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Do I Need A VHF Radio?

By: Mark Romanack


To get the most from a VHF radio requires having a long antenna that is typically mounted in on the highest point in the boat. Because VHF radios use a land based broadcast signal, the higher the antenna is mounted, the further the signal can be broadcast and received.


A marine radio or VHF frequency radio is something that used to be commonly found on just about any boat navigating the Great Lakes and other larger bodies of water. These days, a VHF radio in a boat isn’t exactly rare, but you don’t see them nearly as much. Here’s why.


HOW A VHF RADIO WORKS

A VHF radio works by transmitting and receiving a ground based radio frequency. Because this signal is ground based, it is limited in the distance it can transmit by the curve of the Earth.

A typical multi-species fishing boat equipped with a VHF radio and an eight foot VHF radio antenna will be able to transmit about 11-13 miles at best. The reason some VHF broadcasts are picked up from further distances is because the signal is originating from an antenna that is mounted higher in the air.

Larger boats with fly bridges can often talk to one another at much greater distances, because the taller the antenna, the better the “line of sight” transmission becomes. Conversely those anglers who think a hand held VHF radio or a radio equipped with a 3-4 foot antenna will transmit great distances are going to be very disappointed.

A hand held VHF radio is typically only going to be useful at ranges of one mile and less. So keeping a hand held VHF radio on board for emergency use is pretty much pointless.


The author used a four foot VHF radio antenna mounted to the top of the trolling arch. This helps the radio transmit to maximum distance.


CELL PHONES

The modern cell phone has all but eliminated the need for a VHF radio in terms of communicating with your fishing buddies. Sure there are plenty of places where cell coverage is spotty, but for the most part fishermen can typically talk to one another using the convenience of their cell phone.


WILDERNESS COMMUNICATIONS

In wilderness or remote areas where cell service is unavailable, anglers will find that the VHF radio is still one of the best ways to communicate on the water. While the range may be limited, if two boats are properly equipped with good quality radios and adequate antennas, staying in touch with your fishing buddies should be no problem.

If I was depending on a VHF radio to communicate with either my fishing buddies or emergency personnel, I would recommend using nothing less than a high quality eight foot VHF antenna. The higher this antenna can be mounted in the boat, the greater broadcast range.


The author still mounts a VHF radio to his boat. While this technology may seem outdated, there are times when having a VHF radio is very handy.


SATELLITE COMMUNICATION

In recent years a new kind of communication has hit the market. Satellite texting devices like the Garmin In-Reach products make it possible to send text messages via satellite link up. These products work anywhere in the world and allow the user to send a text message to any cell phone.

This technology requires purchasing a data plan, but the cost is modest and currently the best way to insure contact with the outside world no matter where you might be fishing. Using these units is like texting on an old school flip phone, but they work and provide communication in places that would otherwise not be possible.

I strongly recommend investing in this technology for anyone who fishes in remote areas, wilderness waters or large bodies of water where making long runs to reach the fish is common. The data plan can be activated and stopped any time, so it is not necessary to pay for a data plan at times of year when the unit is not being used.


SO DO I NEED A VHF RADIO

So circling back to the VHF radio, is it worth investing in anymore? That depends. For larger boats that travel from port to port, the VHF radio is a convenient means of communicating with harbor masters. Some tournaments require them so the tournament director can communicate with the whole field of anglers at the same time.

In short, a VHF radio and antenna is a modest investment. I still include them in my boats, but every year I find myself using them less and less. Who knows, maybe one day soon cell phones will be obsolete and everyone will be using satellite phones as commonly as we use cell phones today. Imagine never having another dropped call! That’s my prediction and I’m sticking to it.

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