If there’s a fishing accessory worth investing in, it’s a top-of-the-line fish finder. With powerful sonar, precise electronics, and a crisp display, you won’t be guessing about what’s under your hull--you’ll know. And from structure to cover to the fish themselves, you’ll have the information you need to keep your livewell full.
After careful research, field testing, and detailed comparison, we’ve put together an unbeatable resource to help you find the best fish finder for the money!
Quick glance at the best fish finders for 2020
Table of Contents (clickable)
|Display Size: 12” |
Resolution: 1280 X 800
Frequencies: CHIRPFull Mode 150-220 kHz, Narrow Mode 180-240 kHz, Wide Mode 140-200 kHz Standard Sonar 50/83/200/455/800/1.2 MHz
Side Scanning: Yes (up to 800’)
Maximum Depth: 1,200’ (3,500’ with an optional 50 kHz transducer)
Transducer Angle: see below
Target Separation: 2.5”
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Humminbird’s Helix series has won a loyal following due to its top-end features, impressive performance, and ease-of-use (at least in comparison to their Solix series!). Our favorite no-holds-barred model is the Helix 10 CHIRP MEGA SI+ GPS G3N, and when you consider what it offers, we think you’ll agree.
This Helix offers a 12.1-inch screen with excellent resolution, making the most of its sophisticated sonar system and electronic wizardry. Image quality is simply awesome, especially with the new MEGA upgrades, which provide fine-grained, very high-frequency detail at the cost of some range. That’s a trade well worth making, given that you’re still talking about 400 feet of side scanning and 200 feet of depth below your hull.
That’s no typo: the MEGA side-scanning imaging has greater range than the bottom-scanning system.
When you need to get on the fish quickly, standard modes are available, boosting that range to an incredible 800 feet of side-scanning and a full 1,200 feet of bottom-scanning. Even greater depths are possible with an optional transducer, but for most anglers, that’s already more than enough.
Humminbird doesn’t publish this transducer’s beam angle, but it does offer three modes: full, narrow, and wide. In our view, this pretty much negates the need to be concerned with beam angles, as you have options should you need them.
Powered by an amazing CHIRP system as well as standard sonar, the Helix 10 gives fish nowhere to hide. And since it combines 2.5-inch target separation with fantastic range and awesome imaging, it’s simply deadly in the hands of an experienced angler. At the push of a button, you can switch viewing modes, giving you the information you want without the distractions of things you don’t.
Finally, the Helix 10 comes packed with charts of more than 10,000 lakes and the coasts of the U.S. With two SD slots, it’s easy to add even more. Its powerful GPS system allows for chartplotting as well as marking points of interest like honey holes, so this fish finder has you covered from the beginning to the end of your angling adventure. And the powerful AutoChart Live system lets you map the bottom, accounting for everything from hardness to cover and structure.
This high-tech combination means that you’ll know more about the areas you fish, and with more information, you can expect to catch more fish.
As you’d expect, this fish finder can link with your mobile phone, allowing you to receive messages displayed on the screen.
In short, if there’s a more impressive fish finder on the market, we don’t know what it is! But be aware that this full-featured system can be a handful to learn.
To save a few bucks, you can also take a look at the HELIX 9 CHIRP MEGA DI+ GPS G3N that offers nearly the same performance, minus side-scanning sonar and the big screen.
|Display Size: 9” |
Resolution: 400 X 800
Frequencies: CHIRP High Wide (150-240 kHz); ClearVü CHIRP 455 kHz (425-485 kHz) & 800 kHz (790-850 kHz)
Side Scanning: Yes, up to 500’ with ClearVü
Maximum Depth: 2,300’ in freshwater/1,100’ in saltwater
Transducer Angle: 24 and 16
Target Separation: ?
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Garmin has long been a trusted name in GPS electronics, and they’ve taken that know-how to the angling world in the form of fish finders. One of the big three names--Humminbird, Lowrance, and Garmin dominate the market--in our considered option, they have a few steps to take to catch up with their competitors.
