Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Forward Facing Sonar Fishing, In Depth

Do we really need another article about catching fish with forward-facing sonar (FFS), the singular topic that seems to invade every fishing conversation today?

If you ask most young anglers today—or many old-timers, to boot—the answer would seem to be a resounding yes. “Almost every question I get these days is related to FFS,” notes Z-Man walleye pro Dylan Nussbaum, a sonar sight fishing wiz. “Anglers want to know how to set it up, how to trigger ‘sonar fish’ to bite and especially, which lures to use with FFS and how to retrieve them.”

According to super skilled, youthful anglers like Nussbaum, fishing traditions are shifting. Young, energetic fishermen are mastering new skillsets, birddogging bogeys on fish radar and firing heatseeking missiles with military-like precision. Moreover, as Nussbaum and other FFS specialists will suggest, going one-on-one with big fish, flipping a jig and Jerk ShadZ™ on their piscine snouts is an absolute adrenaline rush.

“We watch videos and read so much about fishing with sonar these days, but I think there’s a lack of content really explaining how and why we do what we do when we’re up front, crouched over a screen, flicking baits and setting hooks. Sure, I use FFS to catch big fish and win tournament money, but the truth is, it’s also an awesome learning experience and honestly, one of the most exciting and rewarding ways to catch ‘em.”
image 169

Z-Man: Seems like the power of FFS has shined through at recent walleye tournaments. Most eye raising are the big water tournaments, like on Lake Erie, where trolling methods that cover large swaths of water are gradually being supplanted by casting a single lure to a single fish spotted on sonar. Why are anglers adapting?

Dylan Nussbaum: Beyond the fun factor, of course, it all boils down to the fact FFS helps us pinpoint and cast to individual big fish, one-on-one with a favorite lure, as opposed to towing lures around the general vicinity of a school, hoping one will eventually eat. In tournaments, we’re looking to put five big fish in the boat each day, rather than seeking limits of smaller eater sized fish.

So, even in inland seas like Erie, we’re able to use electronics to find general fish-holding zones—often well off-structure—and then zero in on larger, individual walleyes. We saw it at the last two national tournaments on Lake Erie, where many of the top ten placing anglers opted to go ‘scoping rather than trolling. Even amid infinite volumes of potential fish-holding water, a single angler wielding FFS and the right skills can sometimes catch more big fish than the trollers, who cover ten times more water, faster.
image 164

Z-Man: Tell us about the baits you’re casting with FFS fishing.

Dylan: Right now, it seems like everyone’s throwing a jig and Scented Jerk ShadZ, which has become the default FFS lure, especially early and late in the season. The 4-inch Jerk ShadZ delivers the perfect bait-sized profile. I’ve thrown it at every tournament this year. The ElaZtech® material is so soft and it’s buoyant, too; moves differently than any other fluke-minnow bait I’ve used. Get it nice and straight on a jighead and watch the bait as you reel in. If it’s rigged right, you’ll get this killer crankbait-like action, a subtle wobble and shimmy that can’t be duplicated because of its superplastic material.

Z-Man: Why are anglers experiencing so much success with this bait, including in both walleye and bass tournaments like the 2023 Bassmaster Classic?

Dylan: I think the buoyancy is a huge advantage for suspended fish because it keeps the bait up and almost hovering in place. You benefit from a slowed-down drop, so it’s not falling past fish too fast. Underwater, the bait’s buoyancy also keeps it perfectly aligned at that ideal horizontal angle on a jighead. Also, I can use a heavier jig for casting distance, but still benefit from a slower, more seductive rate of fall.

On bottom, the Jerk ShadZ’ tail stands up, remains visible and looks alive. In all cases, I love the Jerk ShadZ in tournaments, because this optimal bait (and hook) angle basically guarantees I’ll sting 95-percent of the fish and right in the roof of the mouth. You almost never lose a fish on this set up, either. Feel that thump and you got ‘em.

Z-Man: What about the durability of the ElaZtech material. Why is this important?

Dylan: The fact I can fish with one bait all day and never have to worry about the tail getting ripped off by a short biter or nipped in half by nuisance fish; that is huge. I’m never fishing and wondering if my bait looks right or if it’s been destroyed, so every cast is pure confidence. Add a single drop of Loctite Gel Control before threading the bait on the jig and you’ll essentially create a bulletproof lure that lasts all day long.

Z-Man: Any guidelines on your preferred bait colors for FFS fishing?

Dylan: In clear water, I’m throwing natural baitfish patterns like Bad Shad, Disco Cisco or Perfect Perch. If the water’s stained to dirty, I do especially well with Pro Yellow Perch or plain old Pearl.
image 165

Z-Man: What’s the longest you’ve followed and cast to a single fish before provoking a bite?

Dylan: If it’s the one I need, as long as it takes (laughs). Last week at Lake Erie, I worked one fish for 15 minutes. Finally got her to turn and nip the bait. When that happened, I knew I had her. It looked like an 8-pound walleye on screen, and she was.

