Underwater cameras have been used in commercial fishing for decades, primarily as a means of providing visual confirmation for sonar data or environmental observations. However, these commercial units were large, heavy, expensive, and very limited in their capabilities. Since most open water, especially ocean water, is opaque due to suspended particles and living organisms, the ability of cameras to provide useful information is limited. Underwater cameras were used by the commercial fishing industry to confirm the presence of underwater obstacles that would wreck ships or foul nets.
The advent of small, inexpensive digital cameras in the late 90s made it possible for sport fishermen to begin purchasing and using such cameras. Smaller and with simpler options than those on the large commercial units, these underwater cameras have evolved to be inexpensive, easy to deploy, and capable of functioning without being continuously connected to a boat’s power system or on-shore power source.
Underwater Cameras for Ice Fishing
While they have become popular with lake and littoral fishermen who want to observe underwater hazards and fish populations to better understand their favorite fishing spot, underwater cameras have proven to be the most useful to ice fishermen. Since ice fishermen must put time and effort into each hole they drill and each line they drop, knowing exactly what is below before they drop their lines is crucial. The use of underwater cameras is especially useful in that the cameras are designed with the ability to fit into holes much smaller than is required for fishing. This means that small “test holes” can be drilled to see if an area is worth fishing before fishermen drop their lines. Ice fishermen can also see much further underwater than those who are fishing in active waters, since the lack of wave action and cold water combine to make the water extremely clear, enabling cameras with lights to show off a very large area and even highlight fish as they wait out the winter.
Underwater cameras are becoming a necessary piece of equipment for any serious ice fisherman, especially those who want to optimize their catch. Such cameras can also prevent a fisherman from spending hours out on the ice dropping lines where there are no fish, as well as alert them to the presence of obstacles and hazards that would snag and ruin their lines. They are easy to carry and can be set up in seconds, enabling fishermen to quickly drill a test hole, take a look around, and then either expand or abandon the hole based on what he sees.
What’s Important in an Underwater Camera
This doesn’t mean that all underwater cameras are made equal, nor that fishermen can rely on getting a good one without learning anything about them. Many units are too cheap or too simple to be useful or are ill suited to the extreme weather conditions inherent in ice fishing. So what should you look for? The first thing would be insulation of some sort for the unit itself and especially the battery. LiPo batteries that get too cold can have water condense inside of them, causing them to short out and catch fire, so it’s important to keep them reasonably warm. Fortunately, they produce their own heat when running, so as long as the camera has insulation around the battery, it will function properly at cold temperatures.
Second, the line and camera must be insulated with cold-tolerant materials which will not become brittle when exposed to below freezing temperatures. Natural rubber needs to be thus avoided, and all of the waterproofing on the unit needs to be made of silicone or other similar synthetic materials. Third, the camera needs to have a large camera aperture and large pixel resolution. Be aware too that water largely blocks infrared light, and so infra-red cameras won’t be able to see as far as those which focus on visible light, especially in the blue end of the spectrum. Lastly, the camera needs to have an IP68 rating. This means that the camera has been developed specifically to be immersed in the water below one meter (a little more than a yard) and will not fail if thus immersed.
Which Underwater Camera to Choose
Fortunately, there are several affordable cameras on the market which meet all of these requirements.
1. Marcum VS485C
The Marcum VS485C is a top-of-the-line unit specifically intended for ice fishing, as is indicated by its insulated carrying bag and handle. Even the sun shield is optimized for dealing with the glare that comes off of white snow, which is an excellent feature that helps the 7″ screen to be very visible even on cloudless winter days. The system uses large, easy-to-press buttons instead of a touch screen, and has been engineered with winter gloves in mind. The 800×480 resolution picture is adequate for the task at hand, and the screen is made by Sony, and thus subject to Sony’s stringent quality standards. The camera is also produced by Sony and has the necessary IP68 rating.
In addition to a wide-spectrum light, which has sufficient power to cut through all but the cloudiest lakes, the Marcum VS485C has multiple fin stabilizers to prevent both horizontal and vertical movement. Since most units only have one vertical fin to prevent spinning, instead relying on tension from the camera line to prevent vertical motion, the Marcum VS485C offers a much more stable picture than other units. The 50-foot cable is specifically engineered to be cold-water resistant and can transmit in both color and black-and-white. It’s this last feature that is of most use to ice fishermen since, in the low light of frozen lakes, the increased contrast of black-and-white transmissions can make clear what would otherwise be difficult to distinguish. Additionally, it has “Darkwater” LED lighting options, in addition to the broad-spectrum option, which provides better illumination in deep water. This is achieved by broadcasting more light in the blue spectrum, then interpreting it in black-and-white, to produce as high a contrast image as possible.
