February 12, 2020
By Cory Schmidt
Proof of the power of live-scanning under ice has emerged on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC), where three elite teams have dominated on difficult panfish water.
“There’s a lake I’ve fished a lot over the years where once every few winters, you might get lucky and land on a couple crappies out in the basin,” says Ryan Wilson, who won the 2019 NAIFC (North American Ice Fishing Circuit) National Championship alongside partner Brandon Newby. “Now, we can go out there on any winter day, drill a few holes, do a couple scans with Panoptix, and always find fish. The curtain’s been peeled back, and there’s no turning back.”
In tournaments, it’s not enough to land on a school and catch a couple, Wilson says. “The trick is tracking their movements under the ice. Before live-scanning, no one had a clue about basin crappie movements—especially how flighty they become when a few anglers with augers start poking around.”
At the same time, it’s taken less than a year on ice for many anglers to recognize the dark side to this radar-like technology. “There’s a potential danger to live-scanning,” says “Panfish” Phil Laube, an exceptional ice angler who uses high-level underwater camera and sonar tools in his endless search for panfish nirvana.
“Other than around heavy vegetation, there’s no way a fish can hide from a Panoptix beam,” he says. “It’s easy to envision mobile communities of ice anglers armed with Panoptix a year or two from now hounding basin panfish schools all winter.
“There’s no longer any reason to sit in a community hole and wait for fish. Instead, you can drill one hole and rotate the transducer until you mark blips (signs of life), say 80 feet away. Walk off the distance, drill one more hole, and start catching fish. Not only can you use the live-scanner to find the main school and all the little sub-schools, you can track fish movements in real time, indefinitely. This becomes potentially problematic in deep water, where catch-and-release isn’t feasible, or if anglers are bucket-fillers rather than selective harvesters. Over time, these schools, especially in smaller waterbodies, could be whittled down to nothing.”
Accelerating the live-scan learning curve on an exponential scale, top NAIFC teams are now into at least their fifth season with technology that began with Humminbird 360 Imaging, and now, Garmin Panoptix and Panoptix LiveScope.
“We garage-engineered one of the first 360 Imaging units for ice fishing around 2014,” says NAIFC angler Shawn Bjonfald. “Brandon Newby, Ryan Wilson, Kevin Fassbind, and Nick Smyers still run 360 units alongside Panoptix. Unfortunately, 360 isn’t engineered for extra cold temps, so we have to thaw it out after every day on the ice.”
According to Bjonfald, two seasons back just one or two tournament anglers used Garmin’s Panoptix. “Last season, at least a dozen teams used them,” he says. “It’s the same sort of trend we saw a few years ago with Aqua-Vu Micro underwater cameras. This season, I’d imagine all the top teams will operate Panoptix, too.”
In every competitive endeavor, certain individuals possess a special hunger to win, which compels them to create winning advantages. For going on a decade now, the maneuvers of Wilson and Newby, Bjonfald and partner Steve Burkart, and Kevin Fassbind and Nick Smyers have defined tournament-winning trends. They didn’t invent live-scanning, underwater viewing, or DIY lake mapping. But the teams’ collective intelligence and work ethic have revolutionized the process of finding fish on new water.
Live Scanning Revealed
Future fishing technologies are foreshadowed by industrial and military sonar companies like Massa, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Teledyne. Once the technology becomes obsolete or drops in price, it trickles down to our humble world of ice fishing. Or, a new technology emerges when a large company like Garmin acquires the inventing company and adds R&D and marketing efforts. Interphase, developers of an early forward-looking sonar, was acquired by Garmin in 2012.
Five years ago, along with other fishing writers, I watched a demo video that depicted realistic sonar imagery of a scuba diver swimming across the screen, inspecting underwater bridge pilings. The imagery was so vivid you could easily discern the diver’s swim fins, scuba mask, tank. Immediately, we exchanged glances, knowing we’d eventually see this technology adapted to fishing.
Indeed, Garmin Panoptix arrived a year after the demo. And in 2018, Panoptix LiveScope emerged, providing a vivid combination of real-time forward-looking sonar and the ultrarealism of imaging technology.
The hottest tech product in ice fishing the past few years, Garmin’s Panoptix ice bundle sells for around $1,900. You get a Garmin ECHOMAP Plus 73cv display with preloaded LakeVü maps, traditional CHIRP transducer, and a Panoptix PS22 transducer with forward- and down-looking capability. You also get a portable carrying case and a Panoptix swivel pole mount. To add Panoptix LiveScope, you need to shell out an additional $1,500 for the dedicated transducer and black box. Or, new for the 2019-20 ice season, Garmin now offers a Panoptix LiveScope Ice Fishing Bundle, complete with an 9-inch ECHOMAP Plus 93sv touchscreen display, for $2,800.
