Fishing can involve guesswork. It may be educated guessing but its guessing none the less. Unless you see the fish. That’s where imaging fish finders come into play. This guide will help you find the best side imaging fish finder.
Before your dive into getting one yourself, there are some details worth covering.
Side Imaging vs Down Imaging
There are three types of imaging fish finders. Some project straight down others project sideways and some do both. Each has their own purposes and are very good at what they do. It’s a matter of picking the best fish finder for your waters.
Here we’ll cover the differences between down and side imaging.
Down projecting fish finders are very useful at penetrating water. They can scan depths much further than side scan. They work very well at what’s on the bottom of a body of water but you rarely fish right below the boat.
For trawlers and trollers, down scan is where it’s at. If you cast a rod, you are better off with a side scan. You will still get the depth needed to see the bottom for most fishing scenarios.
Many side scan fish finders have limited depth capabilities. But for most freshwater and inshore fishing, it should be enough to be able to see the bottom.
If you predominantly fish behind a boat, in very deep water, or are mostly interested in what’s on the bottom, get a down scan. If you cast a rod beside your boat and are more interested in what may be where you are casting, get a side scan.
Of the two types, side scans are the most popular for recreational fishing and probably the best bet for 90% of fishermen.
Side Imaging Fish Finder Considerations
Depth & Range
Probably the most important feature of most fish finders is the depth and range they can scan. Matching this to the depth and method that you fish will get you the best fish finder for your needs. Why pay extra for power you don’t need?
If your looking to fish very deep saltwater areas, make sure the units you’re looking at can reach those depths.
Side scan is much the same. I would say that anywhere in the 150 range is a good minimum. Otherwise, you are likely to run into issues when the water is very cloudy.
Don’t buy on these numbers alone. You may find units offering 1000 feet of depth and 500 feet lateral scans. This is far more than the most fisherman will need.
After depth and structure, what you really want to see on a fish finder is the actual fish. The sonar used for depth scanning is decidedly bad at actually picking up small, moving fish. For that, you need something else entirely.
CHIRP stands for Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse. It is much better at spotting fish.
This technology uses sweeping sonar pulses that can pick up small variations in the water.
Not all CHIRP is equal but any good quality fish finder should have the adequate range and spectrum of pulses. Cheap units may not provide the best results and should be avoided. Go with a brand with some name recognition.
Resolution on a fish finder speaks to two separate but interconnected systems. The one you are most likely to be familiar with is screen resolution. You want a high-resolution screen to be able to pick out the details.
For a screen the size of most fish finders, you don’t need 1080p or anything close. Often 640×480 will be enough. However, screen resolution is one place where more is better.
The other resolution comes from the transducer and measures how small a detail the sonar can make out. This helps for spotting small structures, drop-offs, and fish of course. More is better but more is also expensive.
Screen Size & Features
With any electronic device these days, screen size is a major selling point. This is true of fish finders as well. Sometimes you may have three to four different frames with different information. You want to be able to see and read this information.
You can get by with a 5-inch screen on most units. If you can get a 7 or 9-inch screen, that is a vast improvement. Screens larger than that can be costly, but provide great detail.
While you are looking at screen size, you should also make sure it is readable at an angle and in the sunlight. This is the sign of a good unit with some thought put into it. Very rarely are you going to be directly in front of the unit in the dark.
The final factor related to the screens is the integration of touch screens into fish finders. The high-end units with touch screens are much easier to use and navigate.
Many fish finders double as navigational aids. This is a good feature to have. On larger bodies of water, you are going to want navigation anyway so why have two separate units.
Not all units that are capable of showing maps will have the maps pre-loaded. Some you will have to get on an SD card and load them yourself. Some maps can be downloaded for free while others will have a cost associated with them.
In the same vein, very few units will have every map that you are likely to want. Getting a unit that has the ability to load maps through card or USB is very useful.
Most all fish finders with maps have GPS as well. What would be the purpose of having a digital map if you couldn’t see where you were on it? But this is not the only use for GPS.
As you fish a body of water, you will find your favorite hot spots. It’s good to be able to save these on a device that can get you back to them. No matter how good your memory, you are going to have off days.
You may spot a great location for bass in the cooler months when fishing in the summer. You probably won’t remember that months later. No sense wasting time searching for it when you can save it and go straight there when the time comes.
Most fish finders come with a transducer. This is the part that actually emits the sonar and governs the range and resolution of your unit. Most units will come with a transducer.
On some units, you can upgrade the transducer. Just make sure it fits the fish finder you have.
Transducers are also the part most commonly damaged. Usually, it’s forgetting it when you load or unload your boat. Sometimes its when you aren’t paying attention and scrape your hull. Either way, it’s replaceable.
You have a rather costly electronic device in a boat. It will most likely get wet at some point. It may also get banged around from fishing poles, nets, and maybe even the fish itself.
I use a fish finder in a kayak. It needs to be able to take a spill with me if it comes to that. You cannot downplay the importance of a tough unit.
Your transducer is going to be fine. What you want to worry about is the screen and body of the unit. It should at least be resistant to getting wet. A fully waterproof unit is something you want to look for if you will be on a kayak or small craft.
Some of the best fishing is right before the rain and who wants to head in early just because it’s going to get a little wet. Hang on to the last minute to get every last bit of fishing you can. Just get a fish finder that can be there with you.
The Best Side Imaging Fish Finders
Lowrance HOOK2 7 Tripleshot
Out of the gate, this is my favorite fish finder that I have used.
A part of being one of the best fish finders is ease of use. Setting up and tuning sonar is a pain. Most units do have auto-tuning sonar like the Lowrance has. This saves so much trouble.
