9 steps to maximum sonar performance

By Lance Valentine

One of the most common questions I get asked by the fishing public is “Why can’t I see more on my sonar?”. A simple answer isn’t available, but after a few questions of my own, a solution can usually be found. Below are some of the most common mistakes sonar users make and how to fix them. Be sure to perform the following steps in the order listed to set your unit properly.

Step 1: Turn off AUTO mode
The biggest mistake most anglers make is using their sonar unit in automatic mode. This may be the easiest way, but it is also the quickest way to guarantee most of the information you want and need to be seeing won’t be showing up on your sonar screen! Automatic mode sets depth ranges, sensitivity level, colorline and chart speed of the unit based on factors such as depth, speed, bottom composition etc. The problem with these automatic settings is that they are never high enough for seeing the targets fishermen want and need to see.

Step 2: Tell the unit what transducer you are using
After you turn off AUTO mode, the first thing an angler needs to do is verify that the sonar unit knows which transducer is being used. While some newer units do this automatically, it is important that anglers check and verify that the proper transducer is selected. It is important to do this since each different transducer sends information to the sonar unit in a “different” language. Being sure the unit knows what “language” to listen to means the unit will get ALL the information in needs in a way it can translate and send to the display.

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Step 3: Set Proper Fishing Mode
Once the unit knows which transducer to listen for, we need to set the proper fishing mode on the unit. Again, doing this sets “base” levels for key settings such as sensitivity, colorline, ping speed etc. Using the right fishing mode for how and when you are fishing is key to getting good sonar readings. For most fishing you should select “Shallow Water” as the fishing mode. Now, those anglers who fish deeper water, especially for salmon, will say that they fish deep water and will almost select the “Deep Water” fishing mode. This can be a mistake. Remember, even though you are fishing in “deep” water of 100-400 feet of water, you are focusing on fish that are in “shallow water”. Shallow water mode is the best setting for readings down to about 100’, so even though you are fishing in “deep” water, the shallow water setting is best for seeing fish and bait in normal ranges.

If the “shallow water” mode seems to be giving you a less than perfect reading, switch to “Fresh Water” mode. Avoid using deep water mode in any fresh water fishing situation, and NEVER select any of the other available fishing modes.

Step 4: Set Screen Palette
The ability to distinguish between game fish and bait fish, hard and soft bottom depends on setting the proper screen palette. I like palettes that make gamefish and hard bottom show up as yellow. This is VERY important since as you will in a few steps, your screen should be “dirty” with some black and blue on it, so using a palette that shows gamefish as yellow makes it easy to see fish when the screen is “dirty”.

For Lowrance users select Palette #1 and for non-Lowrance users select the “white background” option. The proper palette is one which shows big fish and hard bottom as YELLOW!!

Step 5: Set Sensitivity
With the Fishing Mode set properly, the sensitivity will be set at a “base” level that is close to right but adding more sensitivity will make a sonar unit show better returns. Go into sonar settings and adjust the sensitivity to AUTO plus 2-3%.

Step 6: Set Colorline
Colorline is the setting that instructs the sonar unit at which intensity of a return to show specific colors and is the key to having gamefish and hard bottom show up as yellow, so they are easy to identify. Again, shallow water fishing mode sets the colorline at a good level, but we need a little more to get the readings we want. Adjust colorline to about 68-72%.

Step 7: Set Ping Speed
Ping speed determines how many “pings” of sound are sent down through the water in a specified amount of time. Sending too many pings can overload the unit and clutter the screen, too few and the unit won’t work at high speed or show quality returns. For most fresh water fishing situations, ping speed should be set at 17-18 pings.

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Step 8: Set Scroll Speed
Scroll speed determines how information moves across the screen. Too slow and targets begin to bunch up, too fast and information doesn’t stay on the screen long enough to see. Set the scroll speed to X2 or X3 for the right speed to separate vertical targets but also keep information on the screen long enough to view it.

Step 9: Set Proper Depth Range
Using proper depth ranges is very important in maximizing the quality of the picture on the sonar screen. It is important to be able to see the entire water column but avoid using too large of a depth range and waste pixels looking too far below the lake bottom. I like to use a depth range that shows me about only 5’ below the bottom of the lake to give me the clearest and most detailed picture I can get.

Follow these 9 steps in order to set up your sonar unit and you will be surprised how much better what you see will become. These steps are great for basic setup. In future articles we will be covering some advanced settings to get even more from your sonar unit.


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