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Types of Fish Finders and Sounders You Should Know

Picture of the Lowrance EliteFS Fish Finder and Sounder

When I bought my boat (18′ Hewescraft) I wasn’t going to get a fish finder because the boat is mainly to get us to our boat-access cabin but the salesperson convinced and I have to say I’m very, very happy I bought this boat accessory.  I use all the time when boating and fishing.  I’m also happy I opted for a fairly high-end option (the Lowrance EliteFS).

Fishfinders are available in a variety of sizes and functions. When you first walk down the fish finder aisle in your favorite tackle store, you’ll think, “what have I gotten myself into?” I’ve been there. Most of my life’s been spent either fishing or writing about it, and I’ve been lucky enough to make a living from it. I’ve created this post together to help you navigate that aisle and help you find the right fish finder for your needs.

Launching your boat on the lake before the sun rises to catch some bass or trout and heading out to your favorite spot is such a great feeling. It’s relaxing, rejuvenating, and just plain fun. Plus, if you’re in a tournament, you might win some money. Now try doing any of that without a quality fish finder. How do you know there are any fish in your spot? A best guess isn’t going to guarantee a productive day. Fish finders take the guesswork out of fishing.

Sure, you still need the skills that come with learning to fish but having a fish finder helps level the playing field significantly.

Let’s go over what features are available, the different types of fish finders, and how they can enhance your fishing trips.

  • Screen Deep Dive
  • Power
  • Sonar/Transducer/Sounder
  • Types of Finders

Screens

Screens are tied for first place as the most important factor in choosing a fish finder. You can’t use a finder without a screen. The other most important part is the sonar. Without that, there wouldn’t be anything to view.

Fish finder screens come in a wide variety of resolution and color options. Grayscale is available on the lower-cost finders, along with some higher-end ice fishing models. Grayscale is basically a black and white model that indicates the depth and finds the fish but leaves off the color interpretation.

Color isn’t that necessary when ice fishing. Several anglers use a flasher instead of a fish finder when ice fishing. It doesn’t have a traditional finder display. It uses a depth chart and displays a line where it marks fish. It’ll even mark where your jig is. It’s that sensitive!

Humminbird ICE-35 Three Color Flasher Source: Amazon

The most significant difference between grayscale and color for a traditional fish finder is the definition available. Color options will give you a much sharper, cleared display. The only way to sharpen black and white is to add more pixels to the display.

Resolution

Resolution is a significant contributor to what makes a screen readable from a distance. Being able to glance quickly at the screen to see if you’re marking fish is essential. A low-resolution screen makes that problematic. If you have a high-resolution display, you can see the fish and know where to put the lure without having to walk up to the fish finder and waste valuable fishing time.  Here’s an example of a high-resolution screen.

Lowrance HDS-9 Live C-MAP Insight without Transducer

Source: Amazon

FYI, I have a Lowrance Elite FS and it rocks.  Check it out:

High resolution Lowrance Fish Finder

Depth report Lowrance Fish Finder

Screen sizes vary from tiny 2” – 3” models up to giant 12” – 14” models. There are bigger ones out there, but we don’t need to be show-offs. The screen’s resolution is essential for more than being easy to read from a distance. Modern finders have GPS, sonar, something called CHIRP, which we’ll cover soon, and charts, chart plotting, mapping, and possibly more. Most screens will let you split up the display to show several of these options simultaneously. Low-resolution screens with multiple apps running would be a mess.

Powering the Unit

Small fish finders use a smaller marine battery to power them. The plus side is it makes them portable. The downside is they are small. That could be another plus side. If you’re a kayak angler or use a small kick boat or inflatable pontoon, these are perfect. A bigger boat might want a larger unit.

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"Garmin ECHOMAP UHD 93sv with GT56UHD-TM Transducer, 9"" Keyed-Assist Touchscreen Chartplotter with U.S. LakeVü g3 and Added High-Def Scanning Sonar" (010-02523-01)

Source: Amazon

Bigger fish finders like the Garmin shown above come with a wire harness to plug directly into the boat. They run off the boat’s power supply and generally perform well. The Garmin shown here is consistently listed as one of the best models in the $500 range to $1,100 price range.

There are ultra-portable finders that run on rechargeable batteries and can be cast out from shore. They are gaining popularity and have improved in quality over the last several years. I’ve tried them out and really enjoyed them.

Sonar/Transducer/Sounder

Consider the type of fishing you do. If you always fish in shallow water, you don’t need a powerful unit. If you fish in Lake Tahoe or Lake Chelan, you need a much more powerful device. High-frequency sonar creates more waves per second, locating smaller fish and creating a far more accurate image of the area. The drawback is they don’t travel deep. Low frequency is required to get down into the depths of Tahoe to find those monster lake trout. That’s where the dual-frequency transducer comes in.

