Is Technology Helping Ice Anglers Catch More Fish?

Is Technology Helping Ice Anglers Catch More Fish?

My pearl white tube jig spiraled into the black abyss as I leaned over to turn on my flasher. The quiet hum of braided line free-spooling from my reel was quickly overtaken by the buzz emitted by the sonar.

Or, maybe it was merely the audible buzz of my own excitement—the first drop of the morning!

Glancing back at my flasher, I caught the faint green mark of my jig just as it met the solid red of the bottom. The reservoir’s floor sat nearly 100 feet beneath me. I closed the bail and made a couple slow cranks on the reel handle. The faint green mark reemerged just above the red bottom. Then, to my surprise, it was quickly engulfed by red again. A fish?!

I tried to stay poised. For the next few minutes I subtly jigged the tube on the bottom. On my flasher, the red and yellow mark moved in and out of the sonar’s range—I imagined a behemoth lake trout circling below, trying to decide if she would eat the “baitfish” stirring up the substrate.

No dice. Time for a new technique. I reeled up the 7-inch tube jig at a steady pace. The red and yellow mark followed. Definitely a fish!

Seventy feet deep…60 feet…50 feet…the fish kept following about 5 feet below the jig but didn’t close any distance. I reeled faster, then slower, but couldn’t trigger a bite. The fish started to descend. I opened the bail. On my flasher, the falling green mark of my jig caught up to the fish at about 80 feet. The fish reengaged. I reengaged. The cat-and-mouse continued.

Finally, on the fourth ascent up the water column, the fish and jig met at 30 feet. My rod tip ticked and I set the hook. Fish on!

In the end, this cool cat caught the mouse—a 44-inch, 40-pound lake trout. Definitely a personal best. And, on that day, definitely not possible without the aid of electronics.

It goes without saying that fishing technology has come a long way in recent years. That said, electronics aren’t required to be successful on hard water, but more often than not, they will help. But just how much do electronics improve ice anglers’ catch rates? According to a recent study, they can help a little or they can help a lot—it depends on the target species and situation.

Keep it Creel
In the study, researchers in Wisconsin used data from creel surveys to analyze catch and harvest rates as well as angler effort. On top of typical creel survey questions—”what species did you catch?” “How many of each species did you catch?” “How many of each species did you harvest?”—creel clerks asked two additional questions during interviews for the study:

“Did you at any point use a GPS, smartphone, or other electronic device to locate today’s fishing spot?”

“Did you use a Vexilar, Marcum, underwater camera, or other electronic device to assist you while you were fishing?”

Forty percent of respondents used electronics to locate their fishing spot and 70% used electronics while fishing. Respondents also generally broke into two groups—gamefish anglers and panfish anglers—that is, at least on the day they were surveyed. Within those groups, there was enough data to compare catch and harvest rates with and without electronics between walleye and northern pike (gamefish), and panfishes including bluegill, yellow perch, and black crappie.

Fishing or Catching?
Overall, walleye anglers were most likely to use electronics to find their fishing location, but panfish anglers used electronics more when actively fishing. For those going after panfish, the use of electronics was particularly beneficial. While 91% of anglers targeting bluegill or yellow perch caught fish regardless of electronics use, bluegill and perch anglers using electronics experienced catch and harvest rates that were 30 to 295% higher than non-users. Mmmhmm fish fry!

Speaking of fish fries, given the typical structure and habitat walleye anglers target, perhaps it’s not too surprising that those anglers were most likely to use electronics to pinpoint their fishing spot on the map. Interestingly, those anglers had lower catch rates than non-users. There were similar results for northern pike anglers, the use of technology didn’t substantially improve their success. Maybe that rock pile marked on your and everyone else’s Navionics map gets fished too hard. Or maybe, there is some merit to the old timers’ “back in my day” claims. I would venture to guess that fishing method, such as jigging versus tip-up fishing, plays a role.

Of course, there are plenty of other factors that aren’t controlled in the study. For example, fishing method, fishing experience, the lure or bait used, or the number of Spotted Cows consumed were not provided in the survey results. I hereby volunteer for the follow-up study on the latter! Nonetheless, measuring all intricacies of ice fishing was not the researchers’ goal. This study was the first of its kind to provide on-the-ground data to measure the effect of technology on ice fishing success. These findings are a big step forward for game departments. As anglers’ behavior changes over time, fisheries managers need to adapt to ensure the longevity of the resource.

The Creel Deal
Not only has ice fishing technology vastly improved in the last few decades, but based on the results of a complementary study, participation in ice fishing has increased as well. As sonar becomes more accessible and affordable, more and more anglers are getting out on the hardwater. Whereas drilling a bunch of holes with a hand auger or lugging around a hefty 1970s Jiffy Powerhead may have deterred some folks in the past, lightweight, rechargeable augers, and even cordless drill adaptors have lowered the barrier. New models of sonar units and cameras are rolled out annually and the growing used market allows entry-level ice anglers to shop for bargains on minimally outdated technology. Not to mention, have you ever witnessed a new-to-ice-fishing youngster use an underwater camera before? Hell, even adults getting into the sport are often mesmerized.

All told, more anglers with more technology could present challenges for fisheries managers. Using the same creel survey data, the authors of the original study were able to simulate different scenarios of increased electronics usage in the future. This suggests further increases of panfish catch and harvest by 9 to 35%. In this study, that amounts to several thousand more fish caught or harvested lakewide, which managers would need to consider when setting regulations. Similarly, Wisconsin and Minnesota are already experimenting with reduced panfish bag limits, but as we’ve reported previously, lower panfish harvest doesn’t necessarily mean less meat for the fry pan.

Likewise, using technology doesn’t necessarily mean more meat for the fry pan. But, used correctly, it will likely help.

Feature image via Captured Creative.

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