The best of the Garmin line is the ECHOMAP Plus 93sv with the GT52 Transducer. Featuring a 9-inch screen with decent resolution, users complain that image quality lags behind the Humminbird Helix. We agree, but given the much lower price point of Garmin’s flagship model, that’s to be expected.
The ECHOMAP Plus makes use of CHIRP as well as standard sonar, providing excellent range and depth for both bottom-scanning and side-scanning applications. We’re honestly a bit confused about this model’s actual depth performance: the GT52 Transducer claims a maximum depth of just 800 feet, compared to the ECHOMAP’s 2,300. That has us puzzled, since the electronics shouldn’t be able to outperform the basic specs of the transducer that supplies them data.
Are those awesome numbers just marketing? We can’t be sure, but buyer beware!
Worse yet, Garmin’s ClearVü system sounds like it’s analogous to Lowrance’s awesome DownScan tech or Humminbird’s excellent MEGA system, providing clearer, crisper images by sacrificing some range by broadcasting very high frequencies.
But in this case, the devil’s in the details.
Garmin’s initial downward-facing system was ruled a copyright violation of Lowrance’s DownScan, and rather than purchasing the license to the tech like most other companies, Garmin chose to use side-scanning to simulate a downward-facing image.
The result is not very impressive in head-to-head comparisons:
Be aware as well that in side-scanning, shadows can be a problem. Overall image quality is the poorest of the Big Three, so if that’s a concern for you, you should probably give the Garmin a pass.
The ECHOMAP comes loaded with LakeVü g3 maps, providing coverage for 17,000 lakes in the U.S. Additional maps are available for purchase, accessed via a single SD card slot, as are more precise maps---a sales ploy that has some buyers irritated. Its GPS system is acceptable but falls behind the awesome power of the Helix 12.
Where this model shines is ease of use. Simpler to navigate and learn than similar products from Humminbird and Lowrance, if more complex interfaces are worrisome, this unit might be an excellent choice for you.
|Display Size: 3.5” |
Resolution: 320 X 480
Frequencies: CHIRP 50/77/200 kHz
Side Scanning: No
Maximum Depth: 1,600’ freshwater; 750’ saltwater
Transducer Angle: ?
Target Separation: ?
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We’re obviously not in love with Garmin’s flagship ECHOMAP Plus. But where that fish finder leaves us flat, the Striker 4 impresses. Packed with features, it’s a worthy rival for the fantastic PIRANHAMAX 4.3 DI.
The Striker 4 offers a 3.5-inch screen that gives up some room to its Humminbird rival. And certainly, Humminbird’s down imaging provides a clearer image--no contest. So what does the Striker do to earn a place on our list?
The heart of the Striker 4 is an excellent CHIRP-capable transducer, broadcasting on frequencies ranging between 50 and 200 kHz. That provides great depth and range, as well as excellent fish identification. And so while image quality lags, fish finding doesn’t--and that’s what this tech is all about.
Garmin has chosen not to disclose which transducer the Striker 4 is paired with, so we can’t tell you specifics like beam angles and target separation. But what we can say is that this unit works like a charm, is easy to navigate, and provides excellent budget-priced GPS features like waypointing and marking. These features are nothing to scoff at, and if you’re willing to give up image quality to the Humminbird, this Garmin might be the best budget fish finder for you.
|Display Size: 4.3” |
Resolution: 272 X 480
Frequencies: Dual 200/455
Side Scanning: No
Maximum Depth: 320’ @ 455 kHz; 600’ @ 200 kHz
Transducer Angle: 28°, 16°, and 74°
Target Separation: 2.5”
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Not everyone can afford the Helix series, and plenty of anglers need to pinch their pennies. Humminbird still has you covered with budget models like the PIRANHAMAX, and while certainly not full-featured, you get a lot of fish finder for your money.
The heart of this unit is the excellent XNT 9 DI T transducer, offering dual frequency sonar at 200 and 455 kHz. This provides excellent overall depth and detail, and when paired with the 4.3-inch screen, provides admirably sharp images. That DI in the name indicates “down imaging,” a system that provides much more precise images than conventional sonar systems.
