SONAR ON STEROIDS

Com­mer­cial tech­nol­ogy is trick­ling down to high-end sport­fish­ing boats By Ron Bal­lanti

Soundings - - Contents -

High-pow­ered com­mer­cial tech­nol­ogy is trick­ling down to sport­fish­ing boats, and it’s noth­ing short of a revo­lu­tion for an­glers who want to up their game.

I’ve danced this dance hun­dreds of times, yet it never fails to make my pulse race. “Throw it steady off the port side,” the cap­tain’s voice crack­les over the loud­speaker. The deck­hand pitches one or two live sar­dines at a time over the side as the boat turns to in­ter­sect an unseen quarry. “Here they come, boys—let ’em have it!”

A few nets full of live an­chovies and sar­dines are launched off the stern, fol­lowed by a syn­chro­nized vol­ley of casts lob­bing hooked live baits into the fray. The wa­ter erupts with boils as fren­zied tuna crash through the chum with open maws. An­glers whoop and holler, first at the sight and sound of the boils, then as tuna slam their baits and bend their rods into heavy arcs. My older brother, a life­long an­gler and Viet­nam vet, once com­pared off­shore tuna fish­ing to com­bat: hours of bore­dom punc­tu­ated by mo­ments of may­hem, scream­ing and blood. I’ve al­ways ac­cepted this as a fairly ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia party-boat tuna fish­ing—at least from the an­gler’s per­spec­tive. Up in the wheel­house, how­ever, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. What seems like hours of mind­less driv­ing and trolling is of­ten a high-tech cat-and-mouse game, with ad­vanced sonar tech­nol­ogy used to hunt fast-mov­ing schools of fish.

Much like a scene from ev­ery sub­ma­rine movie ever made, the cap­tain at the helm is fo­cused on his ves­sel’s sonar sys­tem, scour­ing swaths of the wa­ter col­umn to find and in­ter­cept tuna. Sonar’s abil­ity to see 360 de­grees around the boat and de­tect in­di­vid­ual tar­gets or schools of fish from a quar­ter-mile or more away has given com­mer­cial fisher- men and char­ter skip­pers a huge tech­no­log­i­cal edge for decades.

Dur­ing the past few years these ad­vanced sys­tems have be­come more com­mon on recre­ational fish­ing boats—and not just megay­achts. In skilled hands this tech­nol­ogy has be­come noth­ing short of a revo­lu­tion for se­ri­ous an­glers look­ing to up their game.

Sonar orig­i­nally was an acro­nym for sound nav­i­ga­tion and rang­ing; to­day’s mod­ern equip­ment traces its ori­gins to naval tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped to hunt and de­stroy en­emy sub­marines. In re­cent years, how­ever, marine elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers have ap­plied the term sonar loosely to de­scribe var­i­ous types of echo sounders, from tra­di­tional straight-down fishfind­ers to tech­nolo­gies that scan the bot­tom on ei­ther side of the boat. Although these sys­tems pro­vide

use­ful in­for­ma­tion and help an­glers lo­cate fish and struc­ture, they are not the same as com­mer­cial-grade sonar.

There are sev­eral im­por­tant dif­fer­ences be­tween the two. True sonar sys­tems use a trans­ducer tube (usu­ally 6 or 8 inches in di­am­e­ter) and a hy­draulic or screw-op­er­ated hoist that low­ers the trans­ducer unit be­low the hull dur­ing op­er­a­tion. Dur­ing high-speed run­ning, the hoist raises the trans­ducer into a sea chest. True sonar can search hor­i­zon­tally around the boat in a full cir­cle, and it shows fish or struc­ture tar­gets on a radar­like dis­play. It also alerts at­ten­tive cap­tains to the pres­ence of fish through au­di­ble tonal dif­fer­ences, even if tar­gets don’t nec­es­sar­ily ap­pear on the screen.

