Best Fish Finders (Buying & Installation Guide)

Fish Finder

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

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.

Buying Guide: Kayak Fish Finder

When looking around for fish finders, one of the first things that you will notice is that there are many different varieties. One of the biggest reasons for this, is because of price and value differences, but more important to you should be the purpose of the fish finder. You wouldn’t use a frying pan to swat a fly on your face, would you? Same applies here, if you are going fishing on a kayak, you have to consider attributes such as size, display, transducer, and convenience. You also have to evaluate your kayak as well, and make sure that it has the proper space for mounting. Here is a list of the different attributes you should consider.

1. Display

This is the most important attribute to get right. I have two kayaks, and two fish finders. One of my kayaks is quite large, and I actually mount my unit on the side, however my other kayak is very small, and so I use a portable unit. Why? You have limited space in the cockpit, and a large screen is really going to limit your movement. As pretty as they are to look at, go with a smaller screen, such as 6″ or 7″.

2. Size

Usually this goes hand in hand with the display. The larger the screen size, the heavier the unit. However, some units are heavier and bulkier, despite having the same screen size. This is reflected in the price, just know that the lighter  and smaller the unit, the better.

3. Transducer

When kayaking, chances are that you will be paddling in very shallow waters, although there will be times when you fish on deeper lakes. Because of this, the amount of power in the unit isn’t a huge deal. I highly recommend that the transducer that you purchase instead, has proper side imaging and down imaging, since your basically working with a smaller fishing area, as opposed to a boat for instance on a large body of water. Also, make sure that you have proper mounting for the transducer.

4. Convenience

This is the final attribute that I would consider. Some finders are extremely clunky and hard to mount. You also have to think about setting up the power source, which can be a major pain in the neck. The most convenient of all are portable units, however they have their own set of problems, such as having to keep track of them, usually more expensive, and not quite as powerful. Instead, make sure the product that you buy has good information available online can be mounted easily.

GPS Fish Finder Combo Models

If your sitting on the fence as to whether you should include a GPS system in your fish finder, or whether you should purchase two separate units, don’t be. There are a ton of advantages to purchasing a single combo, and I can’t think of a single disadvantage to purchasing them separate if you are a serious angler. If your only intentions are navigation, then maybe a solo GPS unit makes sense, or if you only ever plan on fishing on a small lake, then maybe a stand alone fish finder is just fine, but if not, grab the unit.

Remember when I told you that when I was growing up, we had none of this fancy equipment? Well, its kind of hard to live without it nowadays, and venturing on the backwater is no exception you are going to need a GPS system or you are going to get lost. First off, purchasing the combination is cheaper, much cheaper. My in the ballpark guess is your going to save about 30% if you choose a package deal instead of purchasing them separately. Second, the stress and headaches from manual installation will be at a minimum, unless of course you have a portable set. Fewer cases and fewer wires means you have more room on your kayak or boat for maneuvering and doing what is most important, and your less likely to mess anything up.

Finally, there is a convenience factor that makes the entire process worth it to begin with. I have friends who have given away entire packages of stand alone equipment, in order to purchase a single combo set. Some systems allow you to operate not just the GPS and transponder, but an attached trolling motor, and even a radio. Doing all of this from a single unit, in a boat where moving around isn’t always the easiest of chores, is a godsend when you are out on the water. I highly recommend that you take this into consideration.

Most companies produce the vast majority of their models as a single unit, simply because most of the demand is coming from anglers who want the entire package. Having said that, I’ve done the hard work for you and have come up with a list of the best GPS fish finder combo systems on the market. These models are on here for a variety of reasons, so be sure to read my descriptions for each before plunging in, because like everything you purchase some equipment is more suitable for different anglers.

How to Install a Fish Finder

There are quite a few important tid bits that you should consider when it comes to your fish finder. People often concern themselves with the price, operating it, or in what attributes to look for when purchasing. However, in my experience its often times the actual set up which is the biggest pain of all! There is no one size fits all manual which comes with your product, simply because the installation is done on a wide range of fishing vessels. However, some basic information can go a long way in helping you to decide on which model to purchase, and obviously will just help you have peace of mind. Here are the steps you should take to install your fish finder the right way.

Step 1: Where to Install?

This is perhaps the most important point in the whole process, and that is where to install your unit. Some people prefer to install on the dash or mount directly in front of them, some prefer to mount their unit on their main hand side, and some prefer to mount the unit on their off hand side, if we are installing on a kayak for instance. This changes however if you have a large boat. You also have to consider the type of transducer that you are installing. A transform mount transducer which you might install on a boat, is a very simple task if you install out in a shed, but another transducer such as a thru-hull transducer, is extremely complicated to install. This is best left up to professionals who know how to properly drill holes, as one wrong slip or mistake can cost you hundreds in repairs.

Remember, there are two set ups required in every installation, the transducer, and the display. Always consider where you want to install the transducer first, since it is stationary and cannot be adjusted, unlike the display. The transducer also has to be installed directly where the transform is. When you are doing the actual fitting, consider an area of the vessel which will be constantly submerged under water, failure to do so will cause intermittent malfunctions and completely defeat the purpose of the transducer.

When creating the transform, consider that it has to be smooth enough for the transformer to be fitted into. The location should also be at least a foot away from the propeller to prevent mishaps and interference caused from propeller. As a rule, the more turbulence that the transducer has to contend with, the more difficult it will be to correctly interpret the signals in the water. Finally, when installing, the area of the vessel which you have decided upon should not be easily exposed. This can be a serious issue when you are transporting it around on a trailer, as I’ve seen more than one unit damaged from lack of foresight.

Step 2: Running the Electrical Wires of the Transducer

It is rare, but every so often you will run into a product that comes with defective wires. Before installation, make sure that there are no damaged wiring by running your hand along the plastic and giving it the eye test, this is smart to do before everything gets submerged and you save time just in case you notice it after the fact.

Once you’ve properly adjusted where you would like the display to set, install based on the instructions that came with your model. However, don’t cut any wires as this can prevent future adjusting, not to mention void any kind of warranty which comes with the product. Your wiring should also not be run next to other wiring, such as that of the propeller or VHF cables. This can cause interference.

Step 3: The Fitting

There are two ways to actually fit the transducer. The first way, is to install directly into the boat.This will require precise measurement and a drill bit which is appropriately sized to allow wiring to slip through. Afterwards, add sealant to prevent leakage, the last thing that you want to do is have a leaky boat.

The second way, which I prefer, is to mount the transducer on a block. You can do this by using a strong glue such as an epoxy and placing it on the boat. Afterwards, line up where on the block you want to place the unit, and mark that position as it will be where you will be drilling. You want your holes to be just long enough to not enter the boat, but go most of the way through the block.

Step 4: Running the Display Wires

Just like there are two ways to fit the unit, there are two ways to run these wires. The first way is to run them above the transform. The second way is to run wires directly through it by drilling holes through the transform, however if you do it this way, make sure that it is above the water line. In addition, all wires should be clammed to avoid too much movement on the boat.

Step 5: Mounting the Display

This final step is very easy if you have a kayak which has been pre-mounted, such as common angular kayaks. However, you can always set mounting later. Attaching the fish finder display to a mount should be as simple as screwing it on. This is it for our How To Guide on Installing a Fish Finder.