Many models for small boats come with a transducer, and they can be purchased separately.

The transducer comes in four main types:

  • Thru-hull – This style is no walk-in the park to install, but it gives the best signal once done. If you’re equipping a fish finder or other device that requires a transducer on a sailboat, this is your best option. The thru-hull contains a speed paddlewheel to reduce drag.
  • In-hull – These transducers literally cast the beam through the hull. They are glued onto the inside of the hull and only work on fiberglass boats. Steel or wood boats won’t allow the beam to penetrate. These work great for most smaller boats. You won’t typically find one on a saltwater fishing setup.
  • Transom-mount – The angle bracket is screwed into the transom while the transducer hangs in the water. I used this mount for a while. The main drawback I found was the transducer gets beat mercilessly by the water when I get up to speed.
  • Trolling motor – I’ve never used this style but have seen it done. The transducer is either clamped to the side of the propeller hub or permanently attached to the inside of the hub. There are trolling motors out there that have them built-in. I’d go with one of those if I were buying one of each. Save the hassle if you can.

Here’s an example of a trolling motor with a transducer:

Lowrance Ghost - Freshwater Trolling Motor, 47" Shaft, Bow Mount, 97/120 lbs Thrust with Configurable Foot Pedal, HDI Sonar

Source: Amazon

CHIRP

CHIRP or Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse sonar is what you should be looking for when buying a new sonar device. CHIRP devices work by using multiple frequencies throughout the same pulse. What that means to you is it gives you a much more detailed image of what’s below you. A CHIRP pulse lasts ten times longer and puts somewhere between 10 – 50 times more energy into the water than traditional sonar does. While the sonar is much more powerful, the power used by the device is actually lower than conventional devices.

Cone

The cone is the angle of the sonar. It is set at a range from 9° to 60°. The field is broad, though the typical setting is at 20°. The point of the angle is to give you a sweeping view of the bottom. The wider the angle, the more bottom you’ll see. The issue with that is you sacrifice depth to achieve width. If the lake is shallow, you’ll have no problem. If it’s Lake Chelan, you’ll want a narrow cone.

I’ve fished in some incredibly deep waters with a wide cone setting and have fared just fine. I wasn’t after fish deeper than 25-feet or so. IF I had focused on fish any deeper than 75-feet or so, I would have adjusted the cone to a more sensible 15° or 20° spread. When sitting above 2000-feet of water, there aren’t too many cones or fish finders that will get you a clear view of the bottom. Be sure to have a cone that covers to the depth of the fish you’re targeting, plus at least 50-feet.

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HawkEye DT2BX-TM In-Dash Depth Sounder with Air and Water Temperature (Includes Airmar Transom Mount Transducer)

Source: Amazon

Sounders

Sounders are basically a depth finder without the added benefit of a fish finder. They will show the depth of the ocean or lake and generally give an accurate reading of the temperature. Fish finders usually have this function built-in, so these days sounders are only used by those who boat recreationally and have no need of charting systems.

Along with depth, fish finders can display side imaging. Finders can scan anywhere from 20feet to over 200-feet out from the sides and down to give you an idea of what’s eating right around you. Not all fish finders offer this option, so be sure to check if it’s included before you buy.

Types of Fish Finders

Now we have the general information out of the way. Let’s get into why we’re here. We want to find and catch more fish. First, we need a finder. Then, we need the time to go fishing. I can help with the first part, but you’re on your own for the latter.

Here are some of the better models that top lists year over year, along with what makes them popular. I’ve added a wide range here to cover the different types.

Basic

A great finder doesn’t have to be the type you mount to a boat. There are times you just need a portable device you can take with you to the shore or out on the kayak. More models are showing up every year and are making life easier for shore anglers. These portable units are low on cost and fit nicely in a tackle box or backpack.

Humminbird 410150-1 PIRANHAMAX 4 Fish Finder,Black

Source: Amazon

There are several brands, ranging from Lucky to Deeper. I’ve used both Luck and Deeper, and Deeper is my preferred castable fish finder.

While small castable finders are fantastic for those looking for portability, several low-end options can be mounted to your boat that won’t break the bank and don’t require a degree from MIT to figure out. There are models with screens ranging from 3 inches up to 5 inches available for under $399. Do some research and know you can always feel pretty confident with the big names like Humminbird, Garmin, Lowrance, and Simrad.

