Capt. Robert Olsen fed a black cable over the side of his boat by hand, announcing, “We’re anchored over livebottom now, and sheepshead are typically here this time of year. You can see the structure and some fish on the depth finder, but let’s get a closer look with the camera.”

Watching a color video monitor connected to the camera he was lowering to the bottom, Olson described what he saw.

“There goes a shark … and I see a lot of leaves, but no sheepshead,” he said, making a slight adjustment to the anchor rope. “I know we’re anchored in the right spot, but I don’t see the fish where we are.” 

Olsen pulled in several feet of anchor rope, retied, then went back to looking at the underwater camera. Seeing sheepshead all around the camera this time, he baited fiddler crabs for his clients, and they all went to work.

In the mid-1990s, Aqua-Vu became the first company to make underwater cameras specifically for anglers. The systems were bulky, and the video clarity was lacking, but the product was revolutionary. Today’s systems far surpass those early ones in every way, and they make it easier for anglers to have successful days on the water.

January is a great time to use these camera systems. The water is typically clearer than during warmer months, especially on nearshore and offshore reefs and holes. And because some January days are bitterly cold, anglers would rather pinpoint where the fish are as quickly as possible rather than experiment leisurely. 

“These underwater cameras are great tools, but you need to use them in conjunction with a good depth finder,” Olsen said. “You can’t just drive the boat around and drop the camera down every so often and expect to find anything. The depth finder gets you to the general spot, but the camera helps you narrow it down to the best place in that spot.”

Using his depthfinder, Olsen looks for wrecks, artificial reefs or livebottom, which he describes as an area with growing plants along the bottom of the ocean. These areas show up prominently on depth finders. 

He anchors down on top of these spots, allows the boat to settle in the current, then drops his underwater camera straight down, looking for fish. It’s not uncommon for him to drop it right into a school of fish, but sometimes he sees just a few fish, none at all, or fish far from the camera. When this happens, he wastes no time adjusting the boat’s position, often without pulling the anchor up. Rather, he pulls some rope in or lets some out, effectively shortening or lengthening the anchor rope, which repositions the boat.

These underwater cameras can be especially effective in helping anglers locate flounder, which stack up on the ocean floor and lie in wait of baitfish. The fact that they move little allows anglers to keep a constant watch on the same group of fish throughout a fishing session. These cameras also get a good look at sheepshead, which usually feed vertically in the water column, so they generally stay in the same spot the camera sees them.

While the early versions of underwater cameras featured black-and-white monitors and low-resolution cameras, modern systems offer video as crisp as the TV in your living room. Other improvements include cameras that are much easier to control, including on-screen indicators that show which direction the camera is pointing in relation to the camera or boat. Some models also have tilt features that allow anglers to lower the camera down, then point it up toward the surface, showing the entire water column. This saves anglers the trouble of having to lower and raise the camera constantly to get an idea of the fish that are present.

Traditional underwater cameras come with their own monitors, but companies like Vexilar now have models that wirelessly send video to anglers’ smart phones or tablets. These camera systems create their own wi-fi hotspots and transmit the video up to 100 feet. Ditching the need for a dedicated monitor cuts down on boat clutter and also allows multiple anglers to see what the camera is showing on their own phones instead of requiring everyone to crowd around the same screen to see what’s down there, translating into more fishing time for everyone onboard.