August 17, 2023
Forward-facing sonar (FFS) is rapidly becoming an important fishing tool for thousands of bass and walleye anglers across the Midwest. Despite the high cost of entry—$2,500 at the absolute minimum—tournament anglers, guides and avid weekenders are lining up to buy the equipment that turns their sonar units into fish-hunting machines on a scale not seen since the invention of the original "flasher" sonar.
The steerable transducers of FFS—mounted either on the bow trolling motor shaft or a dedicated pod—allow for pinpointing fish at ranges out to 100 feet or so in real time. The units are so sensitive they can “see” lures as small as a 1/8-ounce jig. This permits anglers to guide baits precisely to just the right spot to draw a strike—even from individual fish.
Some anglers have become so adept at this process that they can tell large fish from small ones on screen. Many of these folks have become "lunker hunters," scanning the depths for giant largemouths, smallmouths or walleyes before they ever make a cast.
There are some absolute essentials needed to get started. First is an FFS-capable monitor, which is included with the systems offered by Humminbird, Garmin and Lowrance. The second necessity is the steerable transducer, which comes with a shaft mount. Most anglers place this on the trolling motor shaft. However, because this forces the system to "look" only in the direction the motor is pointed, some prefer a dedicated pivoting shaft that is raised and lowered separately from the troller. Third on the list of essentials is the forward-scan "brain" or black box, which converts the signal from the transducer to something the monitor can display in intelligible fashion.
You can get into the game with a minimal 9-inch screen, but most anglers spend close to $5,000 for a 10-inch or larger monitor, FFS transducer, mounts and black box, plus the required setup. Most who use FFS systems regularly advise putting all you can afford into a larger monitor (up to 12 inches for bass and walleye boats) because the targets become so much easier to see on the larger screens.
While the process of selecting and setting up a forward-scan unit could be an entire story unto itself, here we’ll examine how to take advantage of FFS once it’s up and running.
When talking baits for fishing with forward-scan technology, there are several considerations. First, the lures must show up on screen. Some lures—a weightless plastic worm, for example—don’t register on sonar. Others, especially those with large air cavities within the body or with large lead or tungsten heads, make a bright, clear image that anglers can easily see.
Secondly, lures need to suspend or sink slowly to produce a natural presentation to mid-water fish. Fish spotted near bottom don’t require the slow sink, but lures must have a clear sonar image to be effective FFS offerings. Naturally, they should represent something the fish sees as a common prey. Shad or blueback herring imitations often work for largemouths and spotted bass, whereas gobies or similar targets shine for smallmouths. For walleyes, the usual yellow perch, cisco, threadfin and leech imitations do the job.
The most common lures used for forward-scan action are suspending jerkbaits, lightly weighted swimbaits and drop-shot setups with soft plastics. Some anglers use countdown-type minnow imitations.
Certain companies, including YUM and Big Bite Baits, are already making lures specifically for forward-scan anglers. Northland’s new series of tungsten jigs with a double keeper in 1/8- to 3/8-ounce sizes would be good options as well thanks to the high-visibility head. Add a swimbait or plastic leech to one of those, and you’re in business.
Many anglers are not waiting on the industry. They’re fine-tuning their lures to do the job by changing out hooks and adding SuspenDots or other weights to control the sink rate of various hard baits.
Your choice of soft plastic affects a jig’s sink rate, too. Conventional PVC soft plastics sink slowly, while those with salt added sink more rapidly. TPE-type plastics, like those from Z-Man, float, so they slow the sink rate of a jig considerably. Choose the right type for the fish you’re targeting—a jig/plastic combo that almost suspends where walleyes or smallies are hanging, or one that drops down quickly to largemouths in cover.
Tweaking your line choices may also be necessary with FFS. Thin fluorocarbon sinks rapidly, whereas mono and braid slow the sink rate or even reverse it. You might have a lure with great action in the right size and color to match the hatch, but if it won’t get down to where the fish are, try swapping your braid or mono for fluorocarbon to get it in the strike zone quickly.
Conversely, you can slow a lure that’s sinking too fast by fishing it on mono or braid. Or, more likely, you’d use a braided mainline with a 10- to 20-foot mono leader for both a slow sink and a relatively invisible line-tie. The slightly stiffer mono also prevents tangles common with treble-hook lures tied directly to very supple braid. Incidentally, the new D-Braid from Sunline dispels the notion that braid won’t sink. It’s denser than water and sinks readily, making it a good choice for suspending lures you want to get a bit deeper while still delivering the amazing sensitivity and power of braid.
Many anglers who never would’ve had a spinning rig in their boat now have several rigged and ready. They work best for the finesse lures sometimes required for forward-scan action.
If you’re throwing lures weighing less than 1/4 ounce, the fixed-spool reel is the ticket unless you’re very good with your baitcaster. Spinning gear not only eliminates the possibility of backlashes but also adds considerable distance when throwing fly-weight lures. A 7-foot to 7-foot 3-inch, medium-light-power spinning rod with a fast tip does the job when equipped with a 2000- or 2500-size reel.
Don’t overcast the range of your forward-facing setting, however. Most pros prefer to set the range between 60 and 100 feet and cast inside that range so they can see their lure splash down on screen, then easily follow it down to where fish are holding. An additional plus of FFS is if there’s no fish following the lure, you can crank up fast and cast again instead of wasting fishing time working it all the way back to the boat on a "dry run."
