I caught my first fish with a cane pole and crickets.
No cutting-edge fishing tools —just a 7-year-old boy on a dock staring at a cork.
When I turned 15-years-old my whole fishing world changed.
That’s when my uncle took me out on his boat and taught me how to read a fish finder.
Having the power to use fish ID and see underwater structures made fishing so much fun. After a while I was able to read a fish finder like a pro and it turned into my lifelong sidekick.
To this day, I use sonar technology to find and catch fish.
But not everyone had an awesome uncle to teach them about fish finders, sowo —
How Do Fishfinders Work?
What is Sonar?
At some point you’ve probably asked yourself “what is a fish finder?” Fish finders have something called a transducer that emits sonar waves into the water.
Sonar is short for “Sound Navigation and Ranging”.
The sonar technology waves bounce off underwater objects and report their size, shape and location back to the fish finder.
The data pops up on a display so you can see fish, structures and vegetation. If you’re using a mobile fish finder, you can view the data on your smartphone.
This is how anglers use traditional sonar fish finders to find wrecks, drop-offs and spots where fish congregate.
For more additional info about how sonar works on a fish finder, check out this fish finder sonar article.
Once you learn to read the fish finder display, you can find the best fish hotspots.
Cool fact —Dolphins use “natural sonar” to navigate the ocean and find food —also called echolocation.
They Scout Out the Scene
The transducer is the hands and eyes of the sonar fish finder.
It emits sonar waves that feel out what’s in the water then relay the data back to the display.
You can buy a fish finder that comes with a transducer, or buy one separately.
Just make sure you understand how it’s installed and if it’s ideal for your boat.
If you’re getting incorrect readings, your transducer might be the culprit. This guide about knowing if the transducer is bad might help.
Which Transducer Should I Get?
Modern fish finders come in a range of powers and frequencies, depending on your fishing needs.
Here are some things to consider —
How Deep Are You Fishing?
Ping Power (Measured in Watts)
The “ping” is the sonar waves/signal sent out by the transducer. The greater the watts the deeper it goes, so the power of the fish finder should be based on how deep you are fishing.
If you’re in freshwater a 300-watt ping will be plenty. In the shallows you can see the bottom using about 200 watts, so 300 is enough to see deeper areas.
If saltwater fishing is your thing, roll with a 500 – 1200 watt ping.
This range covers coastal fishing areas and the deeps, so it’s ideal for blue-water anglers.
Frequency Matters (Measured in Kilohertz)
The downsides are that you need to troll at a slower speed to get accurate data, and it offers lesser detail of structures and fish.
Lower frequencies are good for maximum depths and used by deepwater anglers.
This frequency is ideal if you’re looking for bluewater lunkers or reds lurking around a wreck.
Mid to deepwater recommendations are 50kHz – 150kHz (low frequency)
It comes in handy when targeting fish that are holding tight to structures.
Because it offers the best detail resolution at these depths, it helps you see small fish like schools of bait fish.
If you have an ice fishing reel, fish finders are a great product to consider adding to your fishing tackle.
The greater clarity comes in handy when hitting lakes and coastal waters because you can go faster and still see sharp detail.
This is also a good frequency for ice fishing because it’s medium-depth and offers a clear image. Shallow to mid-depth recommendations are 200kHz – 800kHz (high frequency)
What’s All the Noise About CHIRP Sonar?
CHIRP stands for Compressed High Intensity Radiated Pulse.
This fish finder technology is the best of both worlds and combines low and high frequencies for better water depth and image detail.
Many anglers fall in love with these transducers and never go back to fish finders with fixed frequencies.
They are a little more expensive and everything but well worth it.
Okay, now that we’ve talked about sonar, here are some other things to consider before buying a good fish finder —
The Size of Your Boat
Type of Boat Mount
You have options when it comes to how your transducer is mounted. You’ll have to consider your watercraft as well, whether it’s an inflatable fishing kayak, a canoe or a boat.
