From early sub-ice exploration with the big, cumbersome underwater cameras of the early 1990s, to the covert surveying with micro systems today, underwater viewing has always been about solving mysteries. Understanding fish movement and responses to various lures remains the primary motivation in fishing for me.
What’s fascinating about underwater observation is that it’s like a walk through unfamiliar woods. When viewing the aquatic wilds through an underwater lens, each lake and piece of structure and cover are mesmerizing. No two vegetated flats, rocky points, or river channels offer the same mix of elements. Each alters fish movement and response.
Underwater cameras keep the mystery alive. For nearly 20 years, friends and I have researched and scouted out a dozen or more small backwoods lakes every winter. We often make long treks down logging roads, toting a hand auger and backpacks with a couple rods and small boxes of tackle. Beginning last winter, we traveled lighter than ever, stowing palm-sized Aqua-Vu Micro cameras in our coat pockets.
The Micro is an incredible fish-finding tool. It’s not much larger or heavier than a TV remote, so survey work is easy and efficient, especially in water less than 20 feet deep. In smaller lakes, a few hours of surveillance nearly always turns up a relatively accurate profile of the lake’s inhabitants.
Using Micro cams as scouting tools, we’ve found amazing gems as well as plenty of duds. We’ve uncovered tiny lakes that contain monster yellow perch. We’ve viewed stunning gold-tinted black crappies in shallow bog-stained waters. Other lakes offered unexpected walleye schools and populations of monstrous largemouth bass. We’ve also slogged through tough terrain with barely a bullhead to show for it.
Along the way there have been discoveries of other kinds. We’ve frequently noted perplexing veils of milky looking water, hovering and slowly wafting between 8 to 20 feet of water—often just above vegetation. Here we’ve caught big sunfish and lots of walleyes lingering just below this milky layer. We think the veils are ultra-dense concentrations of zooplankton confined to specific depths, based on light and oxygen.
Several years ago we discovered massive colonies of bottom-bound “tubes”—the sessile homes of oligochaete worms and chironomid larvae. While almost any soft-bottom region can host these distinctive critters, the goldmines are the densest colonies harboring hundreds of these tubes within areas the size of a small closet. Find one and you most certainly catch large perch or sunfish in the vicinity.
Lots of other curious and occasionally bizarre phenomena appear beneath the surface. We once discovered an old sunken ice-fishing shelter that was full of sunfish and crappies, while several toad largemouths hunkered tight into corners of the structure. I still have the waypoint stored.
About 10 years ago, while underwater-viewing from a boat, I came across a pile of sunken Christmas trees lying on a sandflat in 23 feet of water. It was loaded with big crappies and smallmouth bass. Several winters, I’ve returned and caught crappies there.
In seasons since, it’s become increasingly evident that even in Minnesota, where introducing manmade cover is illegal, numerous lakes harbor brushpiles and other artificial cover. So do lakes and reservoirs in the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, and beyond. A trick to finding this hidden habitat is to run side-imaging sonar in a boat, traveling within casting distance of docks. You unearth these hideouts often enough to make the search-time worthwhile. Drop waypoints and return in winter with a camera. The fishing often is exceptional, and you usually have the spots all to yourself.
The same strategy of running side-imaging sonar over vast underwater regions during open water and returning during winter to check waypoints with a camera has been used by top tournament teams on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC). This past season, a remarkable new strategy was revealed when three teams nearly made a clean sweep of the NAIFC Championship on Mille Lacs, Minnesota.
Using Humminbird side-imaging to scan subtle topography in the big lake’s southern bays, friends Shawn Bjonfald, Brandon Newbie, and Kevin Fassbind discovered small isolated patches of pondweed, coontail, and Elodea dotting otherwise featureless sand- and gravel flats. During prefishing in December, they returned with Aqua-Vu Micro cams to inspect waypoints for the presence of king-size panfish. At first, viewing individual fish proved tricky because dense vegetation and dark substrate helped conceal crappies and sunfish. Convinced sizeable schools had to be buried somewhere in the plant growth, Bjonfald devised a backup plan.
“We were struggling to spot ‘gills and crappies in the weeds,” he recalls. “Even down-viewing wasn’t working because fish virtually disappeared over the black bottom.
