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Brad Laabs: These new fish locators are amazing

These units are like watching a live action fishing video game, and have revolutionized sonar technology for both open water and ice fishing.

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Brad Laabs

Fish finder, sonar, flasher – they have many names and are pretty much the same thing. These units are made by numerous manufacturers, and for ice fishing, owning one can be one of your best investments for helping you locate fishing areas and fish.

The most commonly used for ice fishing for many years are the flasher type units. Coming on strong the last few years is the 2D graph digital display units. The last couple of years, the biggest boom to fish finding technology has been the active or forward facing sonar. These units are like watching a live action fishing video game, and have revolutionized sonar technology for both open water and ice fishing.

The first unit to hit the market with this new innovation was the Garmin Panoptix Livescope. Lowrance soon followed with their version called ActiveTarget sonar, and Humminbird (not to be outdone) has the MEGA Live units.

The most popular brands for flashers and/or 2D displays, due to proven success over the years include Vexilar, Humminbird, MarCum, and the Lowrance (ice machine). With the popularity and growth of ice fishing, other brands are reaching out and competing for a share of the market.

Underwater cameras have been around for many years now and really shine in use in clear water lakes. Aqua-Vu was the first to arrive to the market and has made many improvements and additions. It is probably still the top seller, followed closely by MarCum’s series of underwater cameras.


You can get many to argue which one is the best. They are all good units now, and can do for you what you need. They will show you depth, pick up the presence of your lure, and show you when fish are present in the cone angle.

The difference for preference is in the type of display you like (graph or flasher), and the price point changes with features like zoom and multiple cone angle settings. Most ice anglers like the very narrow beam of an 8 degree cone angle. The narrower beam improves target separation and reduces the risk of unit interference from other units close by.

Wider cone angles will bounce the signal wider and may interfere with other units readings, but will show if something has moved under you in a bigger radius area covered by the wider beam (some will come with up to 20 degree cone angle). Don’t kid yourself or listen to all the internet chirp, all units can and will interfere with each other if they are not tuned properly.

Learning how to read and interpret what you are seeing is the most important aspect when it comes to having success with your fish finder. Experience and practice with the unit is the best teacher, but make sure you read your user manual, get instruction from a veteran ice angler, attend an information seminar, or watch some helpful YouTube videos.

It is important to learn the features of the unit you want or have. They will have a sensitivity type setting (that adjusts power of the sonar signal), and adjusting that to the power level that can pick up your lure will reduce the likelihood of you interfering with your fishing partner in the fish house or portable.

All the units now also come equipped with the ability to change frequencies. This feature will help cut out interference from similar units and other brands that are creating interference with each other. Distance between units always helps. You may need to readjust settings every so often.

The simple act of retrieving a jig and re-dropping it can start interference between units that wasn’t occurring before. Sometimes shutting one unit off for a few minutes and starting over may be what it takes for everyone to get good clear readings and signals.

Units with narrow beams will interfere less with each other in close proximity in shallow water and with low power settings. The deeper the water, the more the beams spread out and cover a larger diameter, and therefore interfere with each other, or will pick up their lure also.


When dropping spoon/flutter type lures in deeper water, drop them a few feet, stall or jig it a few times, drop it a few more feet, and repeat until you are at depth.

If you don't, they dive into others’ area instead of your own, and can cause a tangle or start interfering with your partner's signal.

Most units will start in the $260-$300 range and go up from there. Most units in the $450-$550 range have all the bells and whistles. They will have more power, zoom features, clearer/bigger displays, and higher end sensitivity settings for better target separation. Go with what you can afford – but go on the ice with one.

(Laabs owns Brad Laabs Guide Service in Detroit Lakes)

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