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13 Types of Fish Finders: How To Choose & Buying Guide

Academy Staff
15 min read
Boat on the water coasts while fishermen use a fish finder to locate their next catch

Complete Guide To Choosing a Fish Finder

Patience may be an angler's strongest virtue. However, investing in a fish finder can help you maximize your time on the water. In this guide, we compare 13 different types of fish finders plus a few additional features to consider:

Expert Tip:

No matter which type of fish finder you choose, always consider its power! Anglers who plan to fish in mostly shallow water can get away with less power. However, both deep and saltwater command more power. Invest in a fish finder model with as much power as your budget allows.

Compare Fish Finders By Types of Sonar

A fish finder’s main function is its sonar capabilities. Sonar sends out sound waves to help you ‘see’ beneath the water. Traditionally, there were two main types of sonar (down and side imaging). However, these days, modern technologies have expanded that into six sonar types:

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Best Types of Sonar for Fishing
Category Benefits Tradeoffs
Standard (2D Sonar)
  • Traditional sonar technology
  • Emits sonar cone that widens as it goes into the water
  • Good for deepwater fishing (150+ ft)
  • Lower resolution
  • Historical sonar data
Down Imaging
  • Scans directly below the boat
  • Good for beginners
  • High-level resolution
  • Lots of detail of what you’re directly above
  • Higher target separation
  • Narrow sonar beam
  • Not great for deep waters
  • Historical sonar data
Side Imaging
  • Scans over the boat sides with two sonar cones
  • Can cover large areas of water
  • Good for beginners
  • High-level resolution
  • Good for heavy weeds
  • Not great for deep waters
  • Historical sonar data
  • Only works when the boat is moving
Live
  • Updated in real time
  • “Video game fishing”
  • Not good for scanning large areas
360 Imaging
  • Scans in all directions
  • Best for shallow water 3'-20' deep
  • Works when the boat isn’t moving
  • Highly detailed
  • Pricier
  • Does not provide temperature or depth readings
CHIRP
  • Emits multiple wavelengths for greater accuracy
  • Depth ranges of 10,000 ft
  • -

Standard (or 2D) Sonar

Standard sonar is the oldest fish finder sonar technology that emits a cone-shaped sound wave into the water. 2D sonar has a lower resolution but a greater depth than other types of sonar — making it a favorite for fishing in depths of more than 150 feet.

Down Imaging Sonar

Down imaging (or down scanning) sends a narrow sonar beam that scans for fish directly beneath your boat. It typically uses shorter wavelengths that result in a very high resolution and target separation.

Side Imaging Sonar

Side imaging uses two sonar cones that scan up to 240 feet on each side of your vessel. Similar to how down scanning works, side scans use short frequencies that generate detailed images but do not travel to great depths. Use side imaging when fishing in heavy weeds, rock piles, and ledges.

Expert Tip:

Side imaging is perfect for scanning large areas of a body of water while traveling at relatively high speeds.

Live Sonar

Live sonar echos update in real-time. You’ll have a view of exactly where fish are at any given time and how they are reacting to your bait. While live sonar is not great at scanning large areas, you may want to use it with other sonar technologies (like side imaging).

360 Imaging Sonar

360 imaging sonar technology scans in every direction around your boat — even when your boat is motionless. Fishing in shallow waters and analyzing specific locations that other types of fish finders can’t detect is where its highly detailed imaging shines!

Expert Tip:

Many anglers will use a side imaging device to identify potential fish-holding structures and then use 360 imaging to view them in greater detail.

CHIRP Sonar

Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse (CHIRP) sonar uses a combination of multiple frequencies at once to produce a more accurate picture of what’s in the water. CHIRP technology is found in most modern fish finders: even the most basic models.

Compare Fish Finder Types By Technology System

When it comes to technology system, three main types of fish finder technology exist:

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Types of Fish Finder Technology
Category Typical Benefits Best Used For
Network
  • Widely accessible
  • Broad data source support
  • Smartphone capabilities
  • Best feature innovations
  • More robust fishing trips
  • Multiple display setups
  • Larger boats
Standalone
  • Bigger displays
  • Best performance
  • Most affordable
  • Small boats
  • Small-to-midsize inland lake fishing
  • Pier fishing
  • Shore fishing
Combination/Chartplotter
  • High-quality imaging
  • Chart plotting
  • GPS functionality
  • Mid-sized boats

Network

A fish finder with a fully networked system can support a variety of data and technology capabilities that your smartphone connects to and controls like the following:

  • GPS
  • Radar
  • Video
  • Satellite radio
  • Bluetooth/WiFi

Expert Tip:

You may even want to look into a multi-display network, which is beneficial for larger boats.

Standalone

When you only want to see what lies beneath, a standalone fish finder offers the best bang for your buck! They’re a good choice for trawling small inland bodies of water. Many units give you the option to add a GPS later on.

Combination/Chartplotter

Combination/chartplotter fish finders combine sonar and GPS capabilities. They can help you in the following ways as well as save time on your next trip:

  • Track your location
  • Upload a map and check your position
  • Chart your waypoints
  • Create your own map of the best fishing grounds

Expert Tip:

They are also good options for fishing on big lakes or new-to-you fishing grounds.

Compare Fish Finder Types By Feature

A boat holding fishing gear orients in the direction of where fish are detected using a fish finder

Some fish finders have very specific uses or conditions required that honestly might be overkill for what you need. Before you get caught up in the hype, consider these other features before investing in one:

3D Fish Finders

3D fish finders combine data that uses side transducer scans and special software to create easier-to-read three-dimensional images. You won’t have to interpret any other information. That function alone is generally the hallmark benefit behind these.

Castable Fish Finders

Castable fish finders float on top of the water while scanning what’s underneath. Although relatively cost-effective compared to some other types of fish finders, you will need a smartphone or tablet with Bluetooth capabilities to receive and read the data.

Ice Fishing Flashers & Finders

Ice fish finders (commonly called flashers or depth finders) show the depth for vertical fishing. The differences between a flasher and a fish finder are minimal. However, the displays of each are the most distinct.

Ice fishing finders may look and perform similarly to open water devices. Flashers have a simplified system of multicolored lights that show (in real-time) what happens beneath your hole.

Expert Tip:

Both were designed specifically for stationary ice fishing and are not used for anything else.

Other Features

Certain features may not be as important to you as they are to others. And that’s okay! Fish finders can be a hefty investment. Prioritize what feels right for you and your fishing preferences.

Portable Fish Finders

Portable fish finders allow you to enjoy all types of fishing since you can move them to different vessels. They will usually have lower-grade technology and smaller screens than fixed devices. But they’re lighter weight and easy to transport.

Expert Tip:

If you fish in different types of boats (rentals, kayaks, canoes, etc.), these are a great option!

Screen Size

Most fish finder screens fall between the 3.5-inch and 16-inch range. If this feature is at the top of your list, check for the pixel number. The quality of the image is often sacrificed as the screen size goes up.

  • The bigger the screen, the more information you can see. Just make sure you don’t sacrifice other important features for viewability.
  • When fishing from a vessel small and low to the water like a kayak, you’ll want to choose a smaller screen that is lightweight and waterproof.

Expert Tip:

If you’re unsure about what size you need, choose a mid-range screen size. An eight- or nine-inch screen does the trick for most beginner fishers!

Glare Protection

Bright sunlight can make a fish finder screen hard to read. Newer fish finders may have glare-resistant screens. Alternatively, you can use these other methods:

  • Relocate the fish finder to a shadier spot
  • Get a shade visor
  • Apply a glare-reducing LCD film
  • Dim the screen’s brightness and contrast

Expert Tip:

When you fish in the early morning, wintertime, or the evening, look for a fish finder with a back-lit screen to help you see the data better in low-light conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Man in a red jacket holds a fish he caught with a lake in the background behind him

Q. How does a fish finder work?

Fish finders transmit sonar (sound) waves that detect where your next catch is underneath the water. They’re also a great tool to have so you always know how deep your body of water is.

  • The frequencies range from very low (infrasonic) to very high (ultrasonic).
  • Higher-end devices even provide enough detail to identify individual fish.

Some devices on the market boast extra features like integrated GPS navigation, marine radar, and compasses. These help you beyond finding the fish you seek. They can also navigate you through low visibility below and above water!

Expert Tip:

Consider the type of network technology the unit uses, size, display, and frequency needed for the kind of fishing you’ll be doing.

Q. What is the easiest fish finder to use as a beginner?

The best beginner fish finder depends on which boat you’ll use and the type of fishing you’ll do.

  • If you are an occasional fisherman, the best fish finder for you may be portable and simple with more basic sonar technology like 2D, down imaging, and/or side imaging.

  • If you plan to do some serious fishing, you might want to opt for an investment with more bells and whistles.

  • Some units allow you to add features like live sonar and GPS at a later time, so you can always start with an entry-level fish finder and make upgrades as your angling advances.

Have Fun Out There!

A quality fish finder is worth the investment that will likely cost more than most of your other fishing gear. Shop our selection of fish finders online or head to your nearest Academy Sports + Outdoors to compare the different types of fish finders in person.