Catch Big Bass Without Forward-Facing Sonar

As more anglers adjust their tactics to new technology, they’re leaving shallow bass unpressured.

forward-facing sonar bass fishing

Forward-facing sonar is all that anyone can talk about these days, from the launch ramp to the tournament weigh-in line. It’s a deeply polarizing subject, with some anglers happily relying exclusively on it and others shunning it like kryptonite. No matter where you stand on the issue, it’s here and it’s permitted, at least for the time being, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it to be successful.

Yes, savvy technicians are finding populations of bass that were previously untapped. They’re hunting down giant loners like trophy bucks. They’re adding extra fish to their totals on a regular basis. Nevertheless, fish haven’t stopped eating shallow-water techniques that have worked for decades; instead, angling pressure across the board is more advanced.  Thirty years ago, few if any of us were using fluorocarbon lines, or Senkos or Chatterbaits. You can still go shallow, but you have to be shrewd.

First, remember that for most (but not all) bass fisheries, there’s a resident population of fish that never go deep. With all of the fuss about “scoping,” there is now less pressure on those fish. The guys offshore working on developing permanent neck injuries from staring at screens are leaving those fish alone. Still, you’re going to need to be smart about it. 

Most bass fisheries have a resident population of fish that never go deep. (Photo by Robbie Tartaglia)

It starts by eliminating some of the obvious places. Sure, if you fish a tidal river or someplace where bass otherwise regularly return to specific structure or cover, you can hit the key dock, rock pile, or other obvious places. They’re called “community holes” because they’ve historically held fish, but there are no “gimmes” anymore on most public water. Key places get hit again and again, so unless you’re willing to take a number and wait your turn, it’s often a losing strategy.

Instead, focus on secondary places, not necessarily “Grade B” spots, but areas that are harder to get to like isolated backwaters or the very end of a tributary. Of course, be judicious about navigation—no fish is worth busting up your boat or hurting yourself, but those out-of-the-way spots get less pressure. Even if you can’t access such places or the fishery in question doesn’t have any, think about similar gems hiding in plain sight.

bass fishing without forward-facing sonar
Focusing on hard-to-reach backwaters is a great way to find unpressured fish. (Photo by Tim Allard)

For example, most bass anglers enjoy working down a row of juicy docks in a contained area. It’s a target-rich environment.  That’s why the good ones get hit over and over again. But, if you know of a cove that has a single dock in the back in an area that should hold fish, take the time to go there. For the same reason, no-wake zones can be valuable resources because they don’t suffer from unending boat wakes and many “serious” tournament anglers avoid them because they suck up valuable time.

Along those same lines, think about the heaviest cover that fish get in to feed. Maybe it’s heavily matted grass, a dock with gnarly crossmembers, or some other seemingly impenetrable mass. That’s where to focus your efforts when things get tough, whether it’s a cold front, post-frontal conditions, or simply too much pressure for comfort.

When fishing gets tough, focus on dense, gnarly structure. (Photo by Tim Allard)

Avoiding forward-facing sonar doesn’t mean avoiding the level of work necessary to make that technology effective—it just means you’ll have to refocus it elsewhere. If anything, anglers should be inspired by the creativity and effort involved in making this new tool work. While it seems to be plug-and-play, those who are best at it spend countless hours figuring out the proper settings and other nuances, though it still takes an understanding of where the fish should be located.

And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. No, you don’t have to employ forward-facing sonar, but even without it, you can employ the spirit of the same strategies that make it work. First, as noted above, find isolated fish that aren’t being fished. Second, take on the mentality of a big-game hunter. Go out with a larger set of lures, such as a 12-inch plastic worm or an oversized 8-inch glide bait, and expressly target the biggest fish in the lake. Finally, envision that there’s a fish behind that glide bait at all times, as if you’re seeing it on the screen, so that you don’t screw the pooch when that bite finally does show up.

bass fishing without forward-facing sonar
Develop the mentality of a big-game hunter , fishing large baits for solitary fish. (Photo by Matt Foley)

Traditional power lures—such as hard-charging crankbaits, vibrating jigs, and big Texas rigs—still work under appropriate conditions, but the residue from increased angling talent and technology makes fish warier than ever before. If they’re not in an active feeding mood or have been pressured excessively, you’re going to need to convince them it’s time to eat. In clearer water, that might be a matter of dialing in a specific lure color or rate of fall. In dirtier water, it might necessitate a closer and quieter delivery to your target. In any situation, improved mechanics are really going to benefit your efforts. 

Of course, anglers resisting the siren call of forward-facing sonar should also take note that its earliest publicized use involved hard lures like jerkbaits and glide baits, though lately there’s been a paradigm shift. Now, you most often see its adherents using spinning rods, light line, and small minnow soft plastics on jigheads. Even a dyed-in-the-wool, Oklahoma mud fisherman like Jason Christie made the switch to earn a Classic win. How can you apply this shallow or in traditional power-fishing environments? Think finesse. It doesn’t have to be an itty-bitty 4-inch worm on a dropshot rig on 6-pound test, but there’s nothing wrong with “Bubba Shotting” a larger version of that same worm on 12- or 14-pound test. Small, ribbed swimbaits and flukes work just about anywhere at almost any time of the year, and they don’t have the same negative cues as lures like spinnerbaits or square bills. That doesn’t mean you have to put away those other options. Indeed, keep them on the deck or in the rod locker, but if fish aren’t triggered by those aggressive presentations and you know they’re there, go back through an area and hoover up the recalcitrant stragglers.

With the rise of forward-facing sonar, many bass anglers are turning their backs on shallow fish holding in structure. (Photo by Tim Allard)

Whether you’re steadfastly against it, can’t afford it, or just prefer to fish in a more “traditional” style, the lack of forward-facing sonar need not prevent you from having great days on the water, whether in tournaments or for fun. However, once you make that decision not to use it in your angling, it’s critical to go all-in on that decision. No what-ifs or turning your back to the bank to see what everyone else is doing. Instead, recognize that you’re fishing for a different, but in all likelihood, an equally-educated population of bass, and treat them as a lake unto their own. Most of all, be glad that all those other anglers with their faces glued to the screens in front of them are leaving your quarry alone.

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