The unfortunate reality is that few of us can afford to spend half the time that’s needed to learn even a fraction of the functions that our chart plotter, fish finder and radar can perform. Or we spend weeks at a time learning the ins and outs of our machines, only to forget how to use them during the off-season. That’s a shame because even though much of the data stuck inside these gizmos is useless to some, there’s also plenty of valuable stuff buried deep that can help you run your boat more effectively – and thus help you catch more fish.
One way we can overcome the problem is to sink some time into learning what’s what and customizing our displays. Virtually all modern multi-display electronics suites allow you to customize the layout and views displayed on each screen. And if you make the effort to customize them once, the value lasts for the lifetime of the system. In certain cases, usually when the electronics manufacturer left the base-screen setup to an engineer who knows a hell of a lot more about microchips than marlin, your screen starts off with a slew of information that you really don’t need. So get rid of those screen wasters, and plug in the prime data – in the long run, you’ll catch more fish by doing so.
Setup Problem #1
A lack of echo trails on the radar screen.
Most all units come with the ability to display trails on radar targets, and almost no one uses them. However, radar trails are incredibly helpful in determining when radar targets change course or speed. So helpful that in the old days, mariners would physically mark trails directly on the screen with a grease pencil.
Set your radar to show trails. In crowded waterways a trail that lasts only 30 seconds or a minute is probably all you’ll need. But in open waters, switch over to a three-minute trail to see any course changes or abrupt maneuvers from any vessels in your vicinity.
Setup Problem #2
Temperature displayed in a numeric format.
Yes, of course you want to know the surface temperature of the water. Unfortunately, with small numerals sitting in one corner of the screen, you might not notice an abrupt temperature break for several minutes. By the time you remind yourself to eyeball the water temp, that break could be a mile behind you. And let’s be real here, guys; it’s all too easy to forget what the water temp was just a few minutes ago, so sometimes a change of a degree or two doesn’t even register.
**Ditch numeric temp displays, and use a graph to chart your temperature changes. All fish finders come with this option these days, and many anglers will flip electro pages to look at graphical displays to get a solid read on the history of the temperature changes they’ve experienced during a trip. What most captains fail to remember (or never figure out in the first place) is that on most modern units, you can create a custom data box. Size it however you like, and place an always-visible temp graph inside that box. You might ask why bother when you could simply keep flipping back to the graph page. Because the physical change in the line graph will catch your eye much quicker than the ever-changing numbers on the screen. And with the graph always visible, you’re more likely to notice a break as soon as you hit it – and you won’t need to remind yourself to keep an eye on the number or go back to look at a different screen.
Setup Problem #3
Your unit is set to Speed Through Water (STW) instead of Speed Over Ground (SOG).
Yeah, yeah, I know – a lot of fellows like to watch STW because it gives them a better read on trolling speeds. This can count for a lot, especially when you’re slow-trolling and a knot or two of current makes all the difference in the world. However, here’s the problem with this: The paddle wheels that provide STW are unreliable. They frequently clog, develop marine growth and rarely work accurately for more than a few weeks.
Change your display to read SOG only, and make microscopic trolling-speed adjustments by watching the action on your baits and/or lures. Most good captains already know to set speed according to the spread, not vice versa. And there isn’t a speedometer on the face of the planet that can do a better job than your eyeball when it comes to finding the perfect speed to make your ballyhoo swim like it’s still alive or help a live goggle-eye keep pace without expiring.
Setup Problem #4
Slow scrolling speeds on your fish finder.
Why is it that most fish finders come out of the box set to medium scroll? I’ve been on boats with knowledgeable captains only to hear that the one complaint they have about their fish finder is the slow scroll speed – until I started pressing buttons and changed it for them. A slow scroll speed reduces detail level and can cause multiple targets to “stack” and appear as a single target. It’s no different than the number of frames per second in a video: The more there are, the better the picture will be. In fact, the only reason ever to slow down scroll speed is to maintain a visible history on screen for a longer time period. But if you didn’t notice a baitball or drop-off before it passed across the screen, you must not be paying much attention in the first place.
Set the speed as high as it’ll go. All fish finders come with this necessary adjustment; you just have to figure out where it’s buried.
Setup Problem #5
No GDOP (Geometric Dilution of Precision) on the GPS’s main screen.
GDOP tells you the spacing of the satellites and the resulting accuracy of your fix. (Generally speaking, the lower the number, the better: One is considered good; three or higher means you shouldn’t place much faith in your fix.) On most units, GDOP is buried deep in the menus – and on some units you can view it. Truth be told, modern GPS is so darn good that you may not ever need to question its accuracy. But unintentional jamming, solar flares and bad fixes do happen occasionally, and you’ll sure want to know about it – and having GDOP front and center can save the day.
If your unit allows, add a data box with your GDOP data inside. In many cases, however, this won’t be possible. Instead, you’ll have to figure out how to get to the GDOP in your unit’s menu and memorize the path. Then if you ever grow suspicious or something seems amiss, you’ll know how to check the accuracy of your fix quickly.
Setup Problem #6
No numeric navigation data on the fish-finder screen on combination fish-finder/GPS units.
No matter how large a combo unit is, when you start splitting into multiple screens, it gets tough to see detail. Most of us like to fish with the fish-finder screen front and center, but fish finders left to the initial setup don’t always show the basic numeric data you need at all times, like SOG and COG.
Unless your unit is ancient (read: more than five years old) or cheap, you can customize the fish-finder screen by adding some more data boxes. Place them in a little-used area of the screen, like the lower left corner, and they won’t interfere with your view of the fish one bit. You may need to reach for the instruction manual to get the job done, but once you save the setup, you won’t have to go through the process again. Then you’ll be able to utilize the entire screen for fish finding instead of splitting it up.
Will it be a bit of a pain to set up your units to show all these things? Probably. Will it take a little time and effort? Sure. But not nearly as much as learning how to whiz with precision aim in an impaired virtual world – and the rewards are a heck of a lot bigger.