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The Best Fish Finders: A Brief History of an Evolving Technology
The past several years have seen the fishing landscape change completely. While fish finders and other electronics have been a staple for decades, the technology available today is simply mind-blowing. It’s actually hard to believe how much better the best fish finders today are than even a few years ago.
To really appreciate the evolution in technology, however, we have to look at the origins of fishing electronics.
While ultrasonic transducers which produced electromechanical readouts have been available since the 1970s, it took almost two decades before the technology caught on. With time, avid and casual anglers had electronics on their boats.
If you remember the early LCD-screen finders of the mid-1990s, the excitement was palpable. Seeing the fish on your screen (which, for many models, resemble those little yellow “Goldfish” snacks) and a coordinating number above them to indicate depth almost felt like fishing with “cheat codes” enabled.
Little did we know what was to come…
Slowly, anglers had to worry less about seasonal patterns, feeding times, and manually checking water temperature, and blind luck. Instead, electronics took a lot of the guess work (and, depending on who you ask, skill) out of the equation. While there was no guarantee the fish would bite – which still holds true today – finding your target species became much easier.
For years, many staunch traditionalists refused to upgrade to the latest technology. Slowly, however, most have accepted that modern electronics are simply a necessity if you plan to be evolve as an angler.
Today, just as an original Nintendo GameBoy would pale in comparison to the vastly superior Nintendo Switch, early Humminbird models (like the Piranha 2 fish finder shown above) simply cannot compare to the industry’s most recent powerhouse models (like the Humminbird HELIX 10 CHIRP GPS G4N Fish Finder/Chartplotter featured later in this article).
In the 2020s, pairing the top fishing finders with cutting-edge electronics (like the incredible Garmin Livescope) not only makes for an exciting fishing experience – it is literally changing the entire game!
Choosing the Best Fish Finder for Your Needs: Understanding Key Fishing Electronics Terminology
As if you weren’t aware, fishing is not a cheap hobby. Sure, you can get by with a simple rod, reel, line, hook, and a worm. You can catch decent fish with simple rigs. Heck, the world record largemouth bass was caught in 1932 and shared the distinction almost a century later.
We can guarantee that George Perry wasn’t using a fish finder, though…
For those of you who are lugging around a half dozen rods, a new trolling motor, a stacked tackle box or tackle bag, and a brand new fishing boat, it only makes sense to splurge a little more and treat yourself to a high-end fish finder, right?
That said, everyone has different needs on the water.
Like the old Piranha 2 shown above, the simplest fish finder models will show you two key pieces of information:
- Water Temperature
These two factors alone can help you land far more fish than if you were simply “winging it.” For instance, being able to determine depth and water temperature might help you in the event you were trying to stack up on spawning crappie in the Spring.
Even basic model fish finders can help detect drop-offs, weed beds, and other structure.
Alas, not all models are created equal, however. With so many different manufacturers, models, and options available, what do you really need from your fishing electronics?
Below, we will take a look at a few key terms that are important to consider before making your purchase. They might be terms you have heard or have some familiarity with, but these explanations can help put the technology into perspective:
While many fish finders themselves are pretty awesome, the transducer is the core. It is the nucleus. In other words, without this small device, your display screen and all its functions are essentially useless.
If the image helps, think of your transducer as a dolphin. The transducer sends sound waves out into the water that return in the form of an echo. Based on this echo, your fish finder will display the data on the screen in the form of images that represent fish, weed beds, drop-offs, and various types of structure. Higher-end fish finders will allow you to determine with reasonable accuracy what species of fish you are seeing.
While most fish finders will come with their own transducers, you can buy special models (like the Garmin Livescope) that are able to “live” track the returning waves and, essentially, show you exactly where the fish are in proximity to your boat (and your lure).
In early 2021, American Crappie Trail national champion Josh Jones turned the fishing world upside down by catching several dozen largemouth bass over eight pounds in less than a month. Using Livescope to target these lunkers, Jones was even charging customers $1,000 per trip to learn his techniques.
That said, if you do decide to upgrade your transducer, make sure your fish finder is able to maximize all the data it is receiving.
Down Imaging vs. Side Imaging
While the terms may seem fairly straightforward, these are two of the most common options when it comes to modern fishing electronics. As such, it bears a quick breakdown.
Most modern fish finders allow you to see a variety of elements on the display. These are generally shown as:
- Down Imaging: This is the combination of fish, structure, and miscellaneous other stuff that is directly under your boat. You can determine the specific point based on where your transducer is sitting. For instance, if the transducer is attached to the transom, then the items showing up on your screen will be directly under the back of your boat.
