By Jason Mitchell
No secret that so many fish we like to target through the ice will eventually slide out and winter over holes and basins. These wintering holes will typically load up with fish each winter. While you might be targeting crappie or bluegill, you might encounter channel catfish, drum, white bass or tullibee depending on the water.
What fascinates me when I drop an underwater camera down into these clouds of fish is how often different species of fish school together. Very seldom are these fish static just hanging in one spot, they often seem to be simply swimming in circles and I have watched waves of fish come through that were made up of several species. Very common for crappie, largemouth bass and sunfish to swim and school together. I have seen walleye, white bass, drum and catfish swim around together.
Reservoirs in particular can often be the most challenging to correctly identify what you are fishing because reservoirs simply have such a wide variety of biomass. Reservoirs typically host the native river fish along with several other fish species that were suited after the river was dammed to form a reservoir.
Every body of water will have specific tendencies that need to be deciphered by spending time on the water. On some lakes for example, the crappies tend to ride on the top of the school. Other bodies of water see the large panfish on the bottom of the school or the front of the school. These patterns can sometimes change from day to day but each body of water will have it’s own personality. Figuring out the dynamics of these suspending schools of fish can be challenging but crucial for maximizing your catch. This is a situation where underwater cameras shine.
Analyzing the dynamics of a school of fish can be done precisely with a camera assuming that you have enough light and good enough water clarity to see. This visual image can help immensely and gives you that inside knowledge and understanding of the water you are fishing which can be applied to your sonar. Ninety percent of the time, I pick a Vexilar flasher over an underwater camera because of the speed in which I can fish through water with a Vexilar but a camera can aid sonar by answering questions. Vexilar’s Scout Camera is a rugged and durable camera unit that truly compliments the flasher lineup so popular with ice anglers.
Some of those questions answered quickly by a camera might be a visual picture of the bottom or type of weeds present but where a camera can really outperform sonar is when determining species of fish. When you are marking all kinds of fish, different species of fish will all make the same red marks on the flasher. A camera can let you know what the red marks are. Taking camera use a step further, you can get an understanding of how the fish are schooling so you can adapt your fishing strategy. If crappies are indeed on the top of the school, you now know to fish above the fish and separate the crappie by fishing high. If the big bluegill or other targeted species are in the bottom, you now know to fish down fast through the fish so you can reach what you are after without getting bit on the way down.
So often when I use a camera for studying the dynamics of a cloud of suspended fish, I don’t use the camera to find my lure and fish… all I want is the visual. Once I have that mental picture of how the fish are moving and relating to each other, I put the camera away and use the Vexilar just so I can fish faster. While nothing beats a camera for ID, you can also lean on the flasher to also help your sort through unintended species to reach panfish particularly after having a few questions answered by dropping down a camera.
As a rule of thumb, panfish don’t typically dart in and out of the cone angle slashing at your bait. Something else you can do to test a fish is seeing if the target will chase down hard after a bait. Tullibee for example will often burn down at a fast rate after you when you drop the bait where as crappie typically stall and won’t follow a bait down and if they do chase, they are noticeably slow.
Finding these small nuances and getting a more intimate understanding of the water you are fishing can allow you to sort through rough fish better or in some cases target the larger fish. When targeting panfish over wintering holes this winter, remember that panfish are not the only fish species that use these locations and one of the most effective strategies for picking apart this water is by using the one two punch of both underwater camera and flasher.