Why Live Sonar is Such a Heated Controversy

Why Live Sonar is Such a Heated Controversy

Any fisherman who isn’t still being carded for adult beverages can likely remember more than a few controversies with fishing technology. Way back, it was flashers, then GPS, then mapping, and then side imaging. Each of these advances had critics claim that it would ruin fishing or it was too expensive for the average angler to afford.

Fast-forward a few years, we have arguably better fisheries than ever and technology pricing always seems to level out with the number of sold units and increased competition. But the latest technology controversy with live sonar, also referred to as forward-facing sonar, just seems to be hitting a little different.

For those who don’t even know what it is, think of it as a three-dimensional underwater radar. A good description I heard was it’s like if you took an old school flasher and made it directional with a large screen. You can see fish in real-time with enough definition that you can make out the difference between the head and the tail. When placed in “forward facing” mode, you can scan a narrow width in any direction to easily see both fish and your lure at distances exceeding a hundred-plus feet in front of you.

To add to the controversy, this technology has been dominating everything from the biggest bass tournaments to almost all of the crappie tournaments across the country. Here are some of the main factors that have made this arguably the most talked about tactic in the history of fishing.


The cost of participating in outdoor sports has been steadily climbing over the last decade or so. Big ticket items such as boats, motors, fuel, and general equipment have jumped substantially. In fishing, there have always been two distinct camps when it comes to new technology and cost: the group that just keeps it simple and the group that will spend whatever it takes to catch more fish.

A lot of the chatter I hear about how expensive live sonar really seems kind of silly. Assuming you already have a somewhat newer unit, you just need to add the “magic” transducer that runs roughly $1,500, depending on the manufacturer. For the group that just enjoys fishing and does it casually, I doubt this is even a consideration. It’s likely they don’t have the sonar head unit required to run this technology to begin with. So, as good as it is, if you didn’t own the previous “best” technology, is it even a controversy to begin with?

Where it gets a little sticky is with competitive fishing, specifically tournaments. The main gripe is that this technology is so advantageous that if you don’t have it, you can’t compete. At the risk of calling me a hoity-toity fisherman, this also is kind of a weak argument. Professional contractors and mechanics alike get the best and most recent available tools to be both competitive and current, and I think fishing is the same if you are doing it for competition.

Anglers that have expensive boats that get a couple of miles to the gallon with big screen sonar units all over the place, all while throwing twenty-five-dollar jerk baits on a $500 rod and reel, aren’t going to shy away from this relatively small additional cost in the big picture. Truth be told, this additional expense won’t be the thing that makes-or-breaks if you can afford to compete. A portion of the population owns sports cars that most of us couldn’t even afford insurance or maintenance on, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be manufactured or offered to those who want them.


This is the area that is even more heated amongst anglers. The average age of newly qualified anglers for the Bassmaster Elite series is in their twenties. This number is significantly lower than in the past, by decades, as in plural. Most of this can be attributed to the use of live sonar and the fact that young anglers have adopted, embraced, and excelled with this technology significantly more than many of the old guard.

It’s hard to go on social media or YouTube without seeing at least a couple of videos from tournament anglers or those looking for clicks, taking a hard stance on one side or another. Generally speaking, the younger generation wants it because they cannot only compete immediately with more veteran anglers, but they can beat them.

Overall, I’d say the older generation is against it in tournaments. Some veteran anglers have come out and said that it’s because it is boring to watch on TV and will affect the ratings. My personal opinion is that a lot of that has more to do with how a ban on the technology would allow them to restore their advantage. As a full-time professional angler, myself—who is most likely now considered one of the old guys—I get their gripe.

A large part of fishing is about the intuition and experience that helps you make quick and hard decisions throughout the day. Live sonar has eliminated a lot of the guesswork, as you can literally see the fish swimming around, where they are located, and how they react to your bait. The argument about having guys motoring around the lake with their heads glued to a fish finder and basically playing an adult video game is valid but very subjective.

Fisheries Impact

Those of us who could care less about a bunch of tournament fisherman in their NASCAR-inspired shirts running all over the lake might appreciate the third and arguably the most controversial and important aspect of this technology.

One thing that would be hard to argue is that this technology will catch more fish. In fishing scenarios such as crappies holed up in deep basins, it has been very controversial, and for a good reason.

In the winter, crappies go into the deep basins of these inland lakes and can be incredibly difficult to find and even more difficult to stay on. Once you get on them, they typically can be caught very easily. After catching a few, they quickly disperse. Ice fishing anglers are literally chasing these schools of crappies around the lake and catching them all day now with live sonar as compared to very short catching periods in the past.

This same basic scenario can be found on many lakes with panfish on the beds as well. The unknown is whether these fisheries can sustain such an inflated catch rate. Another concern, even with catch and release being practiced, is what the mortality rate is with catching deep fish that may not survive after release.

The current conclusion is we don’t know what the long-term impact this technology will have on our fisheries, but most can agree it is something that needs to be monitored closely. As more and more people use and get better with the technology, it is very likely that limits and regulations will have to be adjusted to compensate.

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