License Free Fishing Days

Several of the remaining 2013 FWC license free fishing days are coming up around the Thanksgiving Holiday.  It’s a great opportunity to introduce a friend to fishing.  On the days below, the fishing license requirement is waived for all recreational anglers (residents and non-residents) but size limits and seasons still apply.

Freshwater license free day – November 29

Saltwater license free day – November 30 (this is the final saltwater license free day for 2013).


Getting on the Same Page as Your Guide

If you’ve had the same angling partner(s) for a while, you probably instinctively know right where he’s looking when he says 11 o’clock, 50ft, and if you’re really used to fishing together, you can probably tell exactly where he’s looking just by the sound of his voice.  But when you’re fishing with a new partner or client, being on the same page in terms of casting distance can be a challenge.  Often before any real fishing has begun, I like to pick out a stick or pothole within casting range and ask how far to that particular spot, it’s a great way to get a good feel for how you and your guide/partner perceive distance.  The first shot you get could be your best chance of the day, take the time to be prepared.  Here are a few other tips from Deneki Outdoors on how to make sure you’re on the same page as your guide.

Choosing a Bow-Mounted Trolling Motor System: Part II

[Back to Part I]

The Set-Up

Fighting tarpon

Fighting a tarpon solo with the trolling motor on “Spot Lock.”

Key West mechanic Tim Donald and I thought through just about every aspect of trolling motor installation before he began doing the actual work.   Tim has long experience in installing trolling motors of all kinds, from tab-mounted motors to transom mounts to bow mounts like the one I purchased.   But of course every boat owner has personal preferences about motor placement, components, and other adjustments.

Based on recommendations from other full-time guides and serious anglers, I decided to go with 3 batteries: two deep-cycle for reserve power, and one starter battery, with the two larger batteries hooked up in series to create a 24-volt system.  (See the video below for a good introduction to hooking up batteries in series and in parallel.)  The batteries I chose, based on price and on performance reports from other skiff owners, were the Deka 8A22NFM (starter) and the Deka 8A24M (deep-cycle).  Since I am running a 70hp Yahama outboard, the cold-cranking requirements are minimal and allowed me to get away with a battery rated for 350 cold-cranking amps (CCA).  (Even though Yahama recommends a 380-CCA minimum, the 350 amps seem to be plenty.)  If you are running a larger engine, consider the manufacturer’s CCA recommendations carefully when deciding on a starter battery.

Hooking Up Batteries in Series (to increase voltage) vs. Parallel (to increase amperage or run-time) for Multiple 12-volt batteries

I also decided to install both the Minn Kota 3-bank on-board Precision Charger–a unit designed to charge the batteries when plugged into an outlet via an external receptacle–and the MinnKota 2-bank DC Alternator Charger, which collects excess amperage from the outboard engine’s alternator during operation and uses it to charge the batteries in sequence.

Here’s a photo of all the components (less the starter battery) prior to installation.

Trolling motor system components.

Deep-cycle AGM batteries, on-board 3-bank charger, alternator charger, and external female receptacle prior to install.  Tim Donald photo

Fortunately, the dimensions of the three batteries together allowed us to fit them all inside the console, along with both chargers and a battery switch, albeit with little room to spare.  (We measured all this before buying the batteries, of course, and we would have simply moved to smaller deep-cycle batteries if that was necessary.)  Tim also added a “kill switch” toggle that allows me to interrupt the electrical circuit to the motor unit on the bow just to be doubly sure that the motor was not drawing power during any extended storage.  Here’s an image that shows most of the console components in place.  The batteries are strapped directly to the deck without trays to save room.

Trolling motor batteries.

Three AGM batteries plus the 3-bank (top center) and alternator (top left) chargers in place inside the console.  Tim Donald photo

It’s also important to note that the chargers were mounted as far from the batteries as possible, since the charging process generates a lot of heat–an enemy to efficient charging.  On that note, it is worth pointing out that Minn Kota’s Precision chargers are designed with temperature compensators which change the charging profile depending on ambient temperature.   This helps prevent over-charging and under-charging, and it is not something that is standard on most current on-board chargers, but it will make a big difference in the life of your batteries.  Depending on your charging environment, if you are dealing with the same kind of cramped install as we did, you want as much ventilation as possible to ensure the temperature stays low–the batteries will charge faster if the charge is not being “throttled” by higher temps.  You can either leave the console door off during charge–as I do–and you can even mount a fan to flush the heat, as I did during hot summer days.

The battery switch enable complete disconnection of all three batteries from the system, connecting only the starter battery, connecting the deep cycles only ((in case the starter battery fails and you need to start from the others), or connecting all three batteries.  Typically the switch would be turned on to connect only the starter to the main motor system.

I had asked Maverick to install the wiring from the console to the bow during boat construction–something to consider if you are having a skiff custom-built as it is very easy to do before the cap is attached to the hull.  If you are adding the forward-running wires to an already-built boat, it  is simply a matter of fishing the wire to the front and securing it so that it doesn’t rattle around.  Depending on the boat manufacturer and whether you are mounting your batteries inside the console, in a rear storage compartment or in the bow, this can be easy or mildly challenging task, but many recent skiffs include wiring “tunnels” for  that very purpose.

We mounted the external female plug for charging on the console port side just beneath the handrail.

For the motor bracket location on the bow, I depended on Tim’s considerable experience in balancing motor location against pushpole access and other factors like ease of retracting the motor and storage position.  In short, you’ll likely want to mount the motor bracket so the the fully retracted motor extends opposite the side where your pushpole is stored.  For most skiff-owners, who store the pushpole on the starboard side, this means the bracket goes to the right of the bow point, as you can see here in finished install.

