Have you ever been in a spot you just knew had fish but spent the better part of a morning fishing with no luck? We all have, and we’ve all felt the frustration of cast after cast with no bites. You can try every lure in your tackle box, but you might as well try casting in your bathtub. The best rod, PFD, and kayak simply won’t help in these situations.
Of course, there’s a difference between fishing and catching, a distinction every angler knows all too well! But as the pros can tell you, to make a day on the water productive, nothing helps as much as a good fish finder. In fact, even with expert local knowledge, no fishing guide would even consider heading out without one.
A fish finder takes the guesswork out of where to start casting. Once a fixture only on power boats, now a range of fish finders are available to fit the needs of kayak anglers. And to help you pick the best model for you, we’ve analyzed the merits of these popular models:
Best Kayak Fish Finders For 2018
Humminbird HELIX 5 CHIRP GPS G2 PT - Editors Choice
Buying Guide: What to Consider When Choosing a Kayak Fish Finder
First, Check Your Cockpit
The very first step when buying a fish finder for your ‘yak is deciding where to mount it. This is a critical step and takes careful thought and experimentation.
- Take a seat – Take your kayak out for a paddle, and as you do, note where a fish finder will get in the way. Be especially cautious and try some powerful strokes, stop your ‘yak abruptly, lay your paddle across the gunnels, etc. Do all the things that happen in real life. Where would your paddle hit a fish finder?
- Try a cast or two – With your paddle stowed, start fishing, paying close attention to where you need to move your rod to cast under low-hanging vegetation or for real distance. Your fish finder needs to be mounted low and roughly in an arc of 90 degrees in front of you, and somewhere on the center console makes the most sense for most people.
- Cables and battery – Now, if you have a good spot picked out, think about where you’ll run cables for your battery and/or transducer. They need to be out of the way and perhaps even secured with duct tape to keep them from becoming an issue. A plate to keep the large 12V batteries that most models take will also demand careful consideration, and you’ll need to keep it dry, too!
Portable or Permanent
This is a choice that’s mostly a question of risk and how comfortable you are with it!
- Permanent designs are constantly exposed to the elements, the threat of theft, and being bumped or crushed during transportation.
- Portable designs can be taken with you when you step out of the ‘yak. For many, these are probably the better choice.
Fish finders use sonar to find fish, using pretty much the same tech that submarines do. Less advanced sonars use dual frequencies. The state of the art is currently CHIRP, or Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse.
- Low frequencies penetrate the water better, allowing the fish finder to “see” deeper, but they lack the fine detail for locating schooling fish.
- High frequencies carry more information. This allows them to offer greater detail and pinpoint fish, but they’re not very good at passing through water. For instance, they can’t tell you much about the shape of the bottom, or see very deep. That’s something you need to know, especially when looking for the cover and structure that tells you where fish are going to hang out.
- Dual frequencies allow a fish finder to do both at the same time, and typical frequency combos offer a pairing of one low and one high frequency.
- The angle of the transducer beam is not as critical as you might be led to believe by marketing. Basically, wider angles are better at seeing fish suspended in the water column, whereas narrower angles excel at finding fish near the bottom. Which is better for you depends on what you’re fishing for, and every model we review should be fine for pretty much everyone.
- CHIRP is king – CHIRP is military-grade tech that uses longer pings over a wide range of frequencies. Starting low and ending high, CHIRP systems offer better accuracy than dual frequency competitors and provide more data to the fish finder, improving its performance. Check out the video below that explains a bit more on it:
This is the beating heart of your system, and mounting it properly will mean the difference between a great day of fishing and a wasted trip. There are generally three ways a transducer can be mounted to your ‘yak:
- Hull mounting – A tried and true method from the early days of kayak fishing. By cutting a sponge to accept the transducer, and resting it on the bottom of the hull inside your kayak, it can send and receive sonar pulses with only minimal loss of signal. If you really hate transom mounting, and some people do, you can always experiment with hull mounting your system and see how it affects its function.
- Transom mounting – This method uses a mount to attach an arm to your yak. At its bottom, the transducer will be submerged in the water, like it should be. But this does put your transducer in a potentially dangerous spot, and running into a rock or stump will definitely risk damage.
- Scupper mounting – Many kayaks come with scuppers equipped to accept common transducers. If your kayak does, look into fish finders that will fit as this is the best method for securing a transducer to your ‘yak. Unfortunately, these are almost always added extras that you must buy in addition to the fish finder.
You want a fish finder with good maximum depth, and every model we review has you covered. But if you routinely fish deeper water, this is something to consider.
More isn’t always better. Find the best balance for you between easy to see and easy to miss with your paddle and rod. Large screens are easier to read, but they’re also harder to position out of harm’s way. Small screens can be hard to see well, but they can be tucked away more easily.
