Five Tips for Choosing a New Fishfinder

Your electronics and especially your fishfinder are important fish-catching tools, which is why we examined different ways you can use them to become a more successful angler, in Electronic Countermeasures. But while that five year old fishfinder sitting at the helm of your boat may work just fine, it’s also thoroughly dated. In fact, marine electronics have come so far so fast that using a unit built in 2012 is like driving an Edsel. You don’t believe it? Consider this: virtually every modern system includes multiple high-frequency abilities (commonly called “scanning” or “imaging” by the manufacturers) which offers levels of detail so intense you can literally see the different branches of a submerged tree. Virtually every system offers side and/or 3D viewing. And virtually all of them can be used to self-chart, allowing you to gather detailed bathymetric data that standard chart data simply can’t match. And when we say “virtually,” we’re talking about networkable MFD systems which have everything from fishfinding to radar built into their onboard brains, eliminating the need for black-boxes and spiderwebs of wiring.

screen shot of a fish finder
Most modern fishfinders include everything from 3D to scanning, and offer detail levels allowing you to pick out the individual branches of a tree.

You may not believe it — or you may not want to believe it — but the fact of the matter is that 90-percent of us are running around right now with an electronic handicap, because we aren’t taking full advantage of what’s out there. The biggest barrier to upgrading is, of course, price. But you may be shocked to find out just how inexpensive many of these systems are. When FishTalk reader JP Howard recently replaced the entire system on his 24-foot Pursuit, he was surprised to learn that the new gear cost about half of what he had spent a decade ago. And when we bumped into Jim from BOE Marine Electronics at the Annapolis Boat Show, he showed us new systems from Garmin, Raymarine, and Simrad which had those new fish-finding features yet pricing started in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. Completely built-out systems including radar, CHIRP, and even onboard WiFi, often ran just a few thousand bucks.

The second-biggest barrier to upgrading your electronics is figuring out which system is best for you and your needs. While we certainly do suggest speaking with a tech-savvy source like BOE prior to making any final decisions, these five tips will help every boat-owning angler out there make the right call.

  1. Prioritize fishfinder screen size. Many of those new functions are often best utilized in split-screen modes, and much of the time you’ll need to see your chartplotter and your fishfinder screens at the same time. When you start splitting a five- or seven-inch screen you lose a lot of detail and it becomes very difficult to determine just what you’re looking at, especially if your eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Plus with a larger screen you can see it clearly from farther away, when you’re casting from the cockpit or tending the trolling lines. Rather than spending extra cash on bells and whistles, investing in the very biggest screen possible is usually the smart move.
  2. Don’t be afraid to switch brands. Marine electronics users have historically had a strong sense of brand loyalty, mostly because of ease of use. Once you figured out the user interface of a unit built by brand X, you had an easy time adapting to newer units built by the same manufacturer, with the same basic interface. But these days virtually all of the manufacturers have adapted interfaces based on those of a smartphone, and they’re incredibly intuitive. If you’ve learned how to swipe the screen on your phone to change apps, you’ve also learned how to change the view on your fishfinder. The learning curve when changing from brand X to brand Y is very likely going to be amazingly short and sweet.
  3. Go with a system that allows you to utilize a through-hull transducer, when possible. On some small boats this may be a long shot. But generally speaking, once you get up into the mid-20-foot range through-hulls provide better performance, especially when running on plane. Fishfinders that blank out at high speeds are a common complaint among many owners of transom-mount transducers. That said, on certain boats this simply won’t be an option and in some scenarios transom mounts actually work better. In these cases we’d recommend going to a pro instead of trying a DIY transducer installation. Just how and where you position the transducer is the key to getting top performance, and someone who’s installed hundreds of them on different boats is far more likely to get it right.
  4. Choose a system you can have flush-mounted whenever possible, notwithstanding tip number one. This may restrict your choices a bit and require a more substantial installation job, but there are several reasons why it’s advantageous. First off, it simply results in a cleaner helm. On top of that it doesn’t eat up horizontal space you may use for other purposes, it doesn’t force you to clean around the mount and unit, and it doesn’t result in exposed wires running through a big hole in the top of your console. More importantly, your electronics will be far more protected. The back of the unit will be sealed off from the elements, as will the wire connectors, which are one of the most common failure-points on marine electronics. Plus, if some dark-souled individual wanders into your marina, it’ll be nearly impossible to rip off.
  5. Beware of over-spending on the most powerful long-distance radar on the face of the planet. Truth be told, in most cases this won’t expand your range of vision at all — because our planet is round. The curvature of the Earth and the height of your radar antenna is, nine times out of 10, the limiting factor for range. Yes, numbers make our head hurt sometimes, too, but bear with us for a second and let’s look at the math for the radar range formula: 1.2NM x square root of radar antenna height + 1.2NM x square root of target height. In plain English that means that if you have a 30 foot center console with the radar antenna on a hard top nine feet off the water, and you’re looking for a boat of the same size, best-case scenario you won’t see it from farther than 7.3 nautical miles. (1.22 x 3 + 1.22 x 3 = 7.32). And even if you’re looking for an 81 foot tall cargo ship, you still won’t see it beyond 14.64 nautical miles.

BONUS TIP: While touch-screen units are certainly easy and intuitive to operate, if you have a small, open boat, we suggest looking at one that has buttons, too. True, you do have to give up some additional helm space when looking at the overall size of the unit as compared to one that’s buttonless. But when you’re running through a heavy sea or rocking and rolling while adrift, touch screens can get, well, a little touchy. Poking the wrong place and swiping when you meant to tap becomes an issue. You may also encounter issues when the spray starts flying and the unit gets wet, or you try to use the touch-screen with a chum-covered finger. When the screen gets dirty or contaminated the touch-screen can start acting a little funky. Plus, who wants a chum-smudge on the LCD? Those buttons are a great tactile back-up, one that you’ll miss when the seas kick up or your hands get slimy.

So: ready to get rid of that old Edsel on the helm, and plant a nice new Tesla in its place? Remember these five tips as you do your research, and we’re sure that in the long term, you’ll be happy with your decision.