Skiff trolling motors

Installed motor bracket, motor (in retracted/locked position), and flush-mounted female receptacle, along with the handheld iPilot remote.  Tim Donald photo

Since I wanted to be able to easily remove the motor (and batteries) when fishing super-skinny water or when it was simply not needed, Tim and I decided not to hard-wire the motor in place but use a flush-mounted receptacle instead.  The disadvantage of this arrangement is that water can collect in the receptacle and cause corrosion, but it has not been an issue so far.   If you’re planning on never removing the motor, you may want to considered the more reliable direct wiring option.

Before beginning to drill holes in your cap, measure.  Then measure.  Then measure one more time.  Think about where you want the receptacle if you are mounting a removable motor.  We put mine as close to the bracket as we could possible get it, and with as short a connecting wire as made sense to reduce clutter, and I’m happy with the result.

There are other considerations outlined in the instructions provided by the manufacturer for the install, but that hits all the components and key considerations.

The Trolling Motor Experience

I fished about 25 days with the trolling motor after the system was installed, both solo and with additional anglers.  Here’s what I discovered.

 Riptide St Deploy Lever

The Riptide St Deploy Lever, which you can operate with your foot or by hand.  Note also the bank of four red lights which show battery charge levels–very handy when you’re wondering how much battery power is left, and the green System Ready light which shows that the unit is receiving power.

The additional weight is a factor in a skiff that weighs only around 1000 pounds, especially if you are fishing multiple anglers.   On the other hand, the total weight of the system I installed was about 159 pounds (38.5-pound starter battery and 2 X 53-pound reserve batteries plus 65-pound motor and bracket and 5 pounds additional for chargers and wiring)–essentially the weight of an additional medium-sized adult.  So in terms of poling, having the trolling motor is similar to poling around an extra person.  In the Maverick, I didn’t find the additional weight to be a distraction, but it’s certainly there.  As for running in the skiff, if you are running a smaller outboard motor as I am (70 HP), it does make a difference in top-end speed, just as having an additional person on board would–probably 2-3 miles per hour.

Not surprisingly, there was a learning curve on finding out what the system could do and figuring out how to make it a part of my fishing.

Lowering and retracting the motor is pretty easy for a reasonably fit person, though it’s not like picking up a sack of groceries.  When the motor is down, you step on the release mechanism to slide it up, then the motor automatically locks once it is horizontal.  Lowering the motor is the same process in reverse.  Removing the motor, should you wish to do so, involves unplugging it and sliding a pin out of the bracket. Simple.

i-Pilot Remote Minn Kota

Minn Kota’s i-Pilot remote is logically laid out and becomes easy to use once you learn which  functions you’ll use most, like the “Spot Lock” button (anchor symbol, lower mid-right).  And yes it is waterproof.

Managing the remote was probably the easiest part: I left it hung around my neck with the remote itself tucked into shirt pocket.  Very convenient.  I won’t say that the controls were immediately “intuitive,” but once I figured out which features I would actually use the most, it was simply a matter of muscle memory.  I still have to look at the remote to be sure I’m pressing the right buttons, and I still occasionally press the wrong ones.  But I don’t see how Minn Kota could have made it any easier, given all the options in the system.

What did the motor allow me to do that I couldn’t do before?   Here are the few things I have found most useful:

  • Using ‘Spot Lock’ to hold the boat in position on a channel edge or even in deeper water where one might anchor (if, for example, you are looking for “floaters” or live-baiting) is almost too good to be true, especially when fishing solo.   The motor keeps the bow of the boat within a five-foot circle (usually), pointed into the wind, and with typically very silent operation.  I hooked many tarpon with the motor running and doing its thing to hold me in position in a 15-knot breeze.
  • Being able to approach and leave flats without using the outboard was also a very welcome change.  Many of the permit flats I fish are more than 2-3 miles wide, and not having to pole myself into water that is 5 feet deep before starting up is a huge energy-saver.  It also makes me less inclined to put the engine down too early–in short, it makes me a better steward of the flats.  I also found that being able to shut down in the middle of a channel or in other deep water when approaching a tarpon flat made me feel more confident that the fish were not spooked by my approach.
  • Crossing channels or moving to other nearby flats across deeper water is a breeze.  I never liked having to put the outboard down to move 200 yards.   Again, this seems like it is also better for the fish.  Train your fishing partner on the bow to put the motor down and pull it up.
  • Extending courtesy to other boats is much easier too.  If you’re fishing laid-up tarpon, you probably won’t be using your motor except to enter the area, but leaving with your electric rather than your outboard means the fish are more relaxed for the next angler–not to mention probably improving the fishes’ comfort level in general and making them more likely to hang around.   And if you’re fishing with other guides just beyond casting distance, as sometimes happens, the electric allows you to get far out of range before needing to start your outboard.

Minn Kota Trolling Motor Spot LockAll of this extra mobility and utility depends on your ability to maintain battery power, of course.   If anything, I was blown away by the amount of power stored in the system that I had chosen.  Since I was putting the motor through its paces, there were many days that I intentionally ran the motor for 3-4 hours at higher speeds.   I found that I could fish this way for 3 days without reducing total available charge by more than 30%.  How much of that charge was maintained or recovered by the inline charger I don’t have a way of measuring, but I don’t believe it was much as I intentionally avoided running long distances.    In practical application, what this meant was that I did not have to charge the batteries more than once every 4-5 days.   It is better, of course, to keep the batteries fully charged, as it extends their life, but I was seeing what I could get away with.  Very impressive.

