Best Fish Finders for Kayaks—2017
The First Fish Finders
I remember the first time ever seeing a fish finder. In his selfless quest to try to keep my brother and me happy on family fishing trips, my dad finally gave in and bought one. It clumsily clamped on the back of the 14' family Lund and had all the screen resolution of a Tamagotchi (remember those?). Regardless, in no time at all we were locating ledges, drop-offs, and other fish holding structure, catching our limits of trout at record pace.
I have no idea what it cost at the time, but I do know the six D cell batteries it ran on didn't come cheap.
Fish finders have come a long way since then.
Smaller and Lighter Finders
As fish finder technology increased, so did their power requirements. For larger fishing boats with marine batteries, this was no problem. But for the smaller man-powered boats, it was very difficult to keep the rapidly developing sonar units powered for more than a few minutes.
And then, like all other consumer electronics, size decreased, processing power increased, and power requirements started to become much more reasonable.
A 128 pixel count screen on a 40lb deep cycle battery is now a full HD GPS/Fish Finder running on a 5lb hobby battery. All of a sudden mounting a top-of-the-line fish finder to a kayak was entirely possible
Coho Caught by the Author in his Hobie Fishing Kayak
Advantages of Using a Fish Finder
I admire anyone who can locate fish without a fish finder. Certainly people have been doing this for tens of thousands of years. In fact, sometimes I will leave the fish finder at home and chase after circling birds and scan the water for signs of rising fish.
But undeniably, a fish finder makes this process much easier.
Know Water Depth
The most basic of all fish finder functions is still one of the most important. Given countless factors such as light conditions, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, etc, fish of a certain species will often congregate at similar water depths, even if the fish themselves are suspended on the water column. If you catch one fish trolling in 25 feet of water (commonly abbreviated FOW), you'll typically keep doing well following the lake contour and staying in ~25 FOW.
Other depth related features worth noting are underwater shelves, holes, submerged piles, sunken islands, the list goes on.
Find the Thermocline
Most people know that ice is less dense than water. This is why ice floats. To go a step further, liquid water of different temperature actually has different densities. Warmer water "floats" over the top of colder water (although, very cold water will float over less cold water). This is known as water stratification.
Entire books have been written about water stratification and thermoclines, but I'll spare you a lengthy physics conversation and mention that fish behavior is often relative to the thermocline. If you turn the sensitivity up high enough on your fish finder, your sonar can actually pick up the density shift of the water (or the shift in plankton density) at the thermocline. You will often want to coordinate your fishing presentations relative to the thermocline, so it helps to known how deep that is.
Know Bottom Type and Structure
With the increased sensitivity of modern fish finders, along with improvements like sonar frequency ranging (known at CHIRP), its become possible to know the bottom type you're fishing over. Looking for lingcod? find some rock piles. Searching for flounder? look for a flat sandy bottom. Targeting crappie? find some sunken logs. I've even learned to identify what eel grass looks like when choosing where to drop crab pots.
Knowing the bottom type can even help tune in your fishing rig. For instance, when fishing for trout with floating baits, make sure your leader is longer than the weed depth as shown on the fish finder. That way you know your presentation is in full sight of fish cruising for a meal.
For the first many years of fish finder development, the name "fish finder" was more of a marketing term than anything. Early fish finders struggled to attain the resolution necessary to determine individual fish in the water. The units were more valuable to simply locate the types of structures that attracted fish, whereby allowing the fisherman to find fish.
In the last decade or so, fish finders have become remarkably capable of truly finding fish. Whats more, improvements with CHIRP and down imaging (DI) have turned your traditional "fish arches" into actual fish shaped pixels on the screen. And I don't mean that the computer humors you with a fish shaped emoji when it thinks its found something, I mean the actual raw data down imaging readout of the sonar unit looks like a fish. That ones a pike, that one a bass, I can tell just by looking at the screen.
Arguably the Best Fish Finder Tutorial You'll Find
Advantages of GPS Fish Finders
A GPS and a fish finder mounted to your kayak? Now we're talking. Adding in the additional GPS capacity means even more advantages on the water.
I remember fishing as a kid and using a compass to triangulate myself over a shelf on a favorite lake; large dead pine tree at 37°, run down lake cabin at 52°. While its a skill I will probably teach my kids some day, it sure is nice just paddling right over to the 'X' on the GPS screen and dropping your line in. No compass, no guessing, just repeatably returning to the exact same spot in open water.
