The fishing world certainly has its share of electronic gadget lovers, but if you’re like the rest of us, discussing how your bottom machine performs using various cone angles feels confusing, and maybe a little too personal for polite conversation. With this in mind, we’ve set out talk about marine electronics in simple, straightforward language. We promise you won’t have to pop an Excedrin by the end of this article, or awkwardly avoid eye contact with us later. Our discussion will focus on the essential fishing electronics for center consoles under 30 feet. This covers the needs of a huge number of offshore, near-shore and inshore anglers. We’ll also stick to the core technologies that get you to the fishing grounds, help you find the fish and get you home again. This includes GPS navigation, fishfinders/depth sounders and VHF radio.
As we begin, it’s important to understand that marine electronic devices are rapidly becoming more integrated with each other and performing multiple functions. Just like your smart phone is more than a phone—you can use it to watch movies, surf the internet, control your home security system, and, oh yeah, talk to people—the days of stand-alone electronics units are giving way to units that handle numerous tasks. VHF radios allow voice communication and also share data with other boats. Side-scan images can be marked with GPS waypoints for future trips. A single screen can display navigation charts, bottom profiles, engine data and a weather forecast. It’s enough to make the most reticent electronics buyer geek completely out.
This kind of integration is great news for boats under 30 feet. It not only increases capability, but it decreases the amount of dash space needed to mount electronics. With integrated systems and high-def, multi-color display screens, anglers can easily view more data in a smaller space. This is especially helpful on a small boat when anglers prefer having their electronics down on the console and more in their natural line of sight rather than mounted overhead in an electronics box. And that’s our first buying tip: base your small-boat electronics system on a combination GPS chartplotter/sounder or on a multi-function display (MFD) that will network with other GPS and sounder modules.
When it comes to mounting options, in-dash mounting, rather than using a bracket, is sometimes preferred for ease of use, but it’s worth investigating all your options. The priority should be buying the largest screen your bank account and dash space can handle. Most units range from 5 to 15 inches diagonal screen size. This approach maximizes your investment (you’re only paying for one screen) and provides the most options for displaying multiple functions at once. Of course, larger units are more costly, but higher cost units also tend to have faster processing speeds. This makes it easier to zoom in and out, change settings and re-draw maps when you’re on the go.
Another basic design feature to consider, both in chartplotter/sounders and in VHF radios, is how your electronics will handle the elements. High-quality color displays should be easily visible in direct sunlight. In our opinion, this is a must! And whether mounted in the dash, on a bracket or inside an electronics box, it’s good to know how much contact with water your machine can handle. Water resistance ratings are typically listed on the Japan Industrial Standards (JIS) or European (IPX) scales from 0 to 8. For example, JIS 4 is “splash resistant” while JIS 7 is “immersion resistant” with the respective IPX4 and IPX7 carrying similar meanings. For a center console, we like all the JIS or IPX we can get.
When it comes to chartplotters, different manufacturers offer compatibility with different chart systems, both pre-loaded and with the ability to upload new charts via a data card. If you already own charts or prefer a particular style, finding a compatible machine will narrow down your search. When it comes to choosing a sounder, many anglers are becoming familiar with side-scan technology, which creates highly accurate views of structures and bottom contours several hundred feet to each side of your boat, and can be effective in depths down to the 100-foot range. Inshore anglers and fishermen who frequent rigs and shallow wrecks are using this technology to find fish-holding habitat like never before. The latest models combine side-scan, down-scan (side-scan imaging faced downward) and traditional bottom imaging for unbelievably accurate views of what’s under and around the boat. Humminbird even offers a 360-degree capability, allowing shallow-water anglers to scan up to 150 feet in front of their boats and to cast to fish long before they’re spooked.
How much technology do you need in a fish finder? The choice is yours, but it’s worth noting that side-scan and down-scan are compliments to traditional sounders and not a replacement. This new technology does a breathtaking job of revealing structure, but nothing beats a depth sounder for discerning size and location of fish under the boat and composition of the bottom itself. Sounders with the capability of dual frequencies are most common and deliver excellent performance in a wide-range of depths. These systems are getting more accurate and user-friendly all the time, with high-performing, automated settings that clean up unwanted signal scatter, and make it easier than ever to find the fish.
When it comes to communication needs on your small boat, your main concerns should shift away from fishing and more to safety. You may be tempted, especially if you primarily cruise inshore and near-shore waters, to rely on your cell phone as a communication device on your boat. This is possible, but we believe the VHF radio is still an essential piece of equipment. Not only does it give near-instant access to the Coast Guard in an emergency, it provides reliable communication with other vessels—namely commercial freighters, tugs and ferries that might need to know you’re adrift in a shipping channel. And, with the advent a decade ago of Digital Selective Calling (DSC), boaters can now hit one button on their radio to instantly send a distress signal, complete with personal information and GPS coordinates, to every VHF radio in range. Fishermen can also pre-program the unique DSC identifier code of their fishing buddies and share information privately, such as the coordinates to a new fishing hot spot. Some VHF systems also include encryption capabilities that allow two parties to talk in total privacy of other boats.
VHF radios come in two primary shapes: fixed mount units (in-dash or bracket) and handheld. Fixed units offer up to 25 watts of power, and allow communication up to 12 miles or more depending on antenna height and local geography. Handheld models vary between 1 and 6 watts and have a much more limited range. A few features we like are the ability to scan multiple channels, rotary knobs for fast channel changes and a playback option that lets you listen to garbled transmissions a second or third time. Handheld units are especially popular on the smallest boats and may serve as back-ups on larger rigs. The ability to connect a handheld to an external antenna to help boost its range is a great asset if it’s playing backup to a fixed-mount radio.