- Side Imaging: No surprises here. Side imaging shows you a display of the structure and fish that are around each side of your boat. While the detail is not as specific as down imaging, you might be able to spot some healthy structure or schooled fish that down imaging would have missed. Many models show you a distance of around twenty feet, while some fish finders are capable of providing details much farther than that.
Fortunately, most modern fish finders don’t leave you with a case of either/or. Likewise, there isn’t really a debate raging about which option is better because the two technologies work together. This means the pairing of down imaging and side imaging is great for a variety of different fish species.
Chirp vs. Standard Sonar
The problem many anglers face is that their electronics are complex. This leads to many “bells and whistles” being overlooked in the long run. At the end of the day, many anglers simply want to know water depth, temperature, and a simple baseline on where fish might be. Some might want more detail, but either don’t want to spend the money or take the time to learn all of their device’s features.
For those anglers, older or lower-end models using standard sonar might be fine. As the name implies, standard sonar devices emit sonar waves that will bounce off whatever they hit. This can include fish, structure, ground, etc.
If you are looking for affordability and ease of use, then standard sonar may be your best option. That said, consider the old adage that “you get what you pay for.” You will sacrifice some of the speed and accuracy found in CHIRP-based models.
So, what is CHIRP sonar?
You might think of the sound a bird makes, but that’s not the case here. The acronym stands for “Compressed High Intensity Radar Pulse.” As the name suggests, these short, pulsating bursts scatter out more quickly and accurately than their standard sonar counterparts.
What this does is allow for more accurate readings on fish, their size, depth, and any other elements that might be in the water with them.
Fortunately, most modern fish finders come equipped with some form of CHIRP-based sonar. While many companies brand specific names for their technology, this is starting to become a standard across newer models.
As with most other electronics, trends alternate between enormous and tiny. When it comes to fish finders, however, most anglers would opt for the largest display possible (or at least affordable). Not only does it look awesome (and stir up some envy from 99% of your fellow anglers on the water), but it’s also much easier to see!
For folks who use multiple displays, it is true that “size matters.” If you are jigging for crappie at the front of the boat – especially if you are using Livescope or any other real-time transducer system – you will want to see as much vivid detail as possible. This is where those models with 9, 12, or even 16-inch displays come in handy!
Be prepared to shell out a hefty penny for a high-end, large-display model, though. Many of these display units can easily retail for a few thousand dollars.
Folks who have made this investment will probably agree that it’s worth it, though.
That said, you do not need a cutting-edge fish finder or any other electronics to catch fish. People were doing it for thousands of years, and will continue to do so with minimal gear.
But where’s the fun in that?
Choosing The Best Fish Finders: Economy, Mid-Range, and High-End Models
Whether it is cars, homes, watches, or even fishing rods, items fall into different categories of price and quality. With roughly 46 million Americans fishing each year, and thousands of them purchasing a new fish finder annually, how do you choose the right one?
Outside of the absolutely elite or obsessive, the biggest determining factor will be cost. If price is a concern, you can get a decent, functional fish finder for under $150.
Will it provide you the bare necessities with moderate accuracy? Sure.
Will it pinpoint specific species, with almost precise size and depth? Doubtful.
Will it be loaded will bells-and-whistles that blow you mind in vivid, high-resolution on a massive screen? Nope.
Before investing in any fishing electronics (or gear in general) with a hefty price tag, consider asking yourself this one simple question: do I need this item?
Simply purchasing the gear alone will not improve your fishing. In that sense, you might end up buying a very fancy, very expensive depth finder if you don’t plan on taking the time to really explore all the built-in features you can find in today’s top fish finder models.
With that said, let’s take a look at some of the best fish finders in each category. We have broken these into three convenient price ranges:
Breaking the Best Fish Finders into Three Categories
- Economy Models: The Best Fish Finders on a Budget – These will be for the absolute beginners, folks with small boats (or even kayaks), or those who are simply looking for the bare essentials without putting a strain on the pocket book. Also, if you only plan to fish once or twice per year, these may be the better options for you.
- Mid-Range Fish Finders: For the Intermediate Angler and the Weekend Warrior With Money to Spend – For the folks who like to hit the water a few times per month and enjoy having reputable, quality products, there are some excellent fish finders that won’t break the bank. Also, if you feel like your older or lower-end model is not providing enough features, it might be time for an upgrade.
- High-End: Fish Finders For The Serious Angler – There are plenty of folks out there who are not “elite-level” tournament anglers who have more than one of these top-flight models on their boats. These will cost you a pretty penny, but they really are the best of the best fish finders on the market today.
For fun, we also added a bonus category that looks at the most expensive fish finders on the market. While there is definitely a place for these models, there isn’t really a “need” if you aren’t a high-level tournament angler or guide captain.
