Best Kayak Fish Finder 2018 (REVIEW GUIDE)
Kayaking is such a diverse sport. A kayak trip can be many different things: a leisurely paddle around a scenic lake, a daring adventure through whitewater rapids, an ocean paddle along a shoreline – or even a fishing trip.
If you’re planning to fish from your kayak, you’ll need some additional gear to find, lure, and reel in a big one. Fish finders make an excellent addition to any kayak angler’s toolkit, as they provide a unique ability to see what’s going on in the darkness below the boat. But, fish finders can be quite expensive and, with all the features and technical specifications to consider, choosing the best kayak fish finder can make your head spin.
Top Kayak Fish Finders of 2018 Reviews
Garmin Striker 4 Review
The Garmin Striker 4 has a 3.5” screen with a resolution of 480x320 pixels, which is excellent for a small screen like this one. Kayakers who are concerned about space on their deck will be pleased with the small footprint and vertical orientation of the unit. It shouldn’t get in the way of your paddle strokes or make you feel claustrophobic when setting up your line.
The Striker 4 uses a dual frequency transducer that emits at 77 and 200 kHz when in traditional mode, but fires at a range of multiple frequencies when in CHIRP mode. The CHIRP mode creates really clean maps of the fish arches with great target separation. It uses a 200-watt transducer, which isn’t particularly large, but should be sufficient for most kayak anglers.
Since this is Garmin, a leader in the handheld GPS market, the software is incredibly intuitive and the high-sensitivity GPS sensor lets you mark and categorize waypoints on your fishing trip: docks, brush piles, stumps, etc. The GPS function also comes in handy whenever you want to mark a spot where you found fish, so you can return later in the day if you’re not successful elsewhere.
- Intuitive menu systems
- High-resolution screen
- Excellent detection abilities in CHIRP mode
- Lower power transducer
- Small screen
Deeper Smart Sonar Review
This one is a bit different from the others on the list in that it has no display at all. But that’s generally okay, because you likely already have a 4-5” screen with great resolution in your pocket right now, your smartphone. The Deeper Smart Sonar uses Bluetooth to link up with your phone, and a downloadable app displays the results from the transducer. With no display to buy, this unit is priced at half what an equivalent one would normally cost.
The Smart Sonar unit also doesn’t attach to the boat; it’s castable, so it’s more like a bobber floating in the water near your boat. For many anglers, this might all be too weird and too much effort, keeping track of a floating transducer and needing to have your phone out at all times to use it. However, it can be appealing for those who don’t want to rig up their touring kayak just for the occasional fishing trip.
When using this fish finder, it’s critical that you have a charged phone for your outing and maybe an external power supply for it, and be aware that the app will drain your battery faster than browsing the Internet would. The battery on the transducer lasts about six hours, so count on charging it after each outing.
Getting down to the transducer’s specifications, it emits a dual beam at 90 kHz and 290 kHz with cone angles of 55 degrees and 15 degrees, respectively. Admittedly, these are fairly narrow cone angles for kayak anglers and aren’t going to perform the best in very shallow waters. It’s a tradeoff for the lower expense and high portability of this unit.
The Smart Sonar is a good choice for kayakers who don’t see themselves taking too many fishing trips, but would still like to have a decent fish finder when they do go
- Extremely portable
- Moderately powered transducer
- Relatively narrow transducer cone
- Requires a smartphone or tablet to be used
- No mounting system
Humminbird Helix 5 Review
The Helix 5 has a 5” color screen with a resolution of 800x480 pixels, which is quite high and should be helpful for anyone who has trouble reading on smaller, lower quality screens. However, the large screen could be annoying to anglers who want a less crowded kayak deck.
The Humminbird Helix 5 has a dual frequency transducer that operates at 83 and 200 kHz (in traditional mode) with cone angles of 20 and 60 degrees respectively. That’s not a particularly wide angle, so it isn’t ideal for the shallowest waters. It has 500 watts of power, which is plenty for kayakers who won’t be fishing at significant depth. This unit can also use the CHIRP system, which sends out a range of signals in the medium- and high-frequency range, instead of just the dual frequency signals. This provides very high detection rates in a range of depths and water conditions.
One downside to having such a high quality screen and powerful transducer is that it’s more expensive than the average fish finder. Some users have also been disappointed with the transom transducer mount, likely expecting a higher quality mount for such an expensive unit.
