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Starlo gives us a sneak preview of what he reckons is the biggest thing to hit marine electronics since LCD screens replaced paper sounders!

I’ve seen some momentous advances in depth sounders during my four decades as an angler. When I began fishing seriously, at the very end of the 1960s and into the early ’70s, only a small percentage of offshore recreational boats boasted sonar units, and they were practically unknown on the local estuary or freshwater scenes. The few sounders then available were bulky and expensive. Most had a circular “flasher” screen on the right, and the best of them (from companies like Furuno, Fuso and GME) also used a belt-driven stylus to paint a scratchy, curved picture of the sea bed on a scrolling sheet of sensitised paper. If I close my eyes today, I can still smell the distinctly electrical, burnt-carbon odour created as that tick-ticking stylus etched its dark charcoal marks on the blue-backed paper.

Later came straight-line paper sounders, which were much easier to interpret, and then the first of the non-paper LCDs, with their small, coarsely-pixilated screens that were almost impossible to read in direct sunlight or while wearing polarised sunglasses. But things were moving faster now and, by this stage, one name was rapidly rising towards the top of the recreational sonar market, especially here in Australia. That name was Lowrance.

Coloured pictures in reasonably-priced recreational sounders came next. As with the switch from paper to LCD screens a decade earlier, this much-touted “advance” was initially something of a backward step, at least in my humble opinion (and that of many other keen users). However, within a few seasons, much better recreational colour sounders were available at reasonably affordable prices. Lowrance remained a major player and an industry innovator, but it certainly didn’t have the running to itself. Several companies were now doing very impressive things in the sonar market, including side imaging and 3D.

Lowrance bounced back with its high-definition Broadband system, first as an add-on “black box”, then as an integral part of the current HDS range. But some observers (myself included) remained a little surprised that it hadn’t yet launched its own version of side imaging and 3D. I guess we should have known that Lowrance would be working away quietly on it, and not willing to press the “go” button until it was absolutely sure it had something really special. That finally happened in the second half of 2009.

Officially launched at the American ICAST tackle show in July this year, but widely “leaked” via You-Tube and other sources prior to its release, StructureScan is Lowrance’s emphatic answer to its competitors, and clearly the next “big thing” in recreational sonar.

At the end of July, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to play with one of the first Lowrance HDS units in Australia to be retro-fitted with the StructureScan module and special imaging transducer. This was a few days prior to the system’s official Australian launch at the Sydney Boat Show, and a good three months before the first retail stocks became available here.

So, what did I think? To put it bluntly, I was gob-smacked. It will take me a lot more than half a day on the water to even begin getting my head around the potential offered by this revolutionary sonar imaging system, but right away I was stunned by what I was seeing on the screen. The simplest way I can describe the images produced by SideScan and DownScan (the two imaging components of StructureScan) are to equate them with shining three powerful spotlights onto the ground from a hovering helicopter on a dark night. Two of these spotlights are angled left and right and one points straight down. Objects are “painted” in a stark white light (or any colour range you choose from the sounder menu’s palette) and also cast distinct shadows onto the ground behind and below them, giving a three-dimensional view and a clear indication of the height and shape of the object, as well as its separation from the ground (or sea bed). The result is stunning.

This sort of imaging is much clearer and less ambiguous for me than even the best standard 2D colour sonar pictures, but there’s still room for those more traditional pictures, and the great news is that Lowrance allows you to display both forms of readout side-by-side on the same screen, and even to overlay one on top of the other. This is nothing short of incredible, and the end result is the provision of more accurate, readily-understood sonar information than has ever before been offered to recreational users. The sonar bar has just been raised several notches, but I have a hunch the long-running sounder war is far from being over just yet… As they say; watch this space!

Statement Of Interest: Starlo does some unpaid promotional work for Navico Australia (Lowrance’s parent company), co-presents occasional DVD segments relating to their products (for which he’s paid by the DVD production company), and is the recipient of a long-term-loan Lowrance test unit from Navico.


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