Economy Models: The Best Fish Finders on a Budget
Again, we will emphasize this again: affordable does not necessarily mean low-quality. There are plenty of fish finders in this category that will serve their basic purpose.
That said, there are also plenty of cheap fish finders that leave a lot to be desired. As we mentioned, choosing the best fish finder for your particular needs first means figuring out what those needs are. You don’t want to spent a ton of money of features you don’t need (and will never use). You also don’t want to buy a low-quality device that won’t help you catch fish.
With that in mind, here are several models that are suitable for the casual angler, the beginner (or at least the beginner to electronics), and to folks who are just looking for something simple and basic.
Garmin has one of the industry’s best reputations when it comes to producing quality fish finders and navigation units. The Striker 4 Sonar Fishfinder is certainly not the company’s strongest, most popular, or versatile model, but it is loaded with features for its price point.
A 3.5 inch color screen is large enough to see details and the incorporation of CHIRP sonar provides a fairly accurate reading on fish. High-sensitivity GPS is also included, so the Striker 4 meets the basic fishfinder requirements.
That said, for its price point, the Striker 4 also offers features that were usually only available in higher-end models. You can mark spots on the lake and track your boat’s speed. Large push-button options also allow for easy and convenient navigation.
Kayak fishing has become one of the most popular new pastimes in the industry over the past decade. Don’t let the name fool you on this one, though. As one of the most affordable fish finders on this list, it’s also one of the surprisingly most versatile!
The dot-matrix LCD screen might not be the prettiest, but the device does allow for ten levels of sensitivity adjustment to allow for more accurate pinpointing.
Admittedly, once I switched to a “horizontal” fish finder model, it is hard to go back to the “vertical” models (like those shown above). The newer generations just have so many incredible features and, for many, there is a natural bias toward a certain “look.”
Fortunately for those looking for an affordable fish finder, the Lowrance HOOK2 4X Bullet GPS Plotter Fishfinder is a pretty impressive device.
Called “the world’s easiest fish finder,” the Hook2 4x Bullet offers simple menus and navigation that take a lot of the guesswork out of using electronics. You might not have the accuracy or features of higher-end models, but this is an excellent device to get started with.
Admittedly, when our team was putting this list together, we broke the categories down entirely by price points. With that being said, I fully expect to receive some comments about the Garmin STRIKER Vivid 4 being in the wrong category. We actually considered this before settling on our list, but with the superior STRIKER Vivid 5cv also classifying as an “economy” device, we opted to stay consistent.
That said, the Vivid 4 comes with a 4-inch color fish finder and vivid palette changing and contrast so your can not only target fish, but clearly see them. The GT20 transducer allows for both traditional CHIRP and CHIRP ClearVü sonar.
Quickdraw contour mapping and the ability to mount from your boat’s transom or trolling motor make the Garmin STRIKER Vivid 4 Fishfinder a real steal at this price point.
If the Garmin STRIKER Vivid 4 Fishfinder was a borderline “economy” fish finder, the Humminbird HELIX 5 CHIRP GPS G2 Fish Finder/Chartplotter is about as close as you can get to the line. In reality, the HELIX 5 CHIRP is part of a line of Humminbird models that are among the most popular and reliable in the entire industry.
The 5-inch screen in considerably larger than other models in this category, and the high-resolution display (full of vivid colors and large text) only sweetens the deal.
The HELIX 5 also utilizes CHIRP and SwitchFire sonar for the clearest display among any of the “economy” fish finders. Humminbird Basemap also has built-in data on over 10,000 lakes.
Considering that these are features generally reserved for more expensive fish finders, it’s hard to go wrong with the HELIX 5!
Mid-Range Fish Finders: For the Intermediate Angler and the Weekend Warrior With Money to Spend
If you are reading this article, chances are you either:
- Know someone with a boat who doesn’t get out as frequently as they would or like, or
- You are that person
Now, that isn’t to say the “weekend warrior” is a knock on the angler themselves. Tons of excellent fishermen (and women) aren’t spending every single day on the water. They probably wish they were, but alas…
For the best mid-range models, then, the question is often “how much am I willing to spend for something I might only use once per week.” Even if you are a competitive, serious angler, rest assured that these electronics will produce results. You will ultimately have a better fish finder than you would with any of the “economy” models, but for a fraction of the price as some of the highest-end models.
If you are on the fence, feel free to check out some of the models below and see what aligns with your particular needs.
Earlier, we mentioned that the Garmin STRIKER Vivid 4 Fishfinder was right on the cusp of mid-range fish finders. When compared to the Garmin STRIKER Vivid 9sv Fish Finder, however, it is night-and-day. In fact, this was a big consideration that kept us from moving the former to a higher category.
Ultimately, Garmin’s mid-range STRIKER VIVID 9sv is a really stacked fish finder for its price point. The 9-inch display alone offers the ability to tracks different data at the same time. You can see down down and side imaging, as well as detailed contour mapping on the VIVID 9sv.
Wi-Fi capability also allows you to connect to the ActiveCaptain feature and the Garmin Quickdraw community.
What’s a fishing website with a good Goldilocks and the Three Bears analogy?
Well, you find the model that is “just right.”
For Garmin enthusiasts, the STRIKER Vivid 7 Series Fish Finders might be that sweet spot. In one sense, you will have a device that is superior to the Vivid 4 – larger screen, improved display, etc. At the same time, the Vivid 7 will typically run several hundred dollars less than the Vivid 9sv.
If you are comfortable sacrificing two inches of screen display to save a few Benjamins, you can still get many of the same features on this more affordable fish finder.
Another powerhouse of the electronic navigation world, Lowrance’s HOOK series is one of the more popular mid-range offerings because it is loaded with features and carries a solid reputation backed by the brand’s reputation.
Backed by Lowrance’s FishReveal and DownScan Imaging technologies, users will enjoy high-resolution, high-detail data on their 7-inch screens.
Lowrance’s claim that the HOOK Reveal 7 offers “double the sonar coverage of traditional fish finders” is also worth consideration.
Above, we looked at the Humminbird HELIX 5 CHIRP GPS G2 Fish Finder as part of the “economy” group. As you can probably tell by now, the coordinating number often has something to do with screen size.
Rest assured, however, that there’s more than just two inches of additional display available on the HELIX 7.
For instance, the MEGA Side Imaging shows detail up to 125 feet out from the boat. Considering that many models only cover 20 feet, this is incredible.
Throw in the MEGA Down Imaging, contour mapping, and high-resolution images, and the SwitchFire Sonar dual display modes, and you are looking at a great fish finder that is hard to beat for the money.
It’s hard to throw the term “elite” out unless you plan on backing up. Fortunately for anyone who has picked up Lowrance’s Elite FS 7 Fish Finder, the product lives up to its name.
In fact, despite often being available at a very reasonable price, the Elite FS 7 has many of the features found in the higher-end models. With CHIRP sonar, SideScan and DownScan Imaging and preloaded C-MAP Contour+ Fishing Maps, you are definitely working working with one of the best fish finders for its cost.
With a 7 inch display, it isn’t the largest offering on the marketing. Outside of that factor, there is little else that keeps the Elite FS 7 out of the upper echelon.
If you’ve been following along this far, you probably see a trend emerging. Humminbird, Garmin, and Lowrance have really cornered the market when it comes to the best fish finders. For mid-range models, the ECHOMAP UHD 73sv is about as good as you can get for electronics for under a thousand dollars.
What stands out (at least in this category) is the touch-screen option. While button-operated scrolling is great, there is a real convenience to being able to scroll through options directly from the screen. While that technology is not everyone’s favorite, many anglers absolutely swear by it.
The ECHOMAP UHD 73sv is more than a clickable display, though. It is absolutely stacked with desireable options, including Navionics mapping of over 18,000 lakes and compatibility with the industry-standard Garmin Force trolling motor and Panoptix/Livescope transducer technology.
High-End: Fish Finders For The Serious Angler
Now, let’s clarify something. You don’t have to be a serious angler to opt for the high-end fish finders. If you want to impress your friends or simply like top-notch gear, by all means…
That said, these models are a serious investment and, unless you know specifically why you want one of these models, there are plenty of great options at a lower cost. If you are venturing into fishing tournaments or are in need of a serious upgrade, however, then it might be time to seriously consider one of these options below.
Surprisingly, the first entry on the list of “high-end” fish finders isn’t from one of the “big three.” Don’t let the potential lack of name recognition deter you, though. The Raymarine Element 12 HV HyperVision Fish Finder is an absolutely powerhouse!
First off, you will be hard pressed to find any fish finders with more vivide, high-resolution displays. The detail of the items on your screen will immediately improve you understanding of what the world really looks like under your boat.
Pairing this with a 12 inch screen really makes the Element 12 HV a high-end model in itself. If you add in the plethora of additional features, however, it’s clear that Raymarine has really produced one of the absolute best fish finders on the market today. You could even argue that, in some ways, this is one of the most impressive pieces of fishing electronics ever assembled.