Z-Man: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned by using FFS?

Dylan: Well, it’s entirely changed the way I think about walleye behavior. The craziest thing is witnessing just how much the fish are moving. On the Great Lakes, they’re swimming non-stop, often travelling faster than you can run even with the trolling motor set at 10. On Kinzua Lake, near my home, I’ve discovered that even if you don’t see fish on a favorite point where you’ve been catching them, a quick move down along the break or over to the next point can put you back on ‘em. Walleyes on structure often set up travel routes, so they’ll often visit the same certain points every day, but not always at the same time.

Active Target has also taught me a ton about walleye feeding and that sometimes, you need to put a lure right in a tiny little sweet spot or with a certain specific action, before they’ll even take notice.

Z-Man: Any shortcuts to help anglers find their lure on screen?

Dylan: Start with short pitches. Make sure your transducer is perfectly aligned with the nose of the trolling motor. Once you can consistently hit a target and see your lure every cast—say with short 10-foot pitches—increase to 20- and then 30-foot casts. It’s all about retraining your mind and muscles to cast at virtual moving targets rather than a physical tree branch sticking out of the water.

Z-Man: How do you stay on individual fish when they’re moving?

Dylan: Boat control is everything with my style of power fishing, especially as it gets windy and rough, producing challenges like bows in your line. You need a powerful, super responsive trolling motor. I use a Minn Kota Ultrex with 115-pounds of thrust. Then it’s all a matter of your ability to hit small targets, like a walleye 54 feet out, 18 feet down.

One of the biggest mistakes I see anglers make is engaging the bail on their reel too fast, which sweeps the lure back toward the boat and away from your target. Instead, leave the bail open and watch the line (most anglers use bright fluorescent braid for a mainline), letting it freefall straight down. Do this and you’ll start seeing your lure show up on screen.
image 166

Z-Man: Walk us through a typical fishing scenario and the lure moves you use to trigger bites.

Dylan: Usually, I prefer to target the singles, which are usually bigger lone wolf walleyes, often hunting pelagic prey. (That’s another key thing I’ve learned . . . that the biggest walleyes suspend 5 to 10 feet off bottom way more than they pin themselves tight to the sand.)

Again, the first and most critical element is hitting targets, making sure your bait shows up on screen. If I miss, I’ll immediately crank back in and fire another cast. If I hit the bullseye, I let the bait—nearly always a Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ on a 3/8-ounce jighead—drop 10 to 15 or 20 feet down, right at the fish level. Stop. Give the bait a few twitches and if you don’t notice a change in the fish’s body language, rapidly reel back and cast again. Keep approaching the fish from different angles with different casts. (Don’t retrieve the lure into the fish’s face, rather keep it moving away.) Try to make ‘em chase. Or, even if I just make the fish turn its head, I’m confident I’ll eventually catch her.

Z-Man: Any other tricks to induce a positive response or a bite?

Dylan: Vary the cadence of your rod twitches, making the Jerk ShadZ pop from 6- to 12-inches. If you get fish following back to the boat without biting, I’ll take ‘em right to the bottom. Say you’re in 30 feet of water, with fish suspended 10 feet off. Drop the jig straight to the bottom, then start working the bait extra slow, perhaps just inching along the substrate. Usually, though, when you rocket straight down, the fish won’t even let the Jerk ShadZ touch down before crushing it on the freefall.

When the fish are super aggressive, it’s almost like you can’t work the bait too fast. Here, I might go to a 1/2-ounce jig and 4- or 5-inch DieZel MinnowZ™ swimbait instead of the Jerk ShadZ. The DieZel is a killer FFS bait for big fish, by the way. I believe its flat-sided profile provides a larger surface area that helps make it shine brightly on screen.
image 167

As more and more anglers adopt the technology and related techniques, they quickly discover the need to retrain or refine existing fishing skills. Most learn that catching fish with FFS requires the ability to “find” their lure on screen and then to hit virtual fish targets in space with pinpoint accuracy—a little like dropping a football right on the hands of a wide receiver, sprinting 30 yards downfield. All the better with baits that sink slower, hover in space and stand up to endless strike shots. Done right, fishing with FFS is not only invaluable as a learning tool, but it also delivers strong surges of adrenaline—anticipation, frustration and the inevitable rush of a loaded rod.
About Z-Man Fishing Products

A dynamic Charleston, South Carolina based company, Z-Man Fishing Products has melded leading edge fishing tackle with technology for nearly three decades. Z-Man has long been among the industry’s largest suppliers of silicone skirt material used in jigs, spinnerbaits and other lures. Creator of the Original ChatterBait®, Z-Man is also the renowned innovators of 10X Tough ElaZtech® softbaits, among the most coveted baits in fresh- and saltwater. Z-Man is one of the fastest-growing lure brands worldwide.