Icefishing (With an Edge)

New electronics and mapping systems help to pinpoint fish.

“Look at this, Tom,” I said to my icefishing partner as I studied the lake map displayed on the screen of my GPS unit. “The map shows a tiny hump right in the middle of the lake. ‘X’ marks the spot.”

Tom didn’t need any more encouragement. “Let’s go!” he replied. “I’ll crank up the snowmobile.” We were targeting jumbo yellow perch on a big, structure-filled lake that attracts lots of ice anglers. Our strategy was to find an offbeat, out-of-the-way place that hadn’t already been hammered by hordes of other icefishermen.

“Never knew that spot existed,” Tom admitted. “I’ll bet nobody’s touched it.”

As we headed toward the mid-lake hump, we both wondered if the GPS was accurate enough for us to actually be able to find it. “Should be right about here,” I announced finally, as the navigation arrow centered on the crown of the hump. I grabbed the auger, punched a hole and checked the depth. “Eighteen feet-looks like we hit the top of the hump right on the button.”

“Ain’t technology wonderful?” said Tom, laughing. “And we don’t have any company.”

I proceeded to unload fishing gear and assorted equipment to keep us warm while Tom set up his underwater camera in the hole I had just drilled. Suddenly, over my shoulder, I heard him chuckle.

“You gotta look at this,” he yelled excitedly. “There’s a big perch staring right at the camera.” I hurriedly punched a dozen holes around the hump, and we both started jigging with Swedish Pimples tipped with minnow heads. A few minutes later, Tom hoisted in the first fat perch, followed quickly by a second and then a third. Meanwhile, my line was being ignored. “Okay, what’s the secret?” I asked. “I haven’t had a touch.”

“Slow it way down,” Tom suggested. “If you jig it too much, the fish take off.”

By using his camera to watch the reaction of the fish, Tom was able to find exactly the right jigging motion, explaining why he was catching fish and I wasn’t. Once I figured out how to work my bait, I started holding up my end. Without modern technology, this icefishing outing might have turned out much differently. Had it not been for modern mapping capabilities and the accurate GPS reading, we wouldn’t have known that the productive hump was there. Even if we had, we might have spent hours searching with no guarantee of ever finding it. As for the underwater camera that clued us in to the right lure action, there’s no doubt in my mind that it helped increase our catch. If you’d like to enter the new age of icefishing, here are some suggestions for buying the right equipment and using it to your best advantage. GPS to Go
Many GPS units are packaged with pre-loaded maps of North America or with software that enables the user to create a map of the area of his choosing and download it onto the unit. These maps include rough outlines of lakes and waterways, so they are helpful in navigating around a given body of water. But they don’t include depth contours, so they’re of little value in pinpointing a specific fishing spot, unless you’ve been there before and have already created a waypoint.

Some GPS units can accept detailed lake maps or waypoint lists downloaded from CDs. With this technology, you can find a likely looking spot on the CD, transfer it to your GPS and then go there and start fishing, even if you’ve never been there before to create a waypoint.

The latest GPS technology adds even more convenience. Some GPS units now accept tiny memory cards containing detailed lake maps. You simply insert a card into a slot in the unit, eliminating the need to download and transfer waypoint data from a CD. Most major manufacturers offer GPS units that will accept lake map cards, but there are several different types of cards, and not all types are compatible with all GPS brands. I found only one handheld GPS unit that will handle lake map cards, the Lownce AirMap 500, which retails for $500. This unit, intended primarily for aviation, will read mapping data on MMC-type memory cards.

I use a combination sonar/GPS unit, the Lowrance X-15, for both open- water and icefishing. I keep the unit mounted in my boat during the open-water season, but in winter I rig it up on a Lowrance portable box powered by eight D-cell batteries. I mount the GPS module on top of the box using hook-and-loop pads. With this setup, I can easily use my open-water waypoints for icefishing, or I can insert a memory card containing maps of lakes where I want to fish but for which I have no waypoints. When I want to travel light, I remove the memory card with my own waypoints from my X-15 and insert it into a more compact Lowrance I-Finder. Unfortunately, the current generation of I-Finders cannot process the complex data on lake map cards, but the next generation undoubtedly will.

Can’t-Miss Maps
For decades, fishermen have relied on lake maps available from government agencies. In many cases, such maps were made before the age of LORAN or GPS and sometimes even before SONAR, so it’s not surprising that they bear little relation to reality. At best, they give you a general idea of where to find a specific spot such as an underwater point or hump. But thanks to new computer-aided mapping technology, some private mapmakers are now producing lake maps that show bottom contours in precise detail.

When these second-generation maps first started to appear, I was skeptical. I had a hard time believing it was possible for mapmakers to scour every nook and cranny on a huge lake and generate a map showing all of the subtleties in the bottom contours. But I became a believer after I checked a “precision map” of Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake against my own waypoint list, which includes fishing holes discovered over a 30-year period. Many hot spots that I considered my personal secrets were now clearly displayed for everyone-and the map’s latitudes and longitudes matched mine almost perfectly.

Even though I had never fished the tiny hump mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was able to drive right to it with the help of a prototype memory card on loan from Lake Master (800-540-574,www.lakemap.com). The MMC-type card, which is now available to the public, retails for $199 and contains maps of four popular Minnesota lakes, with contours at 1-foot intervals. Equipped with such technology, you can easily locate likely icefishing spots on lakes where you’ve never wet a line.

