It is always good to fish with new people because you learn so much. And, it is easy to make friends with fishermen who push you to the next level. My friend Jay showed me the next frontier in underwater cameras for ice fishing and I am forever grateful.
After setting up our shelter at ultra-clear Elevenmile Reservoir over a couple holes, we drilled another hole about ten feet away from the door of the tent. Jay dropped the camera to the bottom and pointed it back towards the fishing spot. He ran the cable back to the shelter and set up the TV facing the chairs. By the time my eyes adjusted to the darkness the TV was showing our lures plus five feet up, down, and around the fishing area. Now we were fishing in IMAX.
A couple of hours later we had a mixed school of trout and pike come onto the screen. We both slowed down our jigging and watched the school react to the lures. Trout swarmed the area but were hesitant. The pike had a different idea. I clearly saw the 18” fish bend its body into an S-shape and rocket towards my spoon. My jaw dropped. Returning to reality, my rod bent and I set the hook. Try seeing that on a flasher!
Underwater cameras are a perfect match for ice fishing. When used properly an underwater camera will change your ice fishing tactics forever. Unfortunately though, after spending $300 or more for their new toy, many people realize that it is tough to play with the fish while you’re playing with your camera.
Underwater camera set at 90 degrees
Cameras work best in shallow water, 15 to 20 feet or less. Even with lights they do not work that great at night. So consider these two boundaries when choosing between using a flasher/sonar system or a camera for information while ice fishing.
In water less than ten feet deep, the camera really shines. Seeing the lake bottom and knowing exactly how fish are responding to your presentations can make a huge difference between fishing and catching. Dropping the camera down the hole and seeing fish in the area skyrockets ones confidence in the spot.
An ideal use for a camera is locating weed edges. After drilling your first hole, pop the camera down and have a look around. If you see weeds all around, move out five or ten feet and drill another hole. At some point, you will put the camera down the hole and see weeds in one direction and open water in the other. That’s usually a great spot to fish! If you watch long enough a few fish will swim by verifying that the location is worth setting up the shelter and dropping down some lures.
I fished Lake John my first time last year. After studying the contour map I knew that the bay at the north end of the lake had some good feeding flats. My friends walked out on the ice and randomly picked a spot for me to drill their holes. While they were fishing I took twenty minutes or so to find the weed edge. My first hole was too far out as my camera showed open water all around. I moved towards the shore and found that I had walked too far shoreward; weeds surrounded me. Ten feet further out from shore and the weeds were less thick, and then another ten feet put me about five feet from a solid weed edge out in open water. I caught fish for a day and a half while my friends said that the lake was dead.
Using your camera to locate productive fishing spots is an obvious advantage and that is the most common use of cameras for ice fishing. Finding that lone rock ten feet from your hole is enough information to move in that direction and it can make or break a day’s fishing. These spots can also be saved on GPS for use later in the open water. In this case, a TV is worth a thousand words when it comes to understanding underwater structure. Are you fishing over rocks, mud, or weeds? Is there a stump nearby that might attract fish? I once found a ten foot pipe at the bottom of Chatfield, and I might be the only person who knows where that honey hole exists.
My first few attempts to use the camera to find my lure underwater were frustrating. While I fussed with the electronics, my friends were catching fish. Since then, I’ve found a few accessories and tweaked my equipment, which has decreased camera setup time and increased my catch rates.
Putting a small strip of electrical tape every five feet up the cord is an obvious and inexpensive improvement. By alternating the tape colors I know the camera depth as I drop it down. I have also use a paint pen to mark a line up the cable on camera lens side. This mark tells me which direction the camera pointed.
I also put a foam clamp on my sled to hold the cable over the hole when I wanted to continuously watch the underwater show.
Use tape to mark cable for depth
Weed covered camera set at 45 degrees
My second round of improvements included a set of LaDredge Outdoors “Real-weeds” camera cover. The plastic greenery turned the obvious black cable and camera system into a mobile weed bed for attracting fish. For shallow water, I occasionally use a five foot section of screen door framing material to hold the camera and control it underwater. The frame is an extruded aluminum rod that is strong enough to twist the camera and hold it in one spot. It is about 1-inch in width and the cross-section is s-shaped to allow the cord to be tucked along the length of the rod. The stiff connection allowed me to accurately control the camera and track camera direction.
Door frame section mounted on camera cable
Sometimes fish (especially walleyes) will show up on your flasher and just will not bite. But the fish does not go away either. If you can not make the fish commit in a few minutes consider using your camera to see what is going on. Set the camera to shoot straight down the hole by running the cable through the fin on the back of the unit. Keep your lure in the water and slowly lower the camera down the hole until you can see the lure and hopefully the fish. Then continue to change your jigging until the fish hits.
Surprisingly, most fish will still bite with a camera a few inches from the lure. On most lakes I drill a second hole a couple of feet away from my lure and drop down the camera. Start with a shiny lure (like a Kastmaster) in the main hole and twist the camera cable until the lure becomes visible. If there are weeds a few feet from the bottom, I use a rubber band, twist-tie, electrical tape, or a Velcro strip to rig my camera 45 degrees from horizontal. With this configuration I can look down into the weeds while also looking around.
The rewards from viewing fish in detail can be amazing. After missing bites on three perch in a row my son and I drilled an extra hole in our shed and dropped a camera down to our minnows. I usually use a small jig cutting through the back of the minnow but on TV it was clear that the jig hit against the perch’s mouth was preventing a hookup. I switched to a smaller plain hook through the minnow’s tail and then its nose. Unfortunately, that wasn’t perfect either. Finally, I tried a very small treble hook just behind the minnow’s dorsal fin (facing backwards) and that worked every time. The perch’s mouth would suck the minnow in headfirst and the hook was in the perfect spot for a hook-up every time. For next 30 minutes we enjoyed watching our rigs hook fish and marveled at how simple details such as hook size and location can make or break a fishing trip.
If you’re looking to change your ice fishing game, especially in shallow water environments, consider an underwater camera. It can be a real eye opener to a whole new fishing dimension.
David Harrison runs the fishing half of the Skyline Hunting and Fishing Club near Chatfield Reservoir in Jefferson County. He also works with local guides to write fishing articles for major magazines including In-Fisherman, Salmon Trout Steelheader, and Colorado Outdoors.