Remember those old ads in your daily newspaper, Boys Life, or the back of those certain–ahem–men’s magazines imploring you to buy a special lure you’ve never heard of? “Better than live bait!” they cried, or even the more hyperbolic “Already banned in six states!”
That’s the same kind of hype we’re hearing about forward-facing sonar these days and it’s amplified by the megaphone of social media. “It should be banned!” one corner screams. “It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” the other side yells back.
Somewhere in between there’s a voice of reason stating that it’s a valuable tool, but only if you know how to use it. And no, it’s not better than chartreuse dynamite. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll reveal that I have a Livescope system on my new boat and my results are mixed. It’s helped me find and catch some fish, but it’s also given me a neck ache from staring too long at the screen when I should have been casting to breaking fish.
Yes, forward-facing sonar can be a valuable tool if used properly and judiciously, but according to two veteran pros the whole argument kind of misses the point. When using it you effectively have a scalpel in your hand, a tool for excising whatever mass you’ve spent countless hours trying to find. The heavy lifting gets done by chainsaws and the like. Sure you can fell a redwood with that same surgical scalpel, but it’s going to take you a hell of a lot more time than with something with more power.
Veteran Louisiana pro, Clark Reehm puts it more succinctly in fishing terms: “Everybody wants to find that needle in a haystack,” he said. “But how big is a bass? A 4-pounder might be 20 inches long. You go to a new lake and there are a lot of acres of water to hide that 20 inches of fish. The goal of technology is to eliminate dead water. The broadest technology is your mapping, which tells you where to go. If you don’t know where to stop the boat, everything else is a waste of time. Now in the field, side-imaging helps you find the haystack. Two-dimensional sonar and down-imaging help you go over the haystack to find the needle. Then forward-looking sonar helps you thread that needle.”
The biggest leap, therefore, is from mapping to side-imaging, with side-imaging making the big chainsaw-like cuts, eliminating acres upon acres of water via simple idling.
Texas pro, Keith Combs is a big fan of forward-facing sonar and nevertheless agrees with Reehm: “You can forward face all you want in a bad area and you won’t catch anything.”
Combs went through a period of his career from 2012 to 2016 when he won multiple tournaments across multiple circuits, with numerous six-figure paychecks, and it’s no coincidence that such domination coincided with the rise of side-imaging sonar. He got it on an early version of Humminbird’s technology and rode it to the bank.
“I remember getting it and from the first time I saw it I knew that going forward you wouldn’t be able to compete if you didn’t have it,” he said. “There were guys sponsored by other brands (of sonar) who bought them out of their own pocket and had them hidden under the dash.” He spent hundreds of hours behind the steering wheel of his boat looking for haystacks and needles and finding plenty of both. “The light bulb really went off for me at a tournament at Lake Texoma. It’s a place with very little cover, so if you find anything off the bank it tends to hold fish, and that’s critical. I didn’t win, but I led (I think I ended up second or third) and every fish I caught came via side-imaging.”
But while today’s units—whether you use Lowrance like Reehm, Humminbird like Combs, or Garmin—are more or less “set it and forget it,” you need to abide by certain basic rules if you want to get the most out of your technology. Reehm, who teaches sonar classes between tournaments, said that “everyone thinks that they need the latest and greatest, but if you don’t know how to use what you’ve already got, what makes you think that newer technology will help you?” He said that anyone from the average weekend angler to the tour-level pro will get more out of dialing in their side-imaging than they will from any other effort. He and Combs agree on certain basic principles.
The first is that you need to spend more time looking at a screen and less with a rod in your hand—at least when you’re scouting. Combs once drove 1,100 miles from his Texas home to Michigan, graphed for four days without opening his rod locker, and went home to prepare for a tournament a month hence. The fish would be changed by the time the derby started, but lake’s structural elements would not. Reehm said that even during the two and a half days of official practice preceding one of his major events, if he knows that it’s likely to be won offshore, he’ll spend 80% to 90% of the time looking at the graph, without a rod in his hand.
“When people play golf, they know that they can’t hit a hole in one if they don’t know where the hole is,” he said. “Along those same lines, if you don’t know where the hoop is located you can’t make a basket. I’m just trying to find the hoop.”
The second step is to spend time learning what you’re looking at. Go over structure and cover that you’re intimately aware of and see what it looks like, then take that knowledge to new places.
In just over a decade, the technology has advanced to the point that it’s easy to tell not only that a bright spot is a fish, but actually what type or size of fish, but you cannot discern those differences until you have a frame of reference.
Next, aspiring side-imaging acolytes will want to figure out how to find the true needles—not just the haystacks. Reehm said that starts by looking for “textures.” It could be the pits in a clay bottom or the uneven surface of a rockpile. How do they look above the water? How does that translate into what you see on your screen?
Combs likes Humminbird’s amber and blue patterns, which he said enable him to see structure, fish, and also shadows. Unlike Reehm, he makes constant adjustments to sensitivity, contrast, and sharpness throughout the day. “I think a lot of people want to know what you set yours at and forget it,” he said. “But to get the most out of it you need to pay attention and make small adjustments until you get to the point where you can tell something is a fish before you even fish for them. That’s money.” He said that his range is typically 70 to 100 feet, and that he can use it in water as shallow as 2 feet deep. It doesn’t do well in the middle of thick vegetation but when set properly, it’s deadly for finding the edges of the grass.
Finally, you need to experiment with settings to figure out what works best for you, at the depths you fish, and in the conditions that you face.
Reehm said that on his units, “the default is as good as you will find. The only thing I tweak is my range, because if you start tweaking other things, then you constantly have to make adjustments. In water less than 15 feet deep, he’ll set his range at 120 to 140 feet. At water from 6 to 15 feet deep, he’ll keep it at 100 feet. In between 15 and 20 he’ll mix it up. He prefers Lowrance’s grayscale palette for maximum visibility at maximum range.
Both pros also stressed that to get the maximum clarity and accuracy, transducer placement and leveling is critical. Combs tried to rig them on the jackplate to the side but found it was easy to get damaged. Rigged along the centerline on Humminbird’s bracket, “if you hit a stump or something you’ll slide off to the side versus going down the ‘V,’ and that way you won’t hurt it.”
Reehm added that “clean power” is also critical to propagating proper pixels. “Lots of older boats use smaller gauge wire,” he said. “And that can be OK, but if you want to maximize image quality and get a really clear picture, you needed dedicated heavy gauge wiring.” Some anglers now run a separate battery with heavy gauge wiring just for electronics. Even if that’s not feasible given your budget or space limitations, make sure that your wire is sufficiently sturdy and uncompromised.
Regardless of whether forward-facing sonar is ethical or fair in competition, or likely to get banned (hint: it won’t be) the fact is that the playing field has changed. The electronics that were top of the line a decade ago, are now substantially less expensive and possibly more powerful. “Everybody can find a brushpile now,” Reehm said. “I’m trying to find the pitchfork off to the side, or the isolated scarecrow way out there.”
That requires lots of idling, covering not just acres but miles of water, finding little dots, and understanding what they are. That gets you to the point of needing the “scalpel.”
“The old saying is that 90% of the fish are in 10% of the water,” Reehm concluded. “But when you really start using your electronics properly you realize that it’s far less than 10%.”