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Bass Crash Course: How to Use Forward-Facing Fishing Sonar

This revolutionary tech gives anglers a real-time look at the underwater world around them.

The newest sonar technology, and the one receiving all the hype the past few years, is live, forward-facing sonar (FFS). Indeed, many of the major bass tournaments in the past five years have been won, at least in part, thanks to FFS. However, this technology has proven extremely useful in searching for any species of game fish.

"Live" sonar means you can watch the fish in real time as they swim and interact within the water column. You can see how they move in and around cover and you can even observe how the fish react to your lure. Because it’s a "live" view, FFS doesn’t record or display history on the screen, so think of it as watching the underwater world on a live television feed.

How it Works

The image on the display screen is "stitched" together from an array of aligned sonar signals emitting from the transducer mounted to the trolling motor shaft or to an independent shaft at the front of the boat. The range of coverage of these sonar beams is roughly 20 degrees wide, with some slight variance by manufacturer. As you rotate the trolling motor shaft and transducer, anything that falls within range of the 20-degree signal is shown on the display screen almost as it would appear in the water. Underwater trees, bridge pilings, buoy cables, ladders on boat docks, etc. are all plainly evident on the display screen.

The most fascinating feature of live sonar is that fish are clearly seen moving in the water column, and the fishing lure, if presented within that 20-degree sonar signal, will be easily recognized. An angler can now determine how a fish responds to a lure or a particular presentation by observing how the fish interacts with the lure as it is worked through the water.

The display screen is oriented differently than with other sonar technologies in that live sonar reads left to right, with the signal originating from the transducer displayed in the top left corner of the display screen. The right side of the screen shows the distance farthest from the transducer, and the sonar array reads the entire water column out to whatever distance you’re scanning. Distance from the transducer is measured across the top of the screen and depth is measured along the left side of the screen, which allows a precise understanding of how far and how deep an object is located from the transducer.

It can be a little disorienting at first to understand that the transducer may be pointed 90 degrees to the left side of the boat, yet the screen still reads left to right, making an object 50 feet out to the left side of the boat still appear on the right side of the display screen.

If the transducer is mounted to the trolling motor shaft, it is oriented to be in line with the direction of the trolling motor. Therefore, pivoting the shaft allows the angler to scan in search of cover, bait and fish. The weakness of this mounting position becomes evident when fishing in a strong breeze, as the angler must direct the trolling motor into the wind to maintain boat control, so the field of view is also limited to this forward position. For this reason, some anglers have opted to mount the live transducer to a separate shaft that can rotate and scan independently from the trolling motor.

Larger fish will be recognized as vertical lines at distances of 50 feet or greater, though fish closer to the transducer will often reveal how the fish is oriented in the water. Schools of baitfish appear as dense clouds on screen, and larger game fish can often be seen slashing through these bait balls as they feed on the schools of shad.

Implementation

Live sonar has provided access to a population of suspended gamefish that were previously inaccessible to conventional sonar and fishing techniques. Anglers have always known that bass and other gamefish suspend high in the water column to follow balls of shad at certain times, yet it was very inefficient to attempt to target these fish due to their tendency to stay on the move. A common tactic now with forward-facing sonar is to idle across these bait balls and suspended fish with 2D, down-imaging or side-imaging sonar, then move to the front deck and target specific fish with live, forward-facing sonar as they follow the bait balls. As fish move up, down or laterally within the water column, the angler can adjust lures and techniques accordingly to present the lure directly in front of the fish’s nose well ahead of the boat.


One eye-opening revelation provided by live sonar is how often gamefish like bass refuse a lure offering. It can be mesmerizing to watch the lure approach the targeted fish, yet often frustrating to see them follow or simply pay no attention to it, even when presented directly in front or above them.

When targeting specific fish with live sonar, it can be a challenge to get a lure within the 20-degree range of the sonar signal, especially if the target is not directly in front of the boat. Some lures don’t reflect the signal as well as others, making them hard to spot at distances of 50 to 60 feet away.

The transducer of a live, forward-sonar system can be oriented to point forward, downward or in landscape mode, which provides an overhead view as though you were looking down into the water column.

Recommended


If you’re considering live sonar, keep in mind that it’s not a magic cure-all for catching bass or any other species. Live sonar makes an angler considerably more efficient in lure presentation, allowing him to recognize if the lure has landed short of a distant rock or brush pile as he watches the lure descend onscreen. It’s also a great educational tool for understanding how fish move and interact with nearby cover or how they respond to a lure at various speeds and depths.

I think live sonar is a tremendous tool for the advanced or beginner angler, as it greatly improves casting efficiency, allows you to target previously inaccessible groups of fish and gives greater enjoyment of a day on the water. And that’s really what it’s all about.

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