Am I now a die-hard convert to trolling motors for flats fishing?  Not at all.  I will always be of the mind that “simpler is better.”  It’s an attitude that comes from my desire to think about nothing else but the fish and what’s going on around me when I am on the water.  But do I have a much greater appreciation of how technology has changed the opportunity?  Absolutely.  Frankly, I would never have considered solo fishing in a skiff effective without experiencing the electric-assisted option.   And I can easily see how the proper use of trolling motors as a way to access shallow water could benefit the fish, the habitat, and fellow anglers.  I can also see how improper use could bring negatives: anglers “trolling” the flats, or becoming dependent on the motor to exclusion of the pushpole–something that could mean fewer fish caught and unnecessary pressure on already-pressured fish populations.  As with any new technology used in an environment that deserves protection, an ethic needs to be established to negate misuse.

End the end, my own investigation won’t be complete until I’ve experimented for several more months and seen how well the components work through more than a single season.  Meanwhile, perhaps the best current test of whether the trolling motor makes sense is whether or not I’ve taken it off the skiff yet.

I haven’t.


Parts List for the Installed System

  1. Minn Kota ST 80, 54” Shaft  (1363714) – with the i-Pilot preinstalled. $1449.99
  2. Minn Kota RTA-17 Quick Release Bracket (1854017).  $74.99 
  3. Minn Kota MK-345PC Precision Charger (1823451).  $449.99
  4. MinnKota MK-2-DC Dual Bank DC Alternator Charger $129.99
  5. Minn Kota 12V Plug & Receptacle (1865102) $29.99 and Minn Kota 6 Gauge Adapter (1865104) $14.99.
  6. Starter Battery: Deka Intimidator 8A22NFM AGM Deep Cycle Battery.  $129
  7. Deep Cycle Batteries (2): Deka Intimidator AGM 8A24M Deep Cycle Battery. $165 per battery

Choosing a Bow-Mounted Trolling Motor System: Part I

Trolling Motors for Skiffs

Electric trolling motors have come a long way in recent years. The options are more complicated than ever. So how do you begin to choose what motor and components make the most sense?

While trolling motors may seem counter-cultural in the world of poling skiffs, they’ve certainly changed the world of small-boat fishing.  There’s no doubt that advances in technology have made them more compelling  as alternative sources of power.

I’m still a hard-core poler and plan to remain so until my shoulders give out (and perhaps a bit beyond).  There are just too many advantages to poling, like the ability to react instantaneously and instinctively to what a fish is doing, and to be as quiet as you want to while doing it.


An angler’s eye view of the deployed bow-mount motor.

But last year I became curious about what a trolling motor could do.  I’d heard many stories of guides being able to hang in the current in spots where it was too deep to stake out, and using trolling motors to enter or exit flats where they didn’t want to run in water that was shallow enough that a combustion engine could damage the bottom.   But I’m also a person who prefers extreme simplicity when it comes to skiff rigging.  I tend to remove anything unnecessary from my boats.   So I wanted to discover whether the disadvantages of having the excess weight and complexity–not to mention the maintenance headaches–of a trolling motor system were worth the potential added performance.  In order to get the answers here I went right to the source, speaking at length with Joe Brown, head of marketing for Minn Kota, one of the top manufacturers of trolling motors and components.  Joe’s not just a guy who sells motors–he’s also got deep knowledge of how trolling motors work, and he maintains a surprising level of objectivity about his and other company’s products.

I had many questions for Brown.  Starting from scratch, I wanted an explanation of the differences between 12-, 24- and 36-volt systems, as well as what each offered in terms of performance vs. price and weight.    My second concern–which became larger as I found out what the new motors and associated technology could do–was how I should configure my system.  In the end, I chose a 24-volt saltwater system with built-in GPS and remote controller.  I also decided to go with a bow mount.

Minn Kota Contour Offset

Electric trolling motors have come a very long way in just the past 7 years, thanks mostly to the addition of map- and GPS-based functions.  Illustration courtesy of Minn Kota


Why a bow-mounted trolling motor?  One of the key advantages of fishing with a trolling motor is being able to fish solo.  Skiff fishing is traditionally a two-man sport.  But there are times and places where one simply wants to head out alone, and there are numerous answers to the “What do I do with my pole and my rod?” question, but none of them is perfect.   There are also some disadvantages to stern-mounted systems: namely steering becomes more of an issue because of windage on the bow and because of motor location and steering.   And bow-mounted systems are more suited to use of a new feature in GPS-based trolling motors–the ability of the motor to hold the boat in position.  This is because when the boat is being held from the bow, the boat aligns bow-first into the wind and remains quieter.  Stern-mounted systems work very well in a power-assist role for a poler, though, and in the role of replacing the outboard in entering and leaving flats do just fine.

Bow-mounted motors, on the other hand, tend to get in the way of the angler, being yet one more potential catch-point for fly lines and becoming minor obstacle when fighting fish near the boat.   They also typically extend beyond the side of the boat by at least a few inches when fully retracted and locked into their horizontal position on the deck.  (This is something to think about if you keep your boat in the water and tied off to anything other than a floating dock.)

Today’s trolling motors are much more sophisticated and durable than the motors of even 10 years ago.  GPS-signal receivers are standard in high-end models, and saltwater motor components are either completely sealed or corrosion resistant.  The technology is also changing rapidly into what is becoming a simple network linking components of trolling motors with other systems on the boat.  Right now, for example, you can link motor operation to GPS mapping on a separate unit.  It’s only a matter of time, in my opinion, before trolling motor control and even battery charging are linked to networked devices like phones and can be managed from outside the skiff.  But that’s getting ahead of the game.  I wanted my first installation to be as simple as possible, and to use only fully tested components.  So that’s what I focused on in my journey.

