Over the years, because we’ve sold a ton of ice fishing gear and I’ve had the opportunity to test a bunch of different electronics. I generally try the stuff that is not mainstream or in the most popular demand to find out why it is not wildly popular. Here’s a bit of a summary.
Digital Units (no moving parts, no whirring disk with lights, no noise)
Lowrance Ice Machine from years past: This was an OK unit that did a nice job but it had WAY too many menus on it. Prior to the much-lauded Marcum LX 7’s and 6’s, this unit did what those units of today do. It marks fish. If you used it in graph mode as I did, you could look away from the unit, shoot the bull with your buddy, and then look at the screen to see that you just had a big visitor breeze in and ignore your lure. In flasher mode, just like every single flasher on the planet – if you look away and then look back, you are none the wiser. Graph mode has its advantages.
The Humminbird 380 series which came a bit later than the Iced Machine was similarly sized and acted pretty much like the Ice Machine but for a few different whistles and bells in the vast number of menus. Too many menu pages and choices in both units. I did get to use the Ice Machine in the summer and it worked very well. I would have expected the same from the H-bird in summer use.
The H-bird flat screen had an awesome GPS and I could install a card in it as well. I always knew where I was going so I didn’t really need these features but he GPS would pick up a signal THROUGH the roof of the store, here.
While they both did a great job, they both had a similar flaw. If somebody turned on a flasher ten feet away, it was lights-out for both brands. The Interference Rejection was worthless in both. So, they were use alone units only.
I used both the Marcum LX 6 and the LX 7. With the exception of one being a little bigger and having downloadable features at that time, I couldn’t see much difference. The 6 was every bit the same as the 7. I know there are differences, but from looking for fish, there was no difference. Unlike other digital models, Marcums are almost impenetrable by other fish finder signals. Both units will just chug along without regard to other fish finders. The one feature I liked in the Lowrance and H-bird is the little analog graph on the right side of the screen. It’s like a build in Showdown that is there automatically and works every time. With the LX’s 6 & 7 , you end up clicking on a Showdown graph and install it (easy) on either side of the screen. They could skip the added digital theatrics and just put a lined bar graph on the right side. It does’t take up so much screen and works exactly the same way. As far a using these vs. the other digital flat-screens above, these could be used by a guy who doesn’t like to read instructions. If there is one thing for certain, Marcum LX’s 6 & 7 are pretty unaffected by everybody else’s units, are quite bright, very adjustable, and have easy-to-use menus.
Then, there is the Showdown. This is a digital flasher with an LCD screen that is that brown/grey color and the dark blue/black lines. Unlike a circular screen of a spinning flasher (All Vexilars, Humminbird Ice’s 35, 45, & 55) the Showdown has been straightened out into a vertical graph EXACTLY the same as the analog bar graph on the right side of the old Lowrance Ice Machine and the H-bird 380 series. It instantly shows the depth, where the bottom is, and where your minnow is as well. It works EXACTLY the same as all flashers from the information you recieve from it, but in an easy to understand vertical column. Think of it as your butt is at the top, the dark bar is at the bottom an the bouncing thin line is your lure moving up and down at astonishingly the same pace a your own arm. When a second bar appears, this is not your lure but most likely a fish or a muskrat swimming by. This, by the way is how all other flashers work, but in a circle. The Showdown is easy to comprehend and gets the job done just like every other ice fishing unit I’ve described. And like all flashers, if you look away and something zooms in to your lure, you will miss it. Again, you won’t miss it with the digital, flat-screen fishfinders in graph mode.
