By 1954, real-time and side-scanning sonar had made it to the commercial and sportfishing fleets worldwide. Although it was nothing like today's units, the technology was the same, only differing in how the data was manipulated and then displayed. Thoughts of fishing out the ocean were a concern, and duly so. Image April 1954 issue of Field & Stream.

It never ceases to amaze me what mining old magazines digs up.  Today’s post, Live Sonar in 1954, is a prime example of what I’m talking about.  We’ve talked here in the past about sonar and its advent for military uses and how that evolved into use for commercial fishing after World War II.  But how far along was the technology then and when did it seem to become a problem with respect to fisheries conservation.  I think the answers to those questions will surprise you.

First off, the article presented here came from the April 1954 issue of Field & Stream magazine.  The title of the article, “No Place to Hide,” provides a bit of a scare into what the future may hold to fisheries with the introduction of this new technology.

In 1954, though, the technology wasn’t new.  In fact, it was introduced by the Furuno brothers out of Japan in 1948.  Between 1948 and 1954, several companies got on the bandwagon and started producing units for commercial and sport fishing, primarily for use in saltwater.

The article presented talks about how at first the units were only used to show depth.  But once boat operators got familiar with that, they realized the units showed much more than the bottom.

In the third paragraph, page 49, the writer describes a situation where the skipper of New Jersey cattle boat was fishing a wreck in 20 fathoms of water.  The passengers were not catching anything at the prescribed depth.  Then the sonar lit up at 10 fathoms.  This had happened before but the skipper had let it pass as an anomaly.  This time he thought it just might be fish and he asked his passengers to reel up halfway between the surface and bottom with their bait.  All hell broke loose.

This is one of the first accounts of using the sonar to find and catch fish, not just search for bottom structure.  There is no date of when this happened, but it was obviously well before 1954.

The article then introduces another pair of industrious operators who used up to four “depth indicators” on their “sound boat” to aid in their purse seining operation, page 50.  Not only did they use the “depth indicators” in the vertical plane but also in the horizontal.  The readouts were in real-time and allowed them to set their nets around an entire school of fish.


By 1954, it was possible to find and track schools and even individual fish through real-time, forward-facing sonar. Here are some examples of wha the technology looked like at the time. Image April 1954 issue of Field & Stream.

The cost of these sounders back in the 1950s was $5,000 per device.  But there was another company that was releasing their version in the $1,000 range.  Too much money for freshwater anglers but a reasonable cost for a commercial offshore angler.  Especially if it made the operation more efficient.

The author then talked about the banning of sonar in offshore big-game tournaments.  At this point, one big-game event had banned spotting planes from use and the author asks the rhetorical question, how is sonar any different?”

The range of these sounders was impressive.  At a minimum, these units could reach out 1/4 mile with a full mile not unheard of.  There was even a zoom capability on the RCA version of the sounder.

Another amazing feature about some of these units was their ability to show the real-time direction of the fish from the boat.  Operators could not only determine where the school of fish was in relation to the boat, but they could determine their speed and depth.  If you think of it, this makes total sense coming from the military application of finding submarines.

Forward-Facing, real-time sonar in the 1950s?  Yes, that’s right.  And it’s been used in the saltwater commercial and sportfishing industry since that time.  The jump from salt to freshwater wouldn’t come until the mid-1970s, though, when Bill Stembridge of Fliptail would introduce the Aquascan.  What killed this product was its cost, at $1,000.

But let’s get back to the article at hand.

The final subject the author addressed was fish conservation and how this technology would affect fish populations.  In saltwater, I think it’s safe to say that these units have decimated populations of pelagic saltwater species.  Commercial boats from Japan and China roam the international waters and wrap entire schools of tuna and other species to the brink of exhaustion.  Sportfishing, on the other hand, could never have this effect, especially with the limits imposed by most fish and game authorities.

The same argument is now being heard in freshwater with the recent introduction of the technology in that industry.  There are arguments on both sides of the aisle, and each makes sense to its owner.  The right answer won’t be known for some time with respect to conservation, but the real question is, is this really sportfishing?

I highly recommend reading this article in full to get a good historical idea of how long the technology has been around.  It’s presented in its entirety below.

No Place to Hide Page 1. April 1954 issue of Field & Stream.
No Place to Hide Page 2. April 1954 issue of Field & Stream.
No Place to Hide Page 3. April 1954 issue of Field & Stream.
No Place to Hide Page 4. April 1954 issue of Field & Stream.
No Place to Hide Page 5. April 1954 issue of Field & Stream.