Digital breadcrumbs for your trolling route. Get a double header on your last loop around the island? Hit the exact same depth contour by following your previous trolling track. Also great for finding your way home when the fog rolls in, or when you fish right on through sunset.
Know your Speed
When kayak trolling, this one is huge. Without a set engine throttle, accurately matching the proper trolling speed on a kayak can be a bit of a struggle. A GPS fish finder will give you an accurate heads up reminder of your speed over water, allowing you self correct your kayak speed for your lure type or target species.
Added bonus, I always get a kick out of trying to set a new "max speed" in my kayak when heading back to the docks. I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this.
Features to Look for
When shopping for a new fish finder, here are some of the features you'll see:
- Dual Beam/Channel (83/200kHz)– A dual beam, or in the case of CHIRP units, a dual channel, allows you to control the cone angle of the sonar unit. The 83kHz mode will create a wide sonar cone angle, and therefore scan a greater portion of lake bottom under the boat. The wider cone angle comes at the cost of a little less definition in the returned image. The 200kHz mode will create a narrower cone angle, with increased image definition, but a smaller scanning zone. There are a number of reasons you may select one mode over the other, but typically I run 200kHz in deep water, and 83kHz in shallow water. Some units allow a split screen mode with a 200kHz and 83kHz readout simultaneously.
- Color- This used to be considered an upgrade, however you won't find many black and white options anymore. Color displays allow each pixel to convey much more information than a binary black or white pixel. Once you use a color display you'll never consider going back to a black and white display. Buy a color model.
- Backlight– Pretty straightforward, you'll be able to see your screen in both low light and bright glare conditions.
- CHIRP– This sonar frequency modulating system allows for the greatest level of detail. The more detail your screen has, the more information you can gather.
- Screen Size and Resolution– Larger screen + higher resolution means more information can be conveyed from the fish finder to the fisherman. For instance, a higher resolution screen will help you tell the difference between rocks and sunken logs.
- GPS– As discussed earlier, you'll know where you are, where you're going, and exactly where you caught fish last summer.
- Down Imaging and Side Scan– One of the biggest upgrades in fish finder technology, Down and Side Scan imaging is comparable to just draining the lake and looking at the bottom. Not only will you see the tree on the bottom of the lake, you'll see the actual fish suspending within its branches. This one is a game changer.
- Trusted Brands– While I definitely have brand loyalties in just about all types of fishing gear, I'll still buy off-brand or lures or other minor gear on a regular basis. With fish finders though, we're dealing with calibrated, complicated electronics. Limit your search to the following: Lowrance, Humminbird, Garmin, and Raymarine. These brands have been around the longest, are the leaders in innovative improvements, and stand behind their products.
While all of the above features will get you the best possible advantage on the water, they all will put additional drain on your battery. For kayaks, I would suggest keeping size in the small to medium screen size range with a higher resolution screen. The smaller screen will not only increase your battery life, it will also get in the way less. Accessory mounting real estate is at a premium on a kayak, so while a 13" fisher finder monitor looks awesome on the shelf, you'll probably want to return it once you see it mounted to your kayak.
How often do you use a fish finder?
Best Fish Finders for Kayaks
There are a number of good options out there. In choosing the best options for a kayak, I'm considering screen display, key sonar features, hardware mounting options, power draw, and overall value.
Best Entry Level Kayak Fish Finder– Garmin Striker 4
If you're trying to put the most fish finder on your kayak for $100, look no further. The Garmin Striker 4 combines a considerable number of features into a small frame for a remarkably low price. Garmin set out to create the most affordable, compact, CHIRP enabled sonar unit on the market, and accomplished that exceedingly well.
I love taking other people kayak fishing with me. I also hate tandem fishing kayaks. I like to give myself the freedom to fish as I like, and give my guests the freedom to figure things out for themself. I also want to give my guests the best chance of catching fish, which means rigging my guest kayaks with fish finders. Now, I honestly can't afford to rig my entire fleet with the highest end models, and frankly, most of these contain features that a novice fisherman would never know how to use or have the chance to appreciate. When looking for a fish finder model to install on my guest kayaks I was looking for something that was affordable, intuitive, and functional. The Striker 4 was the perfect match.
