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The Revolution of the Fishfinder

Fishfinder technology has evolved to provide more precise data than ever before.

Fishfinder technology has evolved to provide more precise data than ever before.

Spend enough time on the water with a professional angler, and the subject eventually will come up: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen on the water since you’ve started fishing? The anglers themselves vary — professional anglers can remain active for decades — but their response is usually the same. Electronics.

The Furuno brothers are believed to have been first to market with a “fish finder” in 1948, using a device designed to detect bubbles. Lowrance is credited with the creation of the first transistorized sonar product, the FISH LO-K-TOR, in 1957.

Those creators never could have imagined today’s fishfinders, which have more in common with declassified CIA technology than they do with early units. GPS is now standard on devices from $200 up. Marine charts map fisheries down to the foot. And many times, a fishfinder is able to tell a GPS-guided trolling motor where to drive the boat.

Side Imaging

The genesis of today’s fishfinders dates to 2005, when Humminbird introduced consumer Side Imaging technology. Once confined to narrow, 5- to 15-foot beams of sonar, anglers could see readings from more than 150 feet on either side of the boat. In effect, this was the first time fishermen got a true “map” of the world underwater, rather than a vertical interpretation.

By 2009, Lowrance’s StructureScan had followed suit, and by 2012, Humminbird had morphed Side Imaging into 360 Imaging, creating what some professional anglers dubbed “X-ray vision” for fishing. It displayed a full view around all sides of the boat.

This sprint to deliver ever-more-detailed views below the surface also drove consumers to seek out bigger and better displays. The average size of a pro-level display hovered between 10 and 12 inches.

Touch Screen Technology

As recently as 2017, manufacturers were still torn on whether buyers preferred touch screen or tactile fishfinders. Customers had come to expect lag-free touch interfaces from smartphones, and it took more than a decade for marine electronics to catch up. The early confusion led to an array of products with push-button functionality and touch screen tech, and sister products that offered one or the other.

Now, the hesitation is gone. Humminbird was the first major player to bring touch screen technology to multifunction displays, with ONIX and ION at the 2014 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, and Raymarine was the first to create a truly lag-free system with quad core processing in its Axiom (in 2017) and Axiom Pro lines. Lowrance’s quad core HDS Live and Simrad’s dual-quad core NSO Evo3 premiered in 2018. Humminbird’s Mega Imaging system, which launched in 2018 and delivers perhaps the most detailed, static consumer sonar images of all time, demands even more powerful processors.

Real-Time Sonar

In 2015, Garmin provided anglers with a sonar breakthrough. Since their inception, sonar-based fishfinders had relied on displaying snapshots of what the bottom looked like when a transducer scanned it. Garmin’s Panoptix brought those snapshots into real time with a transducer capable of displaying instant feedback. Anglers could watch as fish moved toward or away from target areas and lures. They could use GPS to pinpoint a likely fishing spot, Side Imaging (Garmin SideVü) to find the fish’s exact location, and Panoptix to see how the fish responded to a bait.

In 2018, a more refined version of Panoptix, dubbed LiveScope, helped create double-digit growth in Garmin’s marine electronics division. Then, in fall 2018, Navico announced that Lowrance would field a competing product: LiveSight. Units are expected to begin shipping in May. It’s clear that real time sonar is the next major battlefront in the world of marine electronics.

After that, who knows? But it will likely be really cool. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.

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