Brown’s answers to most of my questions are included in the interview below.   In Part II we talk about what system I chose, what the installed system looks like on my skiff, a 2013 Maverick HPX-V II, and how I decided on individual components.  Then I comment on my experiences with fishing with the trolling motor intensively for over a month.

But first, my interview with Joe Brown.

Joe Brown of Minn Kota

Joe Brown, marketing director of Minn Kota & Cannon

Advice from an Expert

Marshall Cutchin:  Thanks for taking the time to talk with us about trolling motors, Joe.  For flats fishing and near-shore applications, what role do you think trolling motors have?

Joe Brown:  Well, would I think I could go chase bonefish around with a trolling motor and catch them? Absolutely not. Bonefish don’t work that way. I might use it to get me to the place where I can start fishing for them, though.

In most other fishing applications, the key to not spooking fish is just not changing the trolling motor speed a lot.  I’ve actually driven right over snook, and they don’t even move.  And you’re a poler, so you understand: when both of your hands are on a push pole, you’re not casting.  Trolling motors free up your hands.  Plus we have quick-release brackets for our motors, so it’s much easier now than it used to be to get a trolling motor out of the way when you want to. It’s as easy as pulling a tie bar and unplugging the motor.

MC:  The choices in trolling motors and systems are pretty overwhelming these days.  Most of my questions come back to this: How does the typical boat owner decide on what trolling motor to buy?

JB:  Well that is the struggle. Quite honestly a lot of it is tribal knowledge. So if you were living in Key West right now, you’d probably ask your buddies. That means companies like Minn Kota can’t always get in front of the buyer with application-specific information. And quite honestly it has gotten a lot more complicated, in a good way, for the consumer.

So if you went to look for a trolling motor back in 1997, you would probably looked at rigidly fixed transom mounts so that you could motor along standing on a poling platform. Or you would have had a hand-controlled bow-mount motor.  Now, with electric-steer motors, you have a motor with a DC motor built into the bracket around the shaft in the motor housing, and you basically send an electronic or wireless signal to the motor, and it tells it what to do.

MC: Let’s talk about the things someone might consider when considering what trolling motor to buy. The most obvious question is probably How long can I use a trolling motor each day? I know that’s dependent not only on the motor size, but on the boat size and conditions, and whether I buy a 24-volt system or a 12-volt system, right?

JB: What you just asked is one of the most difficult questions to answer. First of all, the decision about what motor and system to buy really depends on your tolerance for weight in the boat. Some people just say “I’m going to take the trade-off of the 12-volt motor because I have to minimize the weight on the boat because of the water I’m fishing.” I’m a proponent of the highest-thrust motor that you have the tolerance for in terms of weight and dollars, because you’ll be running the motor at lower speeds to achieve the same results. You’ll also have better boat control because you’ll have more thrust to move the boat quickly when you need to if you need to turn it against the current or wind. This is an oversimplification, but you can say a 24-volt system vs. a 12-volt system will double the run time, and a 36-volt system would increase that by another third.

If you go out and turn your motor on at a 100%, it may last two or three hours. Unless it is a super-skinny boat, there are very few times when I would want to put a 12-volt system on a boat.

I’ll give you another example: I have a square-backed canoe that I have a 12-volt 55-pound-thrust motor on. 12-volt motors go from 30 pounds of thrust to 55 pounds of thrust. On a 24-volt system we go up to 70-80 pounds. And on the 36-volt system we go up to 101 pounds. So there are limitations within that when you look at the trade-offs in the motor size and the voltage, but generally speaking we look at pounds of thrust and relate it back to the voltage.

In my canoe, if I am going to go out in a big, windy lake, I have a small AGM battery and a lead-acid battery. So what I will do is bring both batteries some days and connect them in parallel so that I basically create a big 12-volt battery. That will basically double my run time. I make the trade-off with that of taking up room in my boat because I don’t want to get stuck on the other side of the lake because I’m loaded down with two kids in the canoe and am going at 100% most of the day and I don’t want to run out of juice.

Most of the time for flats boats, 24-volt, 80-pound systems are perfect. You get into the bay boats, that’s where the 36-volt system begins to make more sense.

MC: Is there any reason why I would choose a 70-pound thrust motor over an 80? Would it be cheaper and weigh less?

JB: Yes, it would. In any DC motor—like a drill or trolling motor—bigger equals more power and enable the motor to run cooler at the same power level. Going from a 70-pound to an 80-pound might make a difference of $200. But with the 80, you’re going to run at a lower power setting to get the same speed and get longer run times. And the weight difference is probably less than 5 pounds. So it goes back to that inherent trade-off: the more thrust you have, the less power you need to achieve the same speed.

Unless you are wanting to go from point A to point B quick, you’re probably going to stay at a constant speed, like when you are fishing. So if you are running at 3 miles an hour rather than 6 miles an hour, you’re using less thrust and less power, and the bigger motor will use less power to achieve either speed, and therefore have more run time. It’ll also get you from point A to point B faster.

MC: And I’m sure the weight and displacement of the hull and even the hull shape will have an impact on motor efficiency. If you have a super-narrow skiff, you could get away with a smaller system.

JB: Absolutely. And how much draft you are targeting, how much of a keel there is or flat-bottomed the skiff is… there are just a million variables.

MC: Speaking of draft, how much water do you have to have—or how far in the water does the motor have to be—to actually operate efficiently?

Trolling motor shaft length guide

Minn Kota’s guide to shaft length is helpful, but remember that you will probably be adjusting motor height depending on conditions and water depth. For example, when fishing in deep swells for tarpon, you’ll probably want the motor fully extended. A 54″ shaft offers the most flexibility on a skiff.   Illustration courtesy of Minn Kota

JB: Basically, to avoid cavitation, whatever the diameter of the prop is, you need at least the full diameter of the prop. You can cheat if you are in flat calm water. But if you are in rough water, you might add 5” to the depth to prevent cavitation.

