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Tweak Your Sonar For Crappie Fishing

Tweak Your Sonar For Crappie Fishing
Tournament angler Todd Huckabee changes a few factory settings when he gets a new unit. Auto depth range and grayline are the first to go. Photo by Brad Wiegmann.

Finding big schools of large crappie early in the year can be challenging for any angler. The key to cutting down time spent fishing unproductive water is using your sonar units to find where these crappie are. Once located, you can see how they are positioned on cover or structure and catch them.

Crappie fishing guide and successful professional crappie tournament angler Todd Huckabee begins looking for crappie in the spring on the break lines. A break line is where the depth changes, like the edge of a creek channel.


When he gets a new unit, Huckabee right away changes a few manufacturer's settings.

"One setting on the sonar unit I will change from the factory preset on the unit is grayline," he said. "I have my sonar unit set on 80 percent."

But depending on the sonar unit you have, it may be better on a different setting.

"Normally, I won't mess with the sonar unit after its set correctly," said Huckabee.

Another setting that gets junked is the auto depth range. Huckabee will generally keep the boat in 10- to 11-feet of water in the early spring. But that can cause the sonar unit to shift screens from the 10-foot range to 20-foot range.

"It's really hard to watch the screen for crappie bouncing back and forth," said.

To fix this problem and get a better image, Huckabee switches the unit off auto depth range to the manual setting and selects the 15-foot range.

Usually, he leaves the unit on to show a full sonar screen without any other windows opened. True sonar shows more detail in that mode. He also likes having a colored sonar unit because it's a little easier to see.


"In brush piles you can see the number of fish in it," said Huckabee.


Professional crappie tournament angler Dan Dannenmueller relies on his sonar unit especially in the spring to find schools of crappie staging up before moving to the bank to spawn.

"I idle around with my sonar unit on in productive looking feeder creeks or coves looking for underwater brush piles, stump fields, or schools of shad with crappie around them," Dannenmueller said. "My sonar unit with down-imaging allows me to see exactly what's underneath me and how the crappie are positioned on cover or bait."

Dannenmueller looks for a distinct footprint that schools of crappie leave on his sonar.

"You can't guarantee that its crappie showing up on the sonar screen, but crappie make a distinct footprint compared to a catfish or other fish," he said. A "footprint" will appear as multiple bright white images around cover or structure. Often these schools of crappie will be relating to cover, structure, or nomadic schools of shad.

When idling, Dannenmueller will have three separate windows showing on his sonar unit's screen.

"I like to have the down-image screen in the upper left-hand corner, color sonar on the bottom left-hand corner, and side imaging on the right-hand side. This allows me to see everything off to the sides and straight down in one glance," said Dannenmueller who is the 2011 Crappie Masters AOY angler.

Humminbird calls the features Down Imaging and Side Imaging. Lowrance calls their version DownScan and SideScan.

Side imaging, or SideScan, helps find fish around boat docks, in standing timber, or around brush piles even when you are not over them. The benefits are tremendous. For example, before side imaging, anglers could only assume that certain docks had brush piles under them. Now, anglers can turn on their sonar with side imaging and check every dock in a cove and find the one most likely to hold fish.


The Master AOY angler has three presets that he uses when crappie fishing:

  • When he is driving around on plane, his sonar unit will be full screen color sonar. That's because his transducer for the side imaging and down imaging is out of the water so no signal can be seen in that feature.
  • When searching for crappie, Dannemueller will switch the unit to show only side imaging, ranging out to 160 feet.
  • Once Dannenmueller has found a school of crappie, he'll switch over to a split screen between down-imaging and colored sonar. "The larger cone of sonar helps me see more, but down imaging will show me exactly what depth the crappie are at," said Dannenmueller.


Sonar units come in a variety of models that may include color, side imaging, down imaging and GPS. All of these features can help you catch fish, but the GPS is vital for finding break lines on lakes you have never been before.

Both Huckabee and Dannenmueller agree that sonar units are the key to their angling success.

"It's the only reason I am catching so many crappie," said Huckabee. "You can see them suspended on the break line, cast a lure and be successful catching them."

Another key to catching more crappie by utilizing your sonar unit begins with studying the manual that came with it.

If you don't like reading manuals some sonar unit manufactures have online product simulator or built in emulator to learn how to operate the sonar functions. And there's always

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