True sonar sys­tems re­quire com­plex in­stal­la­tions and can range from about $14,000 to $75,000, just for the equip­ment. Sonar sys­tems avail­able to recre­ational fish­er­men fall into three gen­eral cat­e­gories: search­light sonar, sec­tor sonar and omni sonar. Search­light sonar sys­tems, such as Fu­runo’s CH- 270 ( about $14,000), uti­lize a beam as tight as 6 de­grees (like the beam of a flash­light) and me­chan­i­cally steer it to sweep as far as 360 de­grees around the boat. Be­cause this type of sonar waits for a re­turn be­fore mov­ing, it can take more than a minute to com­plete a full cir­cle when set at a max­i­mum range of 2,500 feet. This lag to com­plete a full cir­cle—known as a “train” in fish­ing par­lance—can be prob­lem­atic when chas­ing fast-mov­ing fish off­shore. How­ever, op­er­a­tors can re­duce the time sig­nif­i­cantly by us­ing shorter range set­tings or re­duc­ing the area to be searched to for­ward of the boat only. And although search­light sonar does take longer to com­plete a train, its sharp, nar­rower beam is less likely to miss dis­persed or hard-to-mark fish tar­gets.

Wes­mar, the sonar brand that is pretty much stan­dard equip­ment aboard the San Diego-based char­ter fleet, is also see­ing more of its new HD-860 search­light sys­tems be­ing fit­ted aboard pri­vate sport­fish­ing yachts. This sys­tem in­cludes gy­rosta­bi­liza­tion of the sonar beam to im­prove per­for­mance in rough weather. It sells for about $18,000.

Sec­tor sonar sys­tems, such as the Fu­runo CH- 37BB and Ko­den KDS- 6000BB, can be tuned to read larger sec­tors of wa­ter at a time, short­en­ing the time re­quired to com­plete a train at longer ranges. The Fu­runo CH-37BB, for ex­am­ple, can be set to a 45-de­gree-wide sec­tor at ranges to 6,000 feet. It re­tails for about $45,495. The Ko­den KDS-6000BB can be set to four sec­tor an­gles up to 20 de­grees and has a scan­ning range of 3,000 feet. It re­tails for $14,999. A true broad­band sec­tor sonar, the KDS-6000BB adds the unique abil­ity to ad­just the out­put fre­quency from 130 kHz to 210 kHz in 0.1 kHz steps, by turn­ing a dial. This fea­ture al­lows the op­er­a­tor to fine-tune sonar per­for­mance on the fly, based on the con­di­tions, sit­u­a­tion or type of fish he’s hunt­ing.

Fu­runo’s CSH-8L Mark-2 omni sonar is a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal al­to­gether. With this sys­tem, a sta­tion­ary trans­ducer shoots in all direc­tions at once, pro­vid­ing a 360-de­gree read­ing that shows re­turn­ing tar­gets in real time. The fact that there is no wait­ing for the dis­play to up­date as the sys­tem sweeps around the boat is an ad­van­tage for fish­er­men want­ing to lo­cate, track and keep up with fast-mov­ing fish, even when the tar­gets are far away. The CSH-8L Mark-2 has a max­i­mum range of 5,000 feet and sells for about $75,000.

For com­mer­cial fish­er­men or char­ter cap­tains who earn a liv­ing catch­ing fish, this so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment is sim­ply a cost of do­ing busi­ness. For the recre­ational an­gler and boat owner, how­ever, a sonar sys­tem is more of a lux­ury op­tion—al­beit an ex­tremely use­ful one.

Given the cost of the hard­ware, the in­stal­la­tion, which can run into tens of thou­sands of dol­lars, and the phys­i­cal space needed to ac­com­mo­date the sonar hoist, it’s easy to see why this tech­nol­ogy isn’t for ev­ery pri­vate-boat an­gler. Still, these sys­tems are find­ing their way aboard more ves­sels owned by recre­ational an­glers who fish se­ri­ously and com­pet­i­tively.

There are sev­eral fac­tors be­hind this sonar revo­lu­tion, and they vary, based on ge­og­ra­phy. Off Cal­i­for­nia, the fourth straight year of tro­phy bluefin tuna—and their con­tin­u­ously es­ca­lat­ing size—has cre­ated a fer­vor among pri­vate boaters. And although they have cer­tainly en­joyed some suc­cess, it’s a much tougher game when you’re lim­ited to what you can see above wa­ter. If there are no vis­i­ble signs, such as work­ing birds or jump­ing fish, an­glers just hope to in­ter­sect a school ran­domly with their trolling lures or drive over some fish with a straight-down sounder. It’s just not the same as ac­tively hunt­ing with se­ri­ous sonar.

