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August 24, 2007

Budget Electronics Systems

These three price-level scenarios will give you all the electronics you need to catch fish - at prices that won't break the bank

In a perfect world, we'd all have limitless supplies of cash that we could dedicate to our favorite pastime without regard to the mundane necessities of life - like food, mortgage, children's educations, etc.

However, you won't find Heather Locklear riding shotgun in your Ferrari GTB Fiorano as you head to the docks for an offshore trip aboard your skippered custom 60 because of something called reality. We can express reality as an equation: Reality equals what you want, minus what you have to spend.

When it comes to boat electronics, yes, we all want a 15-inch waterproof display, NMEA 2000 connected, full-tilt-boogie electronic system that does everything automatically. But many of us must accept our destinies - fishing with equipment that doesn't achieve such stellar heights.

Fortunately, today's lower-end electronics allow us to find fish well enough to enhance our catch-to-effort ratio.

Decisions and Priorities
Given a limited budget, you must ask yourself three questions and supply cold, hard answers: What do you usually fish for? Where do you fish? And what are your bottom-line electronics needs?

If you sight-fish the flats, spending lots of cash on a quality chart plotter/GPS that can bring you back to a hot spot buried in the mangroves is a higher priority than a high-price fish finder. You'll still want and need a fish finder, but it needn't be your most expensive piece of equipment.

You say you're a bay fisherman? How important is a chart plotter when you mostly fish within sight of land? A decent handheld GPS/chart plotter will more than suffice. Do you need radar? Well, if you're fishing the sounds and open-water bays of the Northeast or Pacific Northwest, fog can be a major problem, so maybe you should spend more on your radar, followed by your fish finder and GPS.

At the offshore level, things get dicier insofar as choosing an economical rig. Safety determines you should have everything available. But there are ways to save that may not necessarily be perfect, but will allow you to have the equipment you need to get you on fish or home in a pinch.

While I name names in the following rig suggestions, keep in mind that many of the players offer similar items at around the same prices. Cobra, ICOM, Uniden and Standard Horizon all make excellent VHFs, and it seems as if all are getting into chart plotters. Garmin is best known for its GPS gear, Humminbird for its work in high-tech fish-finding technology, Lowrance for its fish finders and connectivity, Navman for its chart plotters, and Furuno and JRC for their radars, but you can always find comparable units from other manufacturers at competitive prices.

It's no different at any stage of  the market. Maptech, Raymarine, Simrad, Furuno, Si-tex Interphase, Northstar, etc., all excel at what they do, or they would not be in business. The recreational-marine electronics market is actually quite small, and no one stays around (and no individual unit stays around) if they  manufacture sub-par products.

I've based costs of the following packages on manufacturer's suggested retail prices or manufacturers's advertised prices. Judicious shopping, single-brand purchasing and good old-fashioned flea-market bargaining should be able to reduce costs - in some cases, especially for higher-priced items, dramatically. And remember that nobody ever pays MSRP for marine electronics. It's just for a ballpark comparison.

Level One
Thankfully, miniaturization in electronics can provide you with all you need at an unbelievable price. Level one of the basic rig can have you fully rigged for between $400 and $700. This package goes with a Cobra MR HH300VP handheld VHF ($120), a Lowrance X52 fish finder ($200 with transducer, about $150 without) and a Garmin handheld GPS 72 ($130). So, what do you get with this?

The Cobra 300 (probably replaced by the 325 by the time you read this ? at an additional $10 or so) is a 1- or 5-watt unit, featuring all the weather channels, weather alert, instant 16/9 and good illumination. It's also submersible. Why a handheld? Why not? VHF is line of sight. What more does a bay fisherman with a 16-footer need? Plus it travels when you move up in boats. If you have a few bucks to spare, I'd go for the ICOM M34 at $180. It's waterproof and - even better - it floats. Only a couple of inches out of the water, mind you, but float it does.

I've had two bottom- to mid-line Lowrance fish finders that - to be perfectly honest - I abused badly. Both continued to work long after they should have in my opinion, so I'll stand by the statement that Lowrance units are sturdy buggers. Its X52 is available with or without a 200 kHz transducer with a built-in temp sensor, has a high-definition 4-inch monochrome screen (16-level gray scale) and backlit keypads, punches out 188 watts RMS, can handle boat speed while still displaying fish, and is NMEA 2000-compliant; you can keep it to use as a backup on the Cabo 40 that you'll be able to buy by saving all this money.

