January 26, 2023
By Joel Nelson
If it's been a while since you’ve looked at hardwater electronics, things probably seem a bit different. Today, "hole-hopping" requires less drilling and hopping thanks to forward-facing sonar. Gone, too, are the days of targeting a pack of "walleyes" that turn out to be suckers or whitefish. Modern underwater cameras do more than provide full-color fish identification; they detect green weeds and even help find lost items that end up on the bottom. With today's GPS-integrated units, you also no longer have to worry about lining up the green shed with the mid-lake point or using your hand-held GPS to reacquire a bite or help find a fresh one.
Of course, this technology doesn't actually catch the fish for you. In order to do that, you must know the best practices for using it, and you'll want to spend some quality time on the water with your new gadgets to familiarize yourself with their operation. All this is done with one main goal: putting more fish on the ice.
Perhaps no recent technology has impacted ice fishing like forward-facing sonar. Although Garmin introduced one of the earliest forward-facing sonar options (Panoptix), today several companies offer it via a host of proprietary technologies. Brand and product names differ, but results are largely the same. Anglers point a transducer on a stick at an area in front of them—out to 100 feet or more—and a real-time, ultrasound-like graphic returns on screen.
Users can identify prey species, watch fish react to baits and witness all manner of fish behavior. Forward-facing sonar is as much a learning tool as it is a fish-finding one, helping anglers find schools of active fish and observe their reactions to certain presentations.
Of course, forward-facing sonar isn't the only way to find fish, nor is it the best method for every situation or for all species. Walleyes can hide on bottom, and certain pelagic species—like lake trout and perch—sometimes move too quickly to track on electronics. Yet, for panfish anglers especially, this technology helps monitor bluegill and crappie schools and how they react, particularly when fish suspend away from cover. Of course, today's more advanced units perform well when they're in the weeds, too.
Still, don't feel compelled to abandon your flasher units. Because forward-facing sonar offers a wide on-screen view of fish schools or general areas, it's still beneficial to fish with a more narrowly focused flasher in the hole. In fact, it's wise to employ a two-look strategy in which anglers jig up fish from distance using forward-facing sonar, then switch to zoomed views on flashers—either mechanical or digital—to do the heavy lifting.
Detecting bites, and ultimately icing fish, becomes a two-part dance this way. Anglers learn about fish movements with forward-facing sonar, especially as they relate to overhead pressure. Then they make adjustments and catch fish using their regular down-viewing sonar. With spooky fish that flee as soon as holes are drilled, often posting up and waiting in the general area of activity is the best play. When fish do allow some overhead traffic and direct detection, however, start popping holes and dropping lures on them to catch the school's most active fish.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Sight-fishing was popular long before the dawn of personal ice-fishing cameras. Shallow-water pike spearers and anglers tempting trout in gin-clear, high-country waters have done it for years. However, when underwater cameras became popular more than 20 years ago, it was an epiphany—one we often take for granted now. Underwater viewing has yielded many ice-fishing advancements, particularly for panfish. Swivels to prevent line twist and in-line reels are two examples, and the benefit of seeking out the greenest weeds in the lake is another. Cameras are also a great way to keep young anglers entertained and excited to fish.
Today's units are just as much tools as toys, allowing anglers to confirm what they're seeing on a flasher is their intended species. Smaller, more mobile pocket cameras are best for quick scouting missions for weed growth or for rapidly identifying fish below the ice. Meanwhile, lunch-box or large-screen varieties shine in more stationary positions, like in a portable shelter or a wheelhouse. Both types allow for porting the image to a large-screen TV. Full HD through HDMI cables is generally the preferred way for preserving pixels from the camera to the larger view, thus ensuring quality.
Also consider pairing underwater cameras with flashers to help fine-tune presentations on a lure-by-lure basis. First, drop down said jigging spoon, panfish jig or hard bait while viewing on the monitor. Study how small lifts, big lifts and tight pounding of the rod tip affect the bait. If you can observe how a fish reacts to these movements, even better, but mostly you're dialing in your jigging stroke. From here, drop the transducer for your flasher down to see what your jigging strokes look like on sonar. You'll be surprised how much lure action you're getting while the flasher marks are barely moving, as the tendency for most anglers is to over-jig.
HOW AND WHERE
Flashers—both digital and mechanical—are time-proven mainstays on the ice, but GPS is a new wrinkle now commonly packaged with digital flasher systems. This allows anglers to see “how” baits move and fish react while supplying the bonus “where” of location-based GPS information. This helps anglers both return to productive locations and find new spots, especially when used in concert with the basemap background contour information.
Commonly called “chips,” contour maps are often on SD or micro-SD cards that are inserted into the fish-finding unit itself, and they display a variety of contour, navigation and shoreline information for the area your GPS is locked on. Not all chips are compatible with all systems. There’s also usually a tradeoff between area of coverage—as in, how many lakes are mapped—and the quality at which they’re mapped. One-foot contours are the gold standard for detailed information, but often more basic contours are preferred if an angler is traveling to more remote locations, smaller lakes or numerous lakes.