- Moderately wide transducer cone angle
- High-resolution screen
- Powerful transducer at 500w
- Large screen that might get in the way
- Relatively low quality transom mount
Lowrance HDS-9 Gen2 Review
The most noticeably aspect of the Lowrance HDS-9 Gen2 is that its 7” screen is massive compared to any others on this list. If you have any vision problems or have difficulty reading in direct sunlight, this is an excellent unit. However, that large size could also make your boat feel claustrophobic.
The Lowrance emits at frequencies of 83 and 200 kHz. It also possesses a Structure Scan 3D system, which provides a three-dimensional picture of what’s going on in the water and what the bottom of the lake, river, or ocean looks like.
The biggest downside to the Lowrance is that it’s the most expensive fish finder on this list. That might not fit in the budget of many kayak anglers, but for those who are committed to getting a very large screen and powerful transducer, it is a very good option.
- Structure Scan 3D picture
- High-resolution screen
- Excellent detection abilities
- Large screen that can feel too big for a kayak
- Not budget friendly
Garmin Striker 4 with Portable Kit Review
The display unit on the Garmin Striker 4 with Portable Kit is exactly the same as the one mentioned earlier. The difference is that, unlike the standard Striker 4, it comes in the form of a portable kit. The display unit and lead-acid battery are stored in a cloth carrying case, while the transducer mounts to the kayak with a simple suction cup.
This is a great choice for people who like to use different boats each time they go out fishing. With the suction cup, the whole system can be mounted in just one minute.
How Does a Fish Finder Work?
Fish finders, at their most basic, are a scaled-down version of the sonar systems large ships use for navigation and depth finding. They emit an electrical signal under the boat, which is converted into a sound wave that bounces off any obstructions in the water, including fish. Those waves return to the unit, which interprets them to create a map of the area under the boat.
For a large ship, the obstructions might be submerged sandbars that need to be avoided, but in recreational fishing, those obstructions are groups of fish to be targeted. A fish finder can improve your chances of catching something from your kayak by helping you target areas where fish are congregating.
Kayak Fish Finders Buyer's Guide
There are three things to consider in a fish finder display: size, resolution, and color. Screens vary in size between 3.5” and 12” – smaller than your smartphone screen all the way up to laptop size. The right screen size for you depends on how you want to mount the unit, and your comfort level with a crowded kayak deck.
Resolution is a bit more complicated, because an 8” screen could still be low resolution, giving its display the same blocky look your PC had 25 years ago. Very high-end displays will have resolutions around 600x1024 pixels, while cheap ones might be 240x320 pixels. Larger screens with higher resolution make it easier to identify the objects under the boat, by more clearly distinguishing fish from silt and debris and accurately representing fish size.
You’ll also need to choose between a monochrome or color display. A monochrome screen is a definite disadvantage, and the only real reason to choose one would be price. But color displays are inexpensive enough now that it really makes more sense to get one, given how helpful they can be in bright sunlight.
Everything else being equal, you want the highest screen resolution possible to see the fish most easily. That said, more pixels make for a higher price, so buy the screen with the highest resolution you can afford. A large screen also helps with identifying fish, but it will take up more space on the deck of your kayak, space that you probably don’t have a whole lot of. If you’re not sure how large of a screen you can comfortably paddle with, buy a mount and insert a cardboard cutout the same dimensions as the screen. Head out for a paddle, and if the cutout gets in the way, you’ll know you need to downsize.
Another thing to consider is choosing a fish finder is the transducer frequency. The transducer is what sends sound waves into the water and then interprets the waves that are reflected back at it; it’s the same technology submarines use to navigate. The frequency of the sound emitted by the fish finder is critical, as higher frequency waves can display greater resolution on the screen, making it much clearer that an object under the boat is a fish and not a piece of debris. The trade-off is that higher frequency waves are not capable of penetrating as deeply, so they can’t show you fish that are deeper in the water below the kayak.
Fish finders come in a few different frequency varieties: single, dual, and multiple. Single transducers operate at a single frequency and typically emit higher-frequency waves, which can be great for anglers fishing in shallow waters, where resolution is important but depth is not. Dual-frequency transducers can operate at high frequency when in shallow waters and then switch over to low-frequency waves to identify fish in deeper waters. The final type is the multiple-frequency CHIRP transducer, which emits waves in the high- and medium-frequency range simultaneously, giving the advantages of both. These finders have even better resolution than the single-frequency variety, with accuracy in locating fish down to inches rather than feet. However, multiple frequency transducers are more expensive than single or dual frequency ones.
