March 08, 2023
By Dr. Jason A. Halfen
Live sonar—which provides anglers with a real-time tool to find structure, locate fish, and even monitor their behavior as they interact with lures—is dramatically altering the way in which both recreational and professional anglers practice their craft. This technological marvel can be directed beneath the boat, broadcast in a wedge in any direction, and even directed forward of the boat’s position to monitor a retrieved lure and any fish swimming in the live sonar beam’s path.
Live sonar images from all three major marine electronics manufacturers—Humminbird, Garmin and Lowrance—reveal structure, lure motion, and fish behavior in remarkable detail. This powerful tool allows anglers to readily distinguish between walleyes and crappies, or bass and bluegills, and impart strike-triggering lure actions when a fish is spotted chasing a bait.
Without a doubt, anglers equipped with live sonar have the technological upper hand, making it possible for them to catch more fish, in a much more targeted way, than ever before. But is this new, modern advantage in our angling toolbox truly a win-win proposition?
Professional angler Jeff "Gussy" Gustafson, a Bassmaster Elite Series champion and Kenora, Ontario-based smallmouth bass whisperer, knows how to leverage modern technology to put fish in the boat and glittering trophies on his mantle.
By combining the strengths of advanced LakeMaster digital cartography, Humminbird Side Imaging, and the Spot Lock feature on his Minn Kota trolling motor, Gustafson continues to sack up winning bags of bass both north and south of the international border. Now, after a couple of tournament seasons with Humminbird’s MEGA Live at his disposal, Gustafson shares some of his thoughts on live sonar’s impacts on sportfishing.
“I fished on the Elite Series for a couple of years when a large number of anglers had access to forward-facing live sonar from Garmin,” says Gustafson. “At that point, I really didn’t know what I was missing. My first experience fishing with this technology was during the 2021 Bassmaster Classic, when Humminbird mounted some of the first MEGA Live units on our boats to use during the rest of the season.”
Gustafson continues, “Now that I’ve spent extensive time with forward-facing sonar—during competitions, while guiding, or just fishing for fun—I would rank it as the most important advancement in fishing technology we’ve seen, period. It’s simply going to help you catch a bunch of extra fish out there every day. MEGA Live is by far the most important piece of equipment on my boat.”
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If you watch enough live tournament coverage on television or read enough post-event press releases, you will certainly hear touring pros describe—often in glowing terms—how forward-facing sonar has helped them to catch more and bigger fish, which ultimately leads to more wins and checks cashed. A skeptic might be inclined to dismiss some of that chatter as hyperbole, but that would be a mistake. Spend any time at all with live sonar on your boat, and you’ll soon find yourself transfixed on the imagery, the likes of which seemed unimaginable only a couple of years ago.
Pull up to a brush pile 50 feet off the bow and start counting individual sticks. Watch crappies swarm the brush in real time, swimming into it, out from it, and all around it as you tie up a jig.
Cast into the school and watch fish react to the bait. Pull the jig away from a couple of smaller fish and position it in plain view of a supersized slab. Watch him eat, set the hook, and chuckle as you reel him in.
This happens every day, every hour, perhaps every minute when live, forward-facing sonar is part of your repertoire.
Gustafson says, “Outside of fishing extremely shallow, where you can probably use your eyes, forward-facing sonar is going to help you in virtually every fishing situation. I use MEGA Live not only for seeing fish, but I also shine it around constantly, using it to spot boulders that are likely places to pluck a smallmouth. If I see a boulder, I might just pitch a Ned rig over to it—and if there is a smallmouth on it, I’m probably going to catch it. It’s just that easy.”
Gustafson scans the bottom in real time, but he also uses his live, forward-facing sonar for other applications. “Obviously, live sonar works great for shining any kind of bottom structure to see if it’s holding fish—where they are, how high off the bottom they’re holding, and how they are relating to the cover. As someone who really likes to fish deep offshore, I love live sonar for vertical presentations—but even then, I’m constantly shining the sonar beam around looking for fish or cover to cast toward. Live sonar truly makes almost every other sonar method obsolete.”
Technological advances are no stranger to the sport of fishing. Whether it’s a sonar tool like side imaging, a boat positioning feature such as GPS lock or a shallow-water anchor, or even a powerfully scented artificial lure, anglers are eager to embrace virtually anything that puts more fish in the boat—and live sonar is no exception. With that being said, it is important to recognize the potential impacts that live, forward-facing sonar may have on some of your favorite fisheries. While this all sounds great, there is a potential downside to live sonar.
“Live sonar has the potential to have a negative influence on some fisheries because it simply makes it so easy to find and catch fish in many situations,” Gustafson says. “For example, when schooling fish like crappies get out in main lake basins, those giant schools are just so easy to find and then follow around, picking off fish virtually all day long. And it’s not just crappies, but really anything like bass, walleyes and even muskies.”
Naturally, Gustafson is a conservationist, concerned about the health of fisheries. “We all need to do our part to avoid exploiting the fish so much that we’re hurting the populations,” he notes. “Be aware of how deep you are fishing, keep a few to eat, and let the rest go. Give the school you’re chasing a break after an hour or two and go find another school instead. Believe me, it won’t take too long.”
Rest assured, live sonar technology is here to stay. Anglers should embrace both the positive impact that it can have on their daily catch rate, and the resource stewardship role that all anglers must play to ensure sustainable fisheries for the future.