Best Flashers for Ice Fishing: Stone-Cold Sonar Systems Reviewed

Flashers have been an ice fishing must-have for years, and more than a few winter anglers won’t even think about dropping a line unless there’s a transducer in the hole with it. If you’ve used one of these sonar systems, you know why–they work so well it’s almost like cheating!

Three brands dominate the scene: Humminbird, MarCum, and Vexilar. And if you’ve spent much time on the ice, you already know these names. But there are new players and new approaches to watching fish approach your jig, and it’s important to know how they stack up against the tried-and-true.

In fact, many of the top open water fish finder manufacturers offer variants that can serve you on the ice; and you may be wondering if these are comparable–or perhaps even superior–alternatives to traditional flashers.

This is a question we’ve taken seriously, and we’d like to offer our expertise on the subject as well as our reviews of the best systems for ice fishing.

What matters in a Flasher or Fish Finder for Ice Fishing?

Flasher vs Fishfinder

Let’s tackle the big question up front.

Flashers

Flashers are so-named because they feature a round, mechanical display with moving multi-colored lights. These lights indicate the location of your jig, the bottom or water depth below the transducer, and the presence of fish.

They accomplish this by emitting short sonar pulses that are reflected from the bottom and other objects. These returning signals are then translated into visual cues. While the details of the control interfaces vary from model to model, they typically feature things like a zoom and a power/depth selector, as well as some anti-interference options.

Flashers can take some getting used to if you’re accustomed to the display of your average fish finder, but once you learn to read them, they’re amazingly effective at telling you when fish are on your jig.

Like many ice fishing accessories, they’re usually designed to fit in a five-gallon bucket, allowing you to organize and tote your gear onto the ice pretty easily. They also feature big, powerful batteries that can really take the cold, and all the models we review can last for at least a few days on the ice!

They’re purpose-built for winter, meaning that they can shrug off crazy cold. That’s a huge plus, as freezing temps tend to kill batteries, and that’s simply nothing to worry about with flashers.

Those are all points in their favor, but you need to understand the limitations of flashers, too. Given that they’re customized for ice fishing, they’re a single-season piece of gear–and they’re not cheap! Go in knowing that, and you’ll handle the sticker-shock better.

Fish Finders

Fish finders are an open water staple. Like flashers, they use sonar to locate fish, but they provide more information, more visual cues on their LCD displays, and more options. In general, they’re more complex and advanced than your average flasher. The best models use an advanced sonar system called CHIRP (Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse) that starts at a low, water-penetrating frequency, emitting short ‘pings’ in gradually rising frequencies to better pinpoint fish in the water column.

Ideal for finding fish quickly in deep water, fish finders are part of the arsenal of pretty much any serious fisherman. For ice fishing, however, they’ll provide more than a bit of overkill.

That’s because they often feature extras that are useful on the open water, but really don’t add much on the ice. For instance, that powerful CHIRP sonar is necessary in 800 feet of water for onshore fishing, but over an augered hole, not so much. The exceptions are options like GPS that can be useful for locating and marking structure or snow-covered holes.

Companies like Humminbird have built their reputation on these fish finders, and rather than redesigning a high-tech digital option from the ground up, they simply add an ice-capable transducer to their existing unit, modifying the software to provide dual-modes that allow you to switch between flasher and fish finder displays.

Designed for a new breed of hard water anglers who are familiar with fish finders, these are a great idea, but we’re not sure they’re really competitive with popular flashers.

That’s because battery life is often an issue. Fans may complain that that’s not fair, but here are the facts. If you fish in the open, you’ll need to keep your screen bright enough to read, and that typically means setting the brightness to at least eight, if not all the way to ten. As a result, you’ll deplete your battery much faster than a buddy using a flasher, like it or not.

The principal advantage these units provide is all-season use. If you switch transducers, you can run your fish finder on the open water, too. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that for ice fishing, flashers typically outperform fish finders head-to-head, especially in terms of lag.