Lowrance, which recently introduced LiveSight Sonar, does not yet sell a dedicated ice unit. Getting started requires an HDS LIVE sonar display, starting at $1,100. The LiveSight Transducer runs $1,000 itself, but you need to rig your own ice bracket.
Panoptix in practice
Rigging gear in garages is nothing new to the aforementioned NAIFC anglers. When there’s incentive to win rings and cold cash, anything is possible. “You won’t recognize some of the equipment we run because a lot of it is custom-made or even imported from Europe, such as our auger bits,” Bjonfald says. “Kevin and Nick built a 360 Imaging mount for their ATV, which is powered by a full-size marine battery. My partner Steve Burkhart—a GIS professional—spends his spare time mapping new lakes in very realistic detail, basically ice fishing in his boat.”
At the December 2018 NAIFC Championship on North and South Twin lakes in western Minnesota, Wilson and Newby earned their second national title by precisely tracking flighty pods of bluegills and crappies. Just three days after claiming the NAIFC Championship, the team won the highly competitive Frankie’s Minnesota State Panfish Championship on Chisago Lake.
“A lot of our success comes down to the speed at which we operate and find fish,” Wilson says. “We fished these same two lakes at last year’s Championship, so we knew North Twin had bigger panfish.”
“But during prefishing, we realized the spots we found last year were out of play; they’d become community holes,” Newby says. “We went into search mode and covered the entire lake in search of new fish.”
“We weren’t looking for the motherlode school,” Wilson says. “We wanted to find spots with fewer panfish that other teams might overlook. We found a couple nice pods of bluegills and crappies moving along soft-bottom flats outside the edges of decaying vegetation. On day one, we had our money spot to ourselves.”
Live-scanning allowed them to break away from the main pack of competitors. “Brandon and I ran LiveScope over a clean 8-foot flat,” Wilson says. “We rotated the transducer until we marked a few flickers, or signs of life. Then, we walked off the distance, drilled, and plucked one or two fish. But as often happens, drilling, boot noise, and fish-catches scattered the pod. When that happened, we re-deployed the scanner and got back on a smaller group of crappies, which often hovered just 20 feet in one direction. Without the scanner, you burn valuable hours randomly searching for fish.”
Fassbind and Smyers, who ultimately captured third place, employed a similar scan-catch-move approach utilizing Humminbird 360 Imaging. By the end of the day, the two teams had moved nearly 400 yards into the basin, trailing the skittish crappies like bloodhounds.
Bjonfald, who’s used both technologies, has observed that while both Panoptix and 360 effectively track nomadic panfish, LiveScope displays clear advantages in terms of on-screen detail. He says 360 also operates with a slight lag in display speed, while Panoptix and Panoptix LiveScope show fish movements nearly in real time. With the release of Humminbird’s new Mega 360 Imaging, bottom and fish details should approach that of LiveScope. Moreover, 360 Imaging, which displays constantly refreshed terrain in a circular clock-dial arrangement, may be slightly more intuitive to operate and interpret. At this point, however, no one knows if or when Humminbird will release an ice-friendly scanning product.
“Tools like 360 and Panoptix are invaluable for tracking schools of roaming panfish,” Bjonfald says. “Without them, you waste time drilling, trying to get back on fish. Pods might not move more than a few feet from your position, but without scanners, it’s like throwing darts in the dark.
“LiveScope also shows you minor gaps in weedbeds, can help differentiate plant species, and at times, shows you the shape of entire smaller weedbeds,” he says. “On Redstone Lake (WI) last winter, Burkart and I used LiveScope to track fish as they moved along a cabbage bed. We also used the scope to examine cribs and determine on which side of the crib fish were hanging.”
Laube has also been surprised by the frequency with which panfish move, apparently, in direct response to drilling, foot traffic, and fish catches. “Usually, bluegills and crappies move just 5 to 15 feet from your position. With an Aqua-Vu, we’ve watched pods of fish sort of ‘float’ away in space. They seem to magically rematerialize in another location. On shallow flats, I’ve learned to predrill my holes prior to fishing. Otherwise, you end up dropping down into fresh holes below which fish have already vacated.”
Another intriguing live-scan discovery relates to fish position below the ice. “In some lakes, you have a lot of fish hovering just a foot or so below the ice,” Laube says. “This happens more often than I realized. Late in the season, panfish pluck dead larvae off the ice ceiling. But before Panoptix, you never knew it because traditional sonar loses these fish in surface clutter. Even with a camera, you usually don’t inspect the first few feet below the ice. But high-riding fish can’t hide from Panoptix.
“Live-scanning is a savior out in the basin. Even on shallow flats with scattered clumps of cabbage, one or two holes give you an accurate scan of your surroundings.
“Most of the time, I run Panoptix on the 50- or 75-foot scale,” he says. “Crank up the gain to 80 percent to see signs of life in the distance. It’s also helpful to realize you can scan roughly three times as far as the depth. In shallower water, you can’t see as much of the territory as you can out deeper.”