The best lure action can vary from slight twitches to sharp, darting jerks. It’s all based on what fish are "telling" you on the screen. Bass pro Jason Christie, who worked with Yum to produce the Yum FF Sonar Minnow, says the best retrieve is minimal.
"I want to drop it on their heads. When it gets above them, start popping that rod tip—just little twitches that make the jig dance,” he says. “That’s usually all it takes."
Christie also notes that sometimes, especially with lightly weighted jigs, the best retrieve is no retrieve at all. "Sometimes, when you close the bail, the fish is already on there—done deal," says Christie.
Location matters too, of course. In clear water, like that of Grand Traverse Bay, Lake St. Clair or Table Rock Lake, smallies and walleyes may travel some distance to latch onto your lure—maybe coming up 10 feet or so. In these areas, more active presentations work very well. In less clear waters, like Kentucky Lake, you may need to work a lure slowly down to within a couple feet of largemouths holding on a brush pile to draw interest.
The great thing about forward-scan fishing is that you can watch the fish on screen and adjust as needed. If fish are looking at your jerkbait but not striking, you might want to fish it faster or slower, with smaller or larger twitches. Or you might want to change colors, or perhaps switch from a cisco imitation to a perch imitation to a leech imitation until the fish say, "bingo!"
There’s no doubt that forward-facing sonar is changing the fishing game and giving an amazing advantage to anglers who can afford it when fish are in open water. It’s only going to get better as the technology is tweaked. And we can only hope that perhaps it gradually becomes a bit more affordable for all of us, too.
- Tips for targeting walleyes using forward-scan sonar
Dylan Nussbaum is a Z-Man pro (and son of company owner Daniel Nussbaum) and a forward-scan addict. He’s also a big fan of using FFS in his walleye tournament competitions across the Midwest.
"Last summer at Mille Lacs [in Minnesota], I used my Lowrance setup for hunting walleyes right along the edges of weed lines," he says. "By cruising along at a half to 1 mph on the trolling motor, I could constantly scan and see little pods of fish ahead. I’d stop, lock in place with the trolling motor and pitch a slip-bobber and leech or a jig and Scented Jerk ShadZ. I caught close to 50 walleyes in one day fishing like this." Nussbaum also scored at Lake Oahe this past year.
"I found scattered small pods of big walleyes suspended 15 feet down over 40 feet of water and pitched a 3/8-ounce jig and Jerk ShadZ and watched fish shoot up 10 to 15 feet and just crush the lure," he says. FFS also played a role when the young pro visited Lake Erie for the NWT Championship.
"Cruising along at a half-mile-per-hour, I made wide sonar scans and eventually found schools of 20 to 30 fish, all suspended 60 feet down over 80 feet of water," Nussbaum says. "I’d get one or two casts on ’em—and usually catch a fish on both casts—before the whole school would spook and vanish."
The right lures are also important. Nussbaum generally wants a lure that sinks fast enough to reach fish holding deep. However, he adds that a slower-sinking bait that hovers a bit can be easier to follow on the screen. Usually, he says, he’s more interested in watching fish react to the lure than watching the lure itself. "It’s a learning curve to see what works with forward scan," Nussbaum says. "But I wouldn’t be without it."
Lew’s American Hero Program
- The tackle-maker continues a long-standing commitment to giving back to veterans.
Avid anglers across the country know Lew’s is dedicated to designing and crafting some of the finest rods and reels available. What they may not realize is Lew’s also places unwavering emphasis on supporting American veterans. In 2013, Lew’s launched its American Hero Speed Stick rod series. The series was designed to honor military veterans and maintain the promise to never let them be forgotten.
A decade later, the Lew’s American Hero program includes more than just a product line. It embodies a commitment the brand has made to support organizations that help veterans in their return to life after their military service. The American Hero program focuses mostly on those groups that incorporate fishing as part of the transitional process. Through the program, Lew’s has provided equipment to veteran support groups including FOCUS Marines Foundation, Reel American Heroes Foundation and Operation HOOAH.
Lew’s has pledged to never forget, nor take for granted, the service of American veterans who have given unselfishly during their time of duty so that all citizens can enjoy activities in the great outdoors in our free country. With this sincere desire to help veterans, Lew’s donates a portion of its profits from the sale of every American Hero rod, reel and combo to assist programs that benefit veterans so that they, too, can experience the same enjoyment in the outdoors.
Retired Army Special Operations Sergeant Major and American Hero Ambassador Jamey Caldwell has personally witnessed the impact of the Lew’s program.
“I’ve seen veterans light up with gratitude from the donation of rods, reels and equipment from this program,” says Caldwell. “I’ve taken veterans fishing for their first time and have seen them fall in love with fishing as it allows them to escape reality. Fishing connects people to the outdoors and allows them to forget what ails them. The American Hero program gets veterans fishing.”
The American Hero product line includes a variety of casting rods and reels, spinning reels and spincasting reels, as well as casting, spinning and spincasting combos. Casting combos start at a very reasonable $99.99, with spinning and spincasting combos starting at a budget-friendly $39.99. For more information on the American Hero program, visit lews.com/en/learn/american-hero-program. — Dr. Todd A. Kuhn