By “lag,” we mean the time it takes for the unit to register movement, see a fish rushing toward your jig, and display that information. Flashers are “real-time;” by contrast, fish finders tend to have a slight delay given their design.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLUk3OTaAuI Flasher vs deeper pro

https://youtu.be/dL_vIHyMMcs how to read a flasher

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C8p8XCbo7o helix 5 in flasher mode

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hn4UWTUZBjc Vexilar FL-8 vs Helix ICE 5

Battery life

More is generally better, and we want as much as we can get. This places fish finders at a relative disadvantage, though to be fair, if a battery lasts as long as you intend to fish, enough is all the time you need!

As long as you select your gear with that in mind and know its limits, you won’t be disappointed.

Screen brightness

This is critical when you fish outdoors. If you stay in a shanty, this won’t matter as much to you. We know these may be fighting words, but in our experience, Vexilar produces the brightest screens, and even the best fish finders aren’t even close to the worst of the flashers in bright sunlight.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_NgABmD9yQ head-to-head screen brightness including the Helix 5

Target separation

Target separation describes a sonar system’s ability to differentiate two or more targets that are close to one another. The shorter a sonar ‘ping,’ the better it is at detecting individual objects like your jig and an approaching fish or two.

Target separation is usually defined in inches, and you want the smallest number you can find.

Transducer Cone Angle

Far more important over the ice than in open water, the transducer cone angle determines the width of the area the sonar searches. The shallower the water you fish, the wider this cone needs to be in order to tell you about the fish near your jig. Too narrow a cone can even let your jig leave the sonar’s active area.

This may lead you to believe that wider is always better–but not so fast! If you fish in a shanty next to your buddies, a wide beam can create overlap and interference. That’s why many flashers offer two cone angles–a wide and a narrow–or just opt for a single split-the-difference number.

Calculating Cone Footprint

With the help of a bit of trigonometry, the area your flasher or fish finder will cover is easy to calculate. For instance, using the calculator in Windows on the ‘scientific’ function, simply use the following formula:

TAN (Cone Angle) x (Water Depth) = diameter of the cone at the bottom

If your transducer has a cone angle of 15 degrees, and you’re fishing in 20 feet of water, the calculation would be as follows:

TAN (15) x 20 = diameter

.2679 x 20 = 5.36 feet

That means that in this case, your flasher would create a cone with a diameter of 5.36 feet at the bottom of the lake. The same transducer in 10 feet of water would create a cone with a diameter of just 2.68 feet at that depth, making it abundantly clear why transducer angle matters in the shallows.

But it’s important to realize that bigger isn’t always better. When more than one transducer is nearby, overlapping cone angles can create interference. And since a lot of your time on the ice may be spent with a buddy or two, a happy medium is often ideal.

Reviews

Humminbird ICE-45Our Pick!

Humminbird ICE-45 Three Color Flasher with LCD
Amazon 

Target Specification: 2 ½”

Transducer angle: 9 and 19 degrees

Battery life: multi-day

Weight: 10.9 pounds

Humminbird’s ICE-45 is an amazing flasher, and it’s clear why this brand is a perennial winter favorite. We chose this from its siblings, the ICE-35 and ICE-55, because for most people, most of the time, the added extras of the 55 won’t make much difference–but the power output of the 45 over the 35 just might if you fish deeper water.

With a choice between a 9-degree or 19 degree cone angle, you’ve got the power to see the fish and the narrow cone you need to fish with friends. Our only real quibble: the ICE-45 features a target separation of 2 ½ inches, making it the least discerning of the bunch. Maybe that matters to you, but while its target separation trails its competitors, realistically, it’s good enough for what you need.

We like the easy-to-read, three-color display. And with plenty of noise-reduction and gain steps, getting a clear picture of what’s happening under the ice is easy. An added extra we really appreciate on the 45 is the digital depth meter in the center of the dial.

