Is Side Imaging Worth It? Do I really need it?

We frequently see this question on the internet, and it leaves me baffled. Is side imaging worth it? Well, if you don’t have a boat and live in the desert, I guess not.

If it requires you to miss your mortgage payment, then no, it is not. Yes, I’m being a little facetious. But “worth it” or value, to put it another way, is all relative.

Do you need side imaging to catch great fish every session? Of course not; all you need is your fishing knowledge, rod, reel, and some time.

Suppose you regularly fish from your boat, including the more shallow fishing grounds like rivers, creeks, lakes, and estuaries, and you have the budget to purchase quality gear. 

In that case, side imaging can be an awesome addition to your boat fishing tactics.

Sonar and fishfinder tech has advanced significantly in the last couple of decades, and side imaging, in particular, has been a revelation. 

The images from the top-shelf side image systems are outstanding, revealing fantastic details of the subsurface on either side of the boat.

Let’s have a look at why side imaging is such a valuable tool to certain types of anglers, but maybe not so much to others. 

But first, we should give a basic outline of what side imaging does.

What is Side Imaging on a Fish Finder?

Side imaging shows features and structure on either side of the boat, i.e.,  port and starboard. 

It’s a horizontal view that can reach as far as 400 feet on either side of the boat, with depths of up to 300 feet and beyond depending on model, transducer, frequency, and other factors.

Down imaging, the more common sonar fish finder imaging shows anglers what is happening directly beneath the boat.

What is Side Scan Sonar Used For?

Side scanning is used primarily by those who fish closed waters. Boat speed and depth limitations can hamper side imaging versatility out to sea. 

However, offshore side-scanning can deliver excellent results, particularly when used in concert with down imaging. 

In combination, the details you get of the ocean floor and environs can be phenomenal.

It’s ideal for shallow waters, working rivers, creeks, and estuaries, scanning the channels to the banks at a slow pace for fish and the structure that holds them.

If I had to choose between side imaging and down imaging for creeks and rivers, I’d invest more cash and go with side imaging. 

See Also: Best Side Imaging Fish Finders

Is Side Scan Imaging Worth the Extra Money?

two fishing boats near the shore

As I stated in the intro, “value” and “worth” are all relative. Systems can vary from 300 dollars plus to 5000 dollars plus. 

So value becomes a complex series of questions relative to the individual, their financial status, fishing passion, and application.

It’s important to remember that a $25 spinning reel is capable of catching the same fish as a $400 spin reel of the same basic critical capacities.

While the same notion is only loosely true of side scanners, the principle is the same.  

Essentially, if you get a side imaging scanner that you can afford and it is suitable for your fishing application, then you are sure to get plenty of value from it.

Screen detail is next level with side-scan imaging. I’m yet to meet anybody that’s not impressed by a good side imaging display.

On a personal level, if I fished the rivers, lakes, and creeks from my boat or kayak at least a few times a month, I would have a side imaging unit with me.

Ultimately, time is something busy people have little of. 

A good fish finder will save you time because it helps you locate the fish you’re targeting faster than educated speculation. For this reason, side imaging is worth the extra money.

How Much Does a Side Imaging Fish Finder Cost?

I feel that side imaging gets a bad rap about its price point. Relative to its amazing results in a broad range of applications, anglers can achieve huge benefits for as little as 350 to 400 dollars.

It can also depend on whether you have a down imaging system already installed in your boat that simply requires a software and transducer upgrade.

Here’s an example of some extremes. 

A Simrad GO12 XSE is an example of all the bells and whistles. This is a mid-price Lowrance Elite FS 9,  and a Humminbird 409640-1 Helix 5, which at a touch over 500 dollars, is a popular price point.

The cost of side imaging is often seen as a disadvantage and has likely dissuaded many budget-driven anglers who could really benefit from the technology.

To gauge its cost, one should compare it to the money we spend on other aspects of our fishing.

For example, we could buy two side imaging units for the price of some spinning reels. 

For those who fish offshore and travel long distances on big lakes and rivers, we can easily run through $500 and far more just on fuel.

The reputation of being expensive is undeserved relative to the cash we splash annually on our favorite passion.

