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Choosing a Trolling Motor
By Paul Crawford

There are few pieces of equipment that get as much use in bass fishing as your trolling motor. You may own 3, 6, or even 10 rods and reels, hundreds of baits, but normally just one boat, motor, trailer, and trolling motor. The boat and motor were matched for you, generally by the Coast Guard ratings on the hull. The boat and trailer were matched by the length and weight of the hull. But how did you choose your trolling motor? Generally the answer is one of two, either you bought the most motor you could afford or it came with the boat from the dealer.

Most boat buyers check the gas engine, and wouldn't hesitate to upgrade if the proposed package was under powered. But few folks, even on their second or third boat, think it's worth the effort to worry about the trolling motor. They may have chosen between hand controls or foot controls, but brands, ratings, or mounts were generally left up to the dealer's markup. The first time we think about the trolling motor is either when we're not happy with the performance, or when the old one breaks and it's time to buy a new one! It seems a little late either way. Let's take a look around at trolling motors and the features they offer. They come in a wide variety of styles and options, and they certainly aren't all the same, or the same price.

It's very difficult to describe the features on a trolling motor, because we really don't have a point of reference. About the best we can do is compare one motor to another, maybe on a laundry list of subjects. If you treat a trolling motor as a Chinese Menu, selecting 1 from column A and 1 from column B, then you can get a pretty good idea of the style, power, features, and ultimately price of motor best suited to you and your boat. Notice I did bother to include you, since trolling motors tend to be about as personal as your underwear.

First thing let's try to get over is power, or as normally presented on motors, thrust. We could argue all day about this one. As one guy put it, "I've never heard anyone complain about too much power." To a point this is true, but budget, weight, and physical size come in somewhere. Let's just break it out with some general guide lines. I'll say you need enough power to pull into the waves up until they break over the front of the boat. Given that, we can say 14' and under can make do with something in the under 25 lb
range, for 15' - 16' boats we'd look in the 35 lb range, for the standard 18' tournament boat, you'll want 40 lbs or a little better, and big boats need over 50 lbs of thrust, (if you can afford the 20' boat you can afford the big trolling motor.)

While we're on power, lets talk about efficiency. Just because you have a high thrust rating doesn't mean you're all that powerful. You may put out say 42 pounds to get started on a 12 volt system, but depending on your batteries, you may be all done within an hour. The power ratings are made at maximum thrust setting. Motors have different speeds, (we'll get to that shortly), but the thrust is measured full throttle. Depending on how efficient your motor is, (along with those all important batteries), you may be able to hold for an hour, or for 8 hours. There are a few other things to worry about, (we'll get to them as well), but the overall efficiency of the motor will be the biggest contributor to how long it pulls. Most of the higher end motors now use Pulse Width Modulation (PCM