If you have used and enjoyed the Humminbird HELIX 7 CHIRP and wanted to upgrade, the natural upgrade would be transitioning to the HELIX 9 CHIRP GPS G4N Fish Finder. The additional two inches of display make a real difference on the water.
Likewise, the HELIX 9 is loaded with tons of cutting-edge features that keep an upgrade from simply feeling like “more of the same.”
The Helix 9 comes complete with high-speed ethernet and Bluetooth connectivity and the ability to connect to Minn Kota’s i-Pilot technology. You can also connect multiple fish finders easily to give yourself the most comprehensive fishing experience possible.
The list of features really is massive. Do yourself a favor and check them out for yourself. For its price, the HELIX 9 is absolutely stacked.
If you’re the type who also laughed when someone said “size doesn’t matter,” then there’s good news!
Yes, the Humminbird HELIX 9 is an awesome fish finder. It’s even pretty affordable given its laundry list of features. But Humminbird has really outdone themselves with the HELIX 10 CHIRP GPS G4N Fish Finder.
If you stopped to check out the HELIX 9’s features, you’ll want to do the same with the Helix 10. Again, it’s more than just an extra inch of display. You’re looking at a bigger, faster, more advanced fish tracking technology.
The Dual Spectrum CHIRP allows for both wide and narrow modes. Wide mode gives you a huge field of vision. Narrow mode, as you can expect, targets a specific section.
And these are only some of the amazing features available on the HELIX 10. Despite that, it is still one of the more affordable fish finders on this list.
As we progress through the list, it seems like the screen sizes keep getting bigger, the number and quality of features increase, and the names get longer.
As we mentioned, every device in this category is top-notch. That said, the Garmin ECHOMAP Ultra 106sv has some really awesome features that sets it apart from other high-end models.
The GT56 allows for some of the most vivid, high-resolution imaging in the industry. You also have the option to share data with other ECHOMAP devices.
As expected, the ECHOMAP Ultra 106sv also comes with plenty of other cutting-edge options that are to be expected from the Garmin line.
Like Raymarine, Simrad might be a name that isn’t terribly familiar to some anglers. That said, the company is producing some of the absolute best fish finders on the market today.
The Simrad NSS evo3S Fish Finder, even in the 9-inch model, is going to be a serious investment for any angler. The fact that this device comes in a 16-inch model is completely mind-blowing.
So, what makes the NSS evo3S special?
Well, lots of things. First, the iMX 8 Integrated 6-core processor makes this a high-speed, high-performance fish finder. Add in the ability to pre-plan trips, compatability with other smart devices, a built-in GPS receiver, ultra-wide viewing options on the display, and preloading mapping, and you will be hard-pressed to find a better fish finder for the price.
Well, what can we say about the Lowrance HDS LIVE 12 Fish Finder?
If you are set on having the absolute best fish finder on the market, then you are least have to put the HDS LIVE 12 in the running.
For starters, this thing is massive. A 12-inch screen might not sound like anything special in the world of 70-inch televisions, but when this is on your boat, that’s a different story!
Then, you have C-Mapping with over 4,000 lakes pre-loaded. C-MAP Easy Routing, Navionics Autorouting, and C-MAP Genesis Live mapping make the HDS LIVE 12 a tournament angler’s dream-come-true.
The HDS LIVE 12 also offers users some of the wider viewing angles ever seen on a fish finder.
If you are prepared to pay for the top technology the field has to offer, then this might be the best option for you.
Bonus Category: Bigger is Better? The Most Expensive Fish Finders You Can Buy
The fish finders listed in the “high-end” category are definitely capable of meeting the fishing needs of even the most accomplished tournament anglers in the nation.
But what happens when you just want… more?
Fortunately for you, both Simrad and Lowrance offer massive, 16-inch versions of their top-flight models. If you live near a Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops store, go to their electronics section and see for yourself. These things are massive!
You can find more information on those giant fish finders below:
- Lowrance HDS LIVE 16 Fishfinder/Chartplotter with Active Imaging 3-in-1
- Simrad NSS evo3S Fish Finder/Chartplotter with C-MAP US Enhanced Charts and HALO20+ Radar
Keep in mind that both of these models are going to be incredibly expensive. If you have the money to burn, or you feel like you absolutely need the huge screens, then by all means…
Final Thoughts on the Best Fish Finders
For those who have made it all the way through this article, you will see that there are plenty of options available at every price point. For absolute beginners or tech-obsessed tournament anglers, there’s something for you.
That said, always make sure to do your research before making a massive purchase. Also, be wary of “off-brand” or “cheap” products. The jury is still out on the more unconventional fish finders (like the balls/orbs), so sticking with the most reputable names (like Garmin, Humminbird, or Lowrance) is usually your best bet.