July 26, 2016
Technology in fishing has reached such high levels that we can't help but ask ourselves pointed questions at times. Fishing is a game of solving the mystery of what's below the surface and how to best bring those creatures into our world of understanding.
In the realm of sonar and underwater viewing, we wonder whether it's beneficial to remove so many layers of the puzzle. The very definition of technology, however, renders the discussion irrelevant. Technology is people-driven. It moves continually, relentlessly forward. It improves and advances to a point in the future we can't possibly predict. You can debate the pros and cons of technology. But you can't stop these high-tech tools from taking shape any more than you can halt the human mind.
Military, industry, and scientific exploration have spurred such concepts as Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS), the most advanced imaging sonar to date. Initially devised for demanding military applications, such as naval mine detection and identification, SAS will find its way into civilian markets, such as fishing. Providing at least 25 times more image resolution and a 300-percent increase in area coverage over conventional side-scan sonar, SAS is also capable of 3-D bathymetric rendering of a lake floor. It reportedly works at high and low speeds (current imaging sonar only works well to about 7 mph). SAS images are so sharp that you can easily see the exact shape, and position of a single small stone lying on sand bottom in 50 feet of water. It's as close as we've come to "draining the lake."
Stepping back to the late 1990s, when Humminbird released the first angler-centric imaging sonar, this new tool was a revolution in fish-finding. It provided a dynamic, uber-realistic view of the underwater topography — a huge leap forward compared to existing 2-D sonar. Now available in products from all the major sonar companies — Humminbird, Lowrance, Garmin, Raymarine — imaging sonar not only gives us vivid perspectives of what's below the boat, but also the terrain several hundred feet to each side.
Several years later, Humminbird introduced its 360 Imaging module. It allows anglers to search in all directions, including ahead of the boat, showing potential casting targets without having to drive over them. In the three years I've fished with 360, it's emerged as a remarkable tool for casting to individual fish targets, mostly while working from a stationary, or spot-locked position.
Targeting Fish One-on-One
Fresh off his recent Angler of the Year title on the Cabela's NWT circuit, Mark Courts says, "Through electronics, technology, and boat control, we're now able to key on individual fish." Though not sight-fishing in shallow water as in the bass game, he's referring to using a combination of dialed-in sonar, high-definition digital maps, and boat control tools, such as Minn Kota's iPilot, to identify, target, and lock onto specific fish on screen — at any depth — and saturate their strike zone with baits.
"When I won the 2007 In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail Championship, one of the most successful patterns was covering water with crankbaits, spending most of our time searching," he says. "Today we use side-imaging, down-imaging and digital mapping to search for individual fish — those big fish we need in tournaments. Sonar is so sharp and precise now that we can determine walleye size — at least the big ones — by how they appear on screen. We can hover over a single big fish, watch it on electronics, and target it. It's revolutionized the game."
Garmin's new Panoptix hints at taking the one-on-one aspect of fishing another step ahead. With a transducer on the bowmount trolling motor, a forward-viewing version of Panoptix apparently is capable of not only showing structure and cover ahead of the boat, but also fish and your lure in real time. "Panoptix is mind-blowing technology," says Steve Pennaz, professional angler and host of Lake Commandos TV show. "I can cast a jig or crankbait off the bow and watch it come back to the boat, right on screen. Any fish in the area also show up, and you can watch individual walleyes or other fish follow the lure."
He says that Panoptix also is valuable for finding weededges and drop-offs or other structure or cover before the boat reaches them. A similar application with Humminbird's 360 Imaging has become helpful for the trolling programs of tournament anglers such as Johnnie Candle. What's incredible about forward-looking sonar is seeing things like drop-offs, weededges, or bottom transitions well ahead of you, and making adjustments in boat control to keep your lures in productive water.
Beyond the views that 2-D and imaging sonar provide, Garmin and Lowrance recently released software that displays underwater terrain in 3-D. In addition to Pantoptix LiveVÃ¼, Garmin's sonar scanner also features RealVÃ¼, a digital 3-D rendering of the area in front of the boat, plus baitfish or fish hovering above or near bottom. Panoptix RealVÃ¼ 3D Down digitally scans the area below the boat, from front to back and side to side, providing a full view of the underwater terrain in relief map rendering.
At this year's ICAST show, Lowrance unveiled StructureScan 3D — an impressive evolution of its original StructureScan sonar. Compatible with Lowrance Gen3 HDS units, the new 3-D technology makes it easier to discern subtle changes in bottom contours. Compared to more familiar down- and side-imaging views, which show rises and dips as different shades in bottom color, both RealVÃ¼ and StructureScan 3D set these contours apart in bold relief — like the difference between a drawing and a sculpture.
Both of these technologies are so new that few anglers have used them. 3-D should make identifying vertical drops and slight rises much simpler, as well as help clarify our perception of the underwater terrain.
A similar goal is achieved by CHIRP technology. Developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, CHIRP stands for Compressed High Intensity Radar Pulse, an enhancement for traditional 2-D sonar that uses a range of frequencies to produce a more detailed image of fish and structure. Advantages of CHIRP-enabled sonar units include improved target separation, better deep water penetration, and enhanced filtering of water-column clutter, for crisper images.
New this year is Humminbird's HELIX 12 CHIRP, featuring an amazingly bright, colorful, and sharp display, enabled with full-spectrum Broadband CHIRP between 28kHz and 540kHz. The new 12-inch HELIX unit continually sweeps frequencies, or allows the user to select start and end frequencies for superior control.
In addition, Lowrance offers Elite CHIRP models and CHIRP-enabled units in the HDS Gen3 Touch series. Raymarine Dragonfly and aSeries units also offer wide-spectrum CHIRP technology, as do Garmin GPSMAP units, including the EchoMAP 70dv and GPSMAP 741xs.
