Though they met some resistance at first, liquid crystal sonar displays have evolved into frontline allies of anglers across the Ice Belt. Advances in technology and design have elevated these units to incredibly effective machines, adept at painting detailed pictures of the world below the ice. Throw in the latest in GPS mapping and high-end cartography, and a new LCD just could be your next key tool for catching more fish this winter.
A Look Back
Undeniably, many early LCDs didn't work well on ice. "Many of the first LCDs functioned for 10 minutes and then quit," recalls In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. "Even when the units were working, they were tough to read in sunlight. And the pixels that define the picture were so coarse that even the tiniest fish looked like battle cruisers in a video game."
By 1991, when In-Fisherman first published its groundbreaking book, Ice Fishing Secrets, LCDs were already turning the corner. Stange noted that many initial problems had been resolved, and he reported success with properly rigged LCDs — though readout speed was behind the instantaneous returns of flasher-style sonar.
Such lag time, which ran about half a second on the fastest models, was a big deal during precision presentations for finicky panfish. "Instant sonar feedback makes a difference when you want picky jig movements for panfish nuzzling your bait," Stange noted. But not all presentations required split-second adjustments, and despite their delays, LCDs were praised as "great equalizers" that could help anglers visualize and better understand both the landscape and goings-on beneath their boots.
We share this history so anglers can appreciate the technology at their fingertips today. And against this backdrop, we offer insights on the current state of LCDs from hardwater luminaries Scott Glorvigen, Jon Thelen, and Tom Kemos. Although they run units made by different manufacturers (Lowrance, Humminbird, and Garmin), all three heaped praise on the latest crop of LCDs.
"The technology has gotten so much better," says Glorvigen, who was an early advocate of LCDs. "Particularly with broad-spectrum CHIRP, the pictures and amount of detail available to help you interpret what's happening are incredible."
Thelen, who crisscrosses the Midwest each winter filming ice fishing segments for Lindy Fishing Tackle's "Fish ED" television show and online programming, also is quick to note improvements. "The resolution, mapping, speed, ease of use, and overall performance are light years ahead of where we were 10 to 20 years ago," he says.
Kemos, a decorated tournament competitor whose stomping grounds range from isolated walk-in waters in Southeast Wisconsin to the sprawling icepacks of the Great Lakes, concurs. "I love fishing with graphs because they let me see the big picture and help me catch fish I'd miss with a flasher," he explains.
The CHIRP Factor
One of the biggest changes in LCDs is the arrival of CHIRP acoustic technology. Short for "compressed high-intensity radar pulse," CHIRP scans a broad range of frequencies with long-duration "chirps" that typically sweep from around 50 to 83 kHz up to 200 kHz.
"CHIRP paints a remarkably clearer picture than traditional sonar, which relies on short bursts of single- or dual-frequency ultrasound," explains Glorvigen, who has experimented extensively with CHIRP on Lowrance's Elite and HOOK Ice Machine platforms. "Traditional sonar is great, but leaves you with tradeoffs. For example, if you boost sensitivity, clutter increases. Not so with CHIRP, which gives you better sensitivity without added clutter. In fact, noise rejection is enhanced."
Kemos fishes Garmin's new STRIKER 5 ice fishing system and echoMAP CHIRP 53dv, and is a fan of their CHIRP powers. "It's exciting technology," he says. "The picture is so different, with more detail and more going on in it." To fully process it all, he often runs split-screen mode, with traditional sonar returns for a cleaner, "big-picture" view next to a CHIRP window for maximum detail.
Glorvigen revels in the information overload. "Target separation is so good, you can pick predators out of balls of baitfish," he says. "For example, juvenile yellow perch show up as thin lines, while walleyes holding within or below the school of baitfish register as thicker lines. CHIRP also lets me zero in on the largest fish within a cloud of crappies. By changing the color of my jig, I can drop it into a school and confidently target individual fish."
Glorvigen also reports being better able to predict the species of fish he's looking at. "Line width largely reflects fish size; couple it with subtle details such as how a fish moves and the margins of its return, and you start to see the difference between sunfish and crappies or perch, or walleyes, pike, and bass," he says. "CHIRP also gives you a better feel for the fish's attitude and reactions to presentational tweaks."
