A couple years ago I was heading up to Lake Winnipeg in March to get in on the world-class ice-fishing action when I realized I had forgotten something critical: my electronic fish finder. After a quick U-turn, I drove 30 minutes all the way back home to get it. It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when we ice fished without fish finders.
In my mind, no piece of equipment has changed fishing as much as the new sonar fish finder electronic units. These units consist of two parts, a transducer that is lowered into the water that projects sound waves down into the lake, and the main unit which interprets the rebounding sound wave data and creates a visual image that tells fishers what exactly is down there. Fish finders come in many types and models. Most of us use models in the winter called “flashers”.
Flasher units typically have a round display screen that shows the surface, the bottom and in the space between these two coloured lines, your lure and any fish that come below your ice hole. Usually the flasher projects your lure and fish as red lines on the round screen, with weaker signals such as small bait fish showing up as green lines.
Flashers don’t come cheap, but they are worth every penny and then some. Units run from around $400 all the way up to $900 for top-end units. The good news is they are all great in my experience. I have a lower-cost model, the Humminbird Ice-35 and it is terrific. I’ve used most brands of all price ranges and you just can’t go wrong.
Ice fishing has exploded and I think flashers have a lot to do with that. Gas-powered ice augers and pop-up ice tents have been huge, too. Back in the dark ages, we used to drill holes, drop our lures and, oftentimes, not catch any fish. But was it because there were no fish down there, or were they there but just not biting? There is a world of difference.
Nowadays, if no fish show up on your flasher to at least look at your lure, it’s time to move. If the fish are there but not biting, you need to change lures or bait. We spent so much time fishing water with no fish in the past, whereas now, we can move till we find fish. This is a massive change.
Flashers make ice fishing interactive. You can see the fish reacting to your lure and techniques. That makes ice fishing super fun and very effective. You’ll quickly learn what lures the fish want that day and if they want them jigged aggressively or simply held still. This interaction mesmerizes kids and hooks them on fishing. It was often hard to get youngsters to brave the cold all day in the past. That is no longer the case!
Walleyes are notoriously light biters in the winter. They often simply lightly inhale the lure, generating only a kind of “heavy” feeling on your rod. Or you may only feel a light “tick”. In the past when these subtle strikes came, you weren’t ready and you missed it. Nowadays, with a flasher you know the fish is there before it strikes and you are locked and loaded to make a quick hook set while the fish is coming to your lure.
Oftentimes, fish are on or near the bottom and this is a great place to work your lure. But all fish species will suspend at times — even walleyes, which are very bottom-oriented.
Last week at Balsam Bay on Lake Winnipeg, the greenbacks were suspended. We were fishing in 15 feet of water with buckshot spoons baited with shiners. I was thumping bottom to attract fish when a red mark (a fish) appeared on the flasher suspended down only about six feet from the surface. I pulled my spoon up above the fish and jigged it a couple times.
He grabbed it and the fight was on with a fat, two-pound greenback flopping on the ice shortly after.
Some species such as lake trout, whitefish, tulibee and crappies are notorious for suspending at various depths in the water column. Fishing for these species without a flasher would be a shot in the dark. A fish’s eyes are set high on its head, so when your flasher tells you what depth it’s at, you simply need to get your lure above it and you will have an opportunity to catch it.
While fishing for lake trout last winter near Snow Lake, I was jigging on the bottom with a big, white tube jig when a large red mark appeared high in the water column, right under the ice. I cranked the tube jig up to the bottom of the ice hole. I could see it down there. There was a silver flash and then a big trout was screaming drag off of my reel heading for parts unknown. After a long, tough fight we landed and released the big fish. That catch made my trip and it wouldn’t have happened without the help of the flasher.
Some folks think using a flasher is cheating. I say as long as you are following the laws and limits and you are releasing the big, female spawners, why not embrace this new technology and have more fun? A small warning though: once you’ve used one, you’ll never be able to ice fish without it.
Quick Shots: The walleye bite in the Red River was strong right up to and through the Christmas holidays. By all accounts, the action on the Red River continues for some but may be slowing. A strong bite has been going on for awhile now on Lake Winnipeg on the east side where there has been good vehicle access. Normally I find the best “bite window” to occur from sunrise until about 10:30 a.m. with another flurry of activity at the end of the day.
Interestingly, the bite at Balsam Bay seems to be a steady, all-day affair as of late, but don’t count on that to continue.