January 24, 2024
You know the cliché: “You can’t force-feed the fish. Let them tell you what they want.” Overused, misunderstood, but it’s true, even in the midst of a rapidly technologically advancing day and age. Making fish bite is a headache, and it gets even more complicated when there’s a layer of ice and snow on top of the fish that limits your mobility.
I’ve had days when I hit paydirt after drilling one or two holes and never left until after dark. Then I’ve also endured days when I punched several dozen holes for no more than a sniff. You’ll have that. The important part is what was learned from both scenarios. We all love a successful day, but savvy anglers ask “why?” in hopes of replicating—and the same anglers ask the same question when the day is especially tough.
Modern ice-fishing electronics have significantly shortened the learning curve and have exponentially increased productivity when searching for and catching willing fish. But as every electronics expert explains, you still have to make them eat. It starts with time on the water.
Scout to Convert
Last February, I was visiting a local panfish lake with my friend Tim Price. The late-season bite was indeed tough, but we could see fish on Mega Live. But they weren’t biting anything. “Crappies most likely,” said Price, Field Promotions Manager at Humminbird and Minn Kota. “They can get super finicky this time of year, and you need to see their reaction to gauge what they might be willing to eat or not.” We were seeing crappie-shaped marks on the Humminbird Helix 9s, but nothing was definitive. They’d swim up to our offerings, pause as if tasting the bait without biting it, and then slowly sink away. This happened several times over.
We had Humminbird’s Mega Live positioned in Landscape mode to survey the school of fish and how they were relating to bottom and our presentations. We plucked a few bluegills out, a small bass, and a pike, but if there were indeed crappies down there, it was radio silence.
With my curiosity growing, I dropped my Aqua-Vu the camera down the hole to verify what was going on below. And boy, were there crappies—hundreds of them at various levels of the water column. But they were just sitting there with their snobby little noses up in the air.
I dropped down a 1/32-ounce jig dressed with a maggot and watched a small group swim up to the jig, and I was surprised to see them inhale the entire bait and then immediately spit it back out without so much as a tap on the line. Then the fun began.
“Landscape mode within the Mega Live platform is a perspective that works well when you’re set up on biting fish,” Price said. “It’s a top-down perspective that helps gauge their mood and how the bite is occurring, especially if you combine it with an Aqua-Vu underwater camera. But when the time comes to search for more fish, being able to quickly jump between Landscape and Forward modes speeds up the process. Simply turn the Live transducer head six clicks, go into your settings, and flip to forward view, and you’re all set to scout.”
Price’s one-two punch of Forward to Landscape mode is also augmented with Mega 360 to extend perspectives. When scouting new water, the 360 is the first thing in the water to preview structure. Sure, there are times when it indicates fish, but as he locates likely structure, he relocates to that area, drills another hole, and drops the Mega Live down in Forward mode to look for schools of fish.
“I rigged Mega Live on the 360 pole and swap between perspectives as the situation demands,” he said. “I don’t use both technologies at the same time, but we all know how powerful forward-facing sonar is when used in conjunction with 360 Imaging on open water. It works wonders on the ice, too.”
Once likely structure and fish are located, he may refine his position to really go to work on them, just as we did together that day when the crappie bite is super-subtle.
“After we determined that the crappies were mouthing the bait, we downsized the jig and picked up an ultralight rod with 2-pound fluorocarbon, and the bite changed dramatically,” he said. “Pressured fish often demand ultra-subtle techniques, and the only way you’re going to know exactly what they want is to watch their behavior. Mega Live in Landscape mode is a powerful tool. Factor in an Aqua-Vu and they don’t stand a chance.”
Observe and Zero In
It’s easy to assume that the greatest power of forward-facing sonar is to see fish and watch them eat a lure in real time. But on-the-water application goes beyond that. Observing fish movement as it’s happening enables you to make decisions that not only improve productivity but also find that elusive spot-on-the-spot.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen fish swimming through LiveScope and wondered where they’re going and why,” said Danny Thompson, Garmin’s Regional Sales Manager. “When I’m fishing, and catching fish, I’m still in scouting mode. If you watch and consider why fish are swimming through a particular area and adjust to answer that question, you figure it out and catch more fish as a result.”
Thompson fishes from a scientific perspective but working to find answers to every question only increases his understanding. The same applies to locating and catching fish from atop a frozen lake. Ask why and find the solution—live sonar helps you get to the answer faster.
“Most species we pursue through the ice spend a lot of time roaming, and the goal is to get in front of them or know where they’re headed, and why,” he said. “After hours and hours of observing fish with Garmin’s LiveScope Ice Bundle and familiarizing yourself with how they are utilizing structure, you can stay ahead of them—that’s the most valuable data you can collect. The key is knowing where to be before you drill a hole.”
In recent years, permanent shacks, wheelhouses, or camper-style fish houses have become popular, and for good reason. They offer incredible comfort and amenities including television and even Wi-Fi that make a long weekend on the ice more enjoyable. There are options from basic to luxury at various price points. But, if you drop the house on the ice, are electronics even still necessary?