You could go with any of these main styles —
The transom is the part of the boat where the sides of the hull meet. It’s located in the rear, and is part of the stern.
These mounts are ideal for smaller boats because —
- They’re lightweight mounts.
- They are easy to repair compared to other mounts.
- They take up less space and are less likely to come into contact with the propeller.
Through-hull mount —
These work best on larger sport fishing boats because they allow more control over the mount location.
The downside is that it requires a hole to be drilled through the hull.
Here are some helpful tips for installing a through-hull mount —
- For powerboats, mount near the centerline and inboard to ensure it’s in contact with the water at high speeds. This helps the propeller blades maintain a cleaner flow of water.
- If you’re dealing with outboards and I/Os, be sure to mount it forward and to the side of the engine.
- If you’re going inboard with the mount, make sure it’s ahead of the propeller and shaft.
- For stepped hulls it’s important to mount ahead of the first step, so it doesn’t obstruct your ability to move around in the boat.
In-Hull Tank Mount
First off, these are only suitable for fiberglass hulls.
It’s mounted as a liquid-filled tank and bonded to the boat surface.
These are ideal for trailer boats because there is no external hardware exposed.
Here are some advantages of using and in-hull mount —
- They reduce the chances of damaging your fishfinder.
- Does not impact the speed of your boat
- Has an accurate sonar readout at high speeds
Is It a Fish Finder GPS Combo?
Most fishfinders today like the Elite 5 Ti from Lowrance, come with GPS, display monitor and transducer.
These are the best value, but you can also buy them separately if you like.
In case you don’t know, GPS stands for global positioning system.
It’s important to make sure you know what you’re getting in a fish finder, so go over the features and specs before snagging one.
You should be able to find all the necessary info from the manufacturer’s website.
How Much Bottom Does a Fish Finder Cover?
As mentioned above, this is determined by the power and frequency of the transducer —
The more power, the stronger the sonar signal.
A transducer with higher power can reveal the bottom at greater depths.
Frequency is a little different. A transducer with lower frequency can go deeper and cover a wider area, but offers less detail.
Okay, now let’s dive deeper —
The Art of Reading a Fish Finder Screen
I bet you’re itching to know how fish are identified on a fish finder screen.
I won’t torture you, let’s begin —
The Easy Way
Fish IDs Technology
You’ll be glad to hear that most fish finders have Fish-ID technology.
It uses data to determine which objects are fish, and shows them on the fish finder screen.
Fish icons show up on the display to pinpoint their type, size and location.
Fish ID is pretty accurate, but occasionally it could mistake plants for a school of fish –it all depends on the fishing areas.
The Hard Way
Reading Fish Finder Arches and Raw Data
While some anglers keep it simple with fish IDs, others like the challenge of reading or interpreting fish finder fish arches.
There is a bit of a learning curve, but it’s a more accurate way to find fish.
Fish arches show up as curved lines on a fish finder screen using traditional sonar.
Judging fish size can be determined by the width of the line and the fish arch width, whether they’re full or half arches.
With more practice and learning a few tricks, you’ll be able to distinguish between the signals that correspond to fish, and the signals that result from other underwater objects such as rocks and plants.
Best Way to Spot a Trophy Fish
It’s a common misconception that a long fish arch indicates a big fish size. In reality, line width and full arch width are the true indicators.
This is because bigger fish beams back a stronger signal, which means a thicker line and fuller fish arch width.
Keep in mind that smaller lines on a fishfinder can also indicate a big fish.
Trophy fish can show up as half arch if the fish swims through a small portion of the sonar cone.
If you see a long fish arch, it’s likely a fish that slowly swam through the entire sonar cone.
What About The Depth of The Water?
Most fish finders have a depth finder located on the transducer.
Knowing the depth of the water is crucial because it can indicate the type of fish present.
For example, if you see some fish icons or fish arches sitting 25 feet deep in lake Michigan there’s a good chance you’re seeing summer smallmouth.
This is how a depth finder feature can help you pinpoint different types of fish.