Many anglers are adding underwater video capability to their LCD displays. Aqua-Vu now offers a turnkey underwater viewing system for easy connection to any video-in equipped sonar-chartplotter unit. The Aqua-Vu Multi-Vu features a high-resolution underwater video camera with 100 feet of cable and an adapter module for connecting to 12-volt power and a sonar unit's video-in. Lowrance HDS, Garmin EchoMAP, and GPSMAP 7000 and 8000 series, and Raymarine A, C, and E Series sonar units all work with the Aqua-Vu camera connection. In addition to the Multi-Vu module, Raymarine, and Garmin sonar connections require an RCA-to-BNC video adapter found at Radio Shack for about two bucks. Lowrance users need a simple HDS Video Adapter Cable.
Pros and longtime underwater camera fans, Tommy Skarlis and Doc Samson run Aqua-Vu and sonar systems in their boats and extol their use for identifying baitfish and gamefish species and misunderstood sonar signals. Skarlis: "In prefishing, I use a tactic called 'search and identify,' using sonar to find fish marks fast, and then the camera to identify the species, size, and position of the fish."
Samson, one of the industry's electronics gurus, uses the Aqua-Vu for different reasons. "When I mark fish on sonar but can't get them to bite, I want to know why. Many times, the camera reveals that the fish below aren't walleyes, but big white suckers or pike.
"For anyone who wants to become proficient at interpreting sonar signals, a camera is a must. On my Lowrance HDS, I can split the screen and simultaneously compare sonar and camera views. Sampson: "Cameras such as the Aqua-Vu 760cz display water temperature and depth, critical for identifying precise depths of thermoclines and depth/temperature breaks in open water."
"Wow" Factor Mapping
Digital lake mapping has become one of the most valuable tools in fishing electronics today. While mapping software from LakeMaster, Navionics, and Garmin (LakeVÃ¼) all provide ultra-precise depth contours gathered from on-the-water lake and river surveys, new do-it-yourself mapping adds even more detail.
Humminbird offers AutoChart Live, a map-while-you-fish application that instantly builds new contours and overlays them on existing lake cartography. For unmapped Canadian lakes, rivers, and remote or small waters, programs such as AutoChart can give users exclusive contour maps. Moreover, for fine-tuning topography on a specific spot such as a hump or other structural element, DIY mapping provides the ultimate interface. New AutoChart maps are also compatible with iPilot Link, enabling the user to "follow the contour" or highlight key depth ranges on screen.
The newest wrinkle with on-the-water mapping is the ability to overlay contours with bottom hardness, side-imaging overlays (mosaics), and vegetation. Insight Genesis offers exclusive vegetation and bottom hardness overlays. LakeMaster PLUS allows users to overlay contour maps with aerial photography, which often depict rockpiles, vegetation zones, and mouths of feeder creeks. New from Navionics, SonarChart Live also offers realtime map building, with the data displayed on a wireless phone or device.
So much is happening so quickly that when Samson recently showed me an extraordinary new type of digital map, I marveled at the possibilities. Working alongside GIS expert Warren Parsons, Samson is developing a growing series of Doctor Sonar maps that combine high definition lake contours with historical satellite imagery overlays. "These new maps show every tree in a reservoir and the precise position of these submerged forests relative to contours," Samson says. "Using the Bull Shoals or Table Rock map, I've been able to troll crankbaits precisely along the edge of these trees and rarely get hung up."
He says that his Devils Lake maps feature aerial imagery from as far back as 1949, before the lake expanded to its current size. These photos depict rockpiles, road beds, trees, and fencelines now lying underwater. Ditto for Lake Oahe, where photos taken when water levels were low show the locations of similar features.
On the Doctor Sonar map of Cass Lake, Minnesota, individual weedbeds are revealed, as well as rockpiles and the precise bathymetry of sandbars and other structure. Currently, Samson offers maps for over a dozen waters. They're only compatible with Lowrance chartplotters at this time, and all are available at doctorsonar.com.
Today, it's easy to sit in front of glowing displays and marvel at what they show. But lacking boat control skills to match, the wow-factor quickly loses its luster. Bowmount trolling motor systems have become so easy to operate, powerful, and efficient that even an old-school backtroller like myself rarely sits behind a set of splash guards anymore.
As I write this in fall, I just finished my first full season using Minn Kota's Ulterra motor. A simple button push auto-deploys and stows the motor and can be a back saver. You also can instantly raise or lower the motor. It's a revolutionary design. Minn Kota has added a Spot-Lock button to the foot pedal, so you can "anchor" the boat in place either with the iPilot remote control or foot switch.
In shallow water, trim the propeller up with the push of a button. Or in big waves, instantly slide the prop into deeper water, so it isn't sucking air as the boat bounces. For making short, quick moves with the outboard, I trim the motor out of the water, and then lower it back down once I reach the new spot.
I've stowed and deployed the Ulterra a hundred times a day. Let your batteries do the work, not your back. After a full year of use, I've never run out of battery power; I run a set of Optima BlueTop AGM batteries. They provide more sustained power per charge than any other system I've used. They're more expensive, but if they provide up to three times more recharges than other marine batteries, as claimed, you save money in the long-run.
The Ulterra also lets me easily launch my Lund boat solo without ropes or even getting out of my truck. Slide the boat off the trailer. While sitting in your truck, hit the Deploy button. Steer the motor outside the ramp area and hit Spot-Lock. As you walk down to the dock, simply "call" the boat back to you, like a well trained retriever. Watch the looks on folks' faces as you start your fishing day. –
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt has been writing for In-Fisherman publications for over two decades.