This is a measure of how much detail a fish finder’s screen can provide. It’s an important consideration: a small screen with great resolution can be easier to read than a large screen with only average resolution.
GPS and maps are powerful tools for anglers, allowing them to create waypoints and find the same honey holes again and again.
One of the best ways to use a fish finder is to map structure and cover, allowing you to return to where fish school and feed. Not all fishfinders offer this feature, but it’s a great addition and something to consider, especially if you fish areas like massive lakes or the coast. Maps are a nice feature to complement GPS, and they can help you find the best places to fish quickly.
Batteries and Battery Life
- Long battery life – Obviously, you want a fish finder that sips juice from its batteries. This is less of a problem if your system takes standard batteries, but most don’t. Be sure, then, to have a fully charged 12V when you start your day.
- Most fish finders are designed for power boats – It’s an unfortunate fact, but kayak-specific designs are few and far between. Instead, the best systems for your ‘yak are just the smaller, portable designs you might see on a center console or bass boat. As such, the vast majority of these demand a 12V power source, and as we mentioned above, you’ll need to think carefully about where to place it.
The Humminbird Helix 5 GT PT is an incredible fishing machine. Loaded with features that would impress even a professional angler, it’s driven by a powerful CHIRP sonar that can penetrate 1,500 feet of water. For near-shore kayak fishermen, that’s a depth that will impress.
Offering a 5-inch screen, kayakers may find this on the large side, though display visibility will be awesome. With better resolution than any of the competitors we review, expect the ultimate in crisp, clear images, too. You’ll have no issues reading this display in full sun, either.
The Helix 5 uses a transom mounted transducer and is powered by a large 10-20 VDC rechargeable battery. As with other models that are designed for power boats, it’s up to you whether this presents a deal-breaking problem. The good news on this front is that customers report battery life in the range of 16 hours of continuous use, enough for roughly two days of fishing.
However, users complain about a common problem with sophisticated fish finders: the menus and features can be confusing and hard to understand. If this is your choice, you’ll want to sit down with the manual and give it some study. The reward will be a range of options that are nearly unmatched.
The Deeper Pro+ is an unusual concept. Designed as a self-contained unit that syncs with your iOS or Android smartphone, this device is meant to be attached to your line and cast. Think of the Deeper Pro+ sphere as a long-range, wireless transducer.
This design offers an unusual advantage, in that a lot of water can be scanned quickly. Rather than paddling around a large lake, for instance, the Deeper Pro+ allows an angler to make long casts looking for the fish, getting you into the action faster. Of course, it can also be attached by a line your kayak, basically operating like a standard fish finder.
Its transmitter has a range of 330 feet, allowing it to function at quite a distance from your kayak, though this range will be reduced by waves and chop.
Customers note two issues. First, the Deeper Pro+ weighs in at 3.5 ounces, meaning that you’ll need a stout rod to cast it. Second, its internal battery lasts only about 5 hours in continuous use. You’ll have to decide if that’s long enough for you.
If you’re comfortable using your smartphone on the water, and like the idea of a castable fish finder, the Deeper Pro+ might be the choice for you.
The Garmin Striker 4 is meant to be permanently mounted, but a portable mounting system comes as an added extra. As we generally recommend portable systems, this is something to consider adding to the base unit.
The Stiker 4 features a screen size of 3.5 inches, plenty big enough for kayak fishing, and it features impressive resolution, too. As a result, the screen offers sharp, clear images and is easy to read in bright sunlight. Its powerful CHIRP sonar and low-frequency range allow it to penetrate to an incredible depth, so if you regularly fish in deep water, this model is a solid choice.
This system comes with a standard transducer that should be mounted on a transom arm that’s supplied by the manufacturer with the fish finder. Aftermarket alternatives are also available.
Like most of its competitors, this unit takes a 12v power supply, so you’ll need to think about where to place that big battery and cable. And if you opt for the portability pack, in addition to some nice extras, you’ll get a rechargeable battery and an in-hull transducer mount for your ‘yak. It’s also available on its own for those who prefer to avoid a transom arm system.
Customers have complained about the Striker 4’s accuracy in water shallower than 6 to 7 feet, and there have been some complaints about the difficulty of using the GPS. It also comes without maps, a feature that bothers more than a few users.
The Garmin Striker Plus 4Cv is a powerful fish finder, essentially an upgrade of the Striker 4 reviewed above. Featuring CHIRPS sonar, it offers a special high-frequency band for increased detail. And with a low frequency in the high 70s, its ability to penetrate the water column is more than impressive.
Users report that the 4.3-inch inch screen is easy to read, even in bright sunlight. And with excellent resolution, the images it displays should be excellent. Customers also think that the menu and features are easy to use, a rarity in the world of fish finders. Like its Garmin rival, it’s packed with features as well.