The water bottom depth is usually displayed on the top left area of the screen, but different models may vary.
Keep in mind, some display depth in meters rather than feet.
In most fish finder models, the water temp is located under the water depth reading.
This is pretty handy because it’s another way to target species of fish, based on their warm or cold preference.
Is There a Speed Sensor?
Most fish finders show the speed you’re moving on the display screen.
It’s basically a built-in speedometer which is helpful when you need to maintain a steady, slow speed while you read a fishfinder.
What’s the Best Boat Speed?
Trolling speeds of 1 – 4 miles miles per hour give your fish finder enough time to see what’s under your boat.
They help your transducer relay accurate information to the display which makes arches, fish ID and structures easier to read. And always use a narrow sonar beam that can read the hump and shelf accurately.
Narrow beam scanning will give you a more accurate image of the contour change and also help you avoid any dead zones in your scanning.
What Are the Display Types?
Color vs Grayscale
You can get 2d sonar fish finders in grayscale, or color on the screen. Let’s look at each one…
Color Fish Finder Display
This is the best way to see fish underneath. If you pair it with an underwater fishing camera, even better!
Color gives more screen contrast, so you can identify fish and structures apart. It’s better for identifying different types of fish and hard bottom.
It’s easier for most anglers to read a fishfinder screen in color, and I highly recommend going that route.
Also make sure the display is bright enough for you to see through your polarized specs. If you haven’t scored a pair yet, consider looking at my review of the best pairs on the market.
How to Read a Fish Finder Structure in Color
Brighter colors indicate a softer material like clay, weeds or plants.
That’s because less dense objects produce a weaker signal return.
The opposite is true for denser objects like rocks or reefs.
Denser materials emit a stronger return so they show up as darker and richer colors.
This is also called a black and white screen fish finder.
Reading one is a little harder because it’s more difficult to tell fish apart from structures. But on the flipside, it’s great for judging bottom hardness.
They work like color displays — denser objects show up darker while less dense objects appear lighter. Here are some tips for using grayscale —
- A thick line on the bottom means hard bottom material, whereas a thin or light line means it’s soft bottom material like clay.
- Fish can appear as white specks suspended in the water column on the screen
- A larger fish may appear as a cluster of white specks
- Bottom growth like weeds appear more as a solid mass on your screen
What Is Echo Return Strength?
Another perk to using a color fish finder screen is that they easily show how dense a structure is.
The denser the object, the higher the return strength —
- Denser objects appear darker in color
- Less dense objects appear lighter in color
How to Find Baitfish
The key to finding baitfish on a fish finder is to look very carefully.
They display on your screen as dots, dashes and tiny lines.
Spotting a school of fish is easier because they tend to look like big round balls and are always suspended in water.
Typically they will have a yellow hue compared to the green vegetation.
How to Read a Fish Finder Data Display Sequence
Traditional 2D Sonar Screen
When you read a 2D display sequence, remember that it’s not like reading a book. Data is viewed from right to left – the opposite of how you read books from left to right.
What Do Bass Look Like on a Fish Finder Screen?
If you’re looking to find largemouth bass with a fish finder it’s important to know how to recognize them.
Here is a trick you can use —
Largies look like white or light yellow beans on a traditional fish finder. Look for them to be spaced apart from other fish, not heavily clustered.
Smaller bass tend to cluster and look more like blips or blobs, but largies like their space.
You can also tell them apart from structure and hard bottom because they are lighter in color and circular in shape. Look for recesses and holes, then look for a bean-shaped lunker!
It’s the same way with down-imaging —the data flows from right to left across the screen. This commonality comes in handy when you’re using Fishing Reveal technology, but I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
Remember, new fish finder data from the transducer flows in from the right side of the screen, so make sure you don’t read it backward. You must read a fish finder correctly to know what’s underwater.
Side-imaging data is very different. It flows from the top of the fishfinder screen to the bottom. You’ll also notice it reveals more details of structures.
This is because higher concentrations of silt and mud are present in the water below the boat.
