Yesterday I took my new pontoon boat out on Horsetooth Reservoir. On board was my Humminbird Smartcast RF30, a ?wristwatch and bobber? form of fish finder, and a new Humminbird Matrix Series 17 fishfinder.
Matrix 17: http://www.humminbird.com/products.asp?ID=376
The Smartcast is a small fish finder where the sonar transducer is located in a green
bobber looking thing that you cast out. The display is located in something that you wear on your wrist like a watch. The sonar unit communicates with the watch using an RF wireless link. The screen is 48v by 32h black and white pixels. Operating frequency for the sonar is 115 KHz with a 90 degree beam spread. Sonar power level is not listed, but it?s really small. Max depth is listed as 100 feet.
The Matrix 17 is a whole ?nother beast. It?s a ?normal? fishfinder with a 5 inch diagonal screen with 320x320 resolution and 12 levels of grayscale. It has a dual-frequency sonar, 200 KHz with a 20 degree spread and 83 KHz/60 degrees. Max power is 300 watts RMS, 2400 watts peak to peak. It also has a water temperature sensor and can connect to a GPS receiver. Normally, power is supplied through the boats normal 12v system.
At this point you?re probably thinking to yourself that this isn?t a fare comparison. It?s like comparing a toy car to a Ferrari. And you?d be half right. What makes this more fair is that the Smartcast is about $80?on par with several ?normal? fish finders. The Matrix 17 can be had for about $170, a little more but not out of the question. So if you?re riding the fence between a Smartcast and a normal fish finder, or if you just want to know what to expect from a fish finder then this is the review for you.
I got the Smartcast last year, and used it only a couple of times. While novel and interesting, I soon discovered that it has several shortcomings. The main one is that the range of the wireless link is less than what I can normally cast. While the manual says it?s good for 75 feet, I would guess that it?s closer to 50. The next problem is that while it can function as a normal bobber it makes a big splash as it lands. For the most part it?s impractical to use while actually catching fish. I also never once got it to show me where the fish are. And the limited display means that it doesn?t do a good job of telling me what the lake bottom is like (rocky, muddy, etc). The best use for it that I found was to survey the water before you start fishing, trying to find drop-offs and such. But for finding structure or fish it didn?t work that well.
When I first tried out the pontoon boat I used the Smartcast on it. Again, it couldn?t tell me where structure was or what the bottom was made of. Since it was within 5 feet of the watch, RF range wasn?t an issue. The troubling thing was that it never once showed a fish, and about 25% of the time it didn?t show anything at all (no bottom, no ?nuthin). It was then that I decided that I needed a better fish finder, and that I could do a side by side comparison.
For the comparison the Smartcast ?bobber? was simply dragged in the water from a short line tied to the boat. The watch was put on one of the metal tubes of the boat frame (I?m still trying to get rid of the tan line from my normal watch). For the Matrix 17 I made some mounting brackets. The sonar transducer was mounted under the seat, and the display to one side of the seat. Power was supplied via ten D-Cell batteries.
My first impression was during assembly of the Matrix 17 mounting brackets. When I powered it up, I could hear an audible click coming from the transducer. Just for grins, I pressed the transducer to my hand, then my arm. This thing was powerful! I could almost use the sonar beam to trigger my funny bone! That?s the last time I?ll do that.
Once in the water, and floating away from the boat ramp, I immediately saw a difference between the two units. The Smartcast immediately starting displaying the correct depth, but the Matrix 17 was giving errors until about 6 feet deep. Deeper than 6 feet the Matrix was dead on, but shallower than that the Smartcast won out. This was the first and last time the Smartcast outperformed the Matrix 17.
Before this trip, it appeared that the Smartcast could only be used as a depth finder. So I was mostly interested in how these two units compared in finding the depth. The Matrix 17 consistently displayed the depth, while the Smartcasts? depth reading sometimes wobbled. While floating in the same spot on calm waters both units would display the same depth, but sometimes the Smartcast would give readings up to 10 feet deeper for a moment then go back to the correct depth. I attributed some of this to the bobber rocking side to side. But at other times it did this when the bobber was absolutely still. This inconsistentcy of the Smartcast would be a theme for the day.
Next test was to see if the sonar could pick out a lure dropped directly under the boat. For this I used an about 2 inch long Rattlin? Rapala (model #RNR05), dropped on an 8 pound mono line. As expected, the Smartcast never saw it. The 200 KHz beam of the Matrix 17 saw it, but the 83 KHz beam did not. Curiously, however, the 200 KHz beam didn?t see the lure until it was about 37 feet down. This is due to the 20 degree beam spread. At 37 feet down, the radius of the beam spread is 6.5 feet. And 6.5 feet happens to be the distance from the transducer (located under my seat) to the rod tip. And when the wind was blowing the drift of the boat would move the lure out of the beam entirely. So, the moral of the story is to pay attention to the beam spread! Some of the cheaper fish finders have only a single frequency transducer that has a 20 degree spread. When fishing water less than 40 feet this might not be of much help.
About this time, things on the lake were heating up, literally. When LCD?s get hot they tend to wash out and become unreadable. The Smartcast did just that. I couldn?t read it at all. However, the Matrix 17 and my Garmin GPSMAP76CS were perfectly fine.
At no time did the Smartcast show me any fish, although the Matrix 17 did. Once the Matrix 17 said there was a large fish 6.5 feet under the boat (200 KHz beam, 20 degree spread would put it almost within sight). I looked down, but didn?t see it.
Another thing is that the Smartcast is spec?d for a 100 foot maximum depth. I found this to be optimistic. I found that it was spotty at 80 feet, and totally unusable at 90 feet. The Matrix 17 is spec?d at 1000 foot max, and worked fine at the 125 feet that I encountered on this trip.
The Smartcast beeps when it changes the depth range displayed on the screen. For example, it might be showing 0 to 40 feet but as you go deeper it will change to show 0 to 60 feet. When it does this it beeps. There?s no way to turn this off. So I got annoyed and turned the whole thing off. I figured that since it didn?t show any fish, the display was washed out, and it was beeping all the time that it was more useful turned off than on.
Conclusion: The Smartcast ($80) is only useful when finding the depth of the water within about 50 feet from shore. It?s about useless for anything else. And when using it on a boat there are better and more appropriate things out there. The Matrix 17 is about the best value in it?s price range ($170-ish). There are many other models (cheaper and more expensive) in the Matrix line worth looking at. There are other fish finders in the $80-120 range that look useful, but pay attention to the beam spread. Display resolution isn?t as important as black and white vs. grayscale displays. Grayscale is an order of magnitude better, in my opinion, for judging the bottom makeup. I also looked at the Fishing Buddy from Bottom Line. While that?s an interesting unit, it has a 9 degree sonar spread, less than half the sonar power, and the mounting system is better for float tubes than for pontoon boats.
Oh, I almost forgot. I hooked up two fish (lost one). The first one was a ?religion fish?. When it was getting close to the boat I praised god. Then when my knot came undone and it swam away with the lure I cursed like the devil. My best estimate was that it was a 20-24 inch rainbow. As it got close to the boat I got all happy, then it saw the boat and took a run for it. At that time my line went ?tink? and that?s all there was. The next fish I got was a 15 inch walleye. My first walleye ever. Both fish were hooked before 9 am, and I had nothing else for the rest of the day. I was focusing mainly on fishing deep and playing with the sonar. There were other guys fishing more shallow spots that were catching stuff past noon.