Vexilar was the outfit that began the whole fishfinder addiction after Dave Genz took his Lowrance Green Machine out and tied the transducer to a stick. The Vexilar people took that neato idea and ran with it for 30+ years. Vexilars are made in Japan and are excellent units. Unlike all the rest, their transducers last a relative forever. They work by having a spinning disk with light on it under a plastic screen light up the depth via sonar. It’s really old tech and had been around in submarines and ships for years. After a number of competition-less years, Marcum came to be in the flasher world and they gave Vexilar a good run for their money. Today Marcum still makes the LX 1i, LX3TCi and LX 5i. Good units all with the 5 being the most powerful. Differences between the Vexilar and Marcum lie in the true colors of the Marcum ( I think Vex has that now as well, but the older models used to blend two lights to make three colors) and the way they reach the bottome with sonar. According to Vexilar, they tune their signal to the water (or something to that effect) and don’t need to send so much power down as it is unnecesary. Marcum, on the other hand uses a flame throw to toast a marshmallow. There is an entire group of men who succumb to the whole “more power” crap like moths to a flame. There is nothing anyone can tell them to prove that this is not always necessary so I think Marcum just gave them what they want. These same dudes own furnaces two time bigger than they need for their homes, 3/4 ton 4×4 diesel trucks to drive to work on pavement, and a .45-70 caliber lever action in case they ever run across a buffalo that needs to be dispatched. It works. There’s always a power comparison between units even though they all work well across all brands.
Several years ago, Humminbird decided they wanted to play ball, too, as Vexilar has a lock on fishfinders forever. H-bird came out with with the ICE 35, 45, and 55. They all work the same and have a few different features but also have fiber optic lights – whatever. They have a bigger screen than Vexilar and the 45/55 both tell you the depth the minute the ‘ducer hits the water. That’s pretty handy for me. No screwing around. Just “boom”, the depth. The most notable part of the H-bird ICE Flashers is the fact that while they won’t play nice with each other, they play nice with everybody else’s flashers. You can have a Vexilar flasher running right next to an Ice 34/45/55 and neither unit will notice each other all day long. Super handy if you want to fish with friends. On the other hand, if you want to wipe out your friends Vexilars, turn on a Marcum flasher or Showdown, and probably the LX 6/7’s. Maybe the RT-9, but I have no experience with that one yet and neither does anybody else. Note: Being that all of these are flashers, there is no GPS or other option to put a mapping card (SD or micro SD chip with all the lakes of your region marked out with the depth contours, reefs, etc.) All they do is spin and tell you the depth and if there is a fish present or passing through.
With the exception of a few different features and details about the transducers, all flashers are the same as far as I’m concerned. Vexilar came out with the Proview transducer which costs more than the regular unit. I used an FL 20 and it had Proview on it. In weeds and shallow water, I was amazed at how well it worked at separating out the junk from my lure. It did, by far, the best in that situation, but big deal because I can see down 12 feet with ease in that particular lake so 7 feet of weeds was no real need for a flasher. That being said, the rep told me that the Proview adjusts somehow to the water depth. It was all blah-blah-blah until he said “better”. Something must be different because I’ve never been able to see diddly-squat in weeds with any other fish finder unit.
That also brings me to Vexilar and the complete fallacy held dearly by so many fishermen who use locators who get stuck on one unit among Vexilars that they somehow think is better than the rest. The all provide the exact same information but for a few little refinements here and there as one climbs the money tree to the FL-28 which is their most expensive unit. The old FL-18 was and probably is, Vexilar’s best selling unit and has an inexplicable following for no particular reason from what I can see. After using an FL 20-myself with the open screen and no protruding shroud, it’s ability to see in weeds, and excellent clarity of the light bars makes me wonder why so many remain obsessed with the FL-18? By today’s standards, it’s a pretty ordinary flasher. You can buy a Marcum VX1i and get everything the FL 18 has along with a more compact design, a brighter screen, a 6 foot zoom and a nice case for less money. It will do the exact same thing as the FL-18 from an operational standpoint. Without the shroud of the FL-18, the FL-20 is visible from the side. Without the shroud, there is nowhere for falling snow to rest and then accumulate, melt and freeze. In fact, the cheapest FL-8 SE with the Genz pack (blue box that holds the gimbal mount and the battery) is probably the best seller and it two has the old-fashioned shroud. So, the FL-8 hangs on because it’s a Vexilar and the cheapest in the line. The FL-18 has a shroud and a 6 foot bottom zoom, that very few people I know ever use, but everybody HAS to have it, just in case. The FL-28 has a screen like an FL-20 (shroudless) and it has a cheesy LED in the middle that gives you the depth in feet but looks like it was built in the early 1980’s for one of those new-fangled LED watches that we all owned. The FL-28 does some other hocus-pocus and is more tuned to less deep water, I guess. It is the most expensive model in the Vexilar line of flashers and I bet the vast majority of users simple drop the transducer in the hole, turn it on and look at the lower red line indicating the bottom and where their minnow is in relation, much like the FL-8. Hmmmmm.
