Ice fishing is challenging, and most ice fishers will seize any advantage they can. With that in mind, both underwater cameras and sonar have been deployed by ice fishers in many places and that has led to the debate of which is better for ice fishing.
Sonar and cameras are both good for ice fishing in different ways. While sonar does a good job of mapping out the body of water you’re fishing, cameras are better for getting a clear image of what fish are doing and how they’re interacting with your bait. Using both offers the best strategy.
This debate is not a simple contest between pros and cons for each where the one with the most attributes wins. Multiple factors influence the effectiveness of either and a lot of it is up to the personal preference of the angler. Below, we take a closer look at these factors.
Table of Contents
Criteria For Judging
The sonar versus camera discussion is tame compared to many fishing equipment debates. The reason for this is that the debate is really about degrees of effectiveness. It is not like the baitcaster versus spinning reel debate, or mono versus braided line, where people tend to feel strongly that one is superior to the other.
The sonar versus camera debate comes down to the roles they play. Even people who have a strong preference for sonar or camera will acknowledge there is a role for both in an ice fishing environment. The only point that might cause some disagreement is when each is the preferred option.
Because we are talking about degrees of effectiveness, using a standard set of evaluation criteria can be helpful. The most effective is as follows:
- Very useful
- Useful in some conditions
- Unhelpful in some conditions
- Virtually worthless
Another useful evaluation method is to prioritize each feature and then place it in the range above. A low priority feature that is useful, for example, will not score as well as a higher priority feature that is neutral. Likewise, a high priority feature that either sonar or camera cannot address will score lower than a medium range priority that is useful in some conditions.
To understand how this works, consider the following examples:
- Example A: This feature can “see” down through the water column but cannot give a visual of fish approaching fish.
- Example B: This feature cannot see in murky water but can provide exceptional details when used in clear to slightly cloudy water.
- Example C: This feature can “paint” a rough picture of structure as well as suspended fish but cannot give much information beyond that rough sketch.
- Example D: This feature can give a clear picture of structure and fish but cannot indicate from the surface where structure is located without being physically present.
Now, let’s prioritize those four things. Starting with example A, to be able to see through the water column is pretty important. So is getting a rough idea of structure. At the same time, a clear image of how a fish is approaching a lure or bait is extremely useful.
Finally, a feature that cannot find structure on its own unless submerged but can give a clear picture of structure when it is located could be valuable but is limited in practical application.
The first priority would be to see through the water column. The second would be to get a rough image of any structure. The third would be to get an idea of how fish are treating a lure or bait. The fourth would be the clear picture of structure.
From those priorities, we can then assign the most common state the feature a designation of “very useful” through “virtually worthless.” This also allows for the establishment of environmental parameters that may enhance or limit effectiveness.
A camera, for instance, can be worth its weight in gold if it shows trees submerged in water. Knowing the trees are there helps establish a strategy to fish the structure as well as to avoid getting hung up on it. That same camera, however, is virtually useless in muddy water or water with a lot of debris that could damage the camera, thus limiting when it can be used.
Likewise, being able to see through the water column is almost invaluable, unless any fish in that column are shying away from the lure presented. In that case, knowing where the fish are is nice, but not terribly productive.
In that scenario, though, a camera could shed light on fish behavior if the water was clear. By using these criteria, establishing real and figurative worth becomes a little easier.
Pros And Cons
In addition to usefulness and prioritization, a third way of assessing value involves a list of each method’s attributes and drawbacks. A pro and con list doesn’t tell the whole story, but it is a useful snapshot of the likely reasons one method is preferred over another.
Cost is another factor that affects decisions of whether sonar or cameras are superior when ice fishing. While the costs are roughly the same, the costs of each are relative to the quality being purchased and other competitors above and below the chosen price range.
Another factor that cannot be overlooked in a discussion of whether sonar or a camera is better is personal preference. While most people don’t feel strongly about sonar over cameras or the reverse, almost everyone still has an opinion that helps formulate where they stand on the issue. But which one is best for you?
Overview Of Sonar Systems For Ice Fishing
A sonar fish finder is exactly what it sounds like. Using sonar technology, the contour of a body of water is “mapped” and any fish in that area are recorded. Fish finders are generally accurate although it sometimes can be difficult to interpret.
The first fish finders are said to have been developed in Japan, although the commercial fathometer was the inspiration in North America. The fathometer used sonar to map the bottom of bodies of water. After years of experimentation, the first fish finders were created.
Not only did the fish finder allow for depth assessment, but fish could also be spotted underwater. Over time, graphics improved and the merging of nautical, weather and positioning technology became important, resulting in the fish finder sonar we know today.
For ice fishing, boat-oriented fish finders had to be monitored to be portable for transporting across ice. The result has been dozens of products that can help experts and novices alike find fish and understand the types of environmental conditions driving their success.
Overview Of Ice Fishing Cameras
A basic underwater camera for ice fishing is really simple. A camera is lowered through a hole in the ice into the water below via a cable that connects the camera to a screen for viewing. When activated, the camera provides a live video feed of what is happening in the water around structures or bait.
An underwater camera can shoot vertically or horizontally. It can be outfitted with a light for night video too. It is retrieved through the hole in the ice, and it may transmit the video feed to something that records it, or it might come equipped with a memory card. But when it comes to sonar and cameras, which is best for ice fishing?
Sonar vs Camera For Ice Fishing
Ease Of Use
Sonar is really easy to learn how to read, operate, and interpret results. With most models, an individual can quickly learn how to use and read the sonar display as well as the best ways to deploy the system. In addition, because the technology is simple, there is very little possibility that the system will malfunction.
