In the world of big-league tournament bass fishing, forward-facing sonar is a hot topic.
Some anglers — generally those who are adept with the technology — love it. Others — i.e., those who are less adept — hate it and are demanding that it be banned or otherwise limited.
Even the leagues are feeling the impact as viewers grow weary of watching anglers stare at screens, casting only when they see bass open their mouths to feed.
Crappie tournaments may have been impacted even more profoundly than bass derbies. Entire styles of fishing have been driven from competition as professional perch jerkers realize that forward-facing sonar is a far faster and far more efficient way to locate fish than spider rigging, trolling, or dock shooting.
To best understand the controversy, I think we benefit from a look back at fishing sonar history.
In 1957, Lowrance brought sonar to the consumer marketplace with their Fish-Lo-K-Tor (a.k.a. the “little green box”). It wasn’t cheap. It cost about $150 at the time (roughly $1,650 in today’s money), but it was important. “Flashers” became the underwater eyes for a generation of anglers, and they gave a real-time readout to a screen that an angler could watch, revealing bottom contours and — for the most practiced and skillful — fish.
The 1970s brought us paper graphs, followed by digital graphs, followed by side imaging, 360-degree imaging (Humminbird), and — in 2018 with the introduction of Garmin’s Panoptix LiveScope — forward-facing sonar. The advancements have been impressive, but it’s been an evolution, not a revolution. All these tools operate on the basic principles of sonar — SOund, NAvigation and Ranging.
The flasher and forward-facing sonar can be considered “live” because the readout is essentially instantaneous. It doesn’t crawl across the screen like the other types.
You could argue — and I do — that the biggest change with forward-facing sonar is the direction in which the transducer is pointed. Instead of looking straight down as with more traditional forms — it can be aimed by the angler, and the angler can watch fish respond to his or her baits.
The little green box changed the way anglers fish. So did the soft plastic worm. Now it’s forward-facing sonar.
Not coincidentally, these tools faced opposition from some sportsmen, who called themselves “real” anglers and maintained that using these items was something less than “fishing.”
The opponents of early sonar and soft plastic worms didn’t get a lot of traction, and I hope that the opponents of forward-facing sonar fail, too.
And I’m pretty sure they will. In fact, I can only think of one angling development in the competitive fishing era that has been curtailed by tournament angler opposition — the Alabama Rig.
You probably recall the rise of the Alabama Rig (or castable umbrella rig) around 2010. It took an old rigging method (the umbrella rig had been a trolling tool for decades before) and made it lighter and therefore castable, so it could be used in tournaments. What made it successful was that it allowed anglers to present baits to suspended fish that were previously not being effectively targeted.
But the Alabama Rig had two problems. First, the man who developed it — Andy Poss — was a very small manufacturer who couldn’t keep up with demand and had to license the rig to Mann’s Bait Co., which had similar shortcomings. Second, Mann’s Bait Co. was not a major sponsor of any of the big tournament trails. Thus, it was powerless in those circles.
When some big-name tournament pros started whining about the Alabama Rig — fearful that it closed the gap between them and their competition — the tournament organizations buckled, not because the anglers were right or because the Alabama Rig was some kind of magical fish-catching device, but because Mann’s Bait Co. didn’t have the clout to stand up for the rig, and it looked like Poss’ patent might keep key sponsors out of the space (which it did for about 30 seconds).
Bowing to angler pressure, B.A.S.S. and FLW banned the Alabama Rig. That devastated sales of the device — not because the rig didn’t work or because casual anglers couldn’t find the rigs in stores, but because banning took the rig out of the media spotlight. What the tournament organizations do not allow does not appear on their platforms. Once out of the nurturing spotlight, the Alabama Rig grew cold.
It was a short-sighted move. Not only did it irreparably harm sales of the rig, but it curtailed the sales of soft plastic swimbaits that anglers use on the Alabama Rig and that are made by virtually every soft plastics manufacturer in the industry.
Sure, a lot of soft plastic swimbaits are being sold these days, but the market is not as strong as it would be if castable umbrella rigs were permitted by the major tournament circuits.
The tournament organizations — trying to appease unappeasable anglers who were screaming about the sky falling — took careful aim and shot the industry in the foot.
But that won’t happen with forward-facing sonar for a couple of reasons. The biggest of those reasons is that it’s a lot harder to stop technology than it is to stop a minor fishing rig.
The lesser but equally important reason is that Garmin, Humminbird, and Lowrance are industry leaders, technology leaders, and — wait for it! — major sponsors of the tournament trails. If BASS or MLF steps out of line and starts talking seriously about banning or significantly restricting forward-facing sonar, they’ll be put back in their place very quickly. Such a move would cost them a lot of money in sponsorships.
And they can’t afford that.
So forward-facing sonar is here to stay … at least until it’s replaced by something even more advanced that will find just as many detractors.