MC: What about shaft length?

JB: The longer shaft gives you more flexibility in rougher water. But the trade-off is that you are going to have more sticking up on the front of the boat.

MC: And a longer shaft to deal with when the motor is up and locked down on the deck.

JB:  But six inches isn’t really that much of a difference in terms of whether it is going to get in the way, even if you talking about fly lines. It’s probably more important on a hand-controlled motor, where how tall you are and how high the motor is mounted above the waterline make the difference. Most 80-pound-thrust motors are mounted with 52” shafts and most 101-pound motors are 62”, and that goes back to the flats boat vs. bay boat scenario.

MC: How long would it take someone who is fairly proficient with wiring and tools to install a trolling motor system on a skiff?

JB: If you have wiring already run to the front of your boat, if you’ve never done it but were super-diligent—measuring three times and cutting once as far as drilling holes and stuff goes—I would say less than two hours.

MC: But you have to have that big stiff drink before you take the drill and start boring through the deck, though, right?

JB: Yeah, that’s where you measure it three times then have your buddy measure it four times. If you don’t have wiring already run to the front of the boat, that’s a whole different can of worms because it depends on how hard it is to fish the wire through and secure it.

MC: And of course there is the battery install time. Which depends again on space and positioning considerations in whatever skiff you are working with.  Are there any features of trolling motors that you think are key for buyers to look at when they are considering which motor and system to buy?

Minn Kota trolling motor corrosion protection

Minn Kota’s anti-corrosion coating represents the state of the art in saltwater component protection.  Illustration courtesy of Minn Kota

JB: The first thing I would say is, buy a saltwater motor. That’s really dumbing it down, but you’d be surprised how often that mistake is made. Some buyers might look at the difference in price and say “Well, I’ll just wash it off and I’m good.” At Minn Kota, for example, the reality is that the difference between the saltwater and freshwater motor is pretty big. The coating process on the metal, for example, under the powder coat are very different. Saltwater motors come with an anode that helps if there is any galvanic corrosion potential. And all the hardware is stainless steel, so it won’t corrode.

Since the 1980s at Minn Kota, all of our electronics have been urethane-encapsulated, so basically you could take our trolling motor, put it in the bottom of a swimming pool and hook it up to power and it will work. Beyond being sure that the boat wiring is of the correct gauge and that it is all fitted and secured correctly, the integrity of the motor electronics is the most important thing.

MC: Are there “saltwater motors” being made that don’t have all these features? How can someone know that they are getting a reliable trolling motor for saltwater?

JB: I would say this: You get what you pay for. There are a number of Chinese motors on the market, and I am comfortable saying that if there is a price difference, there’s generally a reason. And in service support as well.

MC: What about buying a used motor? Does that make any sense?

JB: Well I’m an EBay guy, so I’m not opposed to buying stuff in that way. But I personally would have a difficult time buying a trolling motor that way. You don’t know what’s going on internally with that motor or how it has been used. Even shipping a trolling motor is tricky. If they get dropped you can crack magnets and the chips can get into the armature, or there can be water in the lower unit if someone got fishing line around the prop and it ate into the seal. My advice is, with electronics and water, control your own destiny.

MC: Any other advice you would give to someone considering buying a trolling motor for their skiff?

JB: There’s so much new technology in trolling motor systems these days. I would just say Do your homework. You start with basically two options–hand-controlled or electric-steered motors—and it goes from there.  At Minn Kota, all of our motor testing requirement for a “good,” “better,” or “best” motor are the same. So for example our life-testing requirements are the same for a $99 motor as for a $2000 motor. So it’s not the kind of thing where you have to think about spending $1500 again next year or the year after. But once you put any motor on your boat, it’s not really easy to change your mind. So again, do your homework.

Another thing to consider is that you are probably going to have a fair amount of money invested in batteries with any system you choose. There’s probably a bigger difference in battery chargers than there is in the motors themselves. Be sure you charge those batteries right. There is a very big difference in battery chargers, and most batteries fail from poor charging vs. poor maintenance.

MC: What makes a bad charger? When it charges too fast or too hot or…?

Minn Kota 3-Bank Precision Charger

I chose the Minn Kota 3-Bank Precision Charger (MK-345-PC) to handle my three-battery system.  Minn Kota’s technology adjusts the charging “profile” to the ambient temperature, protecting batteries while allowing optimal charge speed.  Photo courtesy of Minn Kota

JB: Well, all of the above. Another example would be if a battery charger uses the same profile for a lead-acid and an AGM battery. The battery manufacturer has probably spec’ed different charge curves for those two batteries. It may not be hugely different, but it is different.

In the past three years we’ve come out with two new complete lines of chargers. We have this thing called automatic temperature compensation. At the end of every output lead, we have a thermistor—which is basically a thermometer—and it senses the ambient temperature where that battery is. By bank it adjusts the charging profile to not over- or under-charge the battery. At different temperatures, batteries have different voltage requirements for charging. Higher temperatures require lower voltages, and lower temperatures require higher voltages. Applying the wrong voltage at the wrong temperature is not a good thing. You’re either over- or under-charging, reducing the life of the battery and the capacity of the battery. Minn Kota Precision Digital chargers also allow you to independently set banks to charge by battery type, either AGM or lead acid, or gel.

MC: What about on-board DC alternator chargers that charge batteries while the engine is running? Do they make it possible to avoid charging altogether?

