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Tips for Using a Sonar for Wintertime Fishing

I first tried ice fishing with a sonar a few years ago. Ever since, I have carried a sonar with me, and my ice fishing style has been completely changed. A sonar can be really helpful for fishing as it allows you to observe the behavior of the fish. It might even be that my increased haul can be attributed to the sonar. A sonar can provide a lot of added excitement to your fishing, as you can use the screen to see what's happening below the surface in real time. Below, I will share a few of the things I have noticed over the years and provide some tips for fishing with a sonar. The tips mostly relate to ice fishing for large perch using balance jigs, but they can also be applied to other styles of ice fishing, as well as summertime fishing from a boat or vertical jigging.

A sonar can be used when the water is at least 2–3 meters deep. The sonar should be equipped with a dual-frequency transducer; the lower frequency allows you to scan a wider area, while the higher frequency scans a smaller area, but has a higher resolution. I myself always use a lower frequency that also lets me see fish that are further away. This is also useful when the fish approach your lure at higher speeds. If you fish in middle water using a higher frequency, you may only notice the fish once the bite has already happened. Many sonars can display a real-time view on the right side of the screen, and I recommend keeping this function active. This will show the fish as they approach, allowing you to prepare for the bite.

Caption: The lower the frequency, the wider the beam. At 83 kHz, beam width is 60 degrees, while at 200 kHz, the width of the beam is only 20 degrees.

Sonar Settings

In my opinion, sensitivity is the most important setting of a sonar. You can adjust the sensitivity from 0 to 100%, and the only way to learn which setting to use at each time is to use the sonar. In any case, the basic principle is that the setting should correspond to the depth of the water, i.e., if you are ice fishing in shallow water, use a lower setting. You can increase the sensitivity is you move to deeper water. When ice fishing with balance jigs, the recommended setting is 50–75% depending on the depth. Different sonar models may require slightly different settings.

Proper Technique for Ice Fishing with a Sonar

Next, let’s discuss the actual fishing. When you first start ice fishing, don't lower the lure immediately to the bottom, as a fast-approaching lure may scare the fish away or cause them to lose their interest/confidence in the lure. Lower your lure slowly and keep your eye on the bottom. If you see the bottom come alive, i.e., a motionless bottom starts to vibrate, it might mean that a fish is heading toward the lure. Decrease your lowering speed even further. If you see a fish leaving the bottom and swimming toward the lure, it is best to stop completely. You can also lift the balance jig a bit, while vibrating it slowly. If the movement is smaller, the fish will hit the lure more accurately, and you are in a better position to strike back. Sometimes a fish may swim up to the lure, then change its mind and swim away. The fish may remain under the lure or turn back toward the bottom. At this point, the fish is still in play, and you can try to attract it back by lowering the lure behind it and vibrating the lure directly above or next to the fish. Without a sonar, such situations could be missed completely.

A descending balance jig attracted perch to meet it halfway.

The fish will notice a lure falling from above from several meters away, and the closer the lure, such as a balance jig, gets, the better they are able to see it. In my mind, a balance jig is more believable as “real prey” as it is further away from the fish. Each time you lower the lure closer to the fish, it becomes less believable. Often the best, hardest, and most reliable bites come when the fish strikes out at speed from the bottom toward a lure coming down slowly in middle water. At this point, the lure’s credibility is at maximum. You are most likely to catch the fish if you are able to lure it into middle water. This requires patience and determination. If the sonar stays quiet, you may start to lose your nerve and want to drop the lure to the bottom. Sometimes this decision may spoil the hole for good. The fish have seen your lure up close and discovered that it's just a toy fish. As a last straw, you can try another lure, or accept the situation and make a new hole in the ice a few meters away. But as we know, the fish can be quite unpredictable, and it is ultimately impossible to say for sure what provokes them to attack. Hunger may not always be the decisive factor, and the reason could instead be a stimulus caused by a specific action or lure color.

A balance jig floating in middle water can attract fish from even further away. The image depicts an interested fish that is approaching from the edge of the beam.
There are no right or wrong ways to fish, and sometimes the only way to catch anything is to root around the bottom. If nothing is rising from the bottom to middle water, lower the balance jig all the way down, and bounce it a few times. Next, you can try to lift the lure to different depths. Sometimes a quick lift three meters above the bottom can be quite effective. In another situation, a slower pull of 1–2 meters may be sufficient. Balance jigs can also be used in multiple ways, as sometimes the fish are more interested in faster movement and sometimes slower.