The Humminbird brand has done a great job of providing quality products for budget-friendly anglers and those looking for a more high-end model. The Piranha line is great for kayaks, boats, and everything in between. Smaller units like this will still up your game and help you find the fish.

Mid-Range Models

A quality mid-range fish finder will come equipped with GPS and may include add-ons like charting and plotting features. Prices start at $399 and run to around $699.  The higher-priced options in this range will give you options like chart plotting, which allows you to create plot points on your trips so you can easily revisit successful spots. I’ve used these features several times.

Some models will allow the creation of maps, which is fantastic. Making your own maps will enable you to keep detailed records of your trips and highlight areas that you’d like to focus on next time or pinpoint hotspots you’d like to visit again. The Deeper Pro 2 castable device allows bathymetric maps from the shore, which is a considerable benefit for shore anglers and isn’t available from any other castable device.

Depending on the placement of the transducer, mid-range models work great for most lakes and rivers. Some of the upper-end models are perfect for doing some inshore fishing and can even take you offshore. Check the max depth and clarity to make sure you’ll see more than a clump of unidentifiable muck 600 feet down.

Lowrance HOOK Reveal 5 SplitShot - 5-inch Fish Finder with SplitShot Transducer, Preloaded C-MAP US Inland Mapping

Source: Amazon

The Hook Reveal 5 works as a great example of a mid-tier fish finder with GPS and preloaded maps. It’s a good choice for those buying their first finder and will last quite a while.  It has a high-definition 5” display and comes with a quality transducer. CHIRP technology is included, and that alone will make the entry price worth your while.

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High-Performance Models

The fish finders in this range have everything you can imagine. Several models have the ability to control your trolling motor and even check the depth of your trolling gear, depending on the brand of trolling equipment you buy.

Features like CHIRP, side scan, down scan, touch screen, active imaging, high-performance processors, live network access, active Wi-Fi, and too many more to list here come either pre-installed or as available upgrades. When you get to the store, double-check the package to ensure it comes with a transducer or purchase one separately. Several models from some of the biggest names don’t include them on the base high-performance model. Anglers purchasing these devices tend to have their preferred transducers and will buy them separately anyway.

Connecting a fish finder to my iPhone was an entirely new realm for me. I could see everything clearly as I fished from the front of the boat, 12 feet away from my finder screen. I can turn on and move my trolling motor with my phone, which to me is everything the Jetsons ever promised the future to be. If I can figure out the technology to make it all work, anybody can.

Lowrance Elite FS 9 Fish Finder with Active Imaging 3-in-1 Transducer, Preloaded C-MAP Contour+ Charts

 

Source: Amazon

The Lowrance fish finder above is a beautiful example of a high-performance model. Multiple screen settings let you set up several views on the display. It’s all touch screen. Better yet, it’s on my boat, and I love it. I use it often, and it runs my trolling motor, lets me set map points on my phone, and will take me to them without me having to d anything, and it does that most rudimentary of jobs. It finds the fish for me. So far, this device has been my favorite fishing accessory.

I know the price tag is steep. That’s why I will also say I started out with a $44 used Humminbird with a partially defective screen. It worked well unless I needed to see what was on the bottom left side. I still swear that’s where all the fish were hiding. The point is, get the right fish finder for you. Suppose that means a $3300 model, great. A $44 model was the best thing in the world to me. The memories from that are worth every bit as much as the used car I have on the dash of my boat now.

Ice Fishing

Ice fishing is hard on fish finders. The best option is with a unit specifically designed for the cold. Let’s cover what to look for in an ice fishing finder:

  • Readability – Look for a screen that can be read in bright sunlight. Ice fishing on a sunny day can make even the brightest screen challenging to read.
  • Flasher – Make sure it includes a flasher. The flasher will give you precise jig detection. You’ll appreciate the inclusion once you see the jig get snapped up by a fish, and you don’t feel it on the rod.
  • Screen setup – This one’s optional, but I appreciate the ability to have the sonar, map, and flasher up simultaneously.

Garmin ECHOMAP UHD 63cv Ice Fishing Bundle, Includes ECHOMAP UHD 63cv Combo and GT8HW-IF Transducer

Source: Amazon

The Garmin unit above is an excellent example of a well-designed, easy-to-use fish finder. It performs great in the ice and can be used on a kayak, inflatable pontoon, or kick boat. For the price, I’d be careful on the latter. Buy a separate transducer, and you can connect it to your boat for when the water warms up. Most anglers that purchase more expensive ice fishing devices use them in the summer on the boat.

The castable portable fish finders also work as portable ice fishing units. The Deeper models are labeled as such. With their size and ease of use, they could be an excellent match for those hiking a distance to fish.

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