There is one thing that Vexilar has that the other guys do not. Vexilar has some geegaw in there that shuts the power off 50,000 time per second – don’t quote me on this – it is something to this effect. That ends up extending the battery life in a Vexilar unit for days in some cases. They don’t advertise this for some reason or at least I’ve never seen it. I found out from an rep who found out from Vexilar. That is a great feature, in my opinion. See – back to “more power” but now in actual juice.
Finally, we have the RT-9 by Marcum. It’s been in the making for what feels like 11 years but is more like three. Every year, Marcum claims it will be out and for the last three times we got doo-diddly. This is the next step in fish locating. It is a robust computer tablet that picks up WIFI, uses apps, and can control things like the Marcium PanCam at a distance so you can see if fish are swimming around 100 feet away from where you are fishing. Since it’s a tablet, you can probably get an app for it to turn your lights on and off at home and start the morning coffee because walking to the switch is SO hard to do these days. And also, if you are on Lake of the Woods and catching walleyes, you can monitor your baby in his crib in Minneapolis in case you need to get back home for an emergency in like, 8 hours of high-speed winter driving. So, definitely lots of useful details are afforded to you, the proud owner of a $1650+ computer fish finder that you take fishing to check the depth and your email. Oh, I almost forgot, you could also use this unit to catch up on work in the fish house or stream in youtube videos of cute puppies and crazy Russian drivers. The possibilities with the RT-9 are endless. We’re already getting calls for it and it’s only October. Technology RULES! Now we can never get away from screwing around on the internet!
My conclusion: A $300 fish finder for ice fishing will do about the same as a $1600 unit if locating fish is what you are after. You need to see the top of the ice, the bottom of the lake and your minnow. I’ve now spent a good deal of time with many different units and recommend that you not get bogged down in all the distracting, cost-adding details. You won’t go wrong with a low-end Marcum, H-Bird, Showdown or Vexilar. I mean, you can pay for more doodads if you want. It’s your budget but the main point is that you can go basic with today’s stuff and do quite well. They all do the same thing with the exception of the garage door opening Marcum RT-9. Pretty soon we’ll see the Marcum drone fish locator.
Definition: Vexilar Ultra Pack Case – Taller than the Propack and about $50 more. Comes with two charging studs making it easier to charge up than the cheaper Propack where you have to dig in the back to clip on the charge clips. Also has a power switch. Propack has to unclip a battery terminal to shut it down completely. Ultra Pack in the FL-28 also has a cupholder which could also hold a handful of minnows (maybe – doing this from memory). Both Propack and Ultrapack have tackle boxes and the Ultra comes with an eyebolt hole to allow you to hang the ‘ducer down the hole without a float so it stays out of the way. I just wrap the cord around the unit for the right length and do that all the time. The float is is a pain so I leave it home. I usually drill a second hole for the ‘ducer so it’s not in the way. (Have to watch so you don’t freeze in the ‘ducer cable when doing this.) Floorspace – another HUGE benefit of fishing in a pop-up. Let’s see you do that in an Ice Castle. Neither Propack nor Ultrapack come with a cloth case except the FL-28 which has all the whistles and bells as it should for that price. Unless there is some special or change of which I am unaware, you need to buy cases extra for all the other Vexilars, plus the Humminbird ICE 45 and 35. Cloth cases protect the unit and keeps snow and slush out when in the cargo sled or box of the truck.
For all other brands, no defining of the carry case needed. It’s straightforward.