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Forward-Facing Sonar: A Revolution In Fishing Technology

Berkley taps sonar technology advances to design multiple lines of fishing lures specifically to be fished as anglers watch for reactions on a real-time-imaging sonar screen.

View from below of an adult male wearing long-sleeve gray shirt and ballcap catching a large bass

Photo: Hummingbird

After a lifetime of fishing and decades of writing about fish, fishing, and the recreational angling industry, I’ve seldom come across something in the world of fishing that truly qualifies as “revolutionary.” Of course, you’ll see that word bandied about often enough in marketing material and advertisements for new gear, but it’s rare that a single development or product actually changes the way anglers fish. We have boats, rods, reels, and lures that are cast, retrieved, or trolled. It’s always been that way, and always will. Or will it?

While revolutions may be rare, they’re not unheard-of. Marine sonars, or “fishfinders,” are a good example. Suddenly anglers could accurately “see” what’s underneath their boats – and after a few more tech advances, what was off to the sides of them as well. This did change the game, despite there being a time lag in displaying where the fish were moments before. Chartplotters with waypoints did, too, as anglers began to keep track of exactly where they were on a vast ocean or huge lake with pinpoint precision that was easily repeatable.

The development of zero-stretch braid fishing line was a third advancement with rather dramatic impacts, turning legions of trollers into casters and jiggers as the enhanced sensitivity meant they could now feel the nip of a minnow from hundreds of feet away.

Other than this handful of advancements, however, the more things changed through the decades, the more they remained the same. Technology had improved every angler’s odds of hooking a fish, but the game was still cast and hope for a strike.

Live and in color

The latest product to burst onto the scene with a passable claim to revolutionary status is real-time imaging, first introduced by Garmin in 2018 in the form of the Panoptix. The early images were fuzzy, warped, and reminiscent of an ultrasound, but allowed anglers to watch the fish in front of their boat in near real-time.

Black and gray Lowrance HDS12 real-time imaging screen

Modern bass pros may be looking at the real-time imaging screen even more often than they look out over the water. Photo: Lowrance

Black Garmin real-time imaging screen

The level of detail these imagers can provide is jaw-dropping. Photo Garmin

Today Garmin’s latest Panoptix LiveScope system may still be a bit fuzzy and ultrasound-ish, but the definition is now fine enough that it’s possible to identify not just fish, but sometimes even specific species with distinct body shapes and/or fins. Range has grown to 200 feet, and integrated image stabilization systems keep the images viewable even in rough conditions. Lowrance soon joined this venue with its ActiveTarget system, and Humminbird introduced Mega Live Imaging. And these visual aids have absolutely, positively changed the way certain anglers fish. “

Simply put,” says Garmin senior director of marine sales Dave Dunn, “real-time scanning sonar takes the guesswork out of knowing where the fish are. You still have to catch the fish, but gone are the days of blindly casting. Now you can see where the fish are and how they’re responding to the lure.”

Real-time imaging units (called forward-facing sonar by some, although it can be used to look in any direction) are so sensitive, they can display even small lures on screen with enough clarity for anglers to watch them moving through the water. Thus, they know if their lure is at the proper depth when it goes by the fish. They can see if and when fish react as those lures pass by. And they can change lures or vary the cadence of their retrieve according to the fish’s behavior.

You still have to catch the fish, but gone are the days of blindly casting

“This is the new technology driver in fishing,” says Garmin’s Danny Thompson, regional sales manager. “Anglers can see the fish’s reaction. That’s what they’re looking for, and that’s what they’re focused on as they watch the screen – putting the lure right in front of the fish and seeing what happens when they know it’s in the strike zone.”

Not without compromises

Real-time imaging is not, however, a magic bullet. It requires a transducer mounted to a trolling motor or accessory pole to be deployed and pointed in the desired direction, so your boat must have a trolling motor or a specially rigged method of deploying the transducer. With one of these transducers deployed the boat is limited to slow speeds. If affixed to the trolling motor shaft, its utility is hampered when used in conjunction with other trolling motor functions like GPS virtual anchoring, since the transducer can’t always be pointed in the desired direction. And to look downward, the transducer must be manually manipulated. These restrictions make real-time imaging more or less useful, depending on the angling situation.