As you can see below, this is much more than a marketing gimmick.
That’s a feature competitors can’t match, and if you’re in the market for an inexpensive fish finder, this is an excellent choice, in no small part due to this tech.
With a range of transducer angles to choose from, you can select wider beams for shallower water or narrower beams when you’re out deep. And with as much 600 feet of bottom-finding sonar, most anglers will be well served. When paired to electronics that provide 2.5 inches of target specification, whether you’re after crappie or bass, pike or perch, you’ll be able to see the fish you’re looking for.
So what’s missing?
CHIRP, side-scanning sonar, a big screen, GPS, and maps. The otherwise capable PIRANHAMAX can’t help you with waypointing, course charting, or GPS marking, and you certainly won’t be blown away by its 4.3-inch screen.
That said, it offers great performance for anglers who are budget-conscious.
|Display Size: 12” |
Resolution: 1280 X 800
Frequencies: CHIRP (83/200kHz) as well as traditional 455/800kHz
Side Scanning: Yes, up to SideScan 150’
Maximum Depth: CHIRP 1,000’; DownScan 300’
Transducer Angle: ?
Target Separation: ?
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Lowrance has manufactured marine electronics for generations, and they’re among the most trusted names in saltwater navigation systems. Their fish finders are no less impressive, rivalling the outstanding Humminbird series.
The Lowrance Elite-12 Ti2 features a very large screen with awesome resolution, and in our opinion, it may exceed the performance of the Humminbird Helix 12 on this front. Expect incredible clarity and sharpness.
This fish finder makes use of the excellent Simrad Active Imaging 3-in-1 Transom Mount Transducer, providing CHIRP, traditional sonar, and side-imaging. And while lagging in performance to the simply awesome Humminbird Helix 10, it provides acceptable ranges and depths for all applications.
Some specifications are not available from either Lowrance or Simrad Yachting (the same company since 2006), such as transducer beam angle or target separation. Normally, that would give us pause: if you’re proud of a product’s performance, you’re going to offer that info! But real-world performance has demonstrated the Elite’s abilities beyond doubt, and we wouldn’t hesitate to use this fish finder.
In CHIRP mode, expect depths of up to 1,000 feet. DownScan is a very-high-frequency mode, roughly analogous to Humminbird’s MEGA system, providing incredible crisp, clear images at the cost of depth. As we mentioned above, that’s often a trade worth making, but Lowrance’s SideScan only offers a range of 150 feet, giving ground to its Humminbird rival.
Lowrance’s experience in marine navigation is more than evident when you turn to the map and GPS features the Elite sports. The excellent C-Map US Inland mapping and US/Canada Navionics+ card make navigation and charting a breeze, and like Humminbird, Lowrance offers a real-time mapping feature called Genesis Live. Capable of creating ½ foot contour maps, it’s an excellent tool for careful study of the locations you fish.
And of course, when paired with your mobile, messages and calls appear on screen. Lowrance admits that they have had some software trouble recently, causing the transducer and the control head to lose connection. Though initially widespread, this seems to have been remedied quickly.
To save money, you might want to take a look at the Elite-9 TI2, essentially the same product with a smaller screen.
Lowrance is Humminbird’s only serious competition at the high end, and we feel that the Helix 12 edges-out the Elite-12 by virtue of a few key considerations.
While the Lowrance might tilt the odds in its favor with unrivaled image quality, the Humminbird offers vastly superior range and depth with incredible image quality of its own. That added range can mean the difference between fishing and finding, and in open water or large lakes, that can be a game-changer.
That said, the Elite-12 is serious competition, and these two fish finders are pretty much neck and neck in terms of performance otherwise. But we’d probably pay the extra money for the Helix 12’s side-scanning range--and we think you would, too. And when you consider the Helix 12’s CHIRP-capable transducer, powerful side-scanning system, and full-featured GPS and maps, the Helix 12 is an easy all-around winner.
For more budget-minded anglers, both the Humminbird PIRANHAMAX 4.3 DI and the Garmin Striker 4 are solid choices.