“We got to pondering why down-viewing often works so well, and then reversed our thinking. We realized that the bright underside of the ice might actually reveal fish—like the difference between viewing birds from an airplane or standing on the ground, looking up into the light sky where flocks stick out.”
Adjusting the multi-angle viewing fin on his Micro camera, Bjonfald altered the position of the lens so it pointed upward from below at about a 75-degree angle. “Once we started viewing from the stems of the plants up toward the ice, crappies and sunfish popped out at us on the screen. Instead of seeing vague dark shapes and a mass of plants, we saw big crappies sharply silhouetted against the white underside of the ice. They’d been there all along, but we couldn’t see them. Up-viewing made a huge difference in the Championship.”
Bjonfald caught the heaviest fish of the event—a nearly 2-pound black crappie. Winning top honors at the Championship were Bjonfald’s up-viewing comrades. Brandon Newbie and Ryan Wilson won by over 6 pounds, while Fassbind and Nick Smyers took third. All three teams credited up-viewing with Micro cams for finding their fish, as well as allowing them to sight-fish inside the underwater jungles.
Two months later, during a 2013 NAIFC tournament at Hebgen Lake, Montana, word of the tactic had spread, inspiring competitors to use Aqua-Vu Micro cams to up-view large suspended trout. Anglers had by now figured out that trout and other suspenders, such as crappies, sport dark camouflaged side and dorsal flanks that often make them tough to perceive with traditional side- and down-viewing camera setups. Viewed from below, the fishes’ silhouettes shined like bulbs on a Christmas tree.
At the end of the 2012-13 NAIFC season, Newbie and Wilson had won the Team of the Year title, thanks to another win at Lake Maxinkuckee, Indiana, and two more 2nd place finishes. Just behind them in the standings once again were Fassbind and Smyers. The teams later reported that at each event, they surveyed great expanses of structure with their hand-held cameras, rather than relying on community holes, discovering untouched schools of bigger panfish.
“Anyone not using one of these Micro cams right now is behind the times,” Newby says. “In prefishing, we sometimes won’t even wet lines. Ryan and I trade off drilling and viewing. We use small Milwaukee electric drills with 4-inch bits to keep signs of activity to a minimum, so competitors can’t easily find our spots. When we find fish with the camera, we don’t gesture excitedly or do anything others might notice. We keep our body language calm at all times, like we’re bored, and use hand signals to communicate messages. When one of us spots fish, we signal one another, drop a waypoint, and get the heck out of Dodge.”
While pocket-size cameras and tactics such as up-viewing have provided anglers with efficient approaches for finding fish in heavy cover, as well as for pinpointing suspended fish, the newest technology has opened even more possibilities. This winter, Aqua-Vu, MarCum, and Vexilar are offering wireless video capabilities. Anglers toting smartphones can view underwater footage in real-time, utilizing Wi-Fi technology. Wireless viewing still requires camera optics to be attached to a cable. But a small transmitter allows for signal transmission to a wireless device to about 100 feet away; and range is certain to improve over time. So far I’ve tested only Aqua-Vu’s Wi-Fi product. It’s user-friendly and compact—the same size as its Micro systems.
The most intriguing potential for Wi-Fi viewing may be the use of multiple underwater cameras, either set in various locations along a structure, or positioned to monitor baits set on tip-ups or deadsticks. Whether roaming on ice or in a shelter, anglers could monitor baits remotely. For checking fish movements along structure, the strategy is suggestive of a network of underwater trail cameras, similar to the way hunters use cams to survey movements of deer and other animals.
Several bass anglers have told me they’re using GoPro cameras to keep tabs on brushpiles, retrieving them to review footage prior to tournaments. In coming seasons, lakes may be humming with underwater cameras. Whether you view such technology as purely educational or rather exploitive, you still have to make ‘em bite.
Through The Looking Glass
Water clarity and light have long been limiting factors in anglers’ ability to view underwater terrain. Thanks to recently released technology from Aqua-Vu, water conditions may be less of a barrier to underwater viewing. A new iPhone/iPad app, called “Looking Glass,” uses algorithmic software to automatically filter, clarify, and enhance image quality.
A free version of Looking Glass is offered with the purchase of an Aqua-Vu Wi-Fi camera. Fully functional versions, which allow auto-enhance in real-time as well as for pre-recorded videos, cost $15 and $29 at the Apple iTunes Store.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a veteran writer and In-Fisherman contributor on all things fishing.