A little-known feature of most GPS/sonar combo units is that you can use them to create custom contour maps while simply out fishing and utilizing the sonar portion of the unit. Because these electronics are also available for open-water use, technologically savvy anglers will collect high-resolution, 1-foot contours in a boat, where it’s easier to cover water and map prime spots. Doing so in the fall offers two advantages: a more accurate lake-bottom elevation perspective and an understanding of where fish are holding just before ice up. First-ice fish, especially walleyes and many panfish species, are often still where you left them in late fall.
THE BIG QUESTION
Over the past 20 years, one of the most common questions on ice-fishing forums and in ice groups on social media has been, "camera or flasher?" Nowadays, forward-facing sonar has expanded that query. Like most good questions, there's no easy answer. Traditionally, the solution was flasher first, camera second, and it could be argued that not much has changed. Even more problematic is that the price tag on each piece of technology varies widely, with forward-facing sonar being the most expensive.
From a value perspective, I feel you need a flasher or some sort of fish finder, even if you do have forward-facing sonar. And any fish finder might as well have GPS packaged onboard. For new ice anglers or those looking to re-tool, a GPS/sonar combo checks lots of boxes for well under $1,000. Cameras are a value these days, too, with many models coming in around $300 to $400.
Still, it's hard to argue with how forward-facing sonar has changed the game, even if it costs more than a high-end GPS/sonar unit and camera combined. If you're a serious ice angler repeatedly fishing new lakes, a tournament angler or a guide, or even if you just want to learn more about the fishing experience and have the cash, forward-facing sonar is a worthy investment. Anglers throughout the Ice Belt have clearly demonstrated the advantages of this technology for many species, but especially for those that suspend away from cover or bottom and are more easily seen.
Last winter, I faced a scenario where having all three technologies paid off, with each one proving critical to the bite. We were fishing a small farm pond for pressured 'gills and crappies in a location near sunken trees that I had marked on our GPS/sonar combo. Fish were stationed just to the far edge, and I was able to use forward-facing sonar to learn that jigging a rattle bait would eventually bring the school over. However, while fish were in the flasher cone, I discovered that if I jigged too aggressively, for too long, I'd attract bass and scare the panfish. Yet, without jigging them near, I wouldn't get bit on the other lines I had down. With the underwater camera, we confirmed that the marks we were seeing on the GPS/sonar unit were, in fact, bass. And because of the camera's fine-tuned detail zoom, we were also able to see bites or reactions that we couldn’t pick up on the forward-facing sonar.
Ron Lindner always told me, "It's only a tool," to help me process the value of each new technology as it hit the marketplace. He was right, of course. Use a new piece of technology for its strengths, but don't expect it to do everything. In the end, we all prefer different tools to tackle different tasks, and depending on your target species or scenario, your mileage may vary.
Innovative electronics provide a clearer picture of what’s happening beneath the ice than ever before. Here are some great choices.
Humminbird ICE HELIX 9 MSI+ GPS G4N MEGA Live Bundle
View fish, structure and your lure in real time on a 9-inch HD LCD display with Humminbird's MEGA Live Imaging sonar. With a range of 150 feet and multiple viewing modes (down, forward and landscape) this unit provides extreme fish-finding and observing power. Add in dual-spectrum CHIRP sonar with 3/4-inch target separation and built-in GPS and mapping capabilities, including AutoChart Live Ice, and there's almost no limit to what you can do. In addition to the transducers and fish finder, the bundle comes with a new ice shuttle and a 20Ah lithium battery, among other items. ($2,999.99; humminbird.johnsonoutdoors.com)
Garmin LiveScope Plus Ice Fishing Bundle LI
This bundle pairs Garmin's new LiveScope Plus live-scanning sonar with its UHD 93sv touchscreen fish finder, a swivel pole transducer mount and a rechargeable lithium battery. LiveScope Plus improves on-screen clarity, transducer sensitivity and target separation (35 percent improvement over the existing system). You can now identify and separate targets as small as 14 inches at distances 100 feet from the hole. With forward and down modes, you can see structure and fish 200 feet in any direction. It also comes preloaded with LakeVu G3 maps. ($3,249.99; garmin.com)
Lowrance Explorer Series Ice Fishing Pack
The Explorer Ice Fishing Pack blends Lowrance’s Elite FS9 fish finder/chartplotter display with ActiveTarget live sonar, a 24Ah lithium battery, a new transducer pole for Down, Forward and Scout modes and a premium ice-fishing bag and shuttle frame. With ActiveTarget live sonar; Active Imaging 3-in-1 sonar with CHIRP, SideScan and DownScan; and preloaded C-MAP Contour+ charts, this unit is a feature-rich option. ($2,599.00; lowrance.com)
Vexilar 12V Max Lithium Battery
This lightweight 12V/12Ah lithium battery is built as a drop-in replacement for existing 12-volt SLA batteries in current Vexilar Flashers/Packs. It offers almost 50 percent more runtime with Vexilar sonar units at about half the weight. It's a ruggedly built, high-capacity, fast-recharging battery compatible with the current 1-amp fully automatic Vexilar battery charger or the recommended new V-420L 2.5-amp rapid charger. ($100;