Shouts of “Fish! Fish!” are usually reserved for when an angler gets a strike, bite or an actual fish on their line. Not anymore. With underwater cameras ice anglers get very excited just seeing a fish near their Swedish Pimple or Woolly Bugger suspended in the water.
My first experience with this occurred Saturday on Georgetown Lake, just west of Anaconda. My son’s friend is geared up with a portable ice fishing shelter, auger, rods, propane heater and — maybe most importantly for his crew — an underwater camera.
Thanks to the camera we watched hours and hours of the Fish TV channel. Most of the time the stars of the show were absent. There were no fish to watch. Instead, they seemed to swim by whenever someone would step in the way of the screen while trying to get into or out of the shelter.
Underwater fish cameras date back to the late 1990s when the Aqua-Vu Underwater Viewing System debuted. Now there are a handful of companies manufacturing underwater cameras; one even attaches to your line so you can see a fish strike your lure. They range in price from about $40 for the ones that attach to a fishing line to $700 for one that has a high-definition, low-light camera and the ability to capture video from the device.
Chancy Jeschke, fishing department manager at Snappy Sport Senter in Kalispell, said he’s seen an increase in sales of underwater cameras over the past five years. That’s partly because they proved their worth in the local Perch Assault ice-fishing tournament. He said most of the 45 teams entered are using cameras because they enable the anglers to hook light-biting, finicky fish.
“Even with the lighter rods you can’t feel them bite,” he said.
The early underwater cameras were large and cumbersome, Jeschke said. Now there are models about the size of a cellphone.
Matt Jaeger, fisheries biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Dillon, said the cameras have also provided anglers with proof that fish are in nearby Clark Canyon Reservoir even when they’re not biting. In the past, some anglers might tell FWP that fish numbers were down despite the results of agency net sampling that showed fish populations were healthy.
“It can take some pressure off my shoulders,” he said.
The fishing cameras don’t work well everywhere, Jeschke said. Some waters are thick with underwater bugs that crowd the screen. Sediment-heavy water also can complicate viewing. They also work better in shallower water — 5 to 20 feet — where there’s more light, he said.
The underwater cameras can be used for more than just fishing. Fish cams are great tools for education, especially to interest youngsters, and biologists are exploring their use for fish surveys.
The advanced technology for ice fishing hasn’t been limited to underwater cameras. Pop-up ice shelters and ice augers that attached to an electric drill have also made the sport easier and more comfortable.
“The pop-up market has just exploded in the last four to five years,” Jeschke said.
Helena ice angler Justin Brown said he can light a lantern in his pop-up and it will provide enough heat for him to fish in a short-sleeved shirt.
“They hold heat well,” he said.
That’s key for anglers taking youngsters fishing, Brown said. The shelters provide a place to stay warm out of the wind.
“It’s something I really enjoy doing with my kids in the winter,” Jaeger said. He noted it’s a rare day that the wind isn’t blowing on nearby Clark Canyon Reservoir.
Drilling holes through the ice is one of the most physical aspects of the sport — the next being dragging a heavy sled loaded with gear. Now, even drilling holes has become easier thanks to augers that can be fitted into electric drills.
One of the makers of ice augers completely dropped its line of gas-powered machines in favor of the new drill-adapted augers, Jeschke said. Propane augers, using the same small green canisters as portable barbecue grills and lanterns, have also replaced the old gas machines, he said, providing more torque for drilling through thicker ice.
An ice angler investing in all of the latest gear could easily spend $800. In states like Minnesota where ice fishing is an especially popular winter activity, anglers will even drop $15,000 to $40,000 on a trailer specially built to set up over ice-fishing holes.
On the flip side an ice angler could also spend as little as $100 for an activity that would get them outdoors in the winter and maybe provide a fresh meal of fish every now and then, depending on how skilled they are at catching.
“It used to be an old man’s sport, but the younger crowd is starting to get into it,” Brown said.
Maybe that’s partly due to all of the new gadgets.
As for having a Fish TV to watch, Brown said the underwater cameras his buddies own are really cool. “Now, if you could only switch them over to football” when the ice fishing was slow during the NFL season, he added, that would be even cooler.