If you’ve got the space, that wide angle transducer can be very beneficial. At 19 degrees, it really delivers in the shallow water most anglers fish in. For instance, in 20 feet of water, you’ll be able to see a cone with a diameter of about seven feet. And if you jig deep, the option of a 9-degree cone is a great feature. It can also help reduce interference when you’ve got a friend or two in your shanty.

Its transducer cable passes through a large foam float, allowing you to adjust how far it’s lowered into the hole. That’s a nice detail, although it can create opportunities for your line to tangle.

Battery life is awesome. In real-world conditions, expect something in the neighborhood of 16 to 20 hours of juice.

Pros:

  • Excellent battery life
  • Excellent dual cone angles
  • Easy-to-read display
  • Digital depth meter in the center of the dial
  • Bright display
  • Awesome battery life

Cons:

  • Biggest target separation of all the models we review

Vexilar FL-18Our Pick!

Vexilar GP1812 FL-18 Genz Pack 12 Degree Ice-Ducer
Amazon 

Target Specification: ½”

Transducer angle: 12 degrees

Battery life: multi-day

Weight: 10.2 lbs.

Vexilar’s FL-18, like Humminbird’s ICE-45 and MarCum’s M3, is a flasher that has an avid following. While there are more advanced–and more expensive–flashers out there, the FL-18 won these fans by being simple, easy-to-use, and dependable.

It features a super-legible, super-bright three-color display along with the usual knobs to control power and gain. No fancy digital depth meter is available. Instead, you judge the bottom by reading the dial as you would with the M3. Again, whether this simplicity suits you or not is personal, but it’s worth mentioning that this now-dated (2001) model is often chosen by ice anglers over newer, higher-tech options because it works, season after season, fish and fish.

The Fl-18 offers a low power mode that reduces battery drain, but perhaps most importantly, this setting can help you see through weeds. When active, the mode ignores vegetation, allowing you to keep an eye on your jig even when it’s in the thick stuff, where the fish live.

With impressive target specification and a 12-degree cone angle, you won’t be missing any fish approaching your jig. And while the FL-18 might be described as “bare-bones,” another way to look at it is “bomb proof.” Whether you think more expensive options and upgrades offer real improvements or just expensive bells and whistles, we can assure you that you won’t be outgunned with this tried-and-true model. You’ll also spare yourself the frustration of dealing with controls and features you don’t really understand.

The FL-18’s transducer cable is run through a foam float, like the Humminbird. Overall, we prefer the MarCum’s cable arm.

Battery life is excellent, as you would expect.

Pros:

  • Awesome target specification
  • Excellent low power mode
  • Easy to read, extremely bright dial
  • Simple controls
  • Awesome battery life

Cons:

  • Single cone angle

MarCum M3Our Pick!

MarCum Flasher System M3 Flasher System, Black/Red
Amazon 

Target Specification: 1”

Transducer angle: 20 degrees

Battery life: multi-day

Weight: 11 lbs.

MarCum’s flashers are the stuff of legends on the hard water, and many people won’t use another brand. To find out why, we chose the M3 from MarCum’s M series of flashers. We discovered that it’s an excellent performer with a fantastic reputation, and probably the best of the MarCum line in terms of balancing features and price.

The M3’s three-color dial is bright and easy to read, but unlike the Humminbird, you determine the depth under the transducer by reading the bottom on the dial. Like all MarCums, it dangles its transducer from an arm rather than using a float. We like that a lot, because it helps to reduce tangles and simplifies set-up.

The M3 also features good target specification and a single, 20-degree cone angle–a simple solution that provides both a big footprint and minimal interference problems. Whether that simplicity is a benefit or a problem depends on what you’re looking for. We’d probably give the edge to the Humminbird here, though clearly, with a one-inch target specification, the MarCum is more discerning.

A dial turns up the power, adjusting for depths of 20, 40, 80, and 160 feet, and few anglers will ever need more wattage than the M3 provides. Plenty of gain options, excellent interference reduction, and an easy-to-use interface make the M3 a popular choice.