With the Lowrance, you can just plug it in and go. The settings are among the easiest to navigate of any fish finder on the market.
Screen size is a large 7-inch full flat display with clear, hi-res picture. They use a SolarMax screen that is easily viewed in full sun and at most any angle. You get very little washout when looking from above, below, or to the side of the unit.
This unit uses what is called a Tripleshot transducer. What this means is that it combines a CHIRP sonar with both down and side scan. All have good resolution captures and show up independently on the screen.
You can replace the transducers if needed but the one it comes with is very good. The HOOK2 has great depth penetration, over 300 feet of side to side range, and a wider CHIRP beam than most other units.
The only real problem is fitting all the information on a small screen. You can access individual views quickly with the simple interface and quick access keys. All in all, it’s a well thought out system.
Maps are included for many lakes in the U.S. but you could have some issues if you fish smaller lakes and rivers. These can be downloaded for a fee which is often discounted.
No fish finder has great navigation but the Lowrance Hook series does a decent job. The maps are quite simple for navigation mode. It will get you by and is comparable to a car GPS.
Another great fish finding feature is contour mapping. Currently, there are over 3000 lakes in the library. A 1’ contour makes finding structure and drops offs a breeze.
The IPX 7 rating means it can be submerged in up to 3 feet of water. This should be more than enough protection for most uses.
Lowrance offers a full one year warranty on this device should you have an issue with it. That is pretty standard but what isn’t standard is what they do after a year. If your unit is damaged in less than 5 years, you can upgrade to a newer model for a discounted price.
That may not be as good as a 5-year warranty but it is far better than you will get from most companies.
Humminbird HELIX 5 SI
There are more Humminbird fish finders on boats than any other brand by a long shot! They are high quality and work very well.
All in all, the setup and use of a new Humminbird unit takes very little time and is quite simple. Like most modern fish finders, you can mount it and have it on the water in no time. You may want to check for updates first but that should be about it.
This fish finder does have the smallest screen of any on this list but that isn’t too bad of a deal. I find the screen to be easy to see and understand without being overly crowded.
At angles and in daylight, the screen remains easy to read. Details are presented in surprisingly high resolution. Far better than I would expect from such a small screen. The scren resolution is 800×480.
Many fish finders will only use CHIRP sonar on the down scan. Humminbird uses it on side scan as well. And it’s not your normal CHIRP.
The beam may be a little tighter but by using digital technology, you get a lot more resolution and accuracy. Enough to be able to see how your bait is moving. With over 400 feet of lateral spread, you get all the coverage you could ever want.
Humminbird uses about the most advanced sonar of any fish finder and the most customizable. You can switch the beam angle from narrow to wide. You can also control the level of detail, and even change the way it is displayed. This is one reason I use a Humminbird.
The screen is too small to display everything at once so you will need to pick and choose for your situation. There are quick access buttons to help and overall navigation of the menus and settings is quite easy.
Just like with the sonar, there are a ton of options for maps. You can use the built-in base maps which are quite good.
You can opt to purchase the LakeMaster map upgrades that give you far more detail. These are worth every penny of extra cost if you can get the lakes you want. Not all are included in the library but more are being added.
The GPS does allow you to mark preferred spots and navigate. It can map on the fly and store up to 8 hours of mapping at one time. If you fish the same areas over and over, this is quite handy.
If you’re fishing from a kayak, the IPX 7 rating is a great feature. This will allow it to be submerged up to one meter for 90 minutes. It will never need to be this waterproof but better safe than sorry.
Should something awful happen to your Humminbird, it does have a 1-year limited warranty. I will advise that you keep your receipt as the customer service isn’t the best and can be a pain to deal with.
Garmin Striker 7SV
Garmin has really made a name for itself in the fish finder world.
The user interface is very easy to use. The whole setup process is over about as soon as you plug in the transducer and turn it on. There are a few setup options you may want to go through but you can use it straight out of the box.
With a nicely sized 7 inch screen, I find this one of the most pleasing views of any fishfinder short of the very expensive ones. Everything is very clear. The customization of colors really works well for varied light conditions.
You can see this in the sun just as well as you can at dusk. It can be read at an angle, especially with the brighter display colors. The resolution, it is 800×480. Everything is clear and crisp.
The down and side sonar both have excellent range. The maximum depth is 2300 feet in freshwater and 1100 feet in saltwater. Resolution on both is quite good allowing you to pick out fine details like rocks and weed beds.
It does use CHIRP technology in both mid and high range giving you excellent feedback on what it picks up. Findings are clearly presented on a separate window. This can be a little confusing at first but it grows on you.
Supported frequencies are: 260/455/800 kHz on both down and side scanning.
The one thing that is strangely missing from this fish finder is maps. It has no basemaps nor the ability to display them. Instead, it relies on its built-in mapping functions which are quite good.
Navigation and contour mapping occur in the same window. This does simplify use but it means that you can’t get an idea of places to try until you have been there. It can store up to 2 million acres though for creating your own maps.
You can set routes and waypoints just like most other GPS enabled fish finders. Combined with its mapping software, this is quite a powerful combination. You never have to worry about faulty data from someone else.
This unit also boasts an IPX 7 rating so you don’t have to worry about getting it wet.
The unit has a limited 1-year warranty but you are on your own after that. I have never had to deal with a Garmin warranty and know nothing about them. They usually outlast their usefulness without the need for a warranty.
Side imaging is a great feature to have when casting shorelines or riverbanks. It can really help you find fish in a hurry.
When selecting a side scanning fish finder, keep in mind that the top brands usually produce good products. Reviews on retail sites bear this out.
Also, each of these has their high points and low points. It’s just a matter of what works best for your situation.