If only finding the best fish finder was as easy as finding fish with a fish finder. It can be a mind boggling experience. We know, it’s a jungle out there. The search for a trusty fish finder can very well be just as hard as finding fish without one. The bottom line is that finding a good fish finder is worth it in the end. They will make your fishing experience easier and more effective and ultimately result in bringing home more fish.
There is a ton of fishfinder brands, models, and types on the market. We break them down into categories so you can find the best one for your style of fishing. Are you looking for one with GPS or not? What frequencies will work best in deep-water, coastal, or inland environment that you fish most often? What sort of display specifications do you want? We will take a closer look at the important things to consider before making a final purchase. After that, we have included are favorite fish finders that are the top picks of fishers worldwide.
Things to Know Before Buying a Fish Finder
These little units get pretty complex. However, once you play around with the thing you’ll find they are very intuitive. No matter what your budget and experience level is there’s something for everyone.
1. There are three primary types of fish finders which include standalone, networked, and combination fishfinder & chart plotter (GPS). The key choice to make is whether you want a fish finder and GPS or just a standalone.
- Standalone. If you are just looking for a good snapshot of what is below, dedicated fishfinders offer the biggest displays. The balance of performance and cost are probably the best in this category, as you aren’t going to be charged an arm and a leg for the unit. This type of fish finder is ideal for fishing on small inland lakes. If you are on a tight budget, this is also your best option. The other time we’d suggest getting a standalone model is if your pilothouse is big enough for multiple displays (or you just bought a brand new GPS) get a serious, large fish finder to complete your fishing command center set up.
- Combination. Combination units are likely the best choice for mid-sized boat owners. Use GPS to navigate to the fishing grounds and back. Upon arrival, switch to the fishfinder screen to locate your bounty. You can enable a split screen to view both GPS and fishfinder at the same time too if necessary.
- Networked. Networked systems are available from all the major suppliers. Many of them include WiFi and Bluetooth capability. But that’s just the beginning. Features get more amazing every year. A few networked fishfinders feature the ability to control them with an Android or Apple smartphone. Networked systems will also usually support a wide range of data sources such as radar, Sirius Satellite Radio, and raster and vector GPS charts. Multi-display networked systems are excellent options for medium to large-sized vessels. The fishfinder itself is generally a black box module and one source of data among many.
2. There are two common types of sonar: down scan and side scan. There is a new emerging technology that combines the best of both, so you get both capabilities in a single unit. The critical difference is that down scan broadcasts signals directly below the vessel and side scan broadcasts in more of a fan like patterned angle to the sides of the vessel.
- Downscan. The benefits of using a down scan sonar are that it will increase the accuracy of your readings at around forty feet or deeper when you are surveying or pattern running. Also, it allows the fisher to see greater detail, such as the individual fish in a school. Some reasons people don’t like them is that they can be too powerful for shallow water and of course that it is difficult to see what activity is happening to the sides of the boat.
- Sidescan.Sidescan sonar is able to scan vast amounts of water in a single pass. The average fishfinder in this category will be able to scan around 100 feet to each side. Another benefit is that you can scan areas without disturbing them, because you don’t need to go directly over the area to scan it. The downsides are that these are less effective in deep water situations. On average, when you go down 75 feet or more things start to get blurry and you’ll notice a decline in imaging quality.
- Combination. Here you get the best of both worlds. You see this technology in units such as the Hummingbird SwitchFire. But, of course, models with this capability are going to cost you a pretty penny.
3. There are a few display specifications to consider. The main ones are color, pixels aka resolution, and size of the screen.
- Resolution. More pixels per square inch will allow you to see greater detail. This will improve the representation of what’s below you. Combined with a larger screen, you’ll be able to see fish that are near the bottom, see the air bladders of smaller fish, and see fish near “bait balls.” Another thing that goes hand in hand with this is contrast ratio, and just like with the resolution you’ll get what you pay for.
- Color. Color only is slowly becoming the industry standard grayscale. Color definitely helps when making sense of imaging. But if you are on a tight budget grayscale models are much less expensive. Being able to discern what is going on in the water under all types of light conditions is ten times easier with a color display.