Minn Kota MK-2-DC alternator charger

Minn Kota MK-2-DC alternator charger.  Photo courtesy of Minn Kota

JB: Here’s what I would say as a generic statement: If you think you can run 15 minutes out to a spot and it’s going to charge your battery, it’s not going to work that way. You have to have pretty decent outboard motor on time for it to make a dent in a deep-cycle trolling motor battery. It’s a huge advantage, but it won’t replace a standard charger. It will mean that you don’t have to charge as often, and it might make it possible that you don’t have to charge every day.

MC: Let’s finish up by getting back to motor technology in 2013. What we have now are GPS-based systems that enable the motor to receive and communicate location data?

JB: Yes. Every electric-steer motor from Minn Kota comes standard with a key fob control and an optional foot pedal control. That technology came out in around 2003. And it allowed someone to stand on the platform and pole and not get in the way of the angler on the bow when he was steering the motor.

So fast-forward to 2009, when Minn Kota launched the i-PILOT, which is where we have GPS navigation built into the trolling motor. You can even buy that accessory now and install it into one of our older motors.  What i-PILOT does is give you the ability to have an “electronic anchor.” So let’s say you’re fishing a point or a channel and you want to stay in a spot but not have to put out an anchor and deal with pulling or releasing the anchor when you want to change position. The Spot Lock feature will hold you in a 5-foot diameter location, assuming you have a strong-enough GPS signal.  You can save those locations, and you can even record tracks. A perfect example is dock fishing at night. Let’s say you are zig-zigging in and out and around those docks. You can record a track up to two miles. You can come back to that track any time you want to and fish it from start-to-end or end-to-start.

We also built in cruise-control, so that the motor will adjust for waves, wind and current and keep you at a constant speed. Lastly we built in Auto Pilot, which allows you to point the motor on a certain bearing and the system will keep you on that bearing regardless of changes in wind or current. That feature used to use only a magnetic compass, but the latest system uses GPS-based tracking.  We also have i-PILOT Link, which connects Hummingbird fishfinders and navigation systems to the GPS system in the trolling motor.

MC: I can easily envision a time when the devices all have their own IP addresses on a wireless network and communication can happen from shore or a device anywhere else, for that matter.

JB: I don’t have all the specifics on that, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was part of the future.


Continue: Choosing a Bow-Mounted Trolling Motor System: Part II (including installation photos, a list of all parts and a summary of our fishing test)


Palolo Worm

Taken about three hours ago near Key West, Florida. Note the highly visible white/black “filament” running down the center of this worm–it’s much more pronounced than normal. In every hatch the worms seem to have subtle differences in color and composition.

You’d be right to think that palolo worms appear mostly on low outgoing tides–though they also appear more often on low incoming tides in some locations.  You’d also be excused for thinking that it only happens on the full moon, though they appear (in somewhat lesser numbers) on the new moon as well.  You’d be mostly correct to assume that worm hatches happen in the late afternoon and early evening, and on calm days on the ocean side of the Keys; but worm hatches can happen in the middle of the day, and in the backcountry and on any hard coral bottom, even in a stiff wind.  Most palolo worms have greenish “heads” and pinkish red “tails,” but you’ll occasionally see worms with almost white heads or dark red tails.

The most common misconception may be that worm hatches happen only on one or two nights in a given area.  In fact, they can continue for five or six nights in one spot, changing their location as the tidal flow shifts around a set of flats.  For example, in the area I’ve been fishing them this week, they first appeared in two-foot seas at the end of a channel, then moved outside the channel on the next night, then further up the channel on consecutive nights as the wind lay down.  The only common ingredient was a bottom covered with loggerhead sponges, sea fans, and hard white limestone.

If you’re lucky enough to see one big worm hatch in a lifetime, you won’t forget it.  Treating them as events that you can fish for up to a week at a time greatly extends the excitement.  And don’t get up before dawn, fish all day in the heat, and expect to have the energy to find worms at dusk.   Finding this macro event with a full battery is a whole lot more fun and worth your full attention, even if the fish aren’t constantly eating your flies.  Being surrounded by the slurp-gurgle-slurp of tarpon completely abandoned to their task is worth almost any amount of effort.


will_polingTeaching is hard.  And there is nothing to remind you of how far you have come like teaching someone who is young to do what you do. “You don’t truly know your skill until you can teach someone else to do it,” someone said a long time ago, and even a few minutes of teaching will make you a believer.

Even though I am fortunate to have a son and daughter who both want to learn everything about what I know, I still find it hard to teach them.  There are more than a few challenges.  First, I am used to teaching adults. Most of the people I have taught to fish in saltwater have already been fishers, hunters, outdoors people.  They know stalking, they understand how conditions dictate strategy, and they are able to focus on the important things.  They trust me.   It’s funny, and odd, to hear my kids get nervous when I am driving through a 3-foot-wide wheel ditch or taking them through big seas or telling them that a big shark might take their bait.

The other huge reminder of how long it takes to get competent at fishing the flats is helping a young person learn how to react to what is happening.   Timing is difficult to teach to adults–most of whom have a library of real-life experience to draw from.  Kids have, at best, some fishing or hunting experience or some hours spent on YouTube watching celebrities and their highlights.  Throw them on a skiff and expect them to connect to what they are hearing and seeing is at best hopeful.  The timing is completely foreign.  The pace of a day is unlike anything in their experience.

On the other hand, kids have the advantage of time, and they know it.  They are not bothered by observations like,”Keep doing that for the next few years and you will be really good.”  As a teacher, I don’t write them off the way I might someone who’s been fishing for 30 years and still can’t see a fish.   Suggestions have results.

