KEVIN VANDAM: Upgrading Older Boats With New Tech (Part 1) - Major League Fishing
KEVIN VANDAM: Upgrading Older Boats With New Tech (Part 1)
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KEVIN VANDAM: Upgrading Older Boats With New Tech (Part 1)

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January 24, 2022 • Kevin VanDam • Angler Columns

After my last column about purchasing used tournament boats, I’ve had a couple of questions about upgrading older or smaller boats with current equipment and technology like trolling motors, electronics, and shallow water anchors. Some anglers are sentimental about their 20-year-old bass boats while others fish from smaller, economical aluminum boats. 

The great news is no matter the age or size of your boat, you can upgrade the equipment and electronics on it to make it a modern-day fish-finding machine.  So, the question becomes: if you are a weekend angler, just how much technological firepower do you really need to get “up to date?”

Watching top bass pros on TV use four big-screen electronics to find fish can be a little intimidating to the average angler. Most weekend anglers simply cannot afford to shell out $15,000 just for new electronics for an 18-foot aluminum boat. 

So, I want to shed some light on this topic over the next two columns. Perhaps you own an older boat or a smaller aluminum rig that needs a technological renovation. This is for anglers who want enough electronic prowess to compete in weekend team tournaments or Phoenix Bass Fishing League events without having to buy a new tournament rig.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this, I should point out a few things. First, when it comes to updating your boat with new equipment, I would advise purchasing within one company or family of related brands for your upgrades, especially regarding trolling motors and graphs. 

A decade ago, trolling motors and graphs were completely separate entities. However, in the modern era, having trolling motors and graphs that communicate with each other is a trend that offers some big advantages. Autopilot functions in the trolling motor that self-navigate to waypoints or follow depth contours from the graph are examples of such benefits. Minn Kota and Humminbird have done a great job in uniting a trolling motor and graphs on the same network with i-Pilot Link to create the One-Boat Network. 

Also, you need to have adequate battery power and good wiring to power modern fishing devices. This new era of equipment and electronics has larger power demands. Adding a couple of high-powered, big-screen electronics and a shallow water anchor to your cranking battery will require ample reserve capacity. 

As a professional angler, I run lithium batteries because they’re double the life span for half the weight. However, lithium batteries are pricey and may not be in a weekend angler’s budget. So, no matter the type of battery you choose, (lead/acid, AGM or lithium) if the size of your cranking battery is a Group 24, just know you’ll have to upgrade that to at least a Group 27, or better yet, a Group 31 to run these new components. The same is advisable for your trolling motor batteries, but more on that later.   

Also, check your wiring. If you have 20-year-old ultra-thin wire running to your console, then splitting off to livewells, bilge pumps, lights and electronics, you will probably need to run some fresh 10 or 8 AWG marine-grade wire straight to your new electronics in the console and the bow. Such dedicated wiring will allow your electronics to work at peak performance. One of the biggest mistakes in upgrading older boats with new equipment is not providing a solid foundation of power and wiring to make the new equipment function properly. 


So, let’s jump into the topic that everyone wants to discuss these days in terms of fish-finding: electronics, graphs, sonars or whatever you choose to call them. This has been a hot fishing topic lately because in the last three or four years there has been a sudden windfall of vast improvements to electronics, from screen size to image clarity to super detailed mapping. 

Watching a professional angler consult three different screens in the bow for fishing information looks really expensive. But here’s the best news for weekend anglers about all those electronics: you don’t really need all of them.

The reason pros have so many screens is because they want to dedicate each unit to maximizing visibility of a particular function, usually one for mapping and the others for different types of sonar. Truth is, most of what the pros are looking at on two or three different screens can all be seen on one screen. Yes, you will have to divide up the one screen with different views or manually switch views on your unit more often. But here’s my point: you may not have the same number of screens as a fulltime professional angler, but you will have the same exact technology they’re using and that’s what really counts. 

It’s sort of like all the TVs in a sports bar. On college football Saturday, it’s nice to monitor all the games at the same time at the sports bar, but the truth is, you can get those same games at home on a single TV, you just have to change the channels back and forth. 

With that in mind, here are some parameters to keep in mind when upgrading your electronics on a budget. The number-one rule is to buy the most current generation possible. Be wary of buying “backwards” in technology. Some previous generations may not be able to perform the newer functions. That’s just the nature of technology, whether it’s computers, cell phones or bass fishing electronics: the newer the version, the more powerful it is and the more capacity it has to be updated in the future. 

As for size and number of units, the minimum size I would go with is 10 inches and the minimum number is two units: one in the console and one in the bow. This allows you to run mapping, sonar and bottom scanning. You’ll have to split the screens to run some functions simultaneously, which is why 10 inches or more in screen size is necessary. Any number of units above two allows you to dedicate a screen to a single function, such as scanning, mapping and forward-facing sonar without having to switch views constantly by pushing buttons. So, two 10-inch units will get the job done, any more than that is a bonus.

In the next column we’ll dive into trolling motors and shallow water anchors.