Every transducer a specific wattage (measured in kilohertz, or kHz), which determines the power of the sonar waves it emits. For every 100 watts of power fired at a frequency of 50 kHz, the transducer can penetrate 400 feet deeper; a 100-watt transmitter functions to 400 feet at 50 kHz, but a 200-watt transmitter will work at 800 feet at 50 kHz. Obviously, this depth calculation quickly gets outside the range of what would be useful for fishing from a kayak.
However, higher frequency emissions don’t penetrate as deeply at a given power level. For instance, firing at 800 kHz, a 200-watt transducer can only give readings at 50 feet. Remember that higher frequencies give greater resolution, meaning they more accurately show the position and size of fish and better distinguish them from debris in the water.
When determining how much power your transducer needs, consider where you will be fishing. If you’ll be in a relatively shallow river, a lower power transducer would work just fine. However, if you plan to use it in the ocean or a very deep lake, a higher power unit is necessary.
In general, kayak anglers can get away with a transducer power on the lower end, because it’s not very often they’ll be paddling out to spots that are hundreds of feet deep. Most kayak fishing takes place near the shore, even in the ocean. In fact, even while transmitting at 800 kHz, a 100-watt transducer can give readings down to 25 feet. That’s deep enough for many kayak anglers. Consider that more powerful transducers require more battery power, too. That’s not an important consideration on a powerboat with a large battery for the engine and accessories, but it is a factor for kayakers who can’t transport something that heavy.
Transducer Cone Shape
When the transducer sends out a wave, it starts out very narrow and widens as it travels deeper in the water, creating a cone shape. Different transducers have different cone shapes, ranging between 9 to 120 degrees across.
A wide cone is best in shallow waters, as it can identify fish that are very near to the boat, but it cannot detect anything well in deeper waters. A narrow cone is best for anglers fishing in deep waters, though it will miss fish near the hull of the boat, since it can better detect fish that are deeper down. As kayakers are usually fishing in shallow waters, a wide cone angle is best.
More expensive fish finders have multiple cones, which are ideal for anglers who fish in a variety of waters and want great resolution at any depth. These units can get very expensive though, and aren’t necessary for most kayakers.
The majority of kayak anglers use sit-on-top kayaks, and the scupper holes that allow water to drain from the deck are an excellent place to mount a transducer without doing any drilling. Some kayak manufacturers have even collaborated with fish finder companies so the transducer perfectly fits their scupper holes.
Old Town, Ocean, and Necky have scupper holes that fit transducers from Hummingbird, while Wilderness Systems and Hobie’s holes fit Lowrance’s transducers. If your kayak is from a different manufacturer, be sure to measure the scupper holes and see how they compare to the mounting specifications for your desired fish finder. Life is much easier if don’t need to do any mounting work.
However, many fish finders are mounting using a simple clamp system for the transducer mount. The transducer hangs off the side of the boat and is attached to an arm that clamps to the cockpit rim of the deck.
The software included with your fish finder can ultimately make or break the unit. Most come with built-in GPS technology, which is incredibly helpful both for tracking where you’ve detected fish and for navigational purposes. There are a few units on the market that don’t have any GPS functionality, but given how affordable the technology has become, most good fish finders will have it built in.
Every manufacturer has its own style of display and navigation, and it can take some time to learn a new interface. If you’re familiar with other products made by the same company, it can make it a lot easier to use when you’re out on the water.
Our Choice For The Best Kayak Fish Finder
Choosing the right fish finder can be a time-consuming and frustrating activity, and one where you can end up spending a lot of money on something that doesn’t fit your needs.
The Garmin Striker 4 is probably the best kayak fish finder you could choose; its high resolution screen paired with a transducer that is specially suited for kayaking (not very high powered, but good detection) make it a fantastic fish finder.
Some of the other units outperformed it, with bigger screens, greater portability, or stronger transducers, but for the most part, these are not things that the majority of kayaker anglers need. Its relatively low price point also makes it a very attractive choice and one where you can easily upgrade should you find it lacking in some area.
Ultimately though, the best fish finder choice will be the one that is most tailored to your specific needs.