Crosslake, MN – It was a dazzling display of underwater spy-work. Team Aqua-Vu anglers Brandon Newby and Ryan Wilson won the recent 2018 North American Ice Fishing Championship (NAIFC) and over $13,000, thanks to their relentless fish-finding approach. The two-day event (December 15 and 16) on North and South Twin lakes in western Minnesota saw 65 of the top competitive ice fishing teams in North America go head-to-head, each qualifying for the Championship via regional tournaments across eight states.
For Newby and Wilson, the win cemented their status as arguably the most successful anglers in competitive ice fishing history. In the past six years, the Wisconsin anglers have earned a total of nine NAIFC tournament wins, including 2012 and 2018 National Championships and three Team of the Year titles. Remarkably, just three days after claiming the NAIFC Championship, Newby and Wilson also won the highly competitive Frankie’s Minnesota State Panfish Championship on Chisago Lake.
“It’s pretty clear Brandon and Ryan are operating on a whole other level,” observed Hall of Fame angler and photographer Bill Lindner, who witnessed and filmed the action firsthand. “They’ve developed fish-finding strategies with technologies like digital mapping, lithium-ion drills and underwater cameras that will eventually change the way everyday ice anglers approach their sport.”
“A lot of our success this year came down to the sheer speed at which we operate and find fish,” said Wilson, who has fished competitively alongside his friend Newby for over a decade. “Brandon and I work a systematic fish-finding approach that centers on super-efficient ice drills and ultra-portable Aqua-Vu cameras. We’ve also been working with a radical sonar technology that helps us track moving fish—but the camera’s the only way to authenticate fish species and their size.”
To locate tournament winning bluegills and crappies on 900-acre North Twin Lake, the team drilled hundreds of holes with their Milwaukee ice drills, spying through each one via underwater optics. When asked how much of the lake they covered in prefishing, Newby replied: “All of it.”
“The color and clarity of the new Micro Revolution cameras is huge in helping us determine fish size,” says Wilson, “You see a much more detailed, 3D-like image that shows the contours of a fish’s body. Gauging bluegill size is tricky, but by observing details like the size of their ear-flap in relation to the rest of their body, or the thickness of their torso, you get a good idea as to whether you’re looking at another 6-incher, or a healthy 8-1/2 or 9. That’s huge because lots of these lakes swarm with smaller fish.”
Wilson calls out another winning attribute. “A special reel on the backside of the Aqua-Vu LCD lets us pay out exact lengths of cable, drop the camera on fish and then wind it back in an instant. This awesome tool is a huge time saver and difference-maker.”
Yielding further portability, the entire camera unit fits inside a special viewing case designed by Newby and Wilson. “The Pro Viewing case lets us wear the camera, rather than carrying it.”
An unfortunate side effect of success, Newby noted, has been the tendency for the team to constantly attract followers. “Our strategy at the Championship revolved around avoiding crowds and finding new spots with fresh panfish. We fished these same two lakes at last year’s Championship, so we knew North Twin had the bigger fish. We also knew that to win, we’d likely need to build a decent lead on the first day to hold on and win.”
Site of the second tournament day, South Twin Lake is known for its plentiful smaller panfish. Newby believed scoring a big weight here would be difficult. Indeed, on day one at North Twin, the duo iced 8 sunfish and 8 crappies for 13.17-pounds, including a whopper 15-inch, 1.67-pound black crappie—enough for a slim lead over fellow Aqua-Vu pros and eventual 3rd place finishers Kevin Fassbind and Nick Smyers.
“During prefishing, we realized the spots we found last year were out of play, they’d become community holes,” Newby recalled. “We went into search mode and literally covered the entire lake in search of new fish. One of the things we try to preach is that every lake has multiple spots that hold good fish, not just the same old community holes.”
“Brandon and I like to go off in different directions, each armed with a drill and an Aqua-Vu and cover twice as much ice,” said Wilson. This year, the team employed a custom-made 3-inch auger bit—just wide enough to fit the camera optics, and yet small enough to disappear overnight and keep a sonar transducer out of the hole.
“For stealth reasons, we don’t fish for panfish during prefishing,” he continued. “But to break up the work of constantly drilling, we like to stop and catch a pike or bass every now and then. You don’t want to put any panfish on the ice because it’s just one more way to invite followers.
“Honestly, we weren’t looking for a motherlode of fish,” Wilson admitted. “We wanted to find spots with fewer panfish that other teams might overlook. What we found were a couple nice pods of bluegills and crappies slowly working soft-bottom basin areas beyond shallower decaying vegetation. We had our money spot almost entirely to ourselves— a rare luxury.”
Day two on deeper South Twin, a whole other pattern awaited. “The panfish on South Twin are constantly hounded by pike and bass,” noted Newby. “It keeps the ‘gills and crappies constantly on the move. You’d put the camera down and watch a school of bluegills moving at mach-10. You might catch one, but the school would be long gone by the time you made the next drop.”
With just an hour remaining on day-two, Newby and Wilson had their eight crappies, but only a few sunfish in their buckets. “We went into head-hunter mode, looking for one bluegill at a time with the camera,” Wilson recalled.
Then, like a diamond in the rough, a bountiful patch of vegetation appeared on the camera screen, full of sunfish. “As soon as we set up on the spot, we had two other teams pull up on us. But we managed to pop six bluegills just in time; that little sweet spot—and a few other tricks— absolutely won the tournament for us.”
For more details on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit, including full tournament coverage, visit their website, www.naifc.com.