How to use new camera technology to catch more while ice fishing.
By Cory Schmidt
Exactly 12 months after an unfortunate accident sank a camper-sized ice shelter to the lake floor, friends and I rediscovered its location with an underwater camera.
Safe to say the original owner never imagined his hardwater house would one day swarm with hundreds of sunfish and crappies.
His new neighbors were a family of big bass and one rather unfriendly muskie. Nonetheless, that’s exactly the surprising, surreal scene that met us when we saw it on the U/W screen.
Another time, I encountered a vast colony of tiny tube-like structures, spread across the muck bottom like miniature chimneys. These eerie little structures, I later learned, serve as the sessile homes of burrowing bloodworms. The tubes and little critters within regularly attract throngs of hungry crappies and create a nearly unknown fishing hotspot.
Another winter, while sleuthing a small body of water, I viewed a strange veil of cloudy white water hovering just above the leaves of gangly pondweed stalks.
This mystery milky layer apparenty was thousands of tiny copepods, a micro-crustacean preyed upon by many of our favorite game fish.
And last season, I watched through the underwater camera lens as a gigantic walleye attacked, engulfed and stole the 2-pound walleye on the end of my fishing line! You never forget such an image, nor the possibilities of the big one that really did get away.
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Such bizarre scenes — and dozens of others like these — play out each day beneath the ice, representing the sort of dramatic, never-before-seen stuff you simply can’t check out any other way, including sonar.
Given the fun and prospect of angling discovery, underwater cameras have become one of the most valuable ice-fishing tools today.
MACRO TO MICRO
Touching off a renaissance in angler enthusiasm for underwater viewing approximately five years ago, a new generation of portable, handheld cameras yielded unprecedented convenience and portability.
Aqua-Vu’s Micro series was the first underwater viewing system powered by a cell-phone battery. It fit into a coat pocket or a tackle box. Prior to the inception of these phone-sized cams, most of the viewing systems were large, clunky and anything but mobile.
Among the early micro camera fans, competitive ice fishing anglers Brandon Newby and Ryan Wilson credit handheld cams for three consecutive North American Ice Fishing Circuit, Team of the Year titles, a NAIFC championship and seven other tournament wins in five years.
“Our mission in tournament pre-fishing is not to fish, but to drop the camera and look below each of the hundred-plus holes we drill every day,” Newby said. At a qualifying event on a 2,000-acre lake, Newby and Wilson drilled over a thousand holes in pre-fishing before finally landing on the mother lode of crappies and sunfish.
“We wanted to find and fish our own spot rather than sharing a community hole with the other competitors,” he said. “Our strategy is to have one guy drill holes and the other scope for fish with the Micro camera.”
The key to the ice fishing win was to locate one of the lake’s only living vegetation beds — a nearly impossible task, given that the lake had recently been sprayed and treated for aquatic plants, killing nearly all the lake’s fish-holding greenery.
Without a lightweight ice drill and the handheld camera, there’s no way they could have found and caught their tournament-winning fish. The cams they now use have a cable-reel system, so deploying and retrieving the optics takes seconds, even in 20 to 30 feet of water. That’s a huge time-saver over previous technology.
When guide Tony Roach has 132,000 acres of water to chose from, he uses a unique, strategic cam system to find schools of jumbo perch.
“Last winter, the key to finding big perch was to locate sandgrass on huge, otherwise featureless sand flats,” he said. “Locating these small patches of grass with sonar would have been nearly impossible, because the veg was lying almost flat to the bottom.”
Roach used a rapid-fire drill-and-view approach. His handheld camera quickly searched for the presence of sandgrass and perch. Once found, the cam also let him quickly trace the outer boundaries of the patches, so he could set up and cover the entire area with lures.
BODY CAMS, DVRs
Boosting on-ice portability and mobility to whole other levels of convenience, Newby and Wilson recently helped design an innovative, literally wearable camera case. Think body cam for ice-fishing, and you get the idea.
The Pro-Viewing Case they designed is adjustable and fits comfortably around an upper torso, holding either a 3- or 5-inch Micro monitor. They survey underwater terrain or sight-fish hands-free.
“The viewing case positions the screen so it’s right in my natural line of sight, and it even holds my cell phone, tackle and other small necessities,” said Newby. “We designed the case to be stealthy, too, so we can view without letting our fellow competitors know what we’re up to.”
Another technological development is a built-in video recorder or DVR.
“We record short video clips throughout our pre-fishing days,” said Newby. “Hit the REC button and capture clips of key spots, such as a little thicker stand of vegetation, or schools of fish to study their species, size or other factors, such as body posture and feeding attitude.”
Once they are off the ice, they connect the Micro cam to a laptop computer via USB connection and review the footage on a bigger screen.
“It shows us a lot of little details we might miss out on the lake,” he said. “At the NAIFC Championship, we actually didn’t see the big panfish buried in weeds until we reviewed the footage at the hotel. But on tournament day, we went right back to the spot and caught those big concealed crappies.”
At other events, the DVR has helped them identify certain valuable types of vegetation or bottom composition, which they’ve used to pattern fish throughout the lake.
Any angler could see how intel like that is priceless in a tournament or even just out on your favorite lake when you want to keep the rods bent.
Another recent camera hack that’s spelled success is literally the lens angle itself. Kevin Fassbind’s pre-tournament strategy is to visit lakes before the ice freezes and scout with side-imaging sonar.
“We drop GPS waypoints on the best weedbeds and other spots, so we can return when the ice freezes to zoom in with cameras,” he said. “What we’ve found is that some of the biggest bluegills and crappies can be so camouflaged within heavy underwater forests that they’re tough to spot unless you land on them.
Fassbind and partner Nick Smyers realized that by adjusting the angle of the Micro lens with the camera’s position fin they could look up toward the surface. This up-viewing configuration lets them silhouette the dark shapes of big panfish against the light underside of the ice.
“It’s a little like standing on the ground and viewing birds against a light sky versus trying to see them flying over the dark earth from an airplane,” said Fassbind. “Up-viewing is also an awesome way to spot fish suspended well above bottom — such as trout, crappies and high-riding walleyes.”
With each passing winter, cameras give ice-anglers new, exciting, expanded views of the underwater world. Point the lens sideways, and virtually swim with the fish. Aim the optics straight down for a bird’s-eye perspective and up for another angle. Whether you aspire to be ice-fishing’s version of Kevin VanDam or simply possess the passion to out-fish your pals, an underwater camera is a fast, exciting way to fish.