Or buy Garmin's handheld GPS 72 and a mounting bracket and attach it to your dash or glove-box door. The 72 is waterproof and floats, and it comes with     charting as well as celestial, tidal and solar timetables. It holds 500 waypoints. If you can't get back to land with this regardless of the condition, you have other navigation problems. This unit can be yours for easily under $500 and possibly around $400.

Level Two
Raising the bar to $750 to $1,250 allows you to move up to fixed-mount equipment. We start with Uniden's UM525 ($200) and a Humminbird 917c Combo ($1,000).

The UM525 has a 3-inch (diagonal) display, so even those at the bifocal stage can read the screen. It's a Class D DSC unit; has a built-in 30-watt loudhailer, a programmable scan and triple-watch capabilities (it can monitor three channels); and can be affixed out of the way, utilizing Uniden's remote WHAM mounting unit (an additional $130).

The 917c Combo gets the nod for three reasons: It has a fish finder, a chart plotter and a 7-inch screen, which makes the plotter considerably more usable. It also has split-screen mode, so you can search with both features before going to all fish finder. This is a 500-watt (RMS) unit with Humminbird's DualBeam PLUS featuring a 20-degree, 200 kHz beam and an 83 kHz, 60-degree beam. The temperature sensor resides in the transducer, coastal cartography is built-in, and it's Navionics Gold-compatible. Re-draw on the chart plotter is quick. There are options that can boost this unit a few hundred dollars, but you won't need them.

Level Three
By virtue of usage, things have to get a little more expensive here because you and your out-of-sight-of-land offshore pocket sport-fisherman have to be able to survive in that environment. Let's jump to between $2,000 and $3,000. You'll want radar, so let's see ?

I was a bit torn on this one, but I'm going to go with the Standard Horizon VHF/chart plotter, the CPV350. It has a 7-inch screen and a fish-finder option. Retail is $1,800 without the fish finder (another $500), although you can probably find both for about 20 percent off, if not more. Radar is a JRC 1500 or a Furuno 1623; both are dome units with monochrome displays.

The fish finder is a dual-frequency black-box unit with an Airmar puck at the end (50 to 200 kHz); this transducer allows the fish finder to automatically detect what's on the business end, so it's a plug-and-play setup. The display puts out a very defined image, and the chart plotter handles C-Map NT+ or MAX cartography with 1,000 routes (50 waypoints each). The VHF is a Class D DSC with polling, and it has a 30-watt hailer, four foghorn signals, and bell and whistle signals, as well as all the usual NOAA weather and 16/9 channel features.

As for the radar: To be honest, the only radar I've used is commercial Furuno gear. Every expert and/or user I've spoken to about radar has said that the color radars are the best way to go for target discrimination, but with this budget, it's going to be monochrome if you want to play with the big boys. The JRC 2 kW unit lists for around $1,600, though you can probably find it for about 60 percent of that; ditto with the Furuno 1623, which lists around $1,500. Either way, you have a very good radar unit, and if you're running offshore, that's indispensable.

As noted earlier, everybody makes just about everything everyone else makes. In an ideal world, we'd have room for individual screens for radar and then the chart-plotter/fish-finder combo.

My ideal setup, cost no object? The fish finder would definitely be a Furuno searchlight sounder, augmented by a Humminbird side-scan unit. I'm not big on chart plotters, but you have to admit the 15-inch Maptech touch screen, now in its third or fourth generation, and all its add-ons works unbelievably well. Northstar and Navman also have some excellent stuff (including the Northstar touch screen, which I've played with at boat shows), as do Raymarine and Simrad. Then there's any of the NMEA 2000-compatible screens like those 15-inchers from VEI.

There's a ton of good stuff out there, and with cost no object, it would be hard for me to choose.

The point is, if cost is an object, you actually can outfit a boat with the right gear that will definitely do the job for not a lot of money, and what I've shown you here is but one way to do it. Remember the point of all this: catching fish. And if you don't have enough money left over to buy gas, well, then your electronics become rather moot, as does your fishing.