I suppose the real pleasure may be in the small successes, the very things that are so very hard for adults to appreciate.  Getting a fly line out 40 feet is an accomplishment for a 12-year-old, but it’s far enough to move them on to understanding the ready position and what happens when a fish eats your fly.  Most of the fish they catch in their lifetime will be hooked with 20 feet of that distance.  Seeing a child comprehend the importance of fly placement in current  or the importance of getting a good drift on a live bait is pretty incredible.  Witnessing them absorb the subtlety of poling or knot tying is sublime.  It reverberates.

I’d even say it supersedes the pleasure of learning something new myself, but that would be disingenuous.  When the drive to learn and see more becomes secondary, we become poor teachers.  We are there to give them the taste, describe the path, tell them what it is that make us want to get up in the morning or stay out late.  What we are teaching them the ability to experience the same pleasure of discovery that we know.

Most kids want to learn to fish just like everyone else.   But what we  should show them is that there will be no fisherman just like them, ever, and the surprise will always be waiting.  Just for them.



Long Days (or When Patience Pays Off)

Most of us can tell stories of how we caught fish on days when most other anglers didn’t bother to go out.   Two of the biggest permit I’ve ever guided clients to were on days when no one else went fishing.  The hardest part about going out on a bad-weather day or when tides and temperature say “Just stay home” is getting started–launching the boat, going through the steps to make sure all the gear is there and the skiff has ice, water, fuel, and the whatnots.  And often your instincts are right:  it’s just too damn hard to catch fish.

On the other hand, half of those days when you think you should stay home will produce fish.  And sometimes they really deliver.  The weather changes, the light gets just right, you come across a spot that looks like it has to have fish in it, and it does, despite the conditions.

At least five or six times this spring I got surprised.  I went out even when it was humpin’ a woofer.  And once when it was pouring rain.  Each time we saw fewer total fish than we might see in a normal day, but when we did find fish it was pretty damn good–the fish were happy and they would eat.  I may be kidding myself when I think that they are so catchable because they don’t expect us to be there.  But it has happened so often in 25 years of flats fishing that even the most skeptical among us should wonder.

Last week fishing with Rob Kessler in Key West, we busted our butts (or rather he busted his butt) fishing in a 25-knot wind to tarpon that really could care less about eating flies.  But eight hours in he suggested we try some permit fishing on the low outgoing.  Lemme tell you, when you’ve been poling around in a big wind for eight hours, it takes a certain amount of gumption to want to get up on a flat and look for tailing permit in failing light. But there we were, and there the fish were, and we were left with some images that will go down in the permanent records.

So there.

“We’ve Caught a Fish, Now We Can Leave”

I’m lucky to get to fish with a variety of guides, all of different bents and trajectories even if we do have a common language.  This past week I fished with Robb Kessler, who’s been guiding in Key West now for a decade.  He comes from a long career on the Madison River, where he spends four or five months a year.  Guide talk being what it is,  we eventually talked about fish pressure and resource protection.

With a couple of my old clients, I shared the sentiment that if we caught a fish in a location, we could move on and fish somewhere else.   It was always acknowledged with irony, since we knew staying where we were was an easy win.  But we’d also proved our point, and we didn’t want to punish the fish there.  Besides, I was much too anxious to want to see new (and even find) new spots, see how far we could take a little bit of success.

Does that sound counterproductive?  Does that mean we’ll catch fewer fish?

In the short run, yes.   In the long run, definitely not.

“I’ve seen many flats ruined by guides who sat on them day after day,” I mentioned to Rob.  “Forcing yourself to move not only teaches you to find fish, it means you can come back to that spot where you just caught a fish tomorrow–or better yet the day after tomorrow–and catch a fish just as easily.  The added benefit is that you get to see a lot of country.”

Rob pointed out that guides sometimes need to fish the same spots on consecutive days/tides in order to keep clients in fish.  I concurred.  You do what you gotta do.  I did the same when I guided.  But I think we both agreed that working to plan made a lot of sense.  And planning not just for tomorrow but for next month and next year actually means you will catch more fish in the long run.

Chris Morejohn: Carving Wood and Wind

I had the pleasure of Skyping with Chris Morejohn for an hour or two yesterday, catching up on his evolving life story.   Even if you’ve never heard of Chris, you’ve benefited from his perspicacity.  He was the leading force in the use of foam core and in progressive styles of  hull lay-up in the early 1980s, and his designs influenced most of what we’ve come to know as the “technical skiff” concept.

Chris is going to be detailing his experiences as a skiff designer and boat builder on Skiff Republic in the coming months, but meanwhile I thought I’d share a little of what he’s been doing from his Bahamas base.    Chris’s carved wooden eels–created from found wood–are really stunning.  They’re finished with various stains and have the wood grain still visible under a glossy varnish. “Mouths with metal teeth are open as an eel would have naturally as it breathes.”

Carved wooden eels, by Chris Morejohn, on Etsy.

Carved wooden eels, by Chris Morejohn, on Etsy.

One other aside: Chris and I got into a long discussion about sailboats and skiffs.  Chris’s core business has long been custom sailboat design, and I suggested that there was a close connection between sailing and driving and poling skiffs.  “No question,” he said.  “You’re really sailing a skiff when you are poling it.  You’re tacking according to the wind direction, and almost everything you do is influenced by which way the wind is blowing and how hard.  They are very, very similar ideas.”

The Great Skiff Hunt, Part II

Marshall Cutchin Maverick Mirage 2013 Skiff

My new skiff at the factory in the final stages of quality control.

As mentioned in Part I, I spoke to several skiff builders and their owners during my search for a new boat.   Let me say right off that all of the major higher-end skiff builders have good products, and some of them have great products.