Sonar is just sound. It’s beyond the range of human hearing, but in principle, no different than any other noise.
Sound takes the form of a wave, with crests and troughs or peaks and valleys. Higher frequencies pack more of these oscillations into a given span of time than do lower frequencies.
Low frequencies penetrate water better than high frequencies. Fish finders with very low-frequency transducers can “see” through the water better, allowing them greater depth.
The weakness of low frequencies, however, is that every oscillation provides data, and with less crests and troughs per second, they can’t provide as much information as high frequencies.
Think about your mobile phone for a second. It works much the same way, which is why 4G can carry more information--more data per second--than 3G. Higher frequencies equal more information.
High frequencies offer greater detail, allowing your fish finder to “find” fish and tell you their size and location.
They can’t penetrate much water, however, and they can’t tell you much about the bottom, including details like structure and cover.
Most fish finders use dual frequencies, pairing a high and low frequency to provide the best features of both. For instance, when you see a fish finder that lists two frequencies, such as 77/200 kHz, that means that its transducer broadcasts at both 77 kHz and 200 kHz simultaneously.
The low-frequency signal reads the bottom, while the high frequency finds the fish.
The Red October’s sonar used “pings,” bursts or pulses of noise that it sent into the water, striking objects and returning to its transducer for analysis. When the sonar was active, it wasn’t constantly transmitting sound.
Most fish finders aren’t much different. They use dual frequencies in pulses: short “pings” like the one you heard in the video. These short pulses are transmitted together, providing enough data to give the fish finder’s electronics a picture of the bottom and anything suspended in the water column.
But military tech has advanced a long way from the Cold War, and modern sonar systems use something called CHIRP, or Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse.
CHIRP sonar uses much longer pulses than standard systems, starting at the low frequency and moving quickly to the high frequency. These longer bursts, and the range of frequencies between the lowest and highest, provide much more information than standard sonar systems.
As you can see, there are many more peaks and valleys in the CHIRP signal, and each and every one carries information. The military uses CHIRP sonar because it’s simply far more effective than dual frequency sonar, and the good news is that so can you!
Some fish finders now offer CHIRP sonar. It provides better imaging, greater accuracy, and more information.
This isn’t a marketing ploy--it’s real, it’s a fact, and in our opinion, it’s worth paying for.
Obviously, we prefer CHIRP sonar systems. But what else matters?
Target separation is simply a measure of how precise the fish finder’s sonar is at distinguishing individual fish from one another. Smaller numbers mean better performance.
Often a selling point, this is not nearly as important as marketing leads you to believe.
All other things being equal:
Wider angles let you see a greater area below your transducer.
But, and this is a big but, the “specified cone” isn’t the actual area the fish finder reads. Instead, it’s shaped more like this:
Moreover, for a specified beam width, the structure of the bottom can greatly affect performance. And the greater that width, the more likely this problem is.
As a general rule, the shallower the water you fish, the wider the transducer beam angle you want. Too much will create problems, and if you fish in deeper water, you want a tighter, more focused beam angle.
This is exactly what it sounds like. Some advanced fish finders offer specialized transducers that transmit and receive off the starboard and port sides of your boat. The result is a 2-D image of the water column to either side.
Some brands sport a range of as much as 800 feet in either direction!
Obviously, this can be incredibly useful for locating fish, and it’s an increasingly popular option. Be aware, however, that the depth of these side-facing transducers is limited. Side imaging sonar won’t be penetrating the water column very far, though it’s an awesome compliment to a traditional transducer.
You want a fish finder with good maximum depth, and you want to match this rating to your actual use. Especially if you fish deeper water, like the Great Lakes, or if you’re a saltwater angler, this is something to consider carefully.
Larger displays are easier to read and use, but of course, they cost more, too.
And bigger isn’t always better.
Resolution is a measure of how much detail a fish finder’s screen can provide, and a small screen with great resolution can be easier to read than a large screen with only average resolution.
We think these are now nearly essential considerations in a good fish finder.
From careful waypointing to honey-hole marking, GPS and maps add so much functionality that they’re almost a no-brainer.