The MarCum also sports an infinitely adjustable zoom–something no competitor offers –making it easy to see why so many anglers choose this brand.

Battery life is also awesome, allowing weekend trips with no worries.

Pros:

  • Good target specification
  • Great transducer cable system
  • Easy to read, bright dial
  • Simple controls
  • Infinitely adjustable zoom
  • Awesome battery life

Cons:

  • Single cone angle

Deeper Smart Sonar PRO+

Deeper Smart Sonar PRO+ - GPS Portable Wireless Wi-Fi Fish Finder for Shore and Ice Fishing
Amazon 

Target Specification: ½”

Transducer angle: 15 and 55 degrees

Battery life: nominally 5.5 hours

Weight: 3.5 ounces

Deeper’s Pro+ is a fantastic idea, and if you’re looking for an ultra-lightweight system, you might want to start here. By housing a sonar unit and battery in a small sphere, and syncing this with your smartphone or tablet, the Pro+ offers a fish finder/flasher combo with lots of features and plenty of advantages. It’s tiny–about the size of a baseball–and weighs just 3.5 ounces.

Right off, we appreciate the dual transducer angles, giving us two options depending on what we need to see, how deep we’re fishing, and how close other anglers are. That’s an awesome feature, no question. For shallow water anglers who tend to fish alone, a 55 degree cone is spectacular. Keep in mind, though, that these large angles can be problematic when there’s more than one transducer in the water. If you regularly fish with buddies, it may not be the best option.

With an incredible target specification of just a half inch, you won’t be left guessing about how many fish are approaching your jig.

We also think that the cordless design is a huge plus–simply drop the Deeper sphere into the hole and start fishing. There’s nothing to tangle or get in the way.

When synced to the device of your choice, the display is clear–but how easy it will be to read depends entirely on what you’re using to control the Pro+. What’s nice is that you have the option to switch to either a standard fish finder display or the traditional flasher mode, and both work really well.

GPS is standard on the Pro+, and if you make a lot of holes in the ice, this can be a great way to keep track of them and mark the ones that produce.

Battery life is pretty good, and the unit itself will have no trouble with about five hours on the ice. It will drain the batteries of your phone pretty quickly, though, so be aware of that. This is perhaps the weak link of this otherwise excellent design.

Pros:

  • Incredible target specification
  • Dual transducer angles with a very wide option
  • Flasher and fish finder displays
  • Cordless

Cons:

  • No narrow cone angle for fishing near friends
  • Battery life is poor compared to a flasher
  • Realistically, battery life depends as much on the device to which it’s synced
  • Display quality is only as good as the paired device

Humminbird ICE Helix 5

Humminbird 409730-1 ICE Helix 5 Sonar GPS Fish Finder
Amazon 

Target Specification: 2 ½”

Transducer angle: 20 and 60 degrees

Battery life: 8-12 hours with a standard 7Ah battery

Weight: roughly 11 lbs.

Humminbird’s fish finders are top of the line on the open water, so we were excited to see what the Helix ICE could do through a hole. The results weren’t disappointing. Especially for anglers looking to run the same gear year round, this is an option to consider.

The ICE comes with a hard-water specific transducer, but with an optional open water model, the Helix 5 can move from season to season in a snap. Try that with a flasher!

If you’re not familiar with this line of angling electronics, the Helix 5 is an awesome fish finder, and it has the bells and whistles that open water pros demand. From GPS to maps and crisp resolution to a large, five-inch screen, the Helix 5 blows away its summer competitors. If you really appreciate having those tools on your boat, and you’d like to bring them to the ice, this might be the way to go.

Die-hard flasher fans might say that you don’t need these cool add-ons, and that’s true. But it’s awfully nice to have a built-in GPS that tells you exactly where your holes are. That means no more guesswork when snow has covered everything on the lake, and if that’s happened to you, you know what we mean. It also means that you can find the same cover or depression every year, and know you’re on the spot you want to fish. This extra is a major drain on battery life, however, and it can’t be disabled.

