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Forward-Facing Sonar: Useful Fishing Tool or Unfair Advantage?

Shane Smith

I have never met an angler for any species of fish that didn’t want some sort of advantage to help them catch more fish. That advantage could come in the form of a faster boat, more rods, custom baits, power poles or now, bigger and better graphs.  

Bass boats with 3-5 graphs are the norm with multiple brands of electronics in use at the bow and console. These setups can range from $15,000-$30,000 depending on what the angler wants. It sounds crazy, but take a look at any of the professional level events, and you will see that most anglers have a minimum of three graphs these days. These professional anglers rely on the latest technology to help them best the competition and provide for themselves and their family. 

fishing with sonar


Now that forward-facing sonar has burst onto the scene, it is one of the hottest topics out there. The comments are often: 

  • It is not ethical! 
  • We will we over-harvest fish! 
  • It is unfair to those that can’t afford it!

Each of these comes with a valid point.  

Mossy Oak Store fishing gear

Every tournament circuit has certain rules regarding things to be fair such as: no engines larger than 250 HP, no using umbrella rigs, no using live bait, no information gathering, no rods over 9 feet, etc. Those are things that tournament directors would deem as giving one an unfair advantage. Will we see forward-facing sonar banned?  A restriction on the amount of graphs or size of graphs?  Who knows, but I will wager we will see something to limit them soon.  

Is it a guarantee that you will now immediately catch fish and win more money at tournaments with forward facing sonar? Not hardly.  

I mean, it is super cool that you can see your bait in real time and watch how fish respond to it. Just because you can see things moving on the screen, doesn’t mean it is a bass, nor that you will be able to make it bite. You will have to spend hundreds of hours behind the glass to learn how to interpret what you are actually seeing.

sonar screens
One of the biggest questions is about setup and installation. I highly recommend this be performed by professionals. Here in the Ark-La-Tex that would mean Jones Trolling Motor. These newer electronics are highly sophisticated and are much more than plug and play.  The guys at Jones Trolling Motor have installed over 2,200 forward facing sonar units on every type of boat imaginable. This is where you want to spend your money to get the most out of your units. They will be able to tell you the small tweaks and adjustments you will need to discern a bass from a drum.

Do I have it on my boat you ask? I do. I am currently running three Lowrance HDS 12s with the active target. For me, it is more useful to locate trees, brush and submerged cover. It has given me a ton of insight as to just how many bass look at and approach my bait without eating it - much like throwing a big glider and having huge bass follow it. If I am at home and throwing a frog or flipping shallow bushes or grass, my active target never gets turned on. But when I am at Lake Fork and searching deeper brush, I will utilize it greatly. 

One thing forward facing sonar has shown me is that those crankbaits aren’t going near as deep as I thought! I have mine set up at 80 feet, and the baits I thought were cranking down to 20 feet were more like 17. That is a game changer.  

sonar 3 screens


The biggest issue I see with anglers is what we call the “broke-neck” syndrome. They stare at their graph and do not even keep a hook in the water. It is very hard to make them jump in the boat! One thing I have learned is that fish come and go. They don’t sit under that dock for the entire day. You will scan a stump line and see fish there one second and gone the next. Don’t rely on the magical electronic box to be the cure all/end all for your fishing.

When you pull up to the ramp and see the guys with the 5 graphs, don’t think you are automatically fishing for second place. Just because they have it, doesn’t mean they know how to use it. Remember it is a TOOL. That is intended to be used by someone that knows EXACTLY how to use it. It is not the rod, reel, line or lure. They are the critical components to catching fish, not a graph. 

shane smith bass fishing


The days of “fish finders” that show little fish with smiley faces have come and gone. Now that anglers can see the way a fish responds to a lure, is mainstream. I really wonder where the electronics world will take us in the next 10 years.  It is astounding to think just how far we have come in the past 10 years.  

Forward-facing sonar: unfair advantage or useful tool? You be the judge!

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