Sight vs. Sonar Response

“But when you’re watching the lure on the Vexilar display, and then this fish signal comes on the screen, you tend to jig it harder, pick up the speed, pull it away from the fish and try to get them to chase it.”


By Mark Strand

Sometimes, it’s not the fish’s response to our bait but our response to the fish that determines the outcome of each encounter. How we tend to react differently when we see the fish, or a representation of it on a sonar display—and how we can become better ice anglers by breaking from our predictable behavior.

In addition to being quite the inventor of ice fishing tools, Dave Genz also studies human nature. The Ice Team captain includes himself in the sample, noticing how we all react to the presence of a fish coming in for a close encounter with our bait.

And how it tends to be different depending on whether we’re looking at the fish with our own two eyes or seeing its ‘mark’ on the Vexilar display.

-There are “two different styles of jigging” we typically employ, says Genz, one brought on by the actual sight of a fish and the other, bolder move elicited by our response to seeing the fish’s electronic representation flash onto the Vexilar display.

“You definitely see two completely different responses,” laughs Genz, who admits he first got onto this by noticing it in himself. “When you’re sight fishing, and you can watch the bait and see the fish come in, you tend to slow it down and try to make it easy for them to eat it.

“But when you’re watching the lure on the Vexilar display, and then this fish signal comes on the screen, you tend to jig it harder, pick up the speed, pull it away from the fish and try to get them to chase it.”

The sight-fishing response, Genz figures, comes from the powerful reality of being face to face with this nice fish you want to catch. You try to spoon feed it, carefully manipulating every move in a desperate attempt to avoid spooking this beautiful creature you are marveling at.

“I really started to notice this,” says Genz, “when I increased my use of the Vexilar Fish Scout 1000 underwater camera system. The camera let me sight-fish at any depth, and I just picked up on my own tendency to slow it down, even in deep water, when a fish came on the monitor.”

What Should You Do Instead?

The first step, as with many things in life, is to recognize the tendency. Second step (harder to do) is to change, mixing up our pre-programmed human tendencies to truly experiment with presentation. Learn to do this and you’ll catch more fish. It’s a change you can make this winter, that will make a difference for you on the ice.

“They both work,” says Genz, meaning the more aggressive takeaway and the subtler slowdown. “But we need to mix those two up. Even when you’re sight fishing, the speed might trigger the fish, instead of always slowing it down. You can watch the fish, in fact, to see what gets it excited and keeps it advancing on the bait. If you try the slowdown and the fish seems disinterested, try to bring him back with a more aggressive presentation. At the very least, try a more aggressive jigging style when the next fish shows up.”

When we see that big red line come in on the Vexilar display, “you want to see that line moving toward the bait,” says Genz, rapidly becoming the ‘Dr. Phil’ of ice fishing.

“We’ve all learned how to play that game by doing it a lot and getting results when we get that one line to keep moving to the other line. You try to get the fish to chase the bait. When the two red lines come together, you’re feeling for the bite, and you tend to keep raising the jig so you can separate the two lines and see if the fish is still there. After you raise the jig up, you’re watching to see if the two lines come back together. You tend not to do that as much when you can see the fish.”

All this time, in our efforts to understand the fish better, we have been missing the chance to turn inward, study ourselves, and discover a habit-breaking routine that can mean more consistent success. After all, when a fish approaches our bait, it doesn’t know whether we can see it or are studying a blip on a flasher screen. So how do we know whether it wants to be spoon-fed or led on a more aggressive chase?

It comes down, at any depth and under any viewing conditions, to trial and error, like it always has.


First Published December 28th, 2005.

Winter Fishing Systems, Inc 2016