Mon­terey, Cal­i­for­nia- based lawyer Paul Meltzer in­stalled a Ko­den KDS-6000BB on his 68-foot Buddy Davis sport­fisher, Ko­diak. From his home base in Santa Cruz, Meltzer fishes in­shore and off­shore wa­ters, chas­ing any­thing from rock­fish along the rugged coast to tuna on the off­shore banks. An avid an­gler and surfer, he fre­quently takes Ko­diak on long-range ex­cur­sions far down the Baja coast to such fa­mous fish­ing grounds as The Ridge and Hur­ri­cane Bank. There, much like San Diego’s lux­ury long-range fleet, Meltzer uti­lizes Ko­diak’s sonar to find and catch giant yel­lowfin tuna, wa­hoo, do­rado and yel­low­tail.

Meltzer is more hands- on than typ­i­cal yacht own­ers in that he runs and main­tains his ves­sel. For this rea­son it was im­por­tant that his new sonar be easy to un­der­stand and op­er­ate. “The fact that the KDS-6000BB has a stream­lined hoist unit and is easy to run, even for new op­er­a­tors, has made it more and more pop­u­lar among sport an­glers,” says Allen Sch­nei­der, vice pres­i­dent of sales for Si-Tex/Ko­den. “We even put a sys­tem on a 33-foot Grady-White in Cal­i­for­nia.”

Todd Tally, gen­eral man­ager of At­lantic Marine Elec­tron­ics, has a slightly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on what’s driv­ing sonar sales, but it still boils down to fa­mil­iar themes of com­pe­ti­tion and the de­sire to catch more fish. As a wholly owned sub­sidiary of Vik­ing Yachts, AME has in­stalled many Fu­runo sonar sys­tems on high-end sport­fish­ing boats up and down the East Coast. The ma­jor­ity of the sys­tems have gone to Vikings, but Tally has also helped put sonar on other boats, in­clud­ing a Win­ter 65 and a Jar­rett Bay 90. Although the first wave of sales was pri­mar­ily search­light sys­tems, Tally has seen a shift to omni-sonar tech­nol­ogy. He cred­its Ja­son Buck, cap­tain of the Louisian­abased Vik­ing 70 Done Deal, as an early adopter of Fu­runo’s omni-sonar tech­nol­ogy.

“Other boats would be trolling around the off­shore rigs, look­ing for fish, when they would see Ja­son pull up, stop for a few min­utes and drive off,” Tally says. “He could tell right away whether or not there were fish in the area. Then they would see him later at the dock weigh­ing, and word even­tu­ally got around how this tech­nol­ogy made him much more ef­fi­cient with his time on the wa­ter.”

Buck has notched some big pay­days on the big-game tour­na­ment cir­cuit, in­clud­ing a $1 mil­lion pay­out in last year’s Blue Mar­lin World Cup, a July Fourth tour­na­ment that at­tracts the world’s finest ves­sels and crews, all com­pet­ing to land the big­gest blue mar­lin that day from any lo­ca­tion world­wide.

An­other Vik­ing 70, Goin’ In Deep, used Fu­runo omni sonar to help boat the heav­i­est tuna and heav­i­est mar­lin weighed in dur­ing the 2017 Mid-At­lantic tour­na­ment, earn­ing well more than $ 1 mil­lion in prize money and side cal­cut­tas.

Ob­vi­ously, an in­vest­ment of this mag­ni­tude makes more sense for guys who fish com­pet­i­tively and chase prize money. But whether or not there’s a pot of gold at the end of the line, the old- fash­ioned need to keep up with the Jone­ses is help­ing drive the sonar arms race.

Com­mer­cial fish­er­men and pro­fes­sional cap­tains have been us­ing sonar for decades, per­fect­ing their in­ter­pre­ta­tion and tech­niques through count­less hours at the helm. For the yacht owner sud­denly blessed with these ad­vanced ca­pa­bil­i­ties, how­ever, all this tech­nol­ogy can be over­whelm­ing.

Capt. Pat Ca­vanaugh, of the San Diego char­ter boat Pa­cific Dawn, spends half his life on the wa­ter and has been run­ning sonar since 2003; he re­cently in­stalled a new Ko­den KDS 6000 sec­tor unit. More of­ten than not, it’s been his voice that I’ve heard crack­ling over the loud­speaker as I stood by, ready to hook up. Re­cently I watched as Ca­vanaugh played “sub hunter” with schools of 200- to 300-pound bluefin tuna, in­clud­ing one group he es­ti­mated to be 1,000 feet across. On deck we all waited and watched anx­iously for him to gain the po­si­tion needed to skip our trolled kite baits into the path of the fish. Once we did, the re­sult was pure pan­de­mo­nium.

