August 24, 2021
Jonny Shultz was on the hunt in northwest Arkansas one crisp January morning. His quarry was elusive, even ghostlike, appearing with such randomness that many before had deemed the pursuit not worth the frustration.
Schultz, however, was equipped with a trump card that tilted the odds in his favor, and his quest ended not with the crack of gunfire, but with the bowing of a graphite rod against the surge of a 5-pound bass.
This fish was nowhere near the shoreline or the bottom contours of the lake. Instead, it and the roaming pack she was extracted from was suspended over the deepest part of the reservoir chasing schools of big gizzard shad, literally in the middle of the lake.
Schultz, an expert at finding offshore bass with sonar, offers instructional lessons to the 85,000 followers of his YouTube channel, "Fish the Moment." His ace in the hole that eventful day was the latest advancement in sonar technology that has dramatically changed the dynamics of bass fishing in the few short years since its release: forward-facing, live sonar.
In this case, the 25-year-old angler was using Garmin's Panoptix LiveScope and monitoring a screen bolted to his front deck to which a transducer mounted on his trolling motor shaft transmitted a live video feed.
The technology looks ahead in a 20-degree cone out to 200 feet while providing real-time imagery on the screen. By rotating the trolling motor, Schultz can scan ahead to determine the presence of fish, cover and depth changes, and even see his own lure on the retrieve. He was able to not only observe and follow the ball of meandering baitfish, but also the pack of 4- and 5-pound bass as it attacked the school.
These itinerant bass that live on the prowl do not relate to structure. Their only discernible reference point is the roaming food source they seek. They are fish that many anglers had previously considered uncatchable due to their unpredictable nature. There was simply no way to determine which direction the transient school was moving. Until now.
UNLOCK THE OFFSHORE BITE
John Soukup was an early adopter of forward-facing sonar and has likely logged as many hours staring into the screen of his Garmin unit as any angler in the country. Soukup is co-owner of The Bass Tank in Tulsa, Okla., specializing in the sale and installation of fishing electronics.
"I started using the first-generation Garmin Panoptix in 2017, but it had limitations," he said. "In 2018, I was one of the first in Oklahoma to get the Panoptix LiveScope installed on my boat, and it completely changed what I could see. It went from the fish appearing as blobs with the older technology to being able to clearly recognize fish, noting their approximate size, the direction they were swimming, all with minimal delay in screen response."
Much like Schultz, Soukup has found that the LiveScope technology excels at locating bass suspended offshore, recalling a win streak of three tournaments in a row on Lake Eufaula in the fall of 2018 in which he exclusively targeted offshore bass chasing shad.
"Weights in fall tournaments historically start to drop off as bass transition away from the shorelines. We've always known they start following baitfish, but we couldn't consistently stay with them before this technology," Soukup said. "During that win streak, I was able to use LiveScope to look for bait balls with hard, crisp edges, meaning they were being herded into tight schools by feeding bass. I was then able to locate nearby bass and cast to them with a spoon to catch them."
ON THE STALK
Schultz says that the unpredictable nature of these peripatetic bass often means hours of idling at the console while scanning with side- and down-imaging sonar to initially locate the shad. And even when a school of shad is found, it doesn't always mean a group of bass will be nearby.
"Once I find a group of baitfish from the console, I'll move to the front deck and watch them with the LiveScope to see if any bass are chasing them," he said. "I may watch and follow a school of shad for an hour or more, waiting on a school of bass to move in and feed. Once they do, I can immediately start casting to them, often watching the lure fall on screen and seeing the bass eat it."
Schultz acknowledges this is a time commitment that probably doesn't appeal to many anglers, but he thinks of it more as hunting the bass than simply fishing for them in the traditional manner.
Soukup adds that LiveScope sonar is not only great for targeting suspended bass, it also allows an angler to be more efficient with his time. He recalls practicing for a fall tournament last year where he dropped the LiveScope transducer into the water of a creek arm, saw abundant baitfish activity in the area and immediately started catching quality bass.
"Once the tournament rolled around the following weekend, I went back to the same area and my screen was blank—the baitfish had simply left that stretch of bank," he said. "In years past, I'd have fished that area for hours trying to relocate the bass. Instead, I fished around for about 15 minutes to confirm the bass had moved, found another stretch of bank where I could see baitfish on LiveScope and started catching fish again."
Soukup said another benefit of LiveScope is improved casting precision when fishing offshore.
"When fishing brushpiles, it's common to make several casts until actually finding the brush with the lure," he said. "With LiveScope, I can scan the area by rotating my trolling motor, find the brushpile and make the right cast to the cover every time."
With all the advantages of forward-facing sonar, Schultz adds a word of caution for any angler looking to this technology as a magic bullet.
"The biggest key for me to consistently catch bass offshore doesn't come from technology, but rather a basic understanding of bass behavior," he said. "It's critical for any angler to first understand their seasonal movements, why and how bass position on structure and cover, how they respond to different weather conditions and so forth. My electronics are important in that they act as my underwater eyes to give me more information to alter my strategy, but it's not a matter of simply turning on this technology, seeing bass and casting to them."