Last updated on November 29th, 2020
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Fishing is one of those sports that harks back to simpler times when man pitted himself against nature with only his wits and a few tools. This is one of the reasons that we continue to do it – because it perhaps fulfills an intrinsic need from back in our hunter-gatherer days. The only issue is that when man confronts nature, nature usually wins.
Let’s face it, it’s called fishing and not catching for a reason, and I have certainly gone home empty-handed a time or two. However, man can claim a major advantage over most animals, and certainly fish – we make tools. The invention of technology is one reason we’re on top of the food chain, and in fishing, the best technology at our fingertips is a fish finder.
Now, before the purists jump down my throat, I am not somehow saying that fish finders are the most intrinsic or necessary tool in the angler’s arsenal. I am merely pointing out that they are relatively recent in usage as far as fishing history goes, and no matter what rod and reel you’re packing if the fish aren’t where you are, you won’t catch any.
Don’t get me wrong, I like old school, and modernity in outdoor pursuits can complicate things. Take boat motors for example; they can be expensive or break down, but the fact remains that no matter how much I like rowing or paddling whitewater, outboard motors sure save my shoulders.
In like fashion, fish finders can save on time, work, and frustration to make your fishing experience more enjoyable. Plus, there’s the fact that using sonar technology has a pretty big coolness factor.
But enough philosophizing; let’s talk shop about how to choose a good fish finder and what’s out there. If you’re an old hat at buying fish finders, you can probably skip straight to the recommendations list, but for the rest of us who can get a bit lost in the veritable sea of info and features available today, I’ll first break down the important things to look for before moving on.
First of all, the basic fishfinder consists of two parts, the display, and the transducer. Some models have a few more bells and whistles, but they all have these in common. The display, well, displays the readings, and the transducer is usually attached to the hull or transom and is doing most of the work. There are also some portable models that have a transducer you simply plop into the water on a cable.
(NOTE: some manufacturers sell the two parts separately, which is handy if one breaks and the other is fine but can be frustrating if you buy one when intending to get the whole package. So, read the specs for yourself before making a final purchase.)
So, what about capabilities? What are the real differences between a good and bad choice in fish finders? After research, there are basically five things to consider when buying a fish finder and those are usability and personal preference, accuracy, GPS capabilities, manufacturer, and affordability.
In a hurry? scroll down to see our top 5 fishfinder recommendations.
1. Usability and Personal Preference
When examining any piece of tech, we have to ask ourselves if we can really use it effectively. You should consider things like your own level of technical prowess and needs because having all the extras is only helpful if you can use them.
This could mean you want a more simplified model that has more automatic features, or maybe that you need a larger display to read it comfortably. It also might be the case that you love learning all the nuances of your gear and want something that can be very specifically tuned.
Whatever your abilities and preferences, think about exactly what your comfort level is and stick with it. You’ll likely be happier. (NOTE: For display in terms of personal usability there are choices of size, touch screen capability, color vs grayscale, etc.)
Personal preference goes hand in hand with usability because all the technical options are based on what you want and any specialty fishing you might want to do. There are options for everyone, whether that means you ice fish, need a portable option, want lightweight, etc.
Intended usage and personal preference should be first on the list of qualifications for your fishfinder because this determines what you want to look for individually and narrows search parameters. The other four considerations are universal, but this first one is what will likely be the determining factor between several good choices.
Whether or not something is user-friendly is irrelevant if I can’t do its job. This is where the rubber meets the road because any fish finder is only as good as its actual sonar capabilities. Three major factors contribute to accuracy, which is the difference between finding a nice school of crappie and snagging a juicy piece of algae.
The first is the cone angle, which can range anywhere from nine to sixty degrees, with twenty being the most common. Basically, the transducer emits sound waves from a single point, and they move outward, expanding as they go. The initial spread is measured in degrees, and something quite narrow can be extremely accurate, but with a very limited field of “view” as it were.
Something broader gets you a bigger picture, but often that means less depth penetration. If you fish shallow waters, the wider angle is better, but if you need depth, the narrower beam is more helpful. If you fish both options frequently, don’t worry, there are transducers that come with multiple beams (usually two, but sometimes up to four) that work simultaneously to create the best picture possible.
Second, on the list is frequency. Now, this ties directly with the cone angle and the last item on our list, (power) but it deserves its own section because of this fun tech called CHIRP.
Not just a sound small birds make in the wee hours of the morning, CHIRP stands for Compressed High-Intensity Radar Pulse. That’s a mouthful but basically means that you can switch and combine frequencies to get the best picture.
This is the best form of the multiple cone angle options mentioned earlier and is the absolute most basic feature you should look for. Don’t buy a fish finder without it.
Power is the last component of accuracy, and it determines the frequency, which then determines the cone angle, so all this is interconnected. Power comes in wattage, and the minimum you want is 600 watts, with more serious models ranging up to 3,000 watts.
