catch Counter to everyone, and I own one myself.”
Sebastiano offers the Catch Counter units separately, or mounted on five-gallon white buckets, or on insulated 48-quart coolers. Devils Lake bluegill impresario John Zuelke saw the Catch Counter at a bait shop, was intrigued enough to buy one, then mounted it on top of his cooler. He hasn’t had an incorrect count on the 25 fish daily limit since.
For Sebastiano, a 63-year-old Port Clinton native whose grandfather was a commercial fisherman on Lake Erie, business is brisk. Perch fishermen on Ontario’s legendary Lake Simcoe are ordering the device, and oyster farmers in Florida have found it works well for them.
With his 5-year-old labradoodle Bella only able to offer highly-energized encouragement, Sebastiano still is the chief of design, head of marketing, sales manager, lead fabricator, and the guy who sweeps the floor.
“It’s gotten to the point where I can hardly go fishing anymore,” he said.