While sometimes more complex, cameras tend to be smaller than full sized fish finder sonar arrays. The camera is easy to pack and store. The exception to this is the handheld sonar systems that are specifically oriented towards the long angler. Even still, cameras usually include less pieces of equipment, especially if the video is sent to a smartphone.
A fish finder is remarkably portable, but it’s still not as portable as a camera. If you are ice fishing in brush or at a distance from your vehicle, the ease of transport of a camera is superior to the sonar kit. In some cases, it can fit in a pocket and transmits to a smartphone for even more portability.
Sonar provides a “snapshot” even in dirty or murky water. A sonar system will still give a clear indication of structure and fish in the water column regardless of the water cloudiness or color. The sole exception to water quality that can create “false positives” is debris in the water that sonar picks up and reports as fish.
A camera becomes exponentially useless the murkier, dirtier or cloudier the water is. It is all but useless in extremely muddy water, which could rule out some big bodies of water, like the Mississippi River. Cameras are great in clear water but functionally useless with any body of water that has been agitated.
But sonar does not give you a real visual, so all forms of fish identification, from type of fish to size, is a guess. That can be frustrating, especially if you are fishing through a large school of smaller fish that can occasionally resemble a large fish because of schooling.
Sound vs Light
Sonar can also cut through darkness because it needs no light to be effective. Sonar works using sound, which means if there is something to bounce off, a “clear” picture of structure and fish will emerge when the sonar is activated.
Because cameras use light to function, they’re useless in the dark. A camera shows you what is in its view and nothing more. The broadest picture you get is right in front of the camera. After that, the vision-cone diminishes and shrinks, depending on water clarity.
With sonar, the signal starts very small and sends signals down though the water column, with cone coverage expanding as it gets deeper. That gives you a wider picture of fish activity and presence.
In clear water, the camera gives you an instant image of the area you are fishing, any obstacles around it, and any fish that are present. That makes producing a strategy to target and catch fish easy once the basic hole is cut out. This means, in clear water, a camera gives you more information to work with than sonar.
Sonar lets you coordinate with weather, geographic position, wind, charting and GPS technology to create a comprehensive picture that helps you formulate the best fish catching strategy possible.
This includes being able to map areas on a body of water and chart depth, water temperature and GPS coordinates. All that data can help ensure you are on top of the fish and presenting bait to them that prompts a strike. Sonar in conjunction with GPS lets you map the area you were fishing. If you find the perfect winter fish environment, you can document its location for future trips.
But watching how fish react to your bait can be invaluable. With sonar, all you can tell is that fish are present. With an underwater camera, you can see how the fish approaches your bait, their behavior before striking, what make the fish cautious and what can spook it. From there, modifying your fish catching strategy is easy.
Seeing fish live and in action is better than seeing a pixel or group of pixels. On a practical note, observing the behavior of fish as they approach your bait and how they observe, stalk and attack it can help you fine tune your strategy and tactics, improving your catch ratio. So, it often comes down to whether you want an accurate map of the body of water, or to see how the fish are behaving.
Other Limiting Factors
For most situations, sonar is fast enough. If you are ice fishing on a lake or river with a current, however, the lag between sending a signal and receiving feedback can mean a fish passes through your ice fishing sphere of influence. Cameras offer a live feed in many cases, so there is no lag to worry about.
While sonar has as delay of seconds, if you are retrieving your camera though your fishing hole, the delay can be extensive. So, if your camera doesn’t offer a live feed and instead you’re submerging it and then taking it back out to check the footage, the delay can clearly be much longer than that of sonar.
Because the camera is immersed in the water, drift can also be a major issue. That can move your camera off your target area and even lead to it becoming hung up. Unless you know the body of water very well, if it has a current, think twice about using a camera.
Cold water can be hard on all fishing equipment. Water in general requires a lot of equipment maintenance to avoid problems like rust. There are usually more parts to clean on a camera and the cleaning is more vital than with a solar fish finder kit.
Floating debris can entangle a camera too. If you are fishing in water with a current, it can damage a camera by impact. If a camera gets snagged by a structure, the likelihood of getting it back unharmed is slim. That means you must be extra cautious whenever you immerse your camera. At the earliest sign of trouble, you need to get the camera back to the surface.
Sonar vs Camera: Dual Equipment
A dual kit uses both sonar and a camera. It offers all the pros and cons of each method, with the bonus of being just one system to bring on your trips. A sonar image plus a camera’s picture means you get a more comprehensive image of what you are facing beneath the ice and how to capitalize on the scenario to catch fish.
Where one system has limitations, the other can pick up. This means weaknesses of both sonar and cameras are more effectively covered. For example, if you have located a structure via sonar and it looks like a large school of fish is present or that many fish are just hanging out in the same vicinity, the camera can verify your suspicions.
Likewise, if a camera cannot get a clear image, the sonar can give you an idea of what lies beneath you. That is particularly important if you are fishing in relatively shallow water, where structures can rise off the bed and extend several feet into the water column.
But the more components you add to any system, the more likely it is something will break down. Plus, getting a quality sonar and video system together as one package can get pricy. That’s why it’s often best to evaluate your options and consider which one is best for your ice fishing trip.
Sonar and cameras both provide benefits for ice fishing. If you need a clear image of what the fish are doing, a camera is best. If you need to map out a large body of water however, sonar is the best option. If you want the best results, use both sonar and fishing cameras when ice fishing.