In a multimillion-dollar bluewater battlewagon, fighting for hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions—in prize money, it seems that no price is too high for a competitive edge.
Ten years ago, when full chirp sonar technology came to recreational boating, skippers reacted like they were whistling-gopher priced.
“What’s that go fer?”
And then they’d let out a shrill whistle.
Today, you wouldn’t build a serious offshore boat without dual-frequency chirp capability, and builders design their hulls to accept the boxy transducers.
Now there is a new whistling-gopher sonar on the market, and the price tag makes the original chirp tech look cheap. But it’s not exactly new—just new to tournament fishing. Omnidirectional sonar by makers such as Furuno, MAQ, and JRC scans the water under and around the boat in a 360-degree sweep, painting a seriously detailed graphic of where the bait is and where predators that are working it are in reference to the boat.
Gene Hill is credited with inventing omnidirectional fishing sonar 50 years ago. In the military, he developed defense department equipment until he started his own company, MAQ Sonar, in Ontario, Canada, in the early 1970s. At first, his 360-degree multibeam scanning system was considered practical and cost effective only for the commercial fishing market. Then one sport-fisher, Ultimate Lady, shelled out the $100,000 or so for the cost of equipment and installation, and used the new technology to gain an advantage in high-stakes billfish tournaments. It was no longer too expensive for sport fishing —sonar was suddenly indispensable.
What is Omni?
Furuno is probably the best known for its Omni sonar in America, but there are significant differences in the units. MAQ’s omni employs a lower 60 kHz frequency; the lower frequency gives its equipment longer range, but it has an important side benefit that’s become more relevant as more fishermen use it: Transceiving on a different frequency avoids interference with other systems. Furuno’s 8L, for instance, pings on 85 kHz—getting a ping from a competing sonar can block or diminish your own signal. MAQ’s signal is also unique in its narrower 6-degree vertical beam, and it’s stabilized to compensate for the motion of the ocean as the boat rolls in heavy seas.
MAQ’s first sport-fishing installation was in New Zealand 10 years ago, but until now, the company’s been focused on commercial fishing. In Spain, for instance, commercial boats use their sonar to track and catch highly profitable bonito, which are sold in the local markets.
Omni’s trademark technology is a transducer array that looks like a cylinder with a hemispherical bottom. It’s fitted to a stalk that deploys downward from the keel like an upside-down periscope. According to Furuno, its periscope has hundreds of transducers painstakingly soldered one by one into the array. They instantly transmit a fan of signals in a 360-degree pattern and report the echoes back to its black box, which interprets and displays them on a multifunction display as a circular echo return around the vessel.
When you look for fish on a conventional fish finder, you look straight down under the boat. With sonar, captains can look all around and spot a fish 600 to 1,000 yards away.
Early adopters say it’s worth the price of admission given their significantly higher catch rates. The price doesn’t look so high in that light.
Omni uses hundreds of individual transducers aligned in 10 or so circular layers. Each one has its own transmit and receive circuitry, and each one fires a ping simultaneously. A single pulse tells you everything around the vessel. It gives skippers the ability to track a fish in real time. The tilt can be adjusted as needed to track a fish in a particular direction. The definition of the targets isn’t as clear as one expects from simple downward-facing chirp, but with experience, captains quickly learn to distinguish what the targets are. Once you spot the single solid return of a substantial billfish, you can track it and position the boat using course changes to put the baits right in front of them.
The proliferation of omnidirectional sonars in the sport-fishing world is certainly an eye-opener, and we will continue to see growing adoption of this equipment. There is a weakness, though.
According to Furuno’s Eric Kunz: “If you’re scanning with Omni on 85 kHz and someone nearby is too, the signals interfere and diminish the sonar image. It’s like shining a light in everyone’s eyes.” You might think that makes the 60 kHz MAQ an attractive option, but with up to 1,000-yard range scanning, it won’t be long before you compete with a nearby boat transmitting at the same frequency. Full stabilization, however, is another arrow in MAQ’s quiver because it compensates for the boat’s roll, making it easier to do a full sweep, even when the boat is rocking.
The periscope requires an 8-inch hole in the hull bottom for the fiberglass tube that holds and deploys the transducer. Larger systems such as the Furuno FSV85 are available, which grow in size and resolution and will require a 14-inch hole and an installed price tag of $270,000.
It seems that everyone is using omnidirectional sonar. Charter and tournament captains claim that the omni edge moves them from the middle of the pack to the top 10 in many tournaments. The payback for the price tag is definitely there. Todd Tally, general manager for Atlantic Marine Electronics, reports that he’s been installing omnidirectional sonars on big center-consoles, and he’s put a couple in 40-foot Freemans, among others.
“Five years ago, omni sonar on a center-console—what are you, nuts?” Tally says with a laugh. “Now? One guy calls, and then everybody wants it. On larger boats, this is an investment. Captains reason: I can catch an extra fish or two a day with it, which is enough to push me from the top 25 to the top 10, or from the top 10 to the top three. For tournaments such as the Bisbee’s and the white marlin tournaments on the East Coast, you have to have it. The guys don’t like talking about it, but nobody wants to be without it.”