While saltwater anglers fishing open water, walleye anglers trolling the depths, and fly-fishing enthusiasts casting the buggy whip for trout will have little use for real-time imaging, one scenario that seems ready-made for this form of sonar is fishing for bass on inland waterways – which just happens to be the most popular form of fishing in the United States. In fact, real-time imaging use has become so prevalent among professional bass anglers that there’s quite a bit of controversy over its use in tournaments.

Two white Krej wighted fishing lures

The Krej is designed and weighted to swim upward when pulled forward, then sink backward when falling, allowing an angler to repeatedly present it to the same fish in the same place. Photo: Berkley

Flipping the script

The professional bass fishing world influences freshwater anglers from coast to coast, and as real-time imaging has become a tournament-winning tool, its popularity among recreational anglers has skyrocketed. It’s this immense popularity that caught the attention of one of the world’s largest lure makers, Berkley Fishing.

“We’ve known that forward-facing sonar was coming, and we’ve spent the past few years learning about the trend in anticipation of it catching on,” says Berkley chief brand and product officer Jon Schlosser. “By taking a science-based approach to lure development and applying it to forward-facing sonar, our team has been able to create some special lines of lures,” which Schlosser claims are designed specifically to be fished while watching a real-time imaging sonar screen. Most lures are clearly visible on imagers (and very small ones can be enhanced with gels containing reflective glitter), so the real trick is designing offerings that anglers can put into the strike zone and keep there for longer periods as they watch the fish for reactions.

The Krej, for example, is a jerkbait with an upturned bill and internal weighting that causes it to sink backward. An angler can cast it out, spot it on the imager, retrieve it until it passes by the fish, and if there’s no strike the angler can pause retrieving and let the lure sink back toward the fish again. They can pull the bait forward and let it fall, again and again, keeping it right in the fish’s face until it teases out a reaction or the angler determines that the fish is unwilling to strike and decides to try a different lure or move on.

Another offering, the Finisher, can be manipulated to swim in multiple different ways. A quick snap causes it to glide through the water, jiggling the tip creates a shimmying swimming action, and firm jerks on the rod trigger a quick darting action. Anglers can drop it into the strike zone, then try one swimming action after the next until they find one that triggers strikes.

View of a hand holding a rainbow colored fishing lure

The Finisher’s weighting and design creates several different swimming actions depending on how the angler retrieves it.  Photo: Berkley

What to expect

Berkley’s first shot at targeting anglers staring at real-time imager screens, the Power Switch, has been on the market since late 2023. It marries a design intended for real-time imaging with Berkley’s flavored soft plastic PowerBait. It looks and feels like other PowerBaits but can be paused, hovered, and strolled right by the fish while you watch on-screen.

You can bet that in the coming months and years, we’ll see more offerings designed specifically for anglers who are bass fishing with real-time imaging. And when a heavyweight like Berkley starts down this road, it’s a sure thing that other lure manufacturers will soon follow. They won’t just focus on making lures that catch fish, they’ll focus on making lures that match up with this new way of fishing. And if that means more fish get hooked, more anglers will likely get hooked on real-time imaging – and the lures specifically designed for it.

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Lenny Rudow

New Boats, Fishing & Electronics Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Top tech writer and accomplished sports fisherman, BoatUS Magazine Contributing Editor Lenny Rudow has written seven practical boating books, won 30 awards from Boating Writers International — many for his marine electronics articles – and two for excellence from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He judges the NMMA Innovation Awards, and is Angler in Chief at FishTalk, his own Chesapeake-based publication. A great teacher and inspirational writer, Lenny hosts many of BoatUS Magazine’s very-popular how-to videos, which can be found on the BoatUS YouTube channel, or at