Explaining to a guest how to navigate the setting and functions of a fish finder is often like explaining to your mom how to configure her wireless router over the phone. Garmin did a bang up job using a minimal number of tactile, grippy buttons to reduce the learning curve here. They also didn't bother with a touch screen, which I was really happy to see.
The Striker 4 also comes with a built in GPS. In addition to all the reasons I mentioned earlier, I love being able to go into the GPS before a fishing trip and pre-program hotspots and target location coordinates in the unit before hitting the water. All my guests need to do is paddle to the marked location and start catching.
The addition of the CHIRP sonar in this price range was a huge surprise when it came out. This means my guest kayaks are seeing all the same features I'm seeing from my boat. I can point out on my screen what types of bottom structure we're looking for that day, and then cut them loose to locate more of the same on their own.
The unit is also protected by an IPX7 waterproofing rating, which means it can survive being submerged for up to 30 minutes. This is great if you end up rolling your kayak (which has happened), or if you start taking chop over the deck during a rough day on the water.
Biggest drawback? If you want downscan or sidescan you'll need to upgrade to the next tier of models. Also, you can't upload/install any navigation chart packages into the GPS. Trust me though, you can still be deadly on the water without these features.
If you're new to kayak fishing, and looking to test the waters by adding a fish finder to your rig, this is the perfect place to start. Or, if you've got an old model and looking to make an affordable upgrade, this unit will definitely add capability to your rig.
An Incredible Value– Garmin Striker 4
A Lingcod, a Rock Fish, and a Cabezon, Caught by the Author on the Washington Coast
Best All-Around Kayak Fish Finder– Raymarine Dragonfly 4 Pro
If you're looking for the absolute most feature-packed fish finder for your kayak, Raymarine's Dragonfly series is my top recommendation.
The most striking thing you'll notice on the Dragonfly is the display. The Dragonfly uses an high definition LCD display so you'll feel like you're looking at a modern computer display rather than a glorified graphing calculator. I've fished with this unit from a 4am launch right through a sunny clear day and had no problems viewing the screen clearly in either low light or high glare situations. The colors are vibrant, the images have clear edges, and it just feels easier to look at.
As far as fish finder features go, the Dragonfly has everything. Dual channel CHRIP sonar, DownVision, and a built in GPS which can upload charts from Navionics, C-Maps, or Raymarine Lighthouse. This will enable you to upload depth contours, ports, points of interest, structure, water hazards, etc. When fishing new water, you wont have to go looking for underwater fish holding structure, you'll already know where it is.
The CHIRP + DownVision + high definition screen will blow your mind. You get picture like images of whats under your kayak. I've even used this feature a couple times when I was trying to locate a sunken wreck for diving trips. You will actually see the boat appear on your screen. Its incredible.
The unit is IPX6 and IPX7 rated for splashing and immersion, which I've accidentally put to the test multiple times, in salt water even, and it kept right on running without issue.
One feature that should not be overlooked, especially for kayak fishermen, is the ball and socket mounting system. Most standard fish finders have a very limited range of adjustment, which can be troublesome given that your kayak cockpit layout is probably going to dictate where you mount the screen. Often this means that the screen is not directly facing the fisherman, making it harder to view, especially with glare. With the Dragonfly ball and socket mount, you can mount the ball mount anywhere you have spare room, and have full range of motion adjustment control, meaning you will always be looking directly at the screen.
To go along with the previous, the easy to attached and detach ball and socket joint, along with the single wire input on the back of the screen means its remarkably easy to remove the screen from your kayak. I don't have the luxury of keeping my kayaks in a garage, so being able to easily install and uninstall the screen was a huge plus for me.
Raymarine made a big deal about making the units Wi-Fi compatible, allowing you to stream the screen from your unit to a smart phone or tablet. I played around with letting guests in their kayaks stream the Dragonfly on my kayak, but it was kinda clunky, and went ahead and just put more affordable stand-alone fish finders on their kayaks. Honestly I haven't found much use of this feature.
I really only have one complaint with the Dragonfly units, and that's the transducer. Its easily the largest transducer of all major fish finder manufacturers, and was fairly awkward to mount. They do make a through-hull designated transducer model, but it costs just as much as the rest of the unit.