Laube finds live-scanning equally helpful for defining the edge of a breakline. “If we’re planning to set tip-ups, for example, I can drill one hole and see which direction the breakline runs for at least 20 to 30 feet. Along the way, you can also determine where the thickest clumps of cabbage lie. As you turn the dial and the signals gain strength, you know you’re close to the money zone.”
Despite the “new-car” perception of Panoptix, Wilson and Newby still say their underwater cameras do much of the key spy-work. “You can scan all you want but you still won’t see what species or grade of fish is present,” Wilson says. “We scanned one spot last winter with fish we swore were crappies. We wasted valuable time there before the Aqua-Vu showed us a bunch of small bass.
“For us, the scanner is a rough-in tool, while the camera is critical for hitting targets—it reveals the spot-on-the-spot, where just a few feet in the right direction makes all the difference. In basins, live-scope shines, but in heavier vegetation, the camera wins.
“In one tournament last year, we found a tiny weed clump with the Micro camera that had eluded the other teams. It was loaded with fish. We caught good fish on it for an hour. The area all around the clump had gotten worked hard by other teams, but this little spot produced six key fish and a tournament win,” he says.
Even when searching flats, Wilson says the camera still plays the critical role in revealing species and size of fish. “We use the Aqua-Vu Micro Revolution Pro. It’s a small handheld unit with an efficient reel-style cable retriever and a sharp screen that gives us a detailed 3-D image of fish. The unit also has a recorder for capturing footage of fish and spots that we can review later on a tablet or computer with a larger screen. Analyzing underwater video is critical to making the right decisions on the water.
“In tournaments, getting on the right grade of fish can be everything. It’s not enough just to be on schools of fish like other teams. We use the camera to inspect bluegill and crappie body contours and the size of the earflap in relation to the body. When fish turn to face the camera, we examine body thickness. All are clues to fish size. We’ve looked at enough footage now to determine fish weight down to 3 or 4 ounces.
For Wilson and Newby, the camera even serves as a fish-activity indicator. “Bluegills that come in and inspect the camera tell us they’re in the mood to bite,” he says. “Fish that drift around in the distance often require a bit more finesse.”
From micro to a macro, lake-wide perspective, each of our competitive anglers acknowledges the power of an exclusive set of lake maps. “On a lot of the lakes we fish, there aren’t any real good maps available,” Newby says. “Even some of the supposed 1-foot-contour maps out there can be inaccurate by alarming distances.
“Once they release the tournament schedule for the upcoming winter, we go to the lakes with boats and make our own maps. This gives us info no one else has—a comprehensive chart of every rock, weedbed, and crib in the lake.”
Designated map-man, GIS professional Steve Burkart, builds his exclusive lake charts using side-imaging mosaics. “You can do this with Humminbird AutoChart Live, Lowrance StructureMap, or Garmin Quickdraw, which I run,” Burkart says. “I make parallel paths across the lake, capturing photo-realistic side-scan imagery and overlaying it onto lake depth contours. In a full day of mapping, I can usually cover an entire 500-acre lake, scanning 125 feet on either side of the boat. It leaves no stone unturned, and I always uncover a few surprising gems.”
He says the overlays depict the exact appearance of every weedbed, rock pile, or other structure or smaller cover object in the lake. “You can also show bottom hardness by setting different display colors, say red for solid rock and yellow for soft basin.”
Once he finishes collecting data, he views the new map on a larger computer screen, using ReefMaster post-production software to piece the overlays together, and create waypoints or tracks along key breaklines. He can also export his new map onto a tablet, smartphone, or handheld GPS, or print a hardcopy.
“On the ice, we usually view the maps on a larger tablet,” he says. “Often, we’re looking for anomalies: pockets in weeds, thicker patches, or logs within weedbeds. In other lakes, cribs are key. Some lakes have more than 80 cribs. We’re looking for the ones with more brush and wood in them. Sometimes, too, fish are only using cribs in 19 feet of water, and we can immediately dial up those spots. Bottom composition is another powerful visual. The map instantly reveals transitions between hard and soft bottom, as well as gravel and rock edges. Drop a waypoint, drill a hole, and you’re good to go.”
Watching the competitive ice men work is a little like stepping into the future. Applying military-like technology to the pursuit of fish can, at times, make you question the concept of fair chase. And yet, nowhere is it necessary to fill buckets with big panfish.
Three or four winters from now, we might look back at the emergence of live-scanning sonar as a turning point in the health of panfish populations. Fishery managers in the North Country are scrambling to restore what have become massively depleted stocks of larger panfish. Let’s make sure they’re successful.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the heart of Ice Country in Minnesota and writes for all In-Fisherman publications, often on cutting-edge electronics technologies.