2. Vexilar FS800 Fish Scout
The Vexilar FS800 Fish Scout is a high-end unit specifically engineered for cold weather, although it is also intended to be smaller, lighter and more portable than other units. Like most high-end units it is built around Sony technology, with both the screen and camera being Sony commercial units. It can function at up to -22F, meaning that it should be more than adequate for most ice-fishing situations, although it may be necessary to operate it within a shelter on the coldest days. The screen displays in 480 x 234 pixels, which is adequate for the 7″ screen, although some fishermen may find it to be a bit low to capture some details if the light is good enough to illuminate them. The installed light on the camera has a broad spectrum beam, suitable for cutting through the murkiest water. The camera has only one stabilization fin, but the wide, flat design is intended to keep it from tilting or twisting horizontally and has ballast to help it remain properly aligned.
The 50-foot cable is more than adequate for most lakes, since depth below 50 feet is usually too opaque, even with artificial light, to be seen through. The a-SI TFT active matrix display is bright and accurate, although with only 420 lines of resolution some details may be obscured. Still, in the low-light environment inherent in ice fishing, much of the detail will be lost simply by not having enough light, even with artificial lights mounted on the unit. The Sony Super HAD CCD can see in light as dim as .01 Lux, enabling it to function even in very dark waters. Additionally, with a battery that can function for up to nine hours on a charge, the Vexilar FS800 Fish Scout is ideal for ice fishermen who want to wander far from shore or shelter in search of good fishing spots, since it will remain warm, functioning, and charged the entire time. It also has large buttons, ideal for operating when wearing gloves.
3. Aqua-Vu AV715c
The Aqua-Vu AV715c is primarily focused for use in warm water. However, it is capable of functioning in ice fishing conditions, especially when used in a shelter. Due to having less insulation than other units, it is necessary to keep it insulated or at least powered on during cold weather operation, however, the camera can handle up to -22F, as can the cable, thus eliminating any worries about it being damaged by cold weather conditions. The onboard battery comes with battery management software designed to extend life as long as possible, enabling it to function for up to 12 hours under ideal conditions. The entire unit is waterproof and designed to withstand submersion, and in addition to its carrying case, it can fit perfectly into a standard five-gallon bucket, making it easy to pack and carry. The unit also has its own handle, and the cable winds around the base of the unit, helping to keep it tidy and prevent it from being damaged.
The Aqua-Vu AV715c has a standard RCA out. Therefore, if you have a TV in your shelter, you can display the image on a screen bigger and brighter than the provided 7″ screen, although it is more than adequate for most situations. The camera is capable of detecting light in a broad spectrum and has low-light sensing technology, as well as infrared technology, however, it is primarily intended for situations with some natural light. The stabilization fin doubles as a means of hanging the camera by different angles thanks to wire clips built into its sides. The system uses buttons rather than a touch screen, making it easy to operate when wearing gloves.
4. Wosports Underwater Fishing Camera
The Wosports Underwater Fishing Camera is intended to be an all-purpose, entry-level model intended for use by those who want something that will be simple and get the job done while remaining as affordable as possible. As such, its components and insulation are not as robust as other models, but they are more than adequate for most ice-fishing situations. The camera has full IP68 waterproofing. However, the display and battery are only waterproof when the box is sealed and closed, meaning it’s a good idea to keep this unit away from the hole when in use. Nonetheless, with 50 feet of cable, this should not be a problem. The 7″ screen is very clear, displaying in a full 1000 lines, and has low-power usage, enabling the camera to run for up to eight hours on a charge. The push-button operation is possible with gloves, but small buttons mean it may be easier inside the shelter without gloves.
The camera provided is adequate for most lighting situations, especially with 12 LED lights included, but it lacks stabilization and fishermen will need to be dependent on tension from the camera wire to produce a steady image. Additionally, the camera has only one mounting point for the wire, on the rear, forcing some quick fishermen’s knots with the wire to hang it in a horizontal position. Interestingly, the unit also contains an SD Card Slot for recording directly on the device, enabling fishermen to easily record what they see for later viewing or uploading online. The camera has a slightly bowed 92-degree viewing angle, enabling fishermen to see more at the cost of having the image slightly distorted.