“The short answer is ‘absolutely.’ They almost become more important when in a stationary position,” Thompson said. “But the cool thing is with the newest LiveScope bundle is that you can connect to the flat-screen TV in your fish house through an HDMI connection. That creates a much larger and clearer perspective compared to a 9- or 10-inch screen. And with this bundle, you can also integrate Aqua-Vu underwater cameras and even set up a split screen to view both the live sonar and video perspective at the same time. Talk about an abundance of information. Having all that information in a large format is helpful, and it also adds a lot to the fun.”
Most anglers place a wheelhouse on the ice in a predetermined location and leave it there for the short season, and mostly, fish are generally always in the area. But having forward-facing sonar projected on a big-screen TV helps the user to zero in on finer details and make more educated decisions on presentations. Anglers become better at attracting fish to their location through this method.
As the season wanes, the activity and bite often changes. Applying this type of technology in a stationary situation helps the user adapt to changing conditions and fish feeding patterns.
“I like to put LiveScope in the corner of the house as far away from the holes we’re fishing as possible,” Thompson said. “It allows me to watch several lines at once and see how the fish are reacting to baits. Fish activity on the periphery is a likely scenario you can now deal with. Before forward-facing sonar, you didn’t really know what was going on outside the sonar cone. Now you can keep an eye on things and perhaps make a change in presentation to attract fish to your location. Sometimes a flashy spoon or ripping bait brings fish in for a closer look and then they turn to eat the bait. Knowing is key.”
Embrace the Settings
Within forward-facing sonar, an impressive list of settings can be adjusted for different fishing applications. Generally, each brand’s rendition works effectively out of the box. Running at default settings can be productive, but to get the most out of the unit, you need to become confident with adjusting the settings to accommodate the conditions and your objectives. That takes time on the water and experimentation.
“The distance at which I use Lowrance’s Active Target won’t exceed 100 feet during the summer, and even at that distance, I won’t likely cast to a fish that far away,” said John Hoyer, professional walleye angler and sonar guru. “The reason is mainly to achieve casting accuracy—considering the wind, current, drift speed, and direction of the boat, getting the bait in the right place is unlikely. But when ice fishing, you’re in a fixed position where you can maximize the kind and quality of data your sonar returns. And it takes adjusting some settings.
“For example, with the Lowrance Active Target Ice Bundle I increase my viewing distance to 150 feet or more in some situations and increase contrast to generate a strong return at greater distances, but you lose some detail. Increased contrast indicates any sign of life and helps put me in position to relocate and drill the right hole.”
Hoyer believes in being precise. The days of drilling dozens of holes looking for fish and structure is a thing of the past. By using forward-facing sonar, looking for bait and fish, finding structure, and identifying a pattern is much easier than it used to be. It may even be more important than watching fish behavior as it evaluates or eats your lure at close range. More effort can be put into fishing than ever before thanks to this technology.
“Once we’ve located where we need to be fishing, I decrease range to 40 or 50 feet and adjust contrast and sensitivity to maximize target separation, which helps identify what kind of fish I’m looking at,” he said. “If I’m fishing with a buddy, he may be using a flasher to watch what’s happening directly below the transducer while I stay on the Active Target pole to view the periphery and let him know that fish are coming or going, and what kind of fish they might be. I’ve found that adding forward-facing sonar to a classic scenario makes the traditional technology even stronger.”
Speaking of target separation and fish identification, Hoyer said that any kind of fish at 120 to 150 feet looks like a blob, and that’s valid information no matter what. The quality of return is more critical at closer distances.
“When you decrease range, the strength of return improves and not only helps you identify fish species by their body shape, but also provides enough information to estimate the size of a fish,” he said. “Being able determine size and species comes with plenty of time on the water looking at lots of fish, but once you’ve gained that experience you can accurately determine what you’re looking at, and whether you need to stay put or keep looking.
“What’s more, some species of fish actually create a stronger return than others, and walleyes in particular return a very strong mark. They have firm, rigid bodies, hard armor-like scales, and don’t usually move through the transducer’s perspective too quickly. Walleyes generally come back much brighter and distinctive when compared to a smallmouth bass or something like that. When you’re fishing in an area where multiple species are present, you begin to see key differences. I’ve even seen fish turn abruptly to reevaluate a bait and it literally looks like a fish turning around. It’s pretty neat.”
All this technology has its place and it’s here to stay. But there are growing indications that fish can become sensitive to being scanned too often, especially when fishing pressure is a factor. Considering how a fish uses its lateral line to sense food and other fish—especially in low-light conditions beneath a sheet of ice—one might conclude that sonar may impact a fish’s willingness to eat at certain times. There isn’t enough room in this feature to fully unpack that sentiment, but it’s worth considering anywhere you fish, especially if you’re witnessing strange fish behavior or apprehensive fish.
As you gain technical skills, your ability to judge fish behavior improves. You may locate fish, perhaps even the target species, but they’re inactive—that may mean you should keep looking. The bottom line is, there is incredible power in forward-facing sonar, even beyond just watching fish eat in live-time. Scouting isn’t nearly as sexy as catching fish, but it’s a key difference between those who catch their limit and those who are dealing with a skunk.