- Size. The size of the screen is just as important as the resolution. Widescreen displays are especially nice when you are using a split screen feature to view more than one type of data. Most manufacturers show quoted screen sizes using a diagonal measurement in inches across the screen. Anything over 480 x 480 will provide standalone fishfinder units plenty of real estate. But when you move into combo units more pixels are needed. Also, keep in mind that anything 720p and above are considered high definition (HD) and provide an even clearer and greater level of detail.
4. Think of the transducer as a fishfinder’s mouth and ears. It calls into the water around your vessel with its ping then listens for the echoes. The transmit power and frequencies of your transducer are two other important things to think about.
- Power. Many fishers find this one of the most important features of a fishfinder. There is no substitute for raw sonar power. The main reason is it important is because this power is responsible for the signal strength of the sonar that is being sent from the transducer. It is important to examine the Max Wattage and Peak to Peak measurements when looking at fishfinders. The Max Wattage in RMS measures how much power the finder unit can consistently output. Peak to Peak is the measurement of total output. We recommend purchasing a fishfinder with the highest power output you can afford. For deep water applications, look for at least 250W of RMS power and 2500W (Peak to Peak). Keep in mind that the more power output that your transducer has, the more detailed, accurate, and clear the image is on your solar screen.
- Frequency. Fishfinders function by using a single frequency, dual frequencies, multiple frequencies, or a broadband CHIRP system you may have heard about. A good rule of thumb is that the higher the frequencies, the better the details and resolution. Higher frequencies also will give you the best view from a fast moving boat but they won’t penetrate as deeply as lower frequencies. For maximum penetration, use lower frequencies such as 200kHz or higher (up to 800kHz) for water depths of 200 feet. If you’re going deeper than that, 80kHz or 50kHz will be your best bet. Shallow waters call for higher frequencies of 200kHz all the way up to 800kHz.
The Best Fish Finders of 2016
Now that we’ve identified the main things you should look for when buying a fish finder, we selected the top fish finders of this year. We broke them down by price range so you can see what you’ll be getting for how much you’re willing to dish out.
Best Budget Fish Finder (<$100)
In this price range you’re going to find greyscale screens with low resolution. These are the simplest units, but it doesn’t mean they can’t get the job done when used correctly. You shouldn’t hope to get too much detail with cover, structure, or thermoclines with these. Sometimes the data and readings will be harder to interpret due to the lack of color, but with experience this hurdle can usually be overcome.
The transducers in this category have lower power ratings and the deepest they will get is about 80-150 feet. We recommend a fish finder at this price point for fishers just starting out as an angler who stick to shallow waters with a smaller boat. Our winner is this category is the Garmin Echo 100. The runner up is the Lowrance Elite 3X.
Best Mid-Range Fish Finder ($100-300)
There are many options in this price range. On the lower side of this price range, you’re going to get capabilities of about 100-200 feet. Also, some of these will provide limited GPS as well. For example, you’ll be able to save and set points such as waypoints and tracks to help you revisit successful spots. In this category, you’re going to get color screens around 4 inches or so (measured diagonally). You can also find units with “DownScan” or “Down Imaging” capability, which incorporates a high-frequency sonar beam to allow the user to get realistic readings.
- Winner: Raymarine Dragonfly 4 Pro
- Runner-Up: Garmin Echo 551dv
- Other Options: Deeper Smart Fish Finder, Lowrance Elite 4X, Garmin Echo 301dv
Best Upper-Range Fish Finder ($300-600)
If you’re a devoted fisher and are looking for something for the long term, the upper-range fish finders are the sweet spot where you get some of the best value. All the best technology you can find in this price range. Most of these babies can penetrate to depths of at least 500 feet. They are usually stocked with GPS and map navigation where you can zoom in and out. The screens are high resolution, are usually pretty large (5+ inches), and the transducers are powerful.
- Winner: Humminbird 859ci HD
- Runner-Up: Lowrance Elite 5X
- Other Options: Humminbird Helix 5, Dragonfly 5 Pro
Best Deluxe Fish Finder ($600+)
The next best thing to fishing with dynamite. Fish finders at this price level have glossy high definition screens sometimes seven inches or bigger. When you take into account that this is measured diagonally, the overall size difference is radical. You’ll be able to get extremely life-like imaging of what’s around you. Of course, you’ll get robust mapping packages with these models too.
This is basically professional type models that all have very powerful sonar. Professional charters and tournament anglers all use units at this price level. When you’re paying this much money, you receive the ability to add peripherals like weather, satellite radio, radars, and special features like networking with other units.