Benefits and Disadvantages of Side Imaging

two people on a fishing boat in the middle of the water

Like everything, there are benefits and compromises when selecting fish-finding technology. The more money you have to invest, the more you can eliminate compromises.

All machinery will have limitations, depending on the desired application. It can also have benefits. Here’s a list of basic pros and cons.

Benefits of Side Imaging

  • Scans the water on either side of your boat well beyond casting distance. You can imagine working a bank and seeing the fish and structure between you and the bank you’re targeting. Read our top choices of bank fish finders here
  • Allows you to scan a wider area. For example, a basic unit could allow you to scan as much as 800 yards of the target zone. 400 port, 400 starboard. You may find the fish aren’t between you and the bank but hanging out at the drop over by the channel on the other side of your boat. Effectively, you can scan the full width of narrower creeks and rivers.
  • Side imaging, depending on the model, frequency and transducer will provide far more detailed images, helping you identify fish-holding structure and the fish as well far more easily.
  • Side imaging systems will often include down imaging and other great features such as mapping and plotting.

Side Imaging Disadvantages

  • The only big disadvantage of side imaging is that it must be operated at slower speeds of 1 to 2.5 knots. You can scan on the run, and you will be impacted by fast-moving winds and currents that push your boat beyond these speeds. Often an issue offshore.
  • Side imaging is not effective for under the boat. But that’s not really a disadvantage, despite many saying it is a disadvantage. Bicycles don’t fly, but you could hardly call that a disadvantage – it’s simply not a task it was designed to perform. Moreover, most side imaging machines are equipped with down scan anyway.

Side Imaging vs Down Imaging

Side imaging delivers images from either side of the boat, whereas down imaging delivers images from underneath the boat.

Both are very useful across a broad range of fishing applications. Many dedicated anglers have access to both on their boat or kayak these days.

A simplified explanation for typical applications would be that offshore anglers are better served with down imaging, where those fishing closed waters will often get better value from side imaging.

Both types have their own set of learning hurdles but are easy enough to master with practice, experience, and experimentation in different conditions.

Base model down imaging is more accessibly priced than base model side imaging.

Also Read: Side Imaging Versus Down Imaging

Frequently Asked Questions

Does side imaging work for ice fishing?

Yes, side imaging can work for ice fishing. What is important is the seal you get between the ice and your transducer.

Sonar will not work effectively through air, so it is critical to get a clean seal, free of air bubbles and rough ice for a clean image.

Does side imaging work in deep water?

Side imaging works in deeper water. Depth capacities will depend on the model of fish finder, the transducer, and the frequency, but it is possible to read good side images up to 300 feet.

Does side imaging work in shallow water

Side imaging is excellent for shallow water and will work in as little as 2 feet of water, showing crystal clear images.

For those who fish the shallows, such as shallow sand and mud banks, grass beds, and weed beds, side imaging can be an exceptional tool for locating the fish and the places they take cover.

Does side imaging show fish? 

Most of us are aware of the bananas, or arches that fish show on our down imaging sonars. Sometimes they are half arches and less depending on where they are in the beam.

For side imaging scanners, fish show up as brighter lines or patches that contrast to the bottom. 

You can also identify fish by their shadows, revealing their depth in the water column.

Learning to use frequency changes and image contrast to identify fish is the fastest path to mastering fish identification on a side scanner. 

Side Scanning Verdict

So, is side imaging worth it?

For any angler with a boat who regularly fishes closed waters, a side scanner is a brilliant tool for locating fish and the structure and cover they call home.

While often considered expensive, this is a little bit of a myth, as it’s compared to down imaging sonar which provides something totally different.

The side scanner is a great tool for passionate anglers looking to find fish faster and spend more time fishing than searching for them. 

While it may be cheating, it proves to be a great tool to catch more, and better fish, more often.

Also Read: Reading a fishfinder screen

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Sean Ward

Hey there, my name is Sean – OnTrack Fishing is my site. I’m based in the UK yet I’ve been fortunate enough to catch bass in the States, barramundi in Australia, trout here at home and carp on the Danube delta. If I’m not fishing, or talking about fishing, then….I’m probably asleep.


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