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Published Sep 23, 2022 11:56 AM
Fish finders allow anglers to navigate new water bodies, find hidden structures, and catch more fish. It’s easy to get carried away and spend thousands on giant screens and fancy features. For those on a budget, there are a variety of affordable fish finders available. These units are user-friendly, durable, and ready with some impressive and useful features. Here are some options for the best fish finders under $500.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Fish Finder
A fish finder can make or break your day on the water. Between different brands and technologies, there are plenty of options available. Knowing which ones suit your needs will optimize performance and save you money on unnecessary features. Fish finders should have easy-to-use imaging, solid mounting hardware, and trolling motor compatibility. Units that check these boxes cut down the learning curve on new water bodies and put you on fish.
Finding a unit that is user-friendly with a variety of scanning options is a must. To start, any fish finder on my boat must have satellite maps. This is crucial to find your way around new water bodies or keep you from getting lost when there’s no service. Features like sonar, down imaging, and side imaging work great for locating fish. The combination of these three allows anglers to see what is around the boat and under it.
Look for units with metal mounting brackets when possible. Other good options are swivel mounts that allow you to manipulate the screen. Bass anglers have even gone as far as developing special mounting plates to keep all their screens secure in rough water. Whatever you go with, make sure it can withstand the conditions you plan on using it in.
Trolling Motor Compatibility
Fish finders that are compatible with your trolling motor can unlock useful features. With spot lock compatible motors, you can drop a pin or draw a track and your trolling motor will follow it. When I find a school of fish or a particular piece of structure, spot lock keeps me dialed in. Not all trolling motors are compatible with all fish finders, so be sure the one you choose will work for your motor.
Lowrance Hook Reveal 7x Splitshot Bass Pro Shop
Why it Made the Cut: The combination of down imaging and sonar creates some of the clearest images of what’s below.
- Screen Size: 7-inch display
- Imaging Modes: Down scan and Sonar
- Compatibility: MotorGuide or Minn Kota
- Easy to setup
- FishReveal technology combines sonar and DownScan imaging
- Sturdy mounting hardware
Lowrance has built a reputation on its innovative technologies and the Hook Reveal is no exception. This budget-friendly model comes preloaded with 4,000 lake maps with one-foot contours. For those fishing new water bodies, studying drop-offs and ledges can narrow down likely spots. If you prefer more detail, you can utilize GenesisLive to create real-time maps pinpointing the smallest holes. To locate structure, Lowrance developed a unique combination of down scan and sonar imaging. The down scan reads structure like submerged timber or rock piles while the sonar marks fish. Together this gives anglers realistic images to pinpoint where fish are holding.
Why it Made the Cut: Side scan technology makes the Garmin ECHOMAP a well-rounded unit for the money.
- Screen Size: 7 inches
- Imaging Modes: Down scan and side scan
- Compatibility: MotorGuide or Minn Kota
- Side scan and down scan
- Easy to use touch screen
- NMEA compatible
The Garmin ECHOMAP UHD 73sv is designed for fishermen wanting the most out of their units. It comes ready with side imaging, down imaging, and sonar in a single transducer. Side imaging offers crisp images of structures like bridge pilings, timber, and weed edges. My go-to tactic when fishing new waters is to cruise around points with side imaging until I find a structure that holds fish. When dialed in correctly, it will even pick up bigger fish like musky or tarpon. It comes preloaded with 17,000 lake maps to navigate new water bodies of water and avoid shallow areas. Add in an NMEA 2000 system and anglers can read engine data on the unit while heading to their spots. At a budget-friendly price, the ECHOMAP offers features typically only found in flagship models.
Why it Made the Cut: The Helix 5 gives anglers down imaging, sonar, and navigation capabilities with a five-inch screen perfect for kayaks and smaller boats.
- Screen Size: 5 inches
- Imaging Modes: 2D Sonar
- Compatibility: Minn Kota
- Down imaging provides realistic images of the bottom structure
- The waypoint button lets you instantly drop pins on spots
The Humminbird Helix series has built a reputation around its durable and user-friendly fish finders. For kayak anglers, the Helix 5 is a perfect fit. Its five-inch screen is easy to read without taking up too much space on a kayak. Anglers can use sonar to mark fish and use down imaging to find structure. While not a touch screen, the oversized keypad makes it easy to navigate between screens. You can even preset views to see GPS maps and imaging side by side. The unit is covered in durable plastic housing. Even in the harshest conditions, the unit keeps water out and performs flawlessly. The options packed into this five-inch setup make it a bargain for kayak anglers wanting to improve their fishing.