Straining your eyes to see an LCD screen during daylight hours is a thing of the past, adds Thelen, who regularly runs a Humminbird Helix 5 and put the company's new Helix 7 to the test last winter. "When Humminbird said its Helix series was 'clearer, wider, brighter, and faster,' they meant it," he says. "It's the first LCD I've used that's easy to see with the screen in direct sunlight, even while wearing sunglasses."
A longtime flasher fan, he appreciates LCD applications on ice. "I'm excited about everything LCDs offer today," he says. "I've changed from watching a flasher. Everything is so much easier to understand and interpret on an LCD. And for those guys who just can't give up the flasher, most LCDs offer that view as well. Helixes are fast, but they also have a real-time sonar window for times instant readouts are critical."
Kemos is likewise high on the latest round of LCD displays. "Both the STRIKER and echoMap have such crisp, clear screens you can see more detail — including a bluegill three inches from a tiny ice jig," he says.
Thanks For The Memories
LCDs' offer a historical perspective flashers can't touch. "Flashers give you a snapshot of what's happening that second, but an LCD's scrolling display provides history," Glorvigen says. "It allows you to see what came into the signal, how it reacted to your bait, and even its angle of attack. Even fish that don't come all the way into the sonar cone leave some sort of horizontal line, offering clues to nearby fish at all levels of the water column."
"It's easy to miss fast-moving blips on a flasher," Kemos adds. "An LCD gives you greater ability to capitalize on fish that pass through the sonar cone at different levels. When fishing Great Lakes walleyes in current, for example, baitfish often come through at the same level — and not necessarily the level at which predators are holding. I might miss a single smelt on a flasher, or forget the exact depth, but an LCD gives me time to see it and adjust my jigging depth. A lot of times when you move your jig up to the level of the baitfish, walleyes holding at other depths rush up to crush it — even if they watched the same jig dance in front of their noses for 10 minutes at a different depth."
Built-in GPS is an option on many LCDs. "It eliminates the need for a hand-held GPS, and saves a lot of time identifying sweet spots," Glorvigen says. "Whether I use Lowrance's Insight Pro or maps on an SD card, I can quickly get on a spot with minimal drilling. This allows me to use a light electric auger and get away without carrying other gear."
He adds that Insight Genesis also allows anglers to create custom maps from personal sonar logs. Hint: Recording tracks in open water greatly simplifies the process on large sections of water, but you also can map out prime structure in winter.
"Why carry a GPS unit in one hand and sonar in the other when you can have them both in one package?" asks Thelen, who favors the detailed LakeMaster and Navionics cartography compatible with Humminbird electronics. "In split-screen mode I can walk along a breakline to the spot I want to fish," he says. Kemos adds that Garmin offers 17,000 lakes on the echoMap, while the STRIKER has GPS only. "The echoMap has it all, but the STRIKER is handy for marking spots and finding your way off the ice," he says.
"Being from Wisconsin, a lot of times I'm in 'combat fishing' situations surrounded by 30 or 40 people," Kemos says. "Both the echoMap and STRIKER have adjustable frequency options that let me operate any frequency, which can eliminate interference without sacrificing anything in terms of detail. Interference-rejection options on other units I've tried merely go into filtering mode, and you don't have as clear of a screen."
Other improvements include battery life. "Older combo units killed batteries in no time," Kemos says. "Newer LCDs are way more efficient. With the STRIKER, for example, I had plenty of power for a full day of fishing with a standard 12-volt, 7-amp-hour battery." Thelen adds, "Battery life is better than ever. With both Helix units I've never had one go dead, even during long days on the ice."
Our LCD gurus also report that the new units are more durable and easier to use than electronics of the past, while offering the latest technology at a moderate price. "Many ice fishing units work as portable units during the summer, too," Thelen adds. "My family and I use a Helix with portable transducer for everything from local trips on friends' boats to fly-in trips on remote waters."
Given such advancements and versatility, the experts encourage anglers to give LCDs a whirl this season. "I know many people are used to flashers and have a hard time making the switch," Kemos says. "But once you do, you'll be hooked. For me, the idea of giving up the benefits of an LCD and going back to flashers doesn't make sense."