Buying Guide: Best Fish Finder Models and Features
When I was growing up, we did all of our fishing the old fashioned way. As a young girl, I fished from the shore with my mom, but even after my dad started bringing me out on the boat, we didn’t have anything fancy like a fish finder. We had our “spots”, and sometimes we just took turns guessing where to fish. It was actually pretty fun. Oh my how things have changed though. Today, EVERYBODY has a fish finder. Even on fishing kayaks! I own a portable one and it’s almost exactly like my cell phone, I can’t leave home without it.
Fish finders range considerably in both price, versatility, and effectiveness. Most of the cheaper kind just measure the small area beneath the boat, but some will even go as far as to create a 3D lake map, or integrate with other electronics such as autopilots and downriggers. The information that these display through their sonar system is vital to where you choose to fish on any given day, as schools of fish tend to migrate depending on a plethora of reasons. You can’t predict it, you just trust the instruments.
The best fish finders today are produced by three major marine electronics companies. Garmin is the most well known, but following in the distance are Humminbird and Lowrance, who have built up huge brand awareness over the years and have a large and fanatical consumer base. Having said that, every fish finder or gps combo system is different, and some units will fill your needs more than others, so I recommend that take your time and read through our reviews and recommendations. Here is a list of the best fish finders on the market, and a list of attributes you should look at in order to make a good purchase.
Stand Alone vs. Networked System vs. GPS Combo
Before you can even begin looking at the models that are available to purchase, you have to decide what exactly your needs are. Well, for most of us anyways who aren’t loaded with money, getting the most value out of every purchase is important to us, but beyond the bottom line, each model has advantages and disadvantages that you have to consider.
Networked Solution: If your finder is network compatible, then you are serious about your fishing. A network fish finder integrates all of the electronics on your kayak or boating system together so that they can speak to each other. This includes your GPS, sonar, radio, video, and if you have digital fuel flow gauges. These can be quite expensive, but they are also relatively convenient as well since you can download apps directly to your phone which control the entire setup, and there is always room to expand.
GPS Combo: You can’t beat this option in terms of value, and this is by far the most popular option amongst yakanglers. With this, you save a bit of cash as both units are integrated together, and you can view either the GPS and your fish on the screen at the same time, or the sonar imaging if you are stationary. These do everything you could possibly ask from fishing electronics, and will get you home safely and identify wrecks to boot. This is the best option if you have a lot of waterway to navigate but you still want to track.
Standalone Sonar: If you are only looking to fish in a lake or are quite familiar with an area, and don’t need a GPS system, this is what you are looking for. Stand alone systems are the cheapest by far, although many fellow anglers replace these as soon as a newer model comes out. My recommendation is to purchase a model that allows you to expand down the road, and add a GPS receiver if you plan on traversing some waterways in the future.
Understanding Transmit Power and Frequency and How Much Should You Have?
Frequency of the Sonar: One of the most important steps that you must take when purchasing your fish finder, is to match the transducer to your application. There are tons of models today that integrate everything from side imaging to down imaging, it’s sometimes hard to understand which is being utilized. Most signals will either give off a 83 kilohertz or 50 kilohertz beam(the signal) and a 200 kilohertz shallow beam. Your transducer will either be 200 kilohertz, or a 50/200 kilohertz combo, and if you are going fishing in deeper waters, you need the combo to see the imaging better.
As it pertains to down and side imaging, the signal utilized is different. Make sure that the transducer that you are purchasing is applicable to the signal(it should be labeled on the model), or else you are making a poor purchase.
Signal Power: The power output of the model has a direct impact on the signal strength that is returned to the transducer, and is the single most important quality when it comes to tracking fish. The power is given in two different formats, RMS which is the maximum wattage that the model can consistently give off, and the (PTP)Peak to Peak measurement, which is necessary for deeper navigation. As a rule, look for an RMS of at least 250 Watts of power with 3000 Watts of power if you plan on fishing in deeper lakes.
What Kind of Display Should You Purchase?
Pixels and Clarity: The very first fish finding units ever created were awkward, hard to read contraptions that frustrated the heck out of everyone. Who knew if that was a fish, or some dead branch submerged under the water? Today, the clarity has improved immensely, just like how your LCD television. Screens are made up of pixels, which are tiny dots which display variations in colors to form an image. The more pixels, generally, the clearer and more defined the image is. A simple recommendation is that you purchase a display which is at least 480 vertical by 480 horizontal, and if your display offers split screen, at least 640 pixels towards the direction of the split. The more expensive, better models are over 720 pixels and are high definition, giving anglers a huge advantage.
Colored versus Gray Scale: This is going to come down to value in terms of making a decision. You can get by with gray scaled systems, however, colored finders offer superior clarity and it is much easier to see the fish. On the other hand, the difference in price might be too steep for some.
Screen Size: The last feature which directly impacts the performance of the model is the size of the display. Just like television sizes, most guys go straight for the biggest model on the block, but that isn’t always the best value decision, but it is however a major factor. 4”-6” models are pretty standard and I suggest that you go with one that size if your plan on installing it permanently(portable models will have smaller displays typically). The size of your display with have a huge impact on the quality of picture that you see, I only advise that they be water proof and you take precautions as too large of a display can be cumbersome and you could have an accident if not careful with your installation.
Other Options to Consider
Down Imaging: Each system will offer varying degrees of quality in terms of its down imaging versus side imaging, because they require different signal frequencies. Down imaging uses a high frequency sonar feature which transmits a signal directly beneath the boat. This allows you to see fish at 180 degrees, if you like to fish near your boat.
Side Imaging: Side imaging allows for an extremely wide, high resolution view of the area around your boat, and is a newer feature in most fish finders. Through the use of a high frequency transducer, they are able to take in a higher array of sound and pick up the higher frequency signals of the sonar. The resulting imaging will show almost directly underneath the boat/kayak, plus the area towards the port side. In your quest to find the best fish finder, its very likely that you will end up choosing one that has side imaging as opposed to down imaging.