B.A.S.S. recently announced the creation of a technology review committee to keep tabs on the rapidly-changing world of competitive bass fishing and the way forward-facing sonar is impacting the sport. An in-depth article on the plan is available here.
Let’s dig in. While a number of angles present themselves when covering this topic, a few bullet points in the B.A.S.S. piece really stand out. The premise of the committee is summed up early:
> "B.A.S.S. is creating a committee to continuously monitor the use of forward-facing and live sonar, listen to angler feedback and gauge the technology’s impact on competition, fan experience and bass populations."
The initial component flew off the page. Impact on competition? Forward-facing sonar has been the driving force in the success of virtaully every major bass tournament winner this season. It has completely changed the game, more than any piece of equipment or technology since the electric trolling motor. All recent prior advancements – Side Imaging sonar, shallow-water anchors, braided lines, umbrella rigs – pale in comparison to the impact of forward-facing sonar in the outcome of bass tournaments.
I remember previously making a prediction along these lines. Then, a number of readers disagreed, saying forward-facing sonar will have it’s place, but an overall minor impact on the outcome of a season. In fact, we’re seeing a move in the opposite direction, as recent shallow-water and spawn events have been won using the technology, along with the open-water tournaments forward-facing sonar dominates.
B.A.S.S. has already contacted all Elite Series anglers who requalified for the 2024 season to gauge their impressions on the impact of live technology during the previous season and has used that feedback to determine the appropriate steps for 2024.
It’s important to get the feel of the anglers. But consider who is being interviewed. While many of the veteran pros will likely express an aversion for the technology, others owe their success to it. The majority of the newest Elite qualifiers are well-versed in forward-facing sonar and have relied on it to separate themselves from the competition. And who could blame them? If you were competing on the pro golf tour, and that tour now allowed the use of a laser-guided putter, would you learn how to use it, or scoff it off and complain?
> "Huge limits, highlighted by four smallmouth century belts on the St. Lawrence River at the final Elite event of the season, showcased how live sonar in the hands of anglers can make for incredibly exciting tournaments."
Really? Watching anglers troll around, head down, waiting to cast is incredibly exciting? More exciting than Brandon Cobb at Lake Fork, or Bill Lowen on Pickwick? How about Clunn at the St. Johns?
> "Tight tournaments helped to fuel record-breaking fan engagement online, as the BassTrakk live leaderboard was visited more than 34 million times, Bassmaster social media channels generated 133 million impressions and fans visited Bassmaster.com 16 million times."
Okay, here’s what we’re really getting at. Online engagement was up, which must mean that things are more exciting, right? What it really means is that more fans are interested in seeing just how much forward-facing sonar is impacting the sport, specifically the potential that we’ve all been missing. Any fisherman on the Great Lakes, for example, wants to see just how big the fish get. Have 8- and 9-pound bass been swimming all around us, without being caught? The 10-pound Erie monster caught in late 2022 confirms this. Who wouldn’t tune in to see what can be caught when a hundred of the world’s best anglers spend a week in search of behemoths?
This should not be confused, however, with fan engagement. Spending a minute or two online to check a leaderboard is not engagement. In fact, I’d wager that, although overall online numbers may be up, the average time spent on live bass fishing sites is down.
> "The committee will also track studies by fisheries biologists and state agencies as they look at the overall impact of live sonar on our fisheries. Historically, bass have adapted to new fishing techniques, and many around the sport believe fish will adapt to the use of live technology. Since bass are not traditionally harvested at the same rate as other species like crappie, panfish and walleye, for example, little impact on the health of bass populations is expected although, to date, few studies have included bass. "
This one will come and go in the minds of most, but shouldn’t. In fact, it’s the most important variable in the game. Call me dramatic, but the impact of this sonar on fish populations cannot be overstated. It’s simply detrimental to crappie populations, period. Most of today’s game laws are based on catch rates from the 1950s. Ask yourself this: Would you like to see a group of four anglers harvesting 100 crappies a day from your local lake, and repeating the performance every day for three months? That’s what I’m up against around my place. How about the same for walleyes, or your biggest bluegills this ice-fishing season? Count on it.
Granted, bass are different. The vast majority of anglers release bass. Tournaments, really, have little impact on populations. But how much have we considered bass caught from deep water and the effects of barotrauma? Forward-facing sonar is allowing anglers to target fish in previously unheard of depths. How will populations respond? How will winter sanctuary areas be impacted?
I’m critical, I know. It’s my job.
B.A.S.S. should be commended for taking the initial step to investigate the impacts of forward-facing sonar on the sport. While catch rates have skyrocketed, I see no other benefit, yet the drawbacks could fill a page.
For some time now, the objective of our sport has been to advance the components involved that allow us to catch more fish. For the most part, this has worked to benefit us all, and increased our enjoyment and participation on the water. We’ve allowed the manufacturers involved in producing new gadgetry to, essentially, have free reign over what makes its way onto the competitive playing field.
Yet no other major sport follows this guideline. All have rules and regulations in place to limit technology from taking the sport, and the fun, out of the game, and ensure a fair playing field. Are we finally going to look in the mirror?
We’ll have to wait and see.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)