Choosing the Right Electronics for Your Helm

Pros offer wise guidelines for making electronics decisions.


When it comes time to set up a new helm with electronics, there are considerations that can help you stretch your budget and make more efficient selections. New anglers and first-time boat buyers are likely to feel awash in products, hype and decisions to be made about where to plunk down their dollars for electronics to aid their fishing and safety. But even old hands benefit from a fresh look at new technology.

We talk to three experienced experts on different coasts, each with some particular priorities based on the peculiarities of his region and personal experience. Here lies valuable advice no matter how many or few years you’ve spent at the helm.

Down East

Eric LaRose, technical sales director for Navtronics, in York, Maine, starts logically with the multi-function display (MFD) when walking customers through the selection process. “The newer systems are networked,” he says, “and those are the ones that hold the best technology right now.” He adds that LCD screens are the expensive component, and there are significant cost savings on a multi-purpose machine when you combine the fish finder and GPS on one display.

Navtronics both sells and installs a wide selection of gear, carrying products from some 16 electronics manufacturers. “We don’t favor any one manufacturer,” LaRose says. “There are advantages with each.” These are matched to a customer’s particular style of fishing. The GPS/plotter will get you to the fishing spots, he explains, but once you’re there, it’s time to recognize preferences. “For sight-fishing, the GPS is what you want to get you there and back again. If you are bottomfishing, or fishing tuna or stripers, we’ll put a little more weight on the kind of fish finder we go with.”

The next consideration is radar, says LaRose. This is especially important in Maine, where fog is a fact of life, but equally so for fishermen who plan on leaving before sunup or returning after dark. “And if you intend to paint feeding birds, we recommend a high-powered radar, a 6 kilowatt open array,” he says.Another first-line purchase should be a VHF radio, a critical safety device. He admonishes, “The antenna is really important. Get a heavy-duty 4- or 8-footer. Spend good money on the antenna, even more than you spend on the radio.”

Perpetual Summer

Bobby Krell of Langer-Krell Marine Electronics has outfitted just about every type of boat that fishes out of Miami. In the excitement of outfitting a new helm with electronics, some of the most important gear is often overlooked, he says. The first thing an angler should buy is an EPIRB. “Every boat that fishes should have one. Things inevitably go wrong. You run over your anchor line; the boat turns stern to the seas, fills up and flips over; and the only thing that still works is the EPIRB.” In that case, you activate the device, and help will likely be on the way. Without that to fall back on in an emergency, rescue, and perhaps survival, becomes a matter of luck.

He’s also big on infrared night-vision cameras. “We sell a lot of FLIR equipment,” says Krell. “I don’t care how good your eyes are, it is hard to see through a windshield at night. Night-vision video is especially important behind a windshield like on an express boat. This equipment gives you a full field of vision on a video screen and makes a tremendous difference in boating at night.”

Pacific Northwest

Ken Jacobsen, co-owner of J & G Marine Supply, in Tacoma, Washington, says display-screen size is a prime consideration when setting up a helm. “The first conversation to have is, ‘How many things are you going to do on the display?’ Add radar and satellite weather, and you need to think about a larger screen.”

As enclosed pilothouses are customary in the Pacific Northwest, visibility from a distance is an issue unless you come out of the cockpit to check instruments. “If you look at your MFD through the door from the cockpit, you need a 10- or 12-inch screen,” he says.

A tool emerged a couple of years ago that’s particularly useful in Puget Sound. “AIS is big here,” says Jacobsen. “Puget Sound is busy with ferry traffic. Ships come down the sound and the straits where people are fishing.” Because AIS works on VHF, it doesn’t depend on line of sight like radar, so AIS signals appear even when ships are obscured by land. “It is very helpful to see the ships coming on the AIS before you see them round the point.”

VHF technology with built-in AIS, such as that offered by Standard Horizon, is a simple thing to add without having to buy another antenna. Jacobsen says, “Anytime we sell a new boat package or upgrade a radio, we sell the one with the AIS receiver built in. We have sold hundreds of them.”

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit