Shallow minded with forward-facing sonar

Calling someone “shallow-minded” is usually an insult, but for Bassmaster Elite Series pro Darold Gleason, the term holds admirable meaning. Specifically, he’s one of a growing number of anglers applying forward-facing sonar in depths of less than a spinning rod’s length.

“For folks who think forward-facing sonar is primarily for deep water, they haven’t had that lightbulb moment on the water, yet,” Gleason said. “My suggestion: Be more open minded about what it can do for you.”

Solidly earning its “game-changer” status over the past few years by allowing anglers to spot fish before encroaching, observe their behavior and adjust retrieves accordingly; forward-facing sonar has largely been considered an offshore tool. Among the many examples, Patrick Walters’ record-setting win on Lake Fork, saw him leverage Garmin LiveScope for a standing timber smackdown.

Noting his fondness for targeting fish suspended under fall bait schools, Gleason said Lowrance ActiveTarget removes the random and makes him more efficient. Shallow water’s no different.

“Sometimes, fishing the deep suspended fish, you watch the whole thing go down,” Gleason said. “You may see the fish, present a lure to it, and watch the fish eat it. Initially, that’s what everyone thought it was.

“In shallow water, it’s helping me find cover and it’s helping me see fish in an area. I may not see the whole (interaction) go down, but to get into an area in less than 5 feet of water and to see baitfish, that lets you know there’s a chance for some activity.”

Luke Palmer said the shallow angle grabbed his attention while crappie fishing a small Oklahoma lake. After his Garmin LiveScope revealed little blobs holding over rocks in 3-4 feet, he was able to make precise presentations and catch the fish. It didn’t take him long to connect this his bass pursuits.

“I’ve found that it’s most (relevant in shallow water) from the spawn to the shad spawn stage because most of the fish are going to be in less than 5-6 feet of water,” Palmer said. “After that that they’re going to start getting out there deeper.

On the practical side, Walters notes that forward-facing sonar not only keeps him on the shallow fish; it keeps him out of trouble.

“In 3-5 feet of water, you can’t see the fish as good, but you can see the structure,” he said. “If I’m coming up to a shallow brush pile or the end of a boat ramp, rock banks, isolated rock — it can help you see that structure before you get to it.

“Especially in dirty water and I’m (trolling) on high, forward-facing sonar can help you keep your trolling motor in one piece. If I’m at Lake Fork and I’m running down the bank, I’ll see that I’m coming to a piece of structure and I’ll just swerve a little bit.”

Meager depth mastery

One of the biggest decisions an angler must make is determining how much time to spend on one spot. That’s particularly relevant in practice, as catching a bunch of fish is less important than locating a bunch of fish.

Sure, you gotta find ‘em to catch ‘em; but thanks to forward-facing sonar, you don’t have to catch ‘em to find ‘em.

During the Elite on Santee-Cooper Lakes, Palmer leveraged his forward-facing sonar to notch a fourth-place finish. Targeting Lake Marion’s cypress trees, he was able to spot enough fish in practice to establish a bankable tournament plan.

“Everything kind of came together for me,” Palmer said. “I fished areas that actually didn’t have that many fish in practice, but they started showing up. I could catch fish easier (because I saw them).

“I wouldn’t even fish on certain trees in practice; I mean I’d still make a flip on them because maybe a fish was sitting on the front of the tree where I couldn’t see it. But if they were on the side of the tree, it was easy.”

Flipping a Texas-rigged YUM Wooly Bug, Palmer got so dialed in with his forward-facing sonar that Day 3 saw him weigh in the tournament’s biggest bag — 33-5.

“In the shallow deal, forward-facing sonar has allowed me to pick up a few extra fish that I normally wouldn’t have,” Palmer said. “On Santee-Cooper, I would’ve caught one fish off each of those trees and I would’ve kept moving.

“Those fish were spawning on those trees and I could catch the male first and then sit there and scope the tree again, find that female sitting there and catch her. It’s especially helpful in the spawn situations when you can’t actually see the fish, but you can see it on your unit.”