Like the Humminbird Ice-45 flasher, don’t expect incredible target separation, though with an impressive 60-degree cone angle, you’ll be seeing 35 feet of the bottom in 20 feet of water! That’s something to note, and for shallow water while fishing alone, mark us down as impressed.

That said, if you fish with friends, we’re not sure a 20-degree cone angle is narrow enough to avoid problems. Indeed, many users experience problems with interference when in close proximity to flashers with similar frequency ranges, and that can be a major issue.

Battery life is acceptable in real-world conditions, but the higher you have the brightness on the LCD screen, the shorter that juice will last.

Pros:

  • Super-wide cone angle option
  • Easy to read display
  • GPS and maps can be an awesome addition

Cons:

  • Biggest target separation of all the models we review
  • Interference can be an issue, and this is made worse by a wide “narrow” cone angle
  • Battery life not competitive with flashers

MarCum LX-7 Ice Fishing Sonar System

Marcum LX-7 Ice Fishing Sonar System/Fishfinder - LX-7
Amazon 

Target Specification: ½”

Transducer angle: 8 and 20 degrees

Battery life: 10-14 hours, depending on backlighting

Weight: 12.3 lbs.

MarCum is at the forefront of high-tech innovation, and they’re offering us a peek at the future of flashers with the LX-7. With a wealth of display styles and options, this sonar system is perhaps best described as an ice-specific hybrid of a fish finder and flasher, offering the best of both designs. As such, it boasts powerful features that flashers don’t.

Like a fish finder, the LX-7 features a 7-inch flat LCD display with a variety of customizable color palettes. This screen can offer at-a-glance information about everything from battery life to gain adjustment, and whether you prefer a traditional dial or vertical graphs, what’s displayed there is up to you. This allows a degree of personalization that’s pretty much unequalled on the ice. We really like that, and it’s something that we know plenty of anglers will appreciate, too.

The LX-7 also has very specific and powerful tools to help you catch fish. In graph mode, for instance, it works much like a fish finder, allowing you to see how fish are behaving over time and how quickly they’re approaching your jig. That’s powerful stuff, and many pros swear by this flasher as a result. Of course, fantastic tech doesn’t come cheap, and this unit carries a pretty hefty price-tag to reflect that.

The LX-7s display is backlit, and if this system has a weak link, it’s here. Like a traditional fish finder, backlighting eats power. If you use it outside, you’ll need to keep the display light turned up in order for it to be fully visible. Realistically, that will place this at the end of the line for battery life when compared to other flashers.

Target specification is awesome, and with two choices of cone angle, you’re well-served in shallow or deep water, alone or with friends. Like all MarCum models, the transducer cable is held by an arm rather than suspended from a foam float, a system that we think is generally superior to an attached float.

Pros:

  • Unrivaled display options and personalization
  • Dual cone angles
  • Awesome target separation
  • Incredible fishing tools
  • Great transducer cable system

Cons:

  • Battery life isn’t the best if high levels of backlighting are used
  • Expensive

Our Picks – the Humminbird ICE-45, the MarCum M3, and the Vexilar FL-18!

Ice angling tech is evolving quickly, and systems like the Deeper Pro+, the Humminbird Ice Helix 5, and the awesome MarCum LX-7 give us a glimpse of the future of fishing. But as incredible as each of these devices is, we’re not convinced–yet–that the tech is there to unseat the tried-and-true.

The ICE-45, M3, and FL-18 are popular for a reason. While there are more expensive models available, and certainly systems with more bells and whistles, we think there’s also a diminishing tech return on higher-end models–at least at the moment.

When we ask ourselves what features we need and want, we find that the target specification, battery life, transducer cone angles, and ease of use are roughly equivalent across these three models. Which option you prefer is largely a matter of taste, and whatever your choice, you’ll be well-equipped to catch fish.

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