Experienced anglers know that the open ocean is a featureless expanse with intermittent stretches of fertile blue water. If you’ve spent enough time out in the deep blue, then you are well aware of the fact that the small stuff can make all of the difference in the world. When it comes to locating surface feeding game fish, radar (radio detecting and ranging) is without a doubt the most important piece of equipment on your vessel. While sonar will pinpoint the location of game fish foraging below the surface and a modern GPS with give you the ability to overlay high-resolution satellite imagery and show you where everything is supposed to be, radar will reveal where everything actually is. While also extremely useful in regards to weather forecasting, collision avoidance and navigation, die-hard anglers with the proper knowledge and insight know that a powerful radar system is a deadly effective fishing tool. We can tell you from personal experience that when crossing the Gulf Stream in search of hefty yellowfin tuna, nothing can be more advantageous.


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In the desolate open ocean, a lone frigate is a welcomed sight. Photo: Steve Dougherty

In order to be consistently successful in your offshore endeavors you must know where to find the fish. Eddies, rips, current breaks, color changes and flotsam are all fish-attracting features, but no facet offers as much guidance as our feathered friends in the sky. Binoculars can help locate these kamikaze fish-finders, but even the most expensive image stabilizing optics have limitations. Good luck spotting a lone frigate miles off your starboard bow.

If you are serious about locating birds, it will serve you well to select an open array radar model. While radomes are the most commonly used units for small boaters due to their inherent size, radome units don’t offer the required power output and beamwidth to locate distant birds as effectively as an open array antenna. While more expensive and not as compact, today’s technologically advanced high-definition open array radar systems offer vast improvements over traditional analog units.

When it comes to tracking and target discrimination, the two most important specifications to consider include antenna beamwidth and radar output power. The term antennae beamwidth refers to the horizontal or vertical view of the radar pulse, and the narrower the beamwidth the greater the resolution and the more accurate the target definition. Most radome antennas have a beamwidth of 3 to 7 degrees, while open array units have a more concentrated beamwidth of 2 degrees or less. Because a wider beam will return a large, concentrated blob instead of individual marks it will be difficult to locate single targets way out in the distance. This is precisely why open array radar is your best bet for locating birds.

Transmit output power is measured by kilowatts and in years past a minimum of 10kw was sufficient for locating birds, although with recently released technology anglers can spot flocks of birds out to 6-miles with a 4kw radar. Where you mount your radar will also determine its performance abilities, since mounting height and target height are determining factors in visible range.

To get the scoop on how to properly tune your radar, we contacted the professionals at Furuno. They were quick to tell us that even inexperienced radar operators can quickly learn how to adjust their settings to locate birds. Select mid or long range on your radar and adjust the gain until you see noise on the display. Gain is used to manage interference and the proper setting for locating distant birds is different for every installation because of the numerous variables involved. As a rule, if the gain is set too high it will decrease the radar’s sensitivity and hinder your unit’s visual acuity. If you have the gain set too low there will be small or individual targets you won’t be able to detect. With the improper settings birds will return as inconsistent yellow marks with red dots moving in random directions. You will have no clue as to what you are looking at. If your particular unit has the capability to operate in true motion, it will be in your favor to use it. This will reveal objects moving in accordance with your vessel and will help you understand whether the birds you’re chasing are stopped and feeding, or on the move. When operating in true motion, be sure to turn on your target trail function and set it for long trails to increase your radar’s tracking ability.

As with all aspects of successful saltwater angling, practice makes perfect. After a short learning curve you will become a bird-finding fanatic. For inexperienced radar operators practice these techniques on a clear and calm day. Do yourself a favor and visually locate a flock of birds and then start to toy with your radar settings. Once you understand what you are looking at and have established a solid understanding of the echo returns, you will then know precisely what to look for on future fishing trips.