The notable names in skiff building now–Chittum Skiffs, Hell’s Bay, Maverick, East Cape, Spear Flats Skiffs, Dragonfly Boatworks–all produce attractive boats that excel at one thing or another.  And there are a dozen or so other companies that either carry on a once-famous brand (e.g. Shipoke, Dolphin Boats, Egret), have targeted the “affordable skiff” market (e.g. Ankona, Mitzi), or are trying new and interesting blends of multi- and special-purpose skiff (Panga, Towee, Solo Skiff, Sterling, Beavertail).  Plus there are the new entrants like Skull Island, Bohemian, Bonefish and others trying to carve their own niches.

It’s enough to make the head spin.

In Part I, I listed my expectations for fishing performance, ride, price and aesthetics.  Additionally, I wanted a skiff that could safely handle big seas, have reasonably good top speed, and still pole very well.

As I refined my thinking about the purchase, I found myself also thinking about practical realities.  When I was guiding, I once calculated the amount of time spent over an entire year on boat maintenance.  It worked out to around 30 minutes a day.   Something’s always breaking.  I also thought about how I might deal with manufacturing defects.  Spending most of the year in Colorado, I didn’t want to imagine taking a boat back to the factory for fixes or warranty work.   So how well the skiff was made became a top consideration, and predictability–being sure that the boat I ordered left the factory without surprises–became as important as almost any other feature.

With all that in mind, over the winter my attention began to focus on Maverick Boat Company’s soon-to-be-released Mirage 17 HPX II (2013).  The only differences between the new skiff and the previous model are changes in cap design and storage/livewell layout, but the changes are good ones: much more storage upfront because the gas tank is shifted back under the deck, a centralized live well, no need to lift the seat cushion to access rear storage, and an easier-access rigging hatch in back.  Plus the lid troughs in all the hatches have been deepened to 3” for drier wells, and the lip of the aft deck protrudes over the cockpit bulkhead, allowing for a padded handhold for passengers.

Maverick 17 Mirage HPX  2013

Day one, early morning, ready to fish.

I had owned four previous boats in the same line, beginning with one of the original Mirages, which had been my favorite of the bunch.  Why was the original such a great boat? I’m not entirely sure, except that it was deadly quiet–probably because it had more structural foam in it than some later models.   In my estimation it also had not yet been tainted by the need to satisfy the desires of the general market.  It was a poling machine, much like the original Dolphin Super Skiff.

Maverick Mirage 2013

Maverick moved the the gas tank back under the deck in the 2013 Mirage, providing much more storage area up front.

So I was intimately familiar with the performance of the Maverick hull.  I had driven it in 8-foot seas, pushed it around in hurricane-force winds, and spent countless hours on the run in tournaments and through uninterrupted months of guiding everywhere from the Marquesas to Whitewater Bay.  There were things about it that I didn’t like: one of the earlier models got the fore/aft balance all wrong, a later model had an unpleasant pinging sound in a light chop, electronics components weren’t all that hot, and fit and finish hadn’t always met expectations.

Keep in mind too that I have fished and guided out of most of the other skiff brands over my many years on the flats: an original ActionCraft, an 18-foot Hewes Bonefisher, a Hell’s Bay Marquesa, Whipray and Guide 18, a Dolphin Super Skiff, a Shipoke,  even the original tumblehome-sided Maverick used in the movie “Tarpon.”

Maverick hatch troughs

3″-deep hatch troughs mean drier storage areas.

What I have not done (yet) is ride in the newer and redesigned skiffs from Harry Spear, Chittum, East Cape, Hell’s Bay or many of the skiffs from the new brands.  But I talked in-depth to many owners this winter, almost all of them professional guides, about performance characteristics, quirks, and their opinions of how their skiffs compared to others they had fished .  So I was looking at the new Maverick with a very educated eye, if not a PhD.  I’m not even sure that one person–with or without doctorate degrees–can know everything there is to know about current skiff design.

I carefully considered the Spear Pro V Orca, the Hell’s Bay Biscayne and Marquesa, and the Chittum Islamorada 18 in my final five.   Here’s the factor that tipped the scale for me in favor of the 2013 Mirage 17: I felt sure that Maverick could turn out a boat that was predictably well-constructed, with attention to the finer details that come with building and tweaking the same design for more than 20 years.   There were few, if any unknowns.  The Maverick build process is a marvel of predictability, while some other high-end skiffs that come off the assembly line are different–in hull and cap lay-up, assembly and rigging–than the one that came off the line the day or week before.  When you add in the desire by many trendier and custom shops to constantly improve design to what is already a complicated process, you end up with some skiffs that meet the ideal, and some that don’t.  I didn’t want that to be a part of an experiment, or discover in the middle of Boca Grande Channel that some nifty new “feature” hadn’t been weather-tested.  Meanwhile Maverick owner Scott Deal has studied and implemented controls that reduce variation in materials and lay-up to almost nil.

Maverick has improved electrical rigging and components in the past few years.  They pay obvious attention to clean rigging.

Maverick has improved electrical rigging and components in the past few years. They pay obvious attention to clean rigging.

I like my skiffs simple and clean, so it didn’t take long for me to put my order together: I wanted the basic white hull with a 4-stroke Yamaha 70, hydraulic steering, standard Yamaha controls, and wiring for multiple console batteries, run to the bow for potential trolling motor installation (more about that later) .  I paid my deposit in late January and was told that I could probably have a skiff in April.  That was later changed to March. I spent four days in the skiff in April doing break-in and permit fishing, and will be taking it back down to Key West in mid-May for a week, then fishing most of June.

In Part III I’ll give you my first impressions of the new skiff, whether there are things I don’t like or things that particularly impress me, and tell you whether I think I made the right choice.