When I left the Lower 48 for my brief annual trek to guide for halibut, salmon and rockfish in the
pristine, icy waters of Alaska, it seemed like I left the bass fishing world in a state of “business as usual.”
On the return, however, it seemed as though the sport was aflame with a great debate about the
technology that has most certainly been causing a great deal of controversy in the competitive fishing space – the infamous forward facing sonar, or FFS for short.
There’s no doubt, this tech has been raising eyebrows and ruffling feathers since Day 1. However it felt that most of the negative sentiment had not caught fire on a widespread basis, but was rather left smoldering, with a few outspoken anglers airing their concerns and flaring up passionate but brief and isolated debates.
In the last week or so it seems like everyone and their mother-in-law’s second cousin has something to say about FFS, and many top-shelf pros from both leagues have posted to their social media platforms voicing their opinions and holding impromptu polls calling for the opinions of the fans.
Since it seems to be an unavoidable topic at the moment, I figured I’d share my views on the
subject of FFS.
I got my first Garmin LiveScope unit in 2019 during my rookie season on the FLW Tour. I had just entered into a partnership with BassBoatElectronics.com, which I still enjoy today, and so I was blessed with the opportunity to try the latest and greatest in fishing tech.
The first thing that hit me about FFS is when I put the MotorGuide in the water, there would be
fish swimming around everywhere – even in areas of a lake that were not related to the structure or cover which we bass anglers had always been taught were necessities for bass habitation. Because of this, the first thing I had to learn was how to “squelch the noise,” so to speak, and ignore fish that at the time I deemed “uncatchable”.
Those first few years it seemed that the technology, though revolutionary, was just another tool to enhance whatever style of fishing we already enjoyed. Shallow-water guys would use it to enhance their bank-beater styles and offshore guys would use it to follow schools of fish and perfectly line up casts. Everyone was using FFS to eliminate dead water and wasted casts, and that seemed to be where the influence of this sonar technology would land.
I think it was sometime in 2022 that I started to realize that LiveScope and the like was not only used as a tool to enhance already-established patterns and locations, but was being used to target fish that had never seen a bait, and with presentations that really had never seen widespread success. In short, tournaments were being dominated in ways never before seen, and my opinions on what FFS meant for the future of the sport started to change.
Okay, so now let me get into my take on the topic of whether or not FFS should be allowed in high-level competitive bass fishing. I wish I could sit here and outline a very decisive argument for one side of this debate, but like with most complex issues, I see multiple ways of looking at it.
Let’s start with my perspective as a fan of the sport. I’m a bass nerd through and through, and have been closely watching professional fishing since high school. I’ve always loved bass fishing in no small part due to the wide variety of approaches you’d see the best anglers use to win bass tournaments. Denny Brauer would flip a jig into dense, shallow cover. Aaron Martens would dropshot fish from beneath a bridge piling. Kevin VanDam would dredge a crankbait through schools of fish on offshore ledges. The diversity of lures and techniques certainly has always been appealing to watch on TV as a fan.
In the last two years I’ve started to notice that FFS is making tournament coverage a little less dynamic. More and more of the top finishers in each event are having to utilize FFS to make it to a position to get a camera on them. Even in shallow-water fisheries like Okeechobee, we're now watching anglers win by looking down at a screen instead of wrestling bass out of dense cover.
From my own fan’s perspective, it’s no less fun to watch someone catch fish utilizing FFS – on the contrary, it’s actually quite interesting – but in moderation. I crave the diversity when watching tournament coverage.
When it comes to the angler in me, I’m a fan of all the technological advancements we’ve seen over the years. I’m thankful that I don’t have to one-hand cast a wimpy 5 1/2-foot pistol-grip rod with the sensitivity of an uncooked polish sausage. I’m super happy that I don’t have to navigate a stump field without the assistance of Navionics mapping or GPS.
Fishing is a great sport because in the end you can make it as simple or complex as you like. You can catch a bass with a cane pole off the bank, or catch the same bass with a $1,000 combo in the middle of the lake out of a $100,000 bass boat. The type of experience is up to you.
I hear many people talking about how the sport is changing, but if you really think about it, the exposure FFS is having on the simple act of getting out on the water is minimal. You don’t need FFS, but it certainly is a fun and productive way to catch fish!
From a competitive standpoint, I’m definitely conflicted. On one hand, I’ve recently struggled to be successful applying the same style of fishing I’ve always enjoyed success with before FFS. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to blame the technology for my shortcomings.
It’s my opinion that if you're serious about being a competitor in this sport, or any other, you need to have an extreme sense of accountability. It's how we stay humble in order to recognize when we need to learn and grow.
That doesn’t mean you have to love the change. It doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion on something that’s dramatically changing your sport. It doesn’t even mean you can’t fight to enact change on the topic. It just means you have to be willing to accept that change is happening, and as long as it's a factor, it’s your responsibility to make the adjustments to stay at the top of your game. And sometimes that means upending the way you’ve done things for years to embrace a new strategy.
There’s no doubt about it, I’ve experienced some of my worst finishes in the last two seasons, but I can’t blame it on FFS even though I’m getting my teeth kicked in by guys embracing the FFS gold rush that's happening. Instead, I have only myself to blame for my failure to be an early adopter of FFS as many of my peers have. After all, I’ve had access to all the same technology they have.
If the league I’m fishing was to put it up for a vote, I'd vote to go back to the “good old days” before FFS in a heartbeat, for at least for the top levels of competition. However, deep down, as the competitor I strive to be, I know that my vote would be cast selfishly because it's affected my bottom line.
In the end, as long as FFS is around – and I bet it's here to stay in tournaments – I can have an opinion, but if I’m holding myself accountable, I don’t have an option but to learn how to use it as well as anyone.
It's clear which direction we should go as a sport, right? As clear as mud.
To me, there is no clear answer. On one hand, I love the advancement of technology and the implications it has for the industry, and it fascinates me how it’s unlocking previously overlooked approaches to catching our beloved bass. On the other hand, I feel that it's making many of the things I consider “my style” of fishing somewhat obsolete at a competitive level, and its making tournament coverage more one-dimensional.
I've let it be known which way I’d vote on this topic on a competition level, but I’m not convinced that my opinions aren’t just rooted in short-lived resistance to change and selfishness.
One thing I can say is that I’m thankful that the industry is so strong as to encourage such technological advancements, and I hope we’ll learn how to navigate our way around how the competitive side of the sport utilizes it.