The basic package of a combination chartplotter/depth sounder, and a good VHF radio, are all most anglers need to fish effectively and safely. However, there are endless other possibilities. If you want to expand your system now or in the future, consider starting with products that are NMEA 2000-compatible. This rating from the National Marine Electronics Association means that the device in question speaks a kind of universal marine electronics language and is designed to be plug-and-play with other NMEA 2000 devices. For total integration, all such devices on a boat can be connected by plugging into a “backbone” or one central cable. Run a backbone the length of your boat and you can plug in everything from your GPS-controlled trolling motor to your chartplotter, multiple transducers, autopilot, radar, VHF radio and engine sensors. Then all of these devices and readouts can be managed from one or more multi-function displays (MFDs). Buying NMEA 2000-compatible products can also allow you to mix-and-match brand names.
Our final point of discussion is the all-important issue of redundancy. If you’re a weekend angler who keeps it close to shore, an iPhone and a few free apps may supply all the redundant communication and navigation capability you really need. But, if you make long runs offshore, fish a lot of tournaments or will otherwise be seriously hindered by having a piece of electronic equipment fail, then redundancy is a must. This can be as simple as buying a couple of stand-alone modules to back-up key elements of your fully integrated system, or you may opt to run two separate systems. Space and budget constraints will likely factor into your options, but it’s essential to have a “Plan B.”
Following are some of the latest offerings in marine electronics and some great choices to provide a core electronics package for your center console.
Lowrance HDS GEN2 Series
The new HDS Gen2 series is available in a range of sizes to give top-shelf capabilities to any boat. It has double the memory and twice the processing speed of the popular HDS fishfinder/chartplotters for lightning-fast panning and zooming. When paired with a StructureScan Sonar Imaging module, users can scan images directly on a chart in real-time, or create StructureMap charts of their favorite fishing spots.
- Includes internal, GPS+WAAS antenna
- Fishfinder models include Broadband Sounder
- Optional LSS-2 StructureScan HD module ($599) for side-scan and down-scan imaging
- TrackBack™ allows users to review sounder or StructureScan images and add waypoints
- Network ready and NMEA 2000 compatible
- $549-$2,449; lowrance.com
Lowrance Link-5 DSC VHF
This full-function, fixed-mount, 25-watt Digital Selective Calling (DSC) VHF radio is Class D compliant for global use. An ultra-rugged, waterproof chassis makes it great for small boats and the microphone has a built-in speaker for easier use in loud environments.
- Rotary knobs for fast channel acquisition
- Backlit displays with lat/lon data
- Selectable Dual and TriWatch modes
- Logs up to 10 distress calls and 20 individual DSC calls.
- Selectable 25/1-watt transmit power
- $179; lowrance.com
Humminbird 898c SI Combo
With a 7-inch display, this mid-size combination chartplotter and fishfinder takes full advantage of Humminbird’s side-imaging and DualBeam PLUS sonar technologies, and should especially appeal to dedicated shallow water anglers. It’s also compatible with their 360 imaging system when connected with the required 360 Transducer Deployment System for a simultaneous view in all directions. GPS features include Humminbird Contour XD and Navionics compatibility.
- Dual memory card slots
- Wide/narrow cone split screen
- Selective fish ID+
- Freeze frame with the ability to mark structure on side imaging
- Optional network modules: WeatherSense, CannonLink and InterLink
- $1,499.99; humminbird.com
Icom IC-M72 Handheld VHF
Compact and ultra-rugged, this handheld delivers a hefty 6-watts of power and comes standard with a high-capacity Li-ion battery for up to 16 hours of use. A good choice for small, open craft, it’s also submersible to IPX8 standards (5 feet for 30 minutes) and is loud enough to be heard over engine noise.
- Battery life indicator
- Weather scanning and weather alert
- Built-in UT-112 compatible voice scrambler
- AutoQuake function vibrates to clear water away from speaker grill
- $199; icomamerica.com
Garmin 6212 Chartplotter
Garmin offers a staggering array of chartplotters that will network with multiple sounder and transducer options. If your dash and wallet can handle it, this system will also allow a full range of add-ons. The 6212 offers up a 12.1-inch display, comes preloaded with BlueChart g2 coastal maps and supports sonar, radar, weather and much more. The high-resolution screen and blazing fast processor give detailed views in an instant, even in bright sunlight.
- IPX7 waterproof rating
- SD card slot
- External antenna
- Multiple sounders available to add-on
- Network ready and NMEA 2000 compatible
- $3,999.99; garmin.com
Garmin GPSMAP 541s
This combination chartplotter/sonar unit is an excellent choice when space is tight. The 5-inch color display and fast drawing and panning speeds make navigation easy, and the unit supports DSC for VHF radios. Standard equipment includes a powerful, dual-beam transducer and Garmin’s See-thru technology that exposes fish hidden in cover.
- IPX7 waterproof
- SD card slot
- 80/200 kw dual beam sounder
- Pre-loaded coastal satellite-enhanced basemap
- Built-in GPS receiver
- $799.99; garmin.com
Cobra MR F45 VHF
Get all the VHF you need without breaking the bank in the MR F45. DSC-capability provides peace of mind and useful features make this VHF perform above its pay-grade. Selectable 1-watt or 25-watt output is perfect for short- or long-range communication, and function keys on the mic help you keep one hand on the wheel.
- JIS 7 waterproof rating
- Weather alert
- Dual watch function
- Adjustable backlight
- $119.95; cobra.com