Hi-Tech Sonar and
by Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
Sonar technology has come a long way since the early days. With
all of the sport shows and new models coming, now is the time to
research your electronics needs for spring.
baby step forward since the first consumer sonar appeared on store
shelves has improved our understanding of how fish relate to
structure and cover. This is all key information used by educated
anglers to find and catch more fish.
But, sonar has made a quantum leap recently with the arrival of
side imaging. With it, anglers can learn far more in less time about
the layout of structure and find the subtle features that hold fish,
whether it is inside turns and rock fingers, isolated boulders or
weed patches. What once took days to discover– subtle features in a
lake, river or reservoir– now takes just minutes.
“One sweep through an area and you can know exactly where and how
everything lies beneath the water,” said Mark Gibson, global product
manager for Humminbird. “That would take two hours with traditional,
down-looking sonar. And, you can search shallow water.”
Gibson’s job is to listen to the needs of fishermen and work with
engineers to get it done. His passion is bass fishing in Alabama,
where the company’s factory is located. But, whether an angler is
looking for bass, walleyes, crappies or other game fish, side
imaging helps zero in on how fish are relating to structure and
cover on a given day.
Just like other sonar technologies, we can thank the military for
side imaging. Developed in the 1960s, its purpose was to track
submarines. But, the U.S. Navy’s side imaging model required running
a large torpedo-shaped transducer far behind the ship, which is
hardly practical for fishing. Humminbird was able to adapt it by
shrinking the transducer to six inches and finding a way to attach
it to a boat.
Side imaging works something like MRI technology, a common
medical procedure. A very thin beam of sound just one degree wide is
shot to each side of the boat. The coverage area stretches nearly
from the surface of the water to almost directly below the boat. In
50 feet of water, the beams can reach 360 feet to the sides, a
distance greater than a football field. In 15 feet of water, the
scan covers about 150 feet to each side. The unit pulses about 30
times each second, each time taking an image of a thin slice of the
Sophisticated microprocessors take the information and create a
detailed video-like image. In one of Humminbird’s promotional photos
of a side imaging sonar screen, a swimming pool submerged when an
Alabama reservoir was formed is shown. In one corner, the steps
leading down into the pool are clearly visible.
In another photo taken from an actual screen, the side image
shows a rocky point with fish surrounding it.
Gibson recalls a time on the Mississippi River hunting walleyes
on a wingdam. The side imaging showed exactly how the rocks were
arranged and pinpointed small outcroppings that served as contact
points for hungry walleyes.
Yet another image shows a standing tree. Proving these sonars are
true fish finders, the view shows both baitfish and predators so
anglers can see how both were relating to structure, cover and each
Once a feature is located, the unit can be set to shoot to just
one side of the boat to show more detail.
Imagine using a standard down-looking sonar over a rock pile.
Slowly but surely, a view of the way it’s situated, how high it is
and other features, such a weed patch or boulder, can be pictured.
One pass with side imaging can reveal the same details. Pre-fishing
for tournaments just got a lot easier. In addition to the pros
utilizing it, side imaging is a great tool for anyone who wants to
make the most of limited time on the water.
“Side imaging gives the complete picture of what’s underwater,”
said Gibson. “Pros and serious recreational anglers see it and say,
‘I’ve got to have it.’”
Now, add a down-looking sonar and GPS with Navionics mapping. All
of these images are displayed in color on a huge 7-inch diagonal
screen, which is found on the Humminbird 900 series. Controls allow
functions to be displayed one at a time or you can choose two of the
three functions: GPS, side imaging, or down-looking sonar.
By combining GPS mapping with sonar functions, a detailed picture
of the area can be created complete with waypoints that mark key
structures and features.
As complicated as it sounds, operation is a breeze. The complete
operational menu appears on one ‘page’ on the screen. Adjust the
sensitivity to your liking. But, if things get out of whack, a
simple click on the reset button takes the unit back to the factory
defaults. The automatic settings were determined though consultation
with professional anglers. These preset functions work well under
Sonars with side imaging typically retail for about $2,000.
The Humminbird 700 series without side imaging offers an
incredible 640 vertical pixel, high-resolution 5-inch diagonal
screen that shows a traditional view looking down and stays bright
no matter what the angle of view. The screen was manufactured for
Humminbird by a company that does display screens for fighter jets.
Trouble in paradise
No matter how good your sonar is, its effectiveness can be
sabotaged by poor installation.
With fiberglass boats, Gibson said one common problem comes when
anglers mount their own transducers on the transom rather than
shooting the signal through the hull. Transom-mounted transducers do
well at low speeds, but air bubbles can foul the signal and
therefore the image. Side imaging transducers do need to be
installed on the outside in order to shoot out to the sides.
The speed of sound through fiberglass nearly matches the speed of
sound through water, so the sonar can’t really tell the difference
between the two substances. Very little signal power is lost as a
A problem can occur when the wrong epoxy is used to glue the
transducer down, explained Gibson. Do not use a silicone product,
and make certain the glue is slow-cured epoxy that takes more than
an hour to cure. In addition, be sure to press down hard to remove
any air bubbles in the glue.
Transom mounts are necessary with aluminum hulls. Gibson said his
company supplies a template to help locate the transducer properly.
Still, they can be installed at wrong angles.
Problems with the power source are another potential pitfall.
Poor splicing of cords, or failure to solder connections (which
exposes wires to the elements) can cause malfunctions, he says. Best
advice with either hull – have a technician do it.
Advances in sonar technology, including side imaging, have
created a tool that makes it easier to analyze structure and cover.
The result is greater ability to find fish fast. Fish are running
out of places to hide– but you still have to make ‘em bite.