Why it Made the Cut: The Garmin Striker is a smartphone-compatible fish finder perfect for bank anglers and ice fishermen looking to find fish on a budget.
- Screen Size: Pairs with phone
- Imaging Modes: Sonar and ice fishing modes
- Compatibility: All smartphones
- Easy-to-use app
- Castable for scanning structure off the bank
- Works up to 200 feet away
- Best for land-based anglers
Understanding bottom structure and drop-offs are crucial to catching fish. Previously, bank anglers were at a disadvantage when it came to finding these structures. The Garmin Striker allows anglers to cast out the transducer and get live imaging to their phone. A well-designed app reads just like a fish finder screen while giving anglers the ability to stay mobile. For those fishing hard water, the Striker doubles as a flasher. Drop it in an ice hole and your phone will give you live imaging of what’s going on below. As a land-based angler, I find myself carrying a Striker in my tackle bag when I know I’ll be fishing new water.
Best for Boats
Why it Made the Cut: Simrad’s cruise feature helps you navigate new waters and still find fish.
- Screen Size: 5-inch screen
- Imaging Modes: Sonar
- Compatibility: MotorGuide
- Perfect for recreational boaters
- The easy dial system allows you to navigate between screens
- Preloaded with US coastal maps for saltwater boating
- Only comes with sonar for fish finding
In the boating and yachting world, there are few brands as well-known as Simrad. Its Cruise series is perfect for pleasure boaters taking an occasional fishing trip. The interface is designed around boating. It gives live engine data, battery levels, and locations. Whether you’re new to boating or experienced, live data helps you run at an optimal speed and minimize mechanical issues. For saltwater boating, it comes preloaded with US coastal maps. This marks channels and shallow water flats to stay on course and not run aground. Paired with traditional sonar, you can see bottom contours and fish if you want to take a few casts. The interface is easy-to-use and is sized right for smaller boats.
How I Made My Picks
In my free time, I find myself exploring South Florida’s shallow water flats in search of tarpon and snook. Navigating shallow water is tricky without good electronics and I’ve come to depend on my fish finders. After experimenting with different fish finders, I’ve learned they need to be reliable and accurate. I prefer models with plenty of imaging features to find fish and accurate maps to know where I can run my boat. These are the criteria I used to find the best budget fish finders:
- Screen Size: How big is the screen and is it easy to see?
- Modes: What imaging modes are available?
- Touch Screen: Is the unit a touch screen or joystick?
- Ease of Use: How user-friendly is the unit for new anglers?
- Trolling Motor Compatibility: What trolling motors are the unit compatible with?
- Durability: How does the unit hold up in rough water or rain?
What is the simplest fish finder?
The easiest fish finders to use are sonar units. These fish finders only scan the bottom and ping back fish below. Without any other features, these units are ready to go out of the box. For anglers, this is an easy way to see depths, bottom structure, and fish. Target the drop-offs and fish will be hiding just off ledges waiting to ambush prey.
Do all fish finders have GPS?
Not all fish finders have GPS. While most models available will have some sort of navigation features there are basic options available. The basic units come with sonar to mark fish and structure. They are easy to use and cheap compared to other models. Anglers just starting or fishing smaller water bodies can familiarize themselves with fish finders for a minimal investment.
Q: Is a fish finder and a depth finder the same thing?
Modern fish finders and depth finders are not the same things. They both work by sending a signal downwards that reflects back. When a fish is in the signals path it shows up as a U-shaped mark on a fish finder. Depth finders use this same process but instead read the time it takes for the signal to return. These are great for offshore fishing and can find deep canyons or drop-offs where pelagic fish may hold.
How deep can a fish finder go?
It depends on the model of the fish finder and transducer but some can read as deep as 400 feet. In that range depth finders mark fish best in 200 feet of water or less. For anglers wanting to see deeper, a depth finder can be used. Depth finders can read thousands of feet deep. Unfortunately, they do not mark fish but can help anglers locate likely spots where fish should hold.
Fish finders are great tools for anglers on the water. When dialed in properly, they can give you an edge over other anglers. Look for units with features you want, that are easy to use, and durable. While fish finders will help cut down the learning curve there is no substitute for time on the water. Choose something that fits your boat and your style of fishing and spend some time using it.