You may have seen the Minn Kota Ulterra commercial. A viewer who knows anything about boating or fishing can’t help but watch slack-jawed. The ruggedly handsome outdoorsman backs his truck with a bass boat on a trailer down the ramp. Rather than get out to move the boat off the trailer and tie it to the dock (SOP), he opens his door, presses a key fob and the boat drifts away from the ramp, at which point it lowers its trolling motor into the water, backs itself away from the ramp and then holds position while the driver parks the truck and trailer. When he finally walks down to the dock, his boat slowly pulls up to pick him up.
Surprisingly, that ad isn’t a smoke-and-mirrors trick. Today’s trolling motor technology provides capabilities most of us never dreamed of. I have to believe that the latest innovations have as much to do with convenience as with addressing the aging demographic of boaters and fishermen — and we all know fishermen love gadgetry.
For example, deploying and retrieving a trolling motor can be a tedious and back-straining job. Auto-deployment and retrieval eliminate that problem. An even better back-saving feature holds your boat’s position within a few feet automatically. If you’ve ever anchored to fish and have wanted to move frequently to find just the right spot, this feature eliminates the need to haul a heavy anchor repeatedly, wash the mud off it and stow it in a locker. And you won’t lose valuable anchors in the rocks. When you want to move 10 feet to the left with a new trolling motor, just press the button. It moves the boat for you. When first invented, this feature — then known as dynamic positioning — cost millions of dollars and was strictly the purview of offshore drilling ships. (Power poles also make for fabulously convenient anchoring in shallow waters. But that’s for another column.)
Auto-deploy and retrieval aside, virtually all the new features found in the latest trolling motors are based on inclusion of an internal GPS engine and the remarkable miniaturization of computer memory.
I recently fished with a guide friend in some mangroves in the Florida Keys. The area we fished was a serpentine channel about 1 mile long. My guide steered us through the channel using the handheld key-fob control. Fishing was excellent and we caught and released more than a few. My grandfather taught me to never leave fish to find fish; my guide must have received that advice, too, because he suggested we retrace our path back to our starting point. So we did — automatically — with the press of a single button. The guide no longer needed to steer at all as the motor remembered every turn and straightaway. Of course, when we hooked up again, another button push stopped us and held us in place until the motor was told to continue on its path.
Two main companies — both American — offer the latest and greatest for both fresh and salt water. Minn Kota’s Ulterra with Pilot Link provides 112 pounds of thrust and a 60-inch shaft (fresh water, MSRP $2,449), while the saltwater version — the Riptide ST80 with i-Pilot — offers 80 pounds of thrust and either a 54- or 60-inch shaft (MSRP $1,810).
Motorguide builds the Xi5 series with various thrust ratings and shaft lengths. The company’s Pinpoint GPS system remembers up to eight routes of 4 miles each. Its top-of-the-line version, with 105 pounds of thrust and a 60-inch shaft, carries an MSRP of $1,770. MSRPs can be improved upon significantly through savvy shopping.
I have highlighted the top-of-the line units here. Many other models offer optional integral sonar transducers compatible with most depthsounders. Motors with fewer features, capabilities and cost are certainly available.
All trolling motors operate on electricity. Small boats that use them don’t generally carry generators, so maintaining charged batteries must always be a consideration. Just as technology has made the motors more efficient, other equipment suppliers such as engine manufacturers and battery charger manufacturers have stepped up to the plate to accommodate trolling motors and the host of advanced electronics many boats now carry.
It’s rare that a boat with a trolling motor will be powered by anything other than an outboard engine. All the major manufacturers have seriously upped the output of their alternators and increased idle-speed charging rates. Both trolling motor companies make digital chargers for onboard or portable applications. Today’s advanced chargers allow you to select specific battery types (e.g., lead-acid, gel or AGM). And voltage compensation has become standard to make up for wonky outlet voltage or long extension cords. In addition to Motorguide and Minn Kota, Pro Charging Systems and ProMariner specialize in very advanced units.
Then, of course, the batteries themselves (and the installation of all the attendant systems) represent a crucial ingredient for successful and problem-free trolling. Lead-acid cells have pretty much gone the way of dinosaurs, leaving gel and AGM as the most popular choices. Both tout being unspillable, the ability to be mounted at any attitude, being deep cycle and low self-discharge, and safe for use in poorly ventilated areas.
Gel batteries are the most costly and consequently enjoy less popularity than AGMs. The latter provide excellent high-burst amperage capability, long life expectancy and reasonable cost. However, those advanced chargers become critical when using these batteries. You can seriously impact the mortality of the cells by running them down too far or not charging them according to their specific profiles. AGM cells also recharge faster than gel cells.
Today’s trolling motors’ main accomplishment is making the act of fishing easier, gentler and more relaxing. That sounds like a prefect prescription for serenity, and that’s what fishing should be about.