The Striker Plus makes use of a largish transom-mounted transducer, and it’s powered by a 12V battery. As we’ve mentioned above, this is a common feature on fish finders, especially those made for powerboats. But it may not be what some kayakers need and want, and you’ll need to think carefully about alternatives with small, internal batteries.
Though it’s equipped with GPS, no maps are available and depending on how important that is to you, that’s a failing that’s worth considering. It’s also worth noting that to make this device portable demands additional purchases.
The Hawkeye Fishtrax 1C is a portable fish finder designed with the kayaker in mind. It’s pretty clear that this system is not just a portable unit for a large boat, and we think that comes through in its size and power pack.
Its 3-inch display is a good size for a busy kayak deck, balancing visibility with unobtrusiveness. But its screen uses polarized liquid crystal icons, so it can’t offer the kind of detail that competitors like Garmin and Humminbird can. That being said, customers say it’s easy to read even in full sunlight and report that the menu and features are intuitive to navigate and use. Compared to some of its competitors, many customers report that this simplicity is a step in the right direction.
Powered by 4 AAA batteries, the Fishtrax 1C offers 30 hours of continuous use and no cables to cause problems. Depending on how you set your ‘yak up, this might be a huge advantage, and it’s easy to carry a spare pack of batteries with you in case the ones you have die unexpectedly. It uses a trollable transducer, that can be mounted to your kayak with an optional mounting bracket.
Unfortunately, it uses dual frequency sonar rather than the superior CHIRP system and doesn’t offer GPS as an option. For kayakers who demand these, this may be a deal-breaker.
The Humminbird PIRANHAMAX 4.3 PT might be considered a step down from the Helix 5, but that really depends on your needs. Using dual frequency sonar, it can’t provide the detail of CHIRP systems. And lacking a true low frequency, it doesn’t sport the impressive maximum depths of some of its competitors. But it’s high-frequency sonar can provide impressive fish-finding, and that’s what anglers want, after all. At 455 kHz, it can scan as deep as 320 feet, but at 455 kHz the maximum depth is at 600 feet.
Its 4.3-inch display is plenty large enough for a kayak, and its resolution is very good as well, promising clear images. Customers rave about the graphics quality, and you can expect no problems in bright sunlight. Users also compliment its accuracy.
The PIRANHAMAX uses a transom mounted transducer and the same battery as the Helix 5, so keep in mind that although it has a large rechargeable battery, it’s good up to 16 hours of continuous use.
Without GPS and some of the bells and whistles of the Helix 5, Striker Plus, or Dragonfly 4 Pro, if you’re looking for a fish finder with the latest tech, this probably isn’t for you. Nevertheless, it’s a solid, dependable, accurate addition to your ‘yak, and it’ll serve you well if it’s your choice.
The Raymarine Dragonfly 4 Pro is another high-end fish finder with the serious angler in mind. Loaded with sophisticated tech, it’s powered by a CHIRP sonar system that combines excellent depth with a high-frequency secondary mode that’s better at detecting detail, meaning fish.
Its 4.3-inch screen may not impress powerboat enthusiasts, but on a kayak, that’s more than enough. And it’s high-definition LED display has very nice resolution, meaning that you can expect crisp, clean images. Like other premium models, expect no issues in bright sunlight.
Like most of its competitors, the Dragonfly 4 Pro uses a transom mounted transducer. Customers report an excellent transducer connection, so you can expect that it’ll stay attached. Again, like most fish finders, it draws on a 12V battery, with the issues that entail.
Equipped with GPS, the Dragonfly Pro 4 comes with a huge library of maps, including lakes, rivers, and coastal areas in the US. That’s a nice addition, and something serious anglers should keep in mind. It also has an app you can download on your smartphone, should you want to stream the sonar data, that allows you to rewind and send images to your friends if taking your phone out on the water is something you don’t mind.
However, some customers have complained about the quality of the mount, and if you’re worried about that, this might be something to take seriously.
Our Pick - Humminbird HELIX 5 CHIRP GPS G2 PT
None of these fish finders is a bad choice, and depending on what and where you fish, your best option might be different from ours. If you fish the pond behind your house, GPS might not matter to you and you probably won’t need a 1,500 feet maximum depth for your local river. But if you’re a near-shore saltwater fisherman, then good depth, GPS, and maps are absolute necessities and you’ll want to look for a system that offers these.
As the best all-arounder, we think the Humminbird Helix 5 is hard to beat. It’s portable and uses a powerful, precise CHIRP system that provides a maximum depth that will please even the deepest saltwater fisherman. Its screen is large, sporting impressive resolution, and it’s easy to read in bright sunlight. Packed with features and equipped with GPS that’s accompanied by maps, this fish finder is equally at home in lakes, rivers, and offshore. It’ll serve you well, whatever your fishing adventure.