When the dust set­tled we had put four “cow” bluefin of 217, 218, 240 and 293 pounds on the deck. It was an ex­cel­lent les­son in ad­vanced sonar use.

“Most boaters who are new to sonar just drive to the school of fish and stop,” Ca­vanaugh says. “You might pick up a few strag­glers, but the bulk of it has al­ready moved on. You need to get in po­si­tion to stop the school and make the fish stick with the boat. Tuna are usu­ally mov­ing fast, so you need to pace them, fig­ure out where they’re head­ing and get in front of the school.”

When he’s search­ing for fish off­shore, Ca­vanaugh usu­ally sets his sonar to sweep 180 de­grees and 400 to 500 feet ahead of the boat. This short­ens the train time and shows him what he needs to see most. “When I get on a stop and we’re hooked up,” he says, “I switch the sonar to 360 de­grees so I can track which way the school moves when they leave us.”

Sound also plays a huge part in find­ing fish with search­light and sec­tor sonar. The au­di­ble tone of the sonar re­turn changes when a tar­get is de­tected, some­thing to which ex­pe­ri­enced cap­tains are at­tuned. “Of­ten, you can hear fish long be­fore you see them—even if they’re out of range,” Ca­vanaugh says. “Or you could be shoot­ing above or be­low the main school, so you won’t see them on the dis­play, but you’ll pick up the sound. You turn to­ward where the beam was when you heard it, and you of­ten find the school.”

Time on the wa­ter teaches most skip­pers how best to set up their sonar for the type of fish­ing they’re do­ing, and for the weather and other con­di­tions. For ex­am­ple, when the seas are up, Ca­vanaugh tilts the beam down­ward a bit and re­duces the range to min­i­mize the ef­fects of sea clut­ter. Sta­bi­lized trans­duc­ers help with this but can’t fully al­le­vi­ate the ef­fects of boat move­ment.

“With the bluefin we’ve had lately, I’m shoot­ing out to about 900 feet in de­cent weather be­cause these are big tar­gets that will show up at long dis­tances,” he says.

In cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, what’s be­hind the boat might be more im­por­tant than what lies ahead. Mar­lin fish­er­men are of­ten fo­cused on fish com­ing into their trolling lure spread or ris­ing to their teasers, so scan­ning be­hind the ves­sel can give them a heads-up when some­thing good is about to hap­pen.

Sonar also helps skip­pers spy be­neath weed lines and kelp pad­dies far in the dis­tance, so they know whether it’s worth stop­ping or even trolling nearby. And the sys­tems can be use­ful for in­shore and bot­tom fish­ing. Tilt­ing the beam down­ward can pro­vide a long-dis­tance look at reef and struc­ture ar­eas and can be par­tic­u­larly use­ful in pin­point­ing schools of game­fish, such as Cal­i­for­nia yel­low­tail, that of­ten move around as they prowl these struc­ture ar­eas.

“I get a lot of yacht own­ers and cap­tains ask­ing me, ‘Do I need this?’ ” Tally says. “I tell them, ‘No, you don’t need it. The ques­tion is, do you want it?’ Sonar isn’t some magic bul­let that is al­ways go­ing to help you catch more fish, but in many sit­u­a­tions and fish­ing con­di­tions it can be an ex­tremely pow­er­ful tool to have in your arse­nal.”

Savvy sport an­glers are us­ing pro­fes­sional-grade sonar sys­tems to lo­cate tuna and other species.

A school of big­eye marks ahead of the boat on this pro­fes­sional-grade sys­tem. The hard­ware: the Fu­runo CSH-8L Mark-2 omni sonar, the Ko­den KDS 6000 broad­band sec­tor sonar

Cal­i­for­nia An­gler Paul Meltzer in­stalled a Ko­den KDS-6000 on his 68-foot Buddy Davis, Ko­diak.

Capt. Pat Ca­vanaugh (left) and the Pa­cific Dawn crew with three 200-plus-pound bluefin tuna

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