Under-the-radar underwater cameras proving their value, on and off the tourney trail
By Ted Pilgrim
“No doubt, quite a few of us are using these cool little devices on the tour,” says Bassmaster Elite Series Pro, Brandon Lester, with a nod and a knowing grin. “But almost no one’s talking about it.”
Hop into a few tournament boats today and you might indeed be intrigued by the number of competitive B.A.S.S. and FLW anglers concealing cameras in their compartments. Fellow Elite Series pro Ott DeFoe has been an Aqua-Vu user for years. And beginning in the late 1990s, smallmouth specialist Joe Balog ran an underwater cam to uncover legions of Great Lakes bronzebacks and numerous tournament wins. These days, he’s retracing the late Doug Hannon’s Florida footprints, probing underwater jungles for the reappearance of bigmouth. You might be amazed by what he’s already uncovered.
So why all the secrecy surrounding this secondary piece of electronics?
The reason for the silence, says Lester and other anglers, is a simple matter of verifiable fact versus virtual reality.
“When bass are on structure deeper than about 10 feet, a camera is the only way to know with one-hundred percent certainty what’s below the boat,” Lester asserts. “It’s also an unbelievably productive way to prefish without showing your hand or putting hooks into bass before tournament day.”
Lester, the 28-year-old Fayetteville, Tennessee-based pro angler has been dunking underwater optics for the past year, making some striking on-water discoveries in that time. “I’ve dropped the camera into brushpiles that were loaded with big bass. Made me immediately realize how many guys miss bass on brushpiles and other spots; no matter how good your graph is, it usually can’t effectively discern fish hovering in tree branches or buried in vegetation. And if you do spot ‘em on sonar, you still need the camera to fill in the critical blanks, like whether they’re bass or undesirable species. You can also determine their relative size as well as their exact position relative to the cover. So not only does the Aqua-Vu save time by putting me on the right fish, it can also help select the right presentation, to an extent.”
Lester adds that many of the brushpiles he inspects “aren’t productive, don’t hold bass, or only attract crappies, stripers or rough fish. But if you use a camera to look at ten different ‘piles, you’re probably going to run across two or three that hold hawgs. And some of the brushpiles can be loaded. Even if you just find two bass on a single brushpile, those two fish can be the difference between frustration and coming home a hero.”
Linked to his boat’s main sonar unit, Lester utilizes an Aqua-Vu Multi-Vu system to monitor the underwater world on the big 12-inch LCD. This direct camera connection also allows him to simultaneously compare sonar signals with underwater video, and to drop GPS digits on key zones uncovered with the camera. For instant spot-verification from anywhere in the boat, he also uses a smartphone-sized Micro 5 camera, which has its own rechargeable power source and color viewscreen.
Beyond breaking out his camera to quickly determine bass presence, Lester finds the lens equally valuable for unearthing the right species of vegetation. “At last year’s event at Cayuga Lake, milfoil held tournament-winning fish. This year, the grass was way down. But even when I noted what looked like milfoil on the graph, the camera was still the only way to determine if it was actually milfoil, or another less attractive type of grass. The camera also showed me if the deeper milfoil was tall enough for fish to relate to it.”
Most recently, Lester spent time fishing and inspecting a dam on the Tennessee River. “Sonar showed loads of fish in the slack water behind a current break,” he noted. “But when I dropped the camera I saw mostly catfish and drum before finally spotting a couple big bass working in and out of the current. They’d hold up behind the current break, near bottom in 18 to 22 feet. Every minute or so, a bass would dash out into the current to run down bait.
“The Aqua-Vu saved me a ton of time here, showing me the pattern in minutes, and preventing me from wasting time chasing sonar marks that were the wrong species.”
Whether viewed as a time management tool, species identifier or prefishing secret weapon, an underwater camera has become a valuable extra electronics tool that can work in concert with sonar. Portable, intuitive to operate and always entertaining, cameras can be difference-makers for any angler, on the tournament trail or off. The fact that pros keep the trick under their collective hats tells you everything you need to know.