KEVIN VANDAM: Seeing is believing with forward-facing sonar - Major League Fishing
KEVIN VANDAM: Seeing is believing with forward-facing sonar
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KEVIN VANDAM: Seeing is believing with forward-facing sonar

We have a window into the bass’ world that lets us spy on them in real time
Image for KEVIN VANDAM: Seeing is believing with forward-facing sonar
Mercury pro Kevin VanDam believes that changing and adapting to new fishing technology is the best way to grow as an angler. Photo by Phoenix Moore. Angler: Kevin VanDam.
January 31, 2023 • Kevin VanDam • Angler Columns

This year will be my 33rd season fishing professionally. If someone had told me 33 years ago that in 2023 I’d be putting five Humminbird Solix units, a MEGA Live transducer, a MEGA 360, a Target Lock, an Ultrex Spot-Lock trolling motor and two Raptors on my boat flanking my Mercury FourStroke Outboard, I would have said they were crazy. But here we are. Who would have ever thought fishing technology would have come this far?

I will say, after 33 years of fishing, I’m learning far more about bass behavior per day spent on the water than I did 20 years ago. Most of that is due to technological improvements over the last decade.

I know, some people are not big fans of forward-facing sonar. Some think live beaming is ruining fishing. Some think it’s taking the skill out of the sport. Others think it provides an unfair advantage. Trust me, I’ve heard it all. But the fact is, it’s now a part of our fishing world. It’s here to stay and it’s only going to get better. It is, by far, the most potent learning tool in fishing I’ve ever experienced. For the first time ever, we have live testimony of how fish really behave. There’s no more guessing or wondering what they’re doing, you can see it in real-time. 

Front row seat

This is the same reason aquariums are so captivating to people, especially anglers. There’s something mesmerizing about fish swimming around in a tank. Bass Pros Shops puts huge, amazing aquariums in the middle of their stores because anglers love to watch fish. I worked sport shows for years where they hauled in the Hawg Trough tank and a mobile aquarium full of bass. Crowds would gather around and watch them swim in circles for hours, tapping on the glass to get their attention, pointing laser pens into the tank to see if they would react to the red dot. 

Why? Because we as anglers are so dang curious about bass. Now we have a small window to their world in our boats where we can spy on them in real-time. It’s truly amazing.

Kevin VanDam’s boat is decked out with the latest tech. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Change is hard

Amazing as it is, I’ll be the first to admit it’s not easy. It’s not easy to see young anglers come into the sport, with a fraction of my fishing experience, and have so much fast success using these “fish scopes.” It’s not easy watching 33 years of my hard-earned sweat equity on the water get eroded away in three years of watching bass on this device. It’s not easy to realize that some of the fundamental things I thought were true about bass behavior are simply assumptions based on best guesses. It’s not easy to get fish to bite just because you see them on a screen.

It’s not easy to … change. 

But I’m a fisherman at heart. With that, I’m obsessed with learning anything I can about bass behavior, even if it means owning up to the fact that some of the things I thought were true are being overturned by a sonar beam and screen. 

Debunking myths

Some of the first behaviors I witnessed with Mega Live absolutely shook the very foundations of my knowledge base. First were the sheer numbers of fish I saw swimming around out in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, they were not all bass, but certainly, some of them were. I was shocked to see how much of a lake’s ecosystem is so nomadic. And, I’m not just talking about St. Clair. I’m talking about Ozark impoundments, Carolina lakes, Texas, and yes, even Florida. 

The second huge myth in my belief system was how “stationary” and cover-oriented bass are supposed to be. So many of my strategies revolve around this “fact.” Yes, some bass do relate to cover, but there are a lot of them that are perfectly fine just swimming around over nothing. And when I say, “swimming around,” I mean constantly swimming.

The third shocker is how many bass follow our lures, over and over again, and don’t bite. This has been going on for years and I never knew it. If I did, I would have changed lures, actions, sizes, colors, etc., so much sooner to figure out what would trip their trigger. 

Creating myths

While this forward-facing sonar has helped uncover some bass fishing myths, it has created some, too. The biggest is this sudden claim that you have to go spend, “$20,000 in electronics,” so you can, “just throw at the dots,” and catch them at will. This is simply not true either. Three years ago, the very first anglers to certain lakes with this technology probably had a few magical days with it, but with so much added beaming pressure happening so quickly, those magical days are already coming to an end. 

There has been so much emphasis put on the big screen arms race and how “unfair” throwing at the dots are, that the real benefits of this new viewfinder to the underwater world are being lost in the shuffle. To be able to study the underwater world in real-time, to see how fish really behave, where they are located, how close they are to structure, how deep they are, how they react to your boat, how they react to your lure, and how they relate to other fish in the area. 

I can’t emphasize how critical all this real-time information is in understanding what’s going on out there. These are revelations we have never seen before in the history of fishing. 

For Kevin VanDam, knowing what’s going on underwater is only part of the game, knowing what to do with it is another. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Believing leads to change

Trust me, these are just a fraction of the observations that Mega Live has forced me to accept, and as a result, change my approach to fishing in some ways. 

In upcoming blogs, I’ll address how Mega Live will be changing the way I fish in 2023. There are some guys that rely on it 100% of the time. That’s not me, I’m too much of a traditional fisherman. But I’m learning ways to make this new tool work for me in the ways I like to fish.

Until then, I want to leave you with a simple story about forward-facing sonar. My dad is now 84 years old and does not take to technology very well; he doesn’t know how to take a picture on a cell phone and send it to somebody. 

He has always loved bream fishing on local lakes from his pontoon boat. For the last couple of years, he hasn’t been able to bream fish as much due to some ongoing health issues. Last year, I put a Mega Live transducer on a pole and attached it to the side of the pontoon. I hooked the transducer to the Helix unit already on the boat. His intrigue in this new sonar technology got him back on the water. He wanted to see what it was all about, so he began to troll around and use the beam to see what was swimming around out in the lake. To him, it’s like a periscope on a submarine, peering around underwater, looking at different fish blips on the screen. 

At first, it took him a little while to interpret the blips and dots on the screen. Once he began to understand what he was looking at in terms of fish size and movement, he took note of what areas seemed to consistently hold the right-looking dots. This whole new dimension intrigued him enough to get the rods out again and tinker with the dots he was seeing. 

By seeing fish and realizing how high off the bottom they were, he began switching up presentations, from little ultralight tube jigs to tiny drop shots. Some days, the fish seem to be way up in the water column, and he would go to a bobber with a fly tipped with a waxworm. In time, he started to see the fish getting closer to particular presentations over other presentations. Seeing this unfold right before his eyes, he continued to change things around until he could see the bream peck his bait. 

I cannot begin to tell you how much this has renewed his love for bream fishing and revived his curiosity to get out there and study those dots whenever he can. He doesn’t catch all the dots he sees. He doesn’t haul in 50 bream a day. But, he fools around with it long enough to bring in a few fish for dinner for him and my mom. Simply put, he loves this game again thanks to technology. 

Seeing doesn’t mean catching all the dots. Seeing is believing. And believing is what leads to change to become a better angler.