Palmer’s success showed how forward-facing sonar has greatly improved the strategy of “sight fishing for unseen fish.” Earlier in the Elite season, at the Harris Chain, Scott Martin employed his LiveScope to examine potential Lake Apopka spawning pockets. It’s all about time efficiency and he only parked on areas where he saw fish.

Ride the tide: Gleason points to the Northern Open on the James River to illustrate how he uses forward-facing sonar to identify shallow targets. Hedging his bets against this tidal river’s outgoing stage, Gleason fished the Chickahominy River (major tributary) and focused on docks and deeper cypress trees in 2 1/2-5 feet.

“I don’t have a lot of experience on the James River, so I wanted to find the most comfortable fish and I felt like the ones that had water on them all day would be the most comfortable,” Gleason said. “There’s just miles of cypress trees and that’s where the forward-facing sonar really came in because you could literally see the trees that had fish on them — some had little groups.

“So, in practice, when I saw a tree with four or five fish, I didn’t have to stop and fish it. I would just wait until tournament day to go back and fish that tree; whereas, traditionally, you’re having to fish for bites to tell if there’s fish there.”

As Gleason points out, tidal waters amplify the insight gained from forward-facing sonar.

“You could fish through a great area at the wrong time (on the James) and not get bit, so you’d get no feedback,” he said. “You might think, ‘Oh, that’s no good.’ But the ActiveTarget would let me see that there were fish there — you just need to come back at the right time.

“If they’re not biting now, come back on a different tide and see if they’re biting. It just helped me select the sections of trees I tried to target. After a couple days of looking at these trees, you could see their activity level start to increase at different tide stages.”

Gleason sums up the takeaway: “As a fisherman, you’re always going to fish a little harder when you know for a fact there’s a fish looking at your bait. When there are fish in the area, you really hone in and fish more thoroughly.

“On the James, I was running an hour down to my spot, so I wanted to be as efficient as possible with my time. Forward-facing sonar is just another thing to stack the odds in your favor — you can narrow down your presentation.”


Mucky bottoms, Palmer said, yield softer returns, while a hard, clean bottom yields sharper lines that helps him spot his fish. Gleason agrees and notes the necessary adjustments for shallow habitats.

“When you’re in deep water, you can set your forward range out much farther than you should in shallower water,” Gleason said. “In deeper water, I’ll run it out to 120-140 feet, but in shallow water, I’m turning mine down to 60-80 because it’s a smaller work environment.

“Also, while I run my depth range on auto depth out deep, when I’m fishing shallow, I’ll adjust my depth range so the bottom stays consistent. So if I’m in 5 feet of water, I’ll run it on 8. If I’m in less than 5, I’ll run it on 5.”

Walters said his biggest consideration is clarity.

“For clear water, you can can turn your gain up a little bit and for dirtier water, you can turn it down,” he said. “It just has to do with the sediment in the water.

“Wind can definitely mess with that, but it’s also a factor when you change parts of the lake. If you run upriver, you might find it’s dirty water, and then run downlake and it’s gin clear.”

Pros and cons

Gleason said he’s seeking the same basic insight in shallow water as he would in deeper spots.

“A fish is a fish; it’s behavior doesn’t change based on the depth of water it’s in,” Gleason said. “They’re either going to be in a group chasing bait or they’re going to be around structure, waiting to pounce on their bait.

“In shallow water, it’s been (enlightening) to see how they relate to standing timber or stumps. In Florida, I’ve been able to see fish in under 5 feet of water around isolated clumps of grass. I could see a clump of grass with five fish around it and then watch them attack my bait when it comes by — just like a brush pile in 25 feet of water.”

That being said, Palmer warns against becoming too reliant on forward-facing sonar — in any scenario.

“Although it is very crucial for me, I can look at it too much, instead of fishing,” he said. “I’ve not made casts on some things that I should have and then flipped back to them and caught a fish.

“You’re not going to be able to see every one; it they’re really tight to the cover or in a crevice of a rock, you’re going to miss those fish. If you had been fishing, instead of watching that unit the whole time, you would have caught that fish. You have to be able to keep your head away from that graph and know when to use it and when not to use it.”

Bottom line: Forward-facing sonar is a tool that unquestionably helps fishermen. Just don’t stop being a fisherman.