If you don’t have a GPS unit that takes a memory card, or if there are no cards available for the lake you want to fish, there are other options. Many precision lake maps are available in paper form or on a CD, but not on a memory card. The paper maps have latitude and longitude grids that let you measure the precise latitude and longitude of a given spot to create a waypoint. Some maps even include a waypoint list that identifies proven fishing holes.

On most CDs, you can scroll around with your cursor to locate a desired spot and the precise latitude and longitude is displayed on the screen instantaneously as you move the mouse.

Depending on the products you are using, the waypoints can then be downloaded to your GPS unit, or you can simply jot them down and enter them into your unit manually. These precision maps are currently available for only a small percentage of lakes around the country, but many more lakes are being mapped and several mapping companies are now adding waypoints of good fishing spots to older lake maps. Even though the map contours are not very accurate, the waypoints are exact, so you can punch the numbers into any handheld GPS unit and still find these spots. For the casual angler who doesn’t have a fat waypoint book, such maps provide a tremendous edge. Instead of spending your day drilling holes and sounding with your depth finder to find a likely piece of structure, you can simply drive up to the spot and start fishing. Even veteran anglers who’ve spent many years fishing a particular body of water will probably discover spots they never knew existed.

Underwater Views
Underwater video cameras, or “viewing systems,” as they’re often called, are becoming more popular as manufacturers continue to refine them. They have some downsides in open-water, warm-weather fishing, however. For starters, underwater cameras can be cumbersome to use, and it’s difficult to fish while you’re busy looking at the scene below you. Furthermore, plankton growth during warm spells often limits visibility to only a few inches beyond the camera lens. During winter, plankton blooms and murky water are seldom a problem under the ice. As a result, many experienced icefishermen have discovered that underwater cameras provide them with significant advantages over other anglers:

  • Because you’re stationary when icefishing, you can set up your camera to view the area around your lure, leaving your hands free to fish. Most anglers drill a second hole for the camera near their fishing holes to give them a wider viewing area and to help prevent tangles with fishing lines.
  • An angler using even the most sensitive depth finder is never completely sure about what kind of fish is showing on the screen. With a video camera, there is no doubt about the species.
  • Even if you’re not seeing fish, a video camera lets you find the right kind of bottom configuration and vegetation, increasing the odds that fish will eventually come along.
  • By watching how the fish react to a bait being worked near them, a fisherman can determine the right action to employ. One of the first lessons I learned with my camera is that I was jigging the lure too sharply, scaring away more fish than I was attracting. The most productive action will vary from day to day (or perhaps even during the course of a day), depending on the mood of the fish. A camera will help you adapt more quickly.

The biggest change in icefishing over the past decade has been the increased mobility of anglers. In years past, the typical icefisherman would haul out a huge shack made of plywood and 2-by-4s at the beginning of the season. The structure weighed a ton and, after the ice thawed and refroze a few times, it was stuck there for the rest of the winter. After a weekend or two, fishing became secondary. The shack made a good spot for playing cards and sipping a few brews, but it didn’t yield many fish, except those that showed up at random through the winter.

Today, anglers use snowmobiles or 4-wheel-drive ATVs to pull lightweight portable shelters, and they keep moving until they find the fish. The new GPS map technology helps you locate fish even more quicknd sounding with your depth finder to find a likely piece of structure, you can simply drive up to the spot and start fishing. Even veteran anglers who’ve spent many years fishing a particular body of water will probably discover spots they never knew existed.

Underwater Views
Underwater video cameras, or “viewing systems,” as they’re often called, are becoming more popular as manufacturers continue to refine them. They have some downsides in open-water, warm-weather fishing, however. For starters, underwater cameras can be cumbersome to use, and it’s difficult to fish while you’re busy looking at the scene below you. Furthermore, plankton growth during warm spells often limits visibility to only a few inches beyond the camera lens. During winter, plankton blooms and murky water are seldom a problem under the ice. As a result, many experienced icefishermen have discovered that underwater cameras provide them with significant advantages over other anglers:

  • Because you’re stationary when icefishing, you can set up your camera to view the area around your lure, leaving your hands free to fish. Most anglers drill a second hole for the camera near their fishing holes to give them a wider viewing area and to help prevent tangles with fishing lines.
  • An angler using even the most sensitive depth finder is never completely sure about what kind of fish is showing on the screen. With a video camera, there is no doubt about the species.
  • Even if you’re not seeing fish, a video camera lets you find the right kind of bottom configuration and vegetation, increasing the odds that fish will eventually come along.
  • By watching how the fish react to a bait being worked near them, a fisherman can determine the right action to employ. One of the first lessons I learned with my camera is that I was jigging the lure too sharply, scaring away more fish than I was attracting. The most productive action will vary from day to day (or perhaps even during the course of a day), depending on the mood of the fish. A camera will help you adapt more quickly.

The biggest change in icefishing over the past decade has been the increased mobility of anglers. In years past, the typical icefisherman would haul out a huge shack made of plywood and 2-by-4s at the beginning of the season. The structure weighed a ton and, after the ice thawed and refroze a few times, it was stuck there for the rest of the winter. After a weekend or two, fishing became secondary. The shack made a good spot for playing cards and sipping a few brews, but it didn’t yield many fish, except those that showed up at random through the winter.

Today, anglers use snowmobiles or 4-wheel-drive ATVs to pull lightweight portable shelters, and they keep moving until they find the fish. The new GPS map technology helps you locate fish even more quick