Sonar to Go: A Look at Portable Sonar Units
July 30, 2012
Going on a fly-in fishing trip, a canoe trip, using a rental boat or launching your boat at a local lake -- or going ice fishing? Got sonar? To cover all these situations, a portable sonar system is the answer. Portable systems can be had in three ways: 1) Buy a portable system; 2) buy a portable case with a battery pack, or 3) make your own case to hold a sonar head and batteries. Let's take a brief look at these portable options.
Pre-packaged portable units are complete and ready to go from the retailer's shelf. The package consists of the sonar head, a case that holds the sonar head, batteries, power cord and a portable transducer that typically has a suction cup mount to stick the transducer on a boat's transom or to the side of a canoe. In winter, this same transducer can be rigged on a metal rod or wire and used while ice fishing. However, manufacturers usually have a special ice-fishing transducer available.
Some of the decisions that need to be made regarding the sonar head are similar to those that must be made when purchasing a permanent mount unit. These usually involve pixel count, screen size, power and, more recently, choice of color or monochrome screen.
You need to decide what characteristics are important to you in your sonar choice. There are small screens, mid-sized screens, and large screens to choose from; however, most large screens do not lend themselves to portable packages due to size, and availability of power packs.
Inexpensive but adequate screens have 128 to 320 vertical pixels. They usually have a power output in the range of 800 to 2500 watts of peak-to-peak power. The price range for these monochrome units is from $100 to $200. This is where the bulk of the prepackaged portable sonar units fall. Typical units from Eagle in this category are the Cuda 168, the FishEasy 245DS, and the FishMark 320. Garmin products include the Fishfinder 90 and the Fishfinder 140. Humminbird has the SmartCast RF 15, the Piranha MAX 10, the 535, the Bottomline Fishin Buddy 2202 and 4200. (Note: Johnson Outdoors acquired Humminbird and Bottomline.)
Mid-priced sonar units are less likely to be pre-packaged as a portable system, but can be made portable by purchasing a power-pack case. The portable power-packs cost $50 to $80 and usually include a suction-cup style transducer along with a battery holder and power cord. Some manufacturers offer different-sized power-pack cases to fit a variety of sonar heads.
Mid-priced sonar units typically have 240 to 600 vertical pixel counts and power outputs of 1000 to 3000 watts of peak-to-peak power. The sonar heads in this group typically are in the $200 to $500 range in addition to the cost of the power pack. If you decide that color is the way to go, expect to pay $300 to $600. Prices depend on screen size, color, and vertical pixel count. Units in this mid-priced category are the Eagle FishMark 640c, FishMark 500c and FishMark 480. Garmin has the Fishfinder 160C and Fishfinder 340C. Humminbird offers the Matrix 47 3D, the Matrix 12 and the 727. In the Lowrance lineup are the X102c, X135, X125 and the X67c. These are typical of units that can be made portable.
Also included in this portable sonar unit mid-price range are the Vexilar FL-8 and the FL-18, along with the Marcum LX-1, LX-2, LX-3 and LX-5. These units are LED flasher systems easily used as portables with the ice-fishing setups that are available.
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Some anglers may want to go with a combo unit which includes sonar and GPS. Portable units can be put together for around $400 to $700 dollars, again depending on size and screen choice. Units such as the Eagle FishElite series 642c, 640c, 500c, 502c, and 480 fit these criteria. Garmin offers the GPS Sounder 398C. Humminbird options include the 767 or the 787 c2. In the Lowrance lineup are the LMS-334c, LMS-332c and the LMS-480m.
Many anglers who already have a good sonar or combo unit on their boat remove it, buy a portable power-pack with the suction cup transducer, and create their portable system with minimum additional expense. This also gives them a unit they're already familiar with.
There are a few things to consider when selecting a portable unit. One is the type of fish you are pursuing. If you are primarily a walleye or bass fisherman, the power output of most units is adequate. Should you pursue some of those Boundary Waters or Canadian summer lake trout, a unit with 1500 to 3000 watts of peak-to-peak power better suits your needs.
Also consider your power source and battery life. A rechargeable battery requires a way to recharge it. Many of the fly-in lakes that I have been to do not have cabins with electric power. However, this is slowly changing. Last year, Nestor Falls Fly-In Outfitters began to install solar panels on some of their cabins providing some power options. I have used a 1500-watt sonar unit that ran on 8 D-cells. It worked for at least 5 days of fishing. If you're using AA batteries, your operating life is less.
Running your system with the backlight on reduces your operating time by 40 or 50 percent. Be aware that the new color TFT (Thin Film Transistor) screens use more battery power than the conventional monochrome screens. I've used a small portable color unit that ran on 8 AA batteries and found to my surprise that a set of batteries lasted for about 10 hours of fishing. In a matter of several days I was getting batteries from everybody's GPS units and flashlights. Expect to have battery life reduced by 30 to 50 percent with color screens, compared to similar monochrome screens.
Portable sonar systems allow anglers to take their fishing technology with them wherever they go and put it on virtually any kind of boat or canoe. This is a convenience for the casual fisherman and also offers technology that the avid angler has learned to expect when on the water.