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Fishing guide finds sunken car in Perry using real-time sonar with Kansas roots

Josh Rouse
Topeka Capital-Journal
Members of the Overland Park Police Department and Kansas Wildlife Rangers watch on Feb. 3 as a car is pulled out of Perry Reservoir in Jefferson County.
  • Lawrence crappie guide finds sunken car in Perry Reservoir
  • Live sonar technology used to find car made by Kansas-based company, Garmin
  • Despite similar appearance, the vehicle didn't belong to Randy Leach, a missing person from 1980s

Professional crappie angler and guide Joe Bragg, of Lawrence, has a knack for seeing things others don't. 

But when he left for Perry Reservoir on Feb. 3 to spend some personal time out on the water, the Army veteran never could have guessed what he'd spot on his high-tech electronics in the frigid waters below his boat.

Bragg, who owns and operates Thump30 Guide Service, was shocked when he looked at his fish finder and saw what appeared to be a car sitting on the lake bed in 22 feet of water near the Devil's Gap Boat Ramp at Slough Creek.

"I've got a couple spots that I fish in there and I was up there catching a few fish, just kinda goofing off," Bragg told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "It was a day I had off, so it's not often I get to go out by myself and just goof around. Went out there for a few and, yeah, I was sitting there fishing one of my brushpiles and I was packing up to head in and I was like, 'Well, I'll troll down the rest of this bank and see if anything new is here.' "

When he saw the sunken vehicle on the screen, he almost didn't believe his eyes.

"I had to do a double take," Bragg said. "I was like, 'Dang, that looks like a car. Holy ****, that's a car!' "

Bragg's discovery, a video of which he posted on his Facebook page, spurred memories of a mysterious disappearance dating back to 1988, with some speculation the vehicle may have belonged to Randy Leach, a 17-year-old who vanished with his mother's car in April of that year.

Unfortunately, the disappearance, which made national headlines, remains unsolved. The vehicle that was recovered at Perry wasn't the 1985 Dodge 600 4-door sedan driven by Leach, but instead a 1980s Oldsmobile Cutlass.

However, the discovery of this vehicle is a mystery in itself.

"It was weird. They said it was in drive, the keys were in the ignition," Bragg said. "Where that road is, that's a sketchy piece of road. If you get off of that pavement even just a little bit, it's over. You're going in the lake."

Bragg said the authorities didn't find a body in the vehicle, which had a window down when they pulled it out. They wanted to open the trunk, but couldn't get it open on scene. They also couldn't immediately identify who the vehicle belonged to, he said.

"Well I guess after 10 years it falls out of the system," Bragg said, "because they could tell it was a Shawnee County tag and it was last registered in 1995, but they said after 10 years it falls out of the system and they don't track it."

Bragg said he'd seen sunken boats and house foundations on the sonar before, but never a car. He marked the spot with a buoy so the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism could find it the following day. Eventually, the vehicle was pulled ashore, but it wasn't an easy task.

"It took 'em a few times," Bragg said.

Nadia Reimer, chief of public affairs for the KDWPT, said experienced outdoorsmen like Bragg are among the agency's best resources for uncovering sunken vehicles and helping to find missing persons.

“In addition to our law enforcement officers, hunters and anglers are some of our best ‘eyes’ in the field, and as technology advances, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more ‘discoveries’ and reports such as this,” Reimer said. “If you’re outdoors and notice something that seems suspicious or out of the ordinary, consider calling your local game warden, or fisheries or wildlife biologist. The sooner KDWPT is aware of something, the sooner we can help.”

Another sunken car

Josh Pladies, a tournament bass angler from Topeka, had a similar incident just a few months ago at Lake Shawnee.

Pladies said he was trolling along on the southwest side of the lake when he picked up the image of a submerged car on his side imaging.

“I got excited,” Pladies told The Capital-Journal. “When the most exciting thing you see after a few hours of graphing is a few tires, it’s kind of crazy when you see the rest of the car. The gravity of what it is kind of hits, and you immediately think ‘what’s the story behind this?’ “

Sadly, we may never know, as Pladies said the authorities checked to make sure no bodies were in the vehicle before deciding to leave the car where it was.

Still, it makes for one heck of a fishing story.

Live-scanning sonar

The cutting-edge technology that Bragg used to locate the vehicle, a Garmin Panoptix LiveScope, has Kansas roots, as well.

The Garmin International Inc. headquarters is located in Olathe, and the company was founded in Lenexa, about an hour’s drive east of Perry Reservoir.

“Our products are designed for recreational fishing, but we’re certainly aware of ancillary benefits sonar technology can bring beyond recreational application,” said Carly Hysell, PR/media relations manager for Garmin. “Live-scanning sonar like Garmin’s LiveScope can not only give anglers a real-time picture of what’s swimming below the boat, but it can also identify brush, cover and other structure, too.

“While our product’s intended purpose is to help anglers find and catch more fish, this incredible technology has been used by law enforcement and search-and-rescue agencies across the world in a number of rescue and recovery efforts. In those circumstances, we’re honored that our products can be utilized as a tool to aid in their efforts.”

Bragg said he doubted he would have known the object was a vehicle if he'd been using an old-school fish finder that wasn't as detailed as the LiveScope.

"You'd have thought it was a big rock," Bragg said. "There's so many up and down that thing. And honestly, if you didn't have a real keen eye, you'd probably overlook it on your side scan, too."

Pladies was using a similar piece of technology, Humminbird's Mega Side Imaging, when he spotted the vehicle in Lake Shawnee. The device uses sonar beams on the sides of the boat rather than showing a live, pinpoint down image over one spot like the LiveScope.

“It’s really opening up fishing in ways never before thought possible,” Pladies said of the advancements in sonar technology. “It’s evening all playing fields in the bass world by helping people figure out the best stretches that have taken guys years to figure out. It’s increasing efficiency, and helping give insights into fish behavior that people never thought possible.

“It has basically turned fishing into playing video games. It’s super easy to understand and is resulting in a drastic increase in crappie and other game fish harvests.”

What to do if you find a vehicle

According to the KDWPT, both Pladies and Bragg did the right thing in immediately contacting authorities and taking note of precisely where the vehicle was.

"If an angler or boater encounters a sunken object like this, they should first call 911 so the appropriate law enforcement personnel can respond, then they should attempt to mark the location,” said Stuart Schrag, KDWPT Public Lands division director. “This can be accomplished by either marking GPS coordinates using their boat or smartphone, or by anchoring a small floatation device near the site.

"The discovering party should never attempt to recover or disturb the object, as there is potential for losing critical evidence, should the object be tied to criminal activity. We also don’t want anyone putting their own personal safety at risk.”

Bragg said he hopes his experience is something that fellow anglers will keep in the back of their minds while they're out on the water.

"If nothing else, now that we do have these high-end electronics, fishermen should make a mental note when they're fishing in an area that's close to a road, make sure you're paying attention," Bragg said.

A screen grab from Joe Bragg's Garmin Panoptix LiveScope shows a sunken vehicle in 22 feet of water at Perry Reservoir on Feb. 3.

PERSONAL NOTE

Thank you all so much for your kind words regarding my grandfather, Sonny Swader, after last week's column. Sadly, he died on Wednesday, exactly one year and five days after his wife and my grandma, Bonnie Swader. He has instilled in me a love for the outdoors that will stay with me forever. Thank you for the memories, Grandpa!