Best Value Fishfinders
A Brief Overview
Fishfinders are one of the most technologically advanced, as well as fastest growing markets in the sport fishing world. They first started arriving on the market in the 1970s, however these early models were little more than depth sounders, revealing water depth and little more. For some time, the advancement of the units was limited by the cost and complexity of the screen displays, however as display technology progressed, the fishfinders followed suit. Now, options for fishfinders range from well under 100 dollars for the most basic units, to many thousand dollars for the most advanced units. The range of options and features along the spectrum are vast, so here I intend on explaining the most popular features, as well as some of the best value fishfinders in each price range.
More often than not, depth of water as well as bottom contour are more important than seeing the actual fish. Luckily, any fishfinding unit you purchase will have the ability to at least tell you the depth of water below the boat. During different parts of the year, certain fish will hold in different depths to find a water temperature suitable for their species' specific taste. For example, as summer progresses, trout will often move deeper to colder water. In addition, many fish will move deeper on hot, clear days, as they become easy prey for birds and other predators in shallow water. By slowing trolling around the specific body of water, trenches, shelves, and submerged islands, can be located, however this is much easier with increasing resolution and sensitivity on higher end models. If nothing else, simply knowing the depth of the water you are in is a huge advantage. Again, this feature will be standard to all modern fishfinders.
This feature is also standard to almost all modern fishfinder units. It will display the temperature of the water in the immediate vicinity of the transducer. This will give the angler incite as to what depth the fish will be holding at, how actively they will be feeding, and even what lures to use. It must be noted though that the temperature displayed is the surface temperature and not constant all the way to the bottom.
Most lower end models have the temperature sensor built in to the transducer. This is fine so long as the transducer is mounted in an underwater configuration. If however, as in the case with many aluminum boat, the transducer is to be mounted on the inside of the boat, flush with the hull, the temperature read by an integrated transducer-temperature probe will be wrong. For this reason, many higher end models have a separate probe for measuring temperature that is to be mounted in a wetted location on the boat.
This is one of the most important specifications to look for when buying a fishfinder. Resolution refers to to the pixel count of the screen, and can be determined by multiplying the vertical pixel count to the horizontal pixel count. Pixel count can range from as small as 48x32 (smallest I could find) to full HD screens. The advantage of higher pixel count are numerous. Higher resolution allows you to determine the difference between rocks, logs, and fish on the bottom, differentiate target fish from schools of bait fish, and see small details are filtered out by lower resolution systems. If this isn't immediately clear, imagine trying to watch a silent movie on a TV with only 1500 some pixels. You would have no clue what was happening. This is the same case with fishfinders. In order to get a clear idea of what is happening below your boat, higher resolutions are key.
While is may seem like a luxury, having a color display increases the information that can be gleaned from the fishfinder. Black and units can only display one of two results: surface, or no surface. There is no in between. A fish will show up as a rock, or vice versa, and weed beds and light vegetation are often ignored. This lack of display leaves black and white units incredibly disadvantaged. Grey scale units are a bit of an improvement, which use shade of grey to differentiate between soft and hard surfaces. Still, the human eye can only process so many shades of grey, providing only a slight improvement. Color displays are by far the best, giving the largest range of information to be displayed by each pixel on the screen. It will allow you to tell the difference between fish and structure, and even determine what bottom type you are fishing over, be it clay, rock, sand, or other.
A little goofy, but will give you a great look at variable sensitivity in display, jump to 3:00
Sensitivity has to do with the signal conditioning in the fishfinder. Different surface types reflect back sound waves of different strengths. With a lower sensitivity, many of these signals are filtered out, leaving you with less information. Lower end models often have a set sensitivity, leaving you powerless to determine, or even know what signals are being filtered out. Nicer models allow you to select the sensitivity yourself, giving you much more control over the unit.
The default sensitivity on many units is fairly low. By increasing the sensitivity, you gain many valuable bits of information not initially available. Small bait fish, and even plankton blooms become visible. Weeds and vegetation types can be determined. Even your lure can be seen when jigging under the boat (sometimes you can watch the fish come right up to your bait right on the screen!)
Another water feature that can be observed with a high sensitivity model is the thermocline. Since water of different temperatures will have different densities, often the heavier cooler water sinks, leaving a distinct depth at which warm surface water transitions to colder water below. Since the speed of the transducers sound waves, are a direct function of the temperature of the water, the sound waves are in effect moving from one medium to another when they cross the thermocline, resulting in a few being reflected back. Low sensitivity models will filter these out nearly every times, but if you have the ability to crank the sensitivity up and locate the thermocline, you have found a fishing hot spot.
Be aware, when maxing out a units sensitivity, you might start to observe a double bottom on the screen. This is because the unit begins processing the signals that have reached the bottom, reflected off the boat, then again off the bottom, and finally reached the transducer. Since these pings have traveled twice the distance, it gives the impression of a second lake bottom at twice the depth of the real one. This second reading will have far less detail, and usually do nothing more than take up valuable display space, decreasing the resolution of the primary ping read out. So generally, if you start seeing a double bottom, decrease your sensitivity control.