I have found the above tips effective for large perch. Pike, on the other hand, is a completely different animal and I have noticed that they are just as likely to bite in middle water as they are at the bottom. They also aren't as bothered about the “credibility” of your lure as perch, which means that you can continue to use the same balance jig for longer. As an amateur psychologist I would say that perch are more ponderous and tentative hunters, whereas pike make their decisions more hastily based on feel. As an ice fishing target, zander is usually slower, calmer, and more determined. If you are able to draw a zander away from the bottom, it will usually swim toward your balance jig unhurriedly and bite. All you have to do is wait. Large predators also hunt in middle water. You may see a single thick line above your lure, or sometimes a shoal followed by a large predator will appear in middle water. In this case, it is advisable to lift the jig quickly above the predator as it is highly likely to bite.

Adjusting the sensitivity makes it easier to identify the size of the fish. Adjust the sensitivity such that the line produced by your lure remains thin.
You can set the sensitivity by lowering your lure into middle water and adjusting the setting such that your lure is shown on screen as a thin line. If the sensitivity is too high, the lure and fish will all be shown as intense sonar returns (many sonars use yellow to indicate the hardest return), which makes it harder to identify the size of the fish. An excessively high setting will also indicate even the smallest fish, which may not be helpful. You should readjust the sensitivity each time you change depth or lure size, as that will allow you to better discern fish sizes. Do however remember that the scanned area is wide, so fish may sometimes swim along the edge of the beam, in which case they are first indicated as a thin line that changes color as they become closer. Thus, you should take each fish seriously and keep your hand on the rod. I can tell you from experience that a fish coming up from the bottom at speed may only be shown as a thin black line on the sonar screen but could still be a perch weighing more than a kilo.

Caption (left): A fish rising fast from the bottom may only be shown as a thin line, even if it weighs several kilograms.

You should set the depth range manually, i.e., if you are ice fishing at a depth of seven meters, set the range to 10 meters. You can also use an automatic depth setting, but in this case the sonar may be confused by a dense shoal that causes the range to change rapidly. Configuring the depth range manually, will eliminate this issue.

Caption (right): The depth range should be set manually, as using the automatic setting could cause the sonar to rapidly switch between two different depths if it is confused by a dense shoal, for example. Use of the manual setting also allows you to better utilize the available screen space.

A sonar can be very useful for identifying bottom formations. As the sonar uses different colors depending on the intensity of the sonar return (harder bottom generates a more intense return), it can help you separate a hard clay or sand bottom from a soft, muddy bottom. Thus, if you are looking for zander that prefer a harder clay-type bottom, you can simply lower your transducer in the water to see whether the conditions below you are suitable for zander.

Benefits of Sonar

A sonar can be very helpful in letting you know which colors, sizes, shapes, and techniques are the best for your lures at each time. Many anglers are happy to deem a hole dead if they have seen no signs of fish over a few minutes. I myself used to switch spots quickly, but now I am more comfortable spending longer at each hole. If my first balance jig doesn't arouse interest, I can try other colors and sizes. It may take some time to wake up the fish, and sometimes the fifth lure, for example, makes the difference. Once you find the right color, they begin biting immediately. With a sonar, you are ready to act once the bite happens, which is important for allowing you to perform a properly timed counter strike to hook the fish. A sonar can help you find the fish and identify suitable fishing spots. It is useful for mapping out bottom formations, as that allows you to see the depth of the water once you lower your transducer.

Fishing is of course possible without a sonar, but you can definitely benefit from having one. It allows you to monitor the behavior of the fish, and lets you, for example, see if the fish have rejected your lure, which I have often had the opportunity to witness. The few seconds when the fish is swimming toward the lure, but you don't know if it is going to bite are the most exciting. The fish may of course swim directly to the lure and bite, but sometimes even a small mistake by the angler can impact the fish's urge to do so, sending it back toward the bottom instead. With a sonar you can see each mistake in real time, thus allowing you to avoid repeating them with the next fish.

When purchasing a sonar, compare the technical specifications of different models, such as supported frequencies and screen resolutions, to find the device that is best suited to your needs. An ice fishing transducer is easy to use, as it always remains in the correct position in relation to the bottom. You can also use a regular transducer, but it needs a holder or support to keep it in the right position in the water.

Tight lines and awesome catches to all readers!

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