Can You Use a Regular Fish Finder for Ice Fishing

Without a doubt, fish finders improve fishing success.  It is often said that 90 percent of fish occupy only 10 percent of the fishable water.  Fish finders make finding that 10 percent more likely.  Less guess work and more catching!

Many of us have likely fished from a boat equipped with a sonar unit and witnessed first hand how effective they really are at finding fish on open water.  

Sonar units are often specifically sold for use in boats but when the water freezes over it would be a shame to let your expensive electronics sit in the garage unused.

I’ve often wondered if regular fish finders can be used for ice fishing as well.  With a little research, maybe a conversion kit, and some basic DIY, I think I found the answer.

So, can you use a regular fish finder for ice fishing?  Yes.  Most modern fish finders can be converted to work for ice fishing.  All it takes is a portable power supply and a way to level the transducer in an ice hole.  Manufacturers like Humminbird and Lowrance make it easy and sell boat-to-ice conversion kits.

Can cold and ice damage my fish finder

Fish finders and flashers designed for ice fishing come with some added cold protection that regular fish finders may not have.  

The LCD screens on ice fishing electronics claim to function better and maintain screen resolution in sub-zero temperatures.  In addition, the transducer on these units have insulation and additional seals that protect against damage from freezing.

Ice and freezing temperatures can be hard on electronics.  Therefore, it is important to consider how the open water unit from your boat could be affected by the cold.

In my experience, regular fish finders handle the cold quite well.  With a bit of common sense and some extra care, damage can easily be avoided.  

The first step to avoid damage is keeping your unit out of the elements as much as possible.  Cover the screen when it’s not in use and keep it in your ice shelter if you have one.  

I also like to towel dry the transducer when I pull it from the water to prevent freezing of excess water.  

If your sonar suddenly stops working, disconnect it from the power supply, dry it off and get it somewhere warm and dry.  More than likely, the battery was affected by the cold.  This is only an issue in the harshest of conditions and warming it up should solve the problem.

Other than that, you are not likely to have many issues with your regular fish finder.  

Do you need a special transducer

A special transducer is not necessary.  Assuming you can safely remove your boat’s transducer and wiring without damage, it should work fine for ice fishing.  

Keep in mind that the function of a transducer depends on being level to the surface of the water.  Sonar works by sending out sound waves that bounce off bottom structure or fish and return to the device.  If the transducer is not level, the waves can’t send back a clear picture of what’s going on below you.

To get a transducer level from a regular fish finder unit, you are going to need to rig up a support structure over the ice hole.  

This is not as difficult as it sounds.  Simply attach the transducer to a small dowel or piece of wood.  Use another board as a cross support for the dowel with the transducer and clamp them together.  Then, lower it to the bottom edge of the hole.

The piece of wood acting as the support on the ice will keep the transducer level and the setup is adjustable for different ice thickness.  

How is an ice fishing transducer different

Transducers made for ice fishing function similar to a regular transducer.  However, there are a few key differences that improve the user experience while fishing.

Ice fishing transducers have a smaller profile for portability and they are self-leveling.  You just drop it in the hole.  As long as it is suspended freely there is no need to level it.  The cord usually comes with a foam float that lets you adjust the depth based on the thickness of the ice.  Ice fishing transducers also have extra protection against freezing.   

The most important feature of ice fishing transducers is the wider sonar beam, which gives you more information about the area beneath you and a better view of what’s going on. 

How do you make it portable

Making a regular fish finder portable requires some creativity and a bit of DIY creativity.  The first step is to find a battery that works with your unit.  

You will need at least a 12 volt 7 amp-hour (Ah) battery to power most units for a half day of fishing.  For extended life and better cold tolerance, use a 12 to 15 Ah battery.  Prices vary but for less than $30 you can get a rechargeable one like the Mighty Max 12 volt 12 Ah deep cycle battery.  It is by far the best battery for this application.

Once you get the power supply settled, the next step is a way to transport everything in one tidy package.  An insulated container of some sort works well and helps keep the battery from getting too cold.  

Make sure that you also have a way to secure the screen to a stable platform.  I find that a small, 8 inch square piece of plywood is adequate.

You can also improve portability by getting just the ice transducer and plugging it into your open water fish finder unit.  This would save you the trouble of removing the transducer from your boat and it eliminates excess wire while on the ice. 

If you prefer to avoid DIY projects, then take a look at online conversion kits.  Humminbird and Lowrance both sell excellent ice fishing conversion kits that are compatible to their most popular fish finder units.  It is a pricey solution but it makes for a nice setup.

Most kits come with an insulated carry case, ice transducer and mounting hardware.  A battery and charger may be sold separately.

How do you read the sonar chart when ice fishing

Using a regular fish finder while ice fishing is not very different than from a boat.  You should have a basic grasp of how a sonar image is created to get the most from your device.

The chart on a fish finder is a constantly scrolling image of the bottom and it represents a snap shot in time as the sonar sends out sound waves.  The scrolling image is essentially a history of what has happened a second ago.  You can adjust the scroll speed to get a faster update of what is happening below the ice.  

Since the bottom is always the same in one spot, any change on the screen is a fish!  You can also see your jig and how fish respond to it on the sonar.  

Play around with your fish finder to learn what works best for you.

Are dedicated ice fishing fish finders better

Sometimes the easiest way to compare things is a simple “pros” and “cons” list.  If you did a good job of converting your regular fish finder to an ice compatible one, then there is no reason to think it won’t work as well as dedicated units.

Regular fish finder for ice fishing

Pros
  • Cheaper than buying a separate dedicated unit if you already own one for a boat.
  • You can use one device on the ice or from a boat.
  • You are already familiar with how to use it, so no need to spend time learning something new.
Cons
  • Requires disassembly from your boat each year, risking damage to your fish finder or boat.
  • Difficult to keep in a tidy package while on the ice.
  • Requires custom rigging to level transducer and mount the screen.
  • Potentially less durable in extreme cold.

Ice fishing specific fish finder

Pros
  • Portable all-in-one kit with power source.
  • Self leveling transducer with wide sonar cone.
  • Chart and mapping features designed for ice angling.
Cons
  • Expensive. Requires the purchase of a second fish finder for open water.
  • Some devices like flashers, can’t be used for all season fishing. For more on this, check out our flasher vs. fish finder article to see what works best for you.
  • You will need to learn how to use a new fish finder.

Final thoughts

I have seen many custom-built fish finders for ice fishing using a unit from a boat and they catch plenty of fish.  Whether you are trying to save money or you just want to ice fish a few times each year, a regular fish finder certainly works.

For those of you planning to ice fishing more than a few times each year, I would consider getting a dedicated flasher or ice fishing sonar.  The cost may not seem so bad if it actually translates into catching more fish.  

Of course, you could always skip the electronics altogether.  Want to learn more about ice fishing without electronics?  Check out our article to learn what it takes to be a better ice angler without fish finders.  You might be surprised at how easy it is!