80kHz vs 200kHz
80kHz vs 200kHz vs Dual Beam
There are two main frequencies of sound used in sport fishfinders: 80kHz and 200kHz (some models will vary slightly.) The primary difference between the two is the angle of the sonar "cone" beneath the boat. The 80kHz units will read in roughly a 60 degree cone angle, giving you a much wider span of coverage. In relatively shallow water this is great, as the wide angle will give you a sizable reading. The 200 kHz units on the other hand will read in roughly a 20 degree cone angle. When fishing deeper water, this smaller angle will give you more information about what is under the boat, and not 50 (if not hundreds of) feet in font or behind you.
So as a general rule, if choosing between an 80 or 200kHz units, go with a 80 if you will be fishing in primarily shallow water, and a 200 if you will be in mostly deeper water.
The best solution though? Buy a unit with a dual beam. This will allow you two scan a wider area with the 80kHz beam, while also allowing higher resolution under the boat with a 200kHz beam, often simultaneously! For serious anglers who fish a variety of different water depths, a dual beam is a great advantage.
This feature is relatively new to the world of fishfinders. Just in case you are not familiar with the term, GPS stands for global positioning system, and uses satellites to locate you position on the earth. The options throughout different models are numerous, with some having only basic lake information, and others displaying lake contours, features, and even where to grab a lakeside burger.
The basic premise of having a GPS integrated into your fishfinder is to locate, and relocate fish in the lake. The unit can set waypoints when fish are located or caught, helping you to pinpoint the hot spots on the lake, and quickly navigate back to them the next time out. If a buddy had good luck in one location, he can give you the coordinates to input into your unit allowing you to quickly navigate to his hot spot. No more triangulating off the burnt tree and cabin with no roof along the lake shoreline.
Of course, the features increase from here, so far as to plot a trolling route and have the boat autopilot along the course with no steering of your own. These features are only on the much higher end units, and are progressing quickly, so if you are in the market for one, do some research.
While quite expensive upon their arrival on the fishfinder market, GPS integrated sonar units are now surprisingly affordable, and offer amazing benefits to the angler.
Down and Side Imagining Units
Down Imaging capabilities at a reasonable price.
Down Scan, Side Imaging, and 360 Imaging
This is the area where fishfinder units have progresses the furthest in the past years. While lower and mid level units display information in colorful arches and squiggles, units with imagine capabilities allow you to actually see under water. Its as if you drained the lake. You are able to see with rocks, sunken boats, trees, and even fish with striking detail. Down imaging gives you a detailed view of what is under the boat, side imaging shows what is to the left and right of the boat, and 360 imaging, the newest of the three, allows a detailed view below, as well as all around the boat.
Like most novel fishfinder features, most of these features were only available on $1000 and up systems, but as the technology becomes more mainstream, the prices drop, making these systems much more affordable for the weekend angler.
The newest of the new units allow integration on numerous systems, all to be viewed and controlled from your fish finder. This includes radar, weather, and news, as well as downrigger and boat control, all with wireless connectivity. Curious what was on the fishfinder when you weren't watching? No problem! Just upload the saved data to your computer for later review. The options with these units are limitless, and will only continue to develop with time.
Considerations When Shopping
So there are all of your options, from the most basic to the most complex. While highest end model without a doubt provides the most options and fish finding potential, it is not necessarily the best model for you. Here are some things you should consider when shopping for a new unit:
- Cost: clearly there is a wide range of cost, from $50 to $500 to $2000 and up. Features increase with cost, but some units definitely bring more to the table for less money.
- Battery: Aside from the old models that run on 8 D batteries, you are going to need an external power source. For larger boats, this is hooked into the boat battery. For smaller crafts, kayaks for example, a separate battery will be necessary. When hooking into a battery that is not kept charged via an alternator, the batter will eventually die. For this reason, large screens with extra features should be avoided on smaller crafts with a limited amount of battery power.
- Location: If you will only be fishing smaller lakes and ponds, chart plotting units with downloadable content are likely superfluous. Then again, if you will be going offshore, these may become important.
- Brands: If I were you, I would stick to Garmin, Lowrance, and Humminbird, as these are the most respected names in sport fishfinder units. Garmin is fairly new to the sonar market, but are no stranger to electronics with a long history of GPS innovation. Lowrance has a longer history with commercial sonar units, but has brought this innovation to the sport market. Humminbird prides itself with being on the leading edge of sonar innovation, and quickly assimilates cutting edge technology into affordable systems. In my book, they provide the most bang for the buck.
One Final Word To The Wise
This one is for all the stubborn men who think that product manuals are just a convenient way to ensure we always have enough fire starting material in case of an emergency. DO read the product manual when you buy a fishfinder. It contains important instructions regarding how to install components, and use the system to the best of its ability. The default settings are often not the best. Know how to change settings, mark waypoints, switch views, change beams, etc, before ever hitting the water. You don't want to spend your precious fishing hours pecking away at a screen in confusion when you could be actually fishing. So swallow your pride, and just this once, read the manual.