What Are Fish Finders and How Do They Work?
If you are totally new to fish finders, we suggest reading our more comprehensive fish finder buying guide to learn more about how they work and what features you should look for when purchasing one. If you don’t feel like reading a lot, we’ll give you a tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) version of the article:
Fish finders are devices that are used to locate fish in the water. As a rough generalization they consist of two parts: the transducer that is placed in the water to get information and the screen that displays the information to the user. They also fetch other information: the depth of the water, the shape of the bottom (whether there are steeps etc) and possible other objects such as logs and rocks.
What Makes a Good Fish Finder?
The single most important feature of the fish finder is naturally the transducer. High frequency transducers provide more accurate data but don’t work in deep waters, low frequency transducers give less accurate data but work in deep waters. As a rule of thumb: high frequency is ideal for shallow waters and smaller fish, low frequency is ideal for deep waters (like oceans) and for spotting big fish and schools of fish. Most fish finders are equipped with dual frequency transducers, meaning that they can be used for both. You don’t need to deeply understand the technologies behind these devices as the product descriptions usually give you pretty accurate information about in which circumstances they perform the best.
The screen is also important – what good is the data if you can’t read and interpret it effectively? As we are focusing on affordable devices in this article, none of these will knock you off your boat with their wow factors, but make sure the screen displays all the data you would like it to show you. Power in this context is used for measuring the strength and speed of the sonar waves – the higher the wattage the deeper and quicker the readings.
Best Cheap Fish Finders of 2017
Naturally the term “cheap” is subjective and varies between stores, but for us the limit is somewhere around 100 dollars.
Garmin Striker 4
- 3.5" display
- Rich features
- 1,600 ft maximum depth
- Built-in GPS
- Excellent CHIRP Sonar transducer with great depth range
- Ability to leave marks
- Measures water temperature
- Excellent display and very intuitive to use
Quite unsurprisingly Garmin was the unanimous favorite of our test group. The premium features and usability give a taste of the higher end models for the fisher with a tight budget. It utilizes CHIRP Sonar technology which means (overly simplified) that the transducer is sending continuous sweeps of varying frequencies (from low to high) to give you more data. If you want to go hardcore you can even upgrade the transducer to either GT8 or GT15 but most regular users will be perfectly fine with the straight out of the box one – the 1,600 ft (488 m) freshwater depth range is plenty and tops the chart for this article hands down. Even in saltwater it will give you a nice range of 750 ft (229 m).
Depending on your style the hot spot marking feature can be a godsent. If you are in unknown waters and like to get an overview of the area before you start fishing, with the Striker 4 you can leave marks on the map and later return to those sweet spots. The GPS also comes handy when trolling if you want to get really accurate with the optimal speed. Overall the Striker 4 is the ultimate bang for your buck choice if you appreciate a reliable and feature-rich fish finder – the later devices we are about to introduce are all good but this one is the most complete package.
- 3" LED backlit screen
- Dual frequency transducer
- Decent amount of functionality
- Not portable
- Fish ID functionality
- Dual frequency (switch between 83 kHz and 200 kHz)
- Bottom tracking up to 75 kmph
Hook-3X is the simplest and cheapest model of Lowrance’s Hook family of fish finders yet it still delivers an impressive amount of tweakability and features considering its price – it’s more similar to the Garmin than the rest of the cheap fish finders on our list in this regard.
The fish ID functionality is a great example: enabling it will show you more detailed information about what lies beneath. Even though it is not perfectly accurate and might mistake other objects for fish it is a nice addition and a glimpse of what the more advanced and expensive devices offer.
- 2.4” sunlight LCD
- Adjustable sensitivity
- Big/small fish identification
- Depth identification
- Displays bottom contours
- Measures water temperature
- Estimates the size of the fish (big/small) and the depth that it is at
Signstek is an interesting company – their products vary from air humidifiers and sleep sound systems to FM transmitters. With such mixed bag of technology we were quite surprised by their excellent portable fish finder.
What sets Signstek FF-003 apart from the even cheaper devices is that it gives you more insight rather than the minimal “fish below”. It will tell you how deep the fish is located, give you an estimate of its size (on a big/small scale) and display the bottom contours. The LCD screen is easy to read in both direct sunlight and dark and once you find the optimal sensitivity settings for your liking from the 100 levels available, it works like a charm.
HawkEye FT1PX FishTrax
- Indicates depth (both water & fish)
- Dual frequency
- Size identification
- Not the clearest display out there
- Shows the shape of the bottom
- Shows depth of the bottom and fish
- Can estimate size of the fish
HawkEye FishTrax is a whole family of devices just like the Lowrance Hook’s. The features are quite similar to other models on the list but the screen feels a bit cramped and hard to read quickly for our liking. It can be used both mounted and portable and the device itself feels really well built and we are expecting to get a good amount of using hours out of it.
Venterior Portable Fish Finder
- 5 sensitivity settings
- Displays depth and potential obstacles
- Pretty basic in features
- Only shows fish bigger than 10 cm
- Display is rather minimalistic
- Measures depth (of both water and fish)
- Fish alarm
Venterior is another company that we know very little about, but their portable fish finder is great for the price. It does not offer any stunning features and is very basic in all regards, but then again there is nothing particularly bad about it which is certainly not the case with all the cheap fish finders on the market. Well, showing potential obstacles in the water (such as weeds) is something you won’t find in all devices. The display is quite lackluster to say the least but it does the job. A good, solid entry-level fish finder for a great price.