Fish Finders – An On-Ice Epiphany

February 7, 2012 by  

By Nick Simonson

I recall clearly many days where an “ah-ha!” moment changed the way I did things forever.  One such moment happened on December 26, 2000, and it altered the way I fished through the ice permanently.
The converted trailer shack that my buddy Holmes, his cousin Adam and I were fishing out of on the day after Christmas had taken on a distinct chill, and I held my hand out over the flickering propane heater, which sputtered and spit the last fumes from the twenty-pound cylinder on the outside of the house.  Being back from Florida for my final holiday break of undergrad, I still was not used to the North Dakota winters which I had fled from in 1997, and I nervously asked how we planned on keeping warm the rest of the day.

Fish Finders“We’ll have to go back into town and refill the tank,” said my buddy, obviously annoyed.
His cousin nodded, and agreed to drive. I volunteered to stay behind just in case a school of fish decided to cruise by our spot on the channel edge, though I was doubtful.  I watched the duo pull away from the ice house in Adam’s Chevy, opened a set of handwarmers and clicked the bail on my borrowed ice rod.  The Northland Buckshot Rattlespoon zipped down the hole off to one side and disappeared from view in the twenty feet of dingy water below me.  I looked to my left at the whirring disk of green, red and yellow on the Vexilar FL-8 fish finder hanging in the next hole over while I jigged my lure about four feet off the bottom.
With each twitch of my rod, I saw a yellow flash on the monitor of the sonar device.  I would rip the lure up and down and the color would change from yellow to red to green and back to yellow, or when I’d move it just slightly, it would flicker between a light green bar and a thicker yellow bar.  It was like a video game of sorts, and as my brain made the connection, I smiled with the onset of that “ah-ha!” moment.
I would open the bail and the lure would drop into the solid red bottom and the line would go limp.  I’d slowly pull the spoon up and it would creep up warily from the edge of the sonar’s viewing area.
“This is pretty neat,” I said aloud as I banged the spoon on the bottom, ripped it up and let it fall; and then reeled it up a few feet in the water column.
I glanced at my watch, looked out the window and sat down as I jiggled the fishing rod some more.  I again turned my attention to the whir of the FL-8 fish finder and saw something that looked out of place.  A large red blob had materialized on the circular screen, just below my offering.  I jigged the rod to make sure that the object wasn’t my spoon, and as I did, the red bar rose up toward it and paused about a foot below the yellow mark on the screen.  I then ripped the spoon upward and the red mark exploded after it and I felt the fish whollop my offering.

The drag on the reel began to scream, the ice rod was doubled over pointing straight down the hole and the fight was on.  I went from watching the Vexilar, to looking down the hole, to loosening my drag.  Occasionally, the red mark would zoom through the screen and then quickly disappear.  Each time, the line was higher up on the sonar’s display.
Finally, I saw the fish – a large pike – swim under the hole.  My adrenaline surged and I cranked on the reel, attempting to steer its head toward the surface.  Finally, the gaping, tooth-filled maw angled just right and I put the last few turns on the reel.  I reached down and grabbed the northern behind the head and hoisted it out of the water.  It was a five-pound pike, my first ever through the ice.
My friends rumbled up in the pickup shortly thereafter with a tank full of propane.  I stepped outside the metal shack and held the fish up for them to see.
“That Vexilar is really cool,” I said to Adam, as I explained how I saw, triggered and caught the fish with the help of his sonar unit.
The next year, graduated and relocated back to North Dakota, my parents bought me one for Christmas, and that old FL-8 still ranks as one of the best gifts anyone has ever given me.  A few years ago, I upgraded to an FL-20 fish finder, and passed the old unit on to my brother who still uses it to this day.
I’ve often said that a sonar device is only slightly more important than an auger when ice fishing, and I wouldn’t leave home without one.  Today, there are more brands, models and options to fit any angler’s needs and budget than just the FL-8 fish finder, which was the only unit available at the turn of the century.  If you fish with any of them, you’ve probably had that “ah-ha!” moment on ice, seen what was once unviewable and learned how fish react to your presentations.  As a result, you probably agree with me that your chosen sonar is the most important piece of ice fishing equipment.  If you haven’t yet fished with one, it’s time to see what you’re missing and experience an epiphany of your own…in our outdoors.


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