For more specific readings and deeper penetration, you will need a bit more power, but anything above 600 will at least get you in the ballpark.
3. GPS Capabilities
While there are fish finders out there without a good GPS system, they aren’t really recommendable. GPS means you can mark waypoints for return, download pre-made maps of different bodies of water and their underwater topography, and some options even allow for advanced individualized cartography and navigation for the ultimate in customizability.
I will also make a note here of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and associated apps. Often fish finders can connect to your phone or other devices for easier usability, data recording, and convenience. This can mean that you can analyze data from anywhere on your boat and check out the readings later from the comfort of your own home.
4 & 5. Manufacturer and Affordability
These two items are linked, so they bear discussing in tandem. The reality is that there are a whole host of knockoffs out there with inferior CHIRP systems, poor accuracy, and just generally bad design.
The best way to avoid this is to stick with known manufacturers who have been in the game for a while. The most common name brands with good reliability are Humminbird, Lowrance, Raymarine, and Garmin.
Of these, Humminbird has great options for specific types of fishing, Lowrance has many options for versatility, Raymarine has all the accessories you could want, and Garmin likely has some of the best GPS tech available.
These are generalizations and have exceptions and crossovers, but you get the point.
Now, if you want to experience and reputation, you do have to pay for it, though all these brands and several others of good standing have affordable options. However, the term, “you get what you pay for” is especially true.
If you pay a bit more upfront, it typically pays off in the end. Any good brand offers a warranty, tech support, and other benefits which should ensure that your finder lasts a while, which keeps you from shelling out for repairs every year.
Bottom line, there are reasonable options that give good quality, so don’t skimp on this piece of gear.
A look at 5 Best of the Fishfinders Today for Your Money
All right, now that we know what to look for, let’s get to some of the best options available for the money. In this section, I’ll suggest five of the top fish finders available on the market today for you to choose from. These all come equipped with CHIRP and include mapping software options and represent the cream of the crop in fishfinders.
First is the Raymarine Axiom 12. This is the most advanced and the most expensive option on the list. It has fully customizable options and is a complete navigational system including everything from water temp to highly specialized frequency ranges.
It comes equipped with Navionics+ that includes preset maps of over 20,000 inland bodies of water and the coastal areas of the U.S. and Canada.
If the price isn’t an object, this is the top of the line and is absolutely worth the money. It has great processing power and a sleek 12” touchscreen interface that’s easy to use and install.
The options are customizable, and it can be ordered with or without whatever features you choose. Some of the simpler options are also cheaper, so if this sounds like a good fit, but the price is a bit much, consider getting a more basic model with a lower price tag.
Next is the most all-purpose of the list, the Lowrance Hook2 9-inch Fish Finder with TripleShot Transducer and Preloaded Mapping. This is one of the best fish finders on the market today in terms of versatility and combining quality with affordability.
I like the fact that it is very customizable and has an autotuning technology that will automatically and seamlessly adjust your setting to changing water conditions. The built-in micro SD slot is also another nice feature that lets you easily save your routes and favorite fishing holes.
It has full down and side scan in the midrange options and is the complete package for anyone who wants a really solid piece of equipment. The one downside that bears mentioning is that it can be a bit tricky to set up, though it’s quite easy to use once installed.
If you switch boats frequently or really need something you can take with you anywhere, consider this next portable option, the Humminbird HELIX 5 PT Portable Fish Finder with GPS. It comes with its own case that’s easy to transport and has all the desirable feature options as far as frequency, display, and usability go.
Additionally, one common complaint that pops up with portable options is the lack of ease of transfer, and the stable suction cup mount on this model is a great answer to that. It is very secure and simple to install and remove.
I am an occasional kayaker, and this next lightweight model is my pick for my fellow paddlers. The Garmin STRIKER 7sv with Transducer weighs in at just over six pounds total and has the best imaging for the size of the display. It comes with CHIRP Clear Vu and Side Vu sonars, integrated GPS and Quickdraw Contours mapping software.
Easy usage and install are backed up with a very nice GPS system and smart connectivity options to one’s other devices. This Garmin GPS sonar combo is a great unit to mount on your fishing kayak or any other type of fishing boat, for that matter.
Last but not least, I haven’t forgotten the ice fishermen out there. The Humminbird ICE Helix 7 Fishfinder is one of the best ice fishing options out there, and one model is versatile enough to use in your boat in the less frosty months as well. It’s highly accurate and has the best all-seasons option on this list, along with being easy to transport.
In short, the Humminbird Ice Helix 7 is, without a doubt, one of the best ice fishing fish finders that you can find today.
This is a general thought but bear in mind that you should keep track of the model numbers with Humminbird products because they can be easy to confuse if you end up buying accessories later on.
Well, that’s it. Please keep in mind that this list is basically a set of well-informed opinions and that the fish finder options are literally endless, so pick what works best for you. Your fishfinder should fit your needs and budget but, hopefully, this cuts through some of the jargon and serves as a great place to get started in your gear search.
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