But the question is, do you need side imaging? If you’re looking for answers, this guide might help you.
If you do end up needing side imaging, you’ll want to get the best side imaging fish finder around.
Down-Imaging vs Side Imaging
Lots of fish finders like the Helix 7 by Humminbird come with traditional imaging, down-imaging and side-imaging ability.
The coolest ones combine them to give you an all-around view on your fishfinder.
Here are the strengths of down imaging vs side imaging sonar —
- Gives photo-realistic image of what’s under the boat
- Shows fish in better detail, easier to identify fish
- Structures appear more pronounced and recognizable (easier to find weed lines)
- Ideal for deepwater jigging
- Using a fish finder this way provides a clear image of the bottom
Side Viewing Pros
- Ideal for finding schools of fish while trolling
- Saves time on the water —find and mark fish hotspots on your fishfinder quicker
- Provides 180 degree screen view of what’s around you in the water
- Lets you gauge how recessed fish are into structures
- Fish show up as white streaks on the fishfinder screen that are recognizable
How to Find Different Kinds of Fish Hiding in Structures
Make Multiple Passes Over an Area
One pass doesn’t always give the fish finder enough data to pinpoint honey-holes. I’d recommend making two or three passes over the area so you can get the most detail and accuracy.
Use Dual Frequency Fish Finders
One way to do this is using traditional sonar and down-imaging together. These frequencies work together to give a more robust view. Some Humminbird fish finders have a similar feature as well
When you combine traditional sonar, down-imaging and side-imaging you get a complete visual.
You can start out with a low frequency fishfinder, then switch to a higher frequency fish finder to hone in on hotspots.
Fish Reveal Technology
Some fish finders like the Lowrance brand let you view a split screen of traditional sonar and down-imaging. In a Lowrance Elite 7 Ti fishfinder, you can even split the screen into 4 windows at once.
Fish Reveal is like Fish ID technology, but it lets you see the structure and the fish in greater clarity and detail.
Lowrance fish finder technology allows you to adjust the contrast in the menu search, which makes the fish stand more visible.
This helps to pinpoint fish hiding in a given structure like ledges, drop-offs and recesses.
The data display sequence is the same for both imaging options, so they work well together.
Both represent data flowing from right to left, which makes finding hidden fish easier.
Your Lowrance fish finder should come with a menu how to read section in the instruction booklet
Identifying Underwater Structures
Knowing what the underwater structure is made of gives anglers a big advantage.
Depending on its type and hardness, it could indicate which types of fish are hanging around.
Let’s look at a few soft bottom structures that will pop up on your fishfinder screen.
Vegetation and Weeds
You may want to cast a soft plastic lure in some weeds to stir up a lunker.
These structures usually appear as wispy vertical lines on your fishfinder.
These can be easily spotted because they make a small “V shape” dip in the bottom contour. Pinpointing these hotspots is especially helpful when you’re carp fishing because they hide in them during cold months.
Locating a Point
This underwater structure is easy to see using a 2D sonar fishfinder.
That’s because they’re more gradual than drop-offs, so If you’re trolling at a steady pace the incline should be easy to see.
Hopefully, you know a bit more about how fish finders work.
Believe me, how to read a fishfinder is a lot to soak in, but now you have a head start on finding more fish.
Maybe you never heard of fish id technology.
That’s okay, now you know and can use and have success on your next fishing trip.
Should You Get a Fishfinder?
But the real question is this —Is it all worth it? Yes indeed, it is.
A fish finder works great if you apply the points and fish finder basics I broke down in this guide. If you’re looking for electronics more narrow in scope, consider looking at some bite alarms or the best ice fishing flashers instead.
They are truly devices sent down from the fish gods!
If you’re looking for a fish finder, why not read my Garmin Fish Finders Review. Garmin is one of the best when it comes to fish finding devices. Check it out and you might find the fish finder that would suit your needs.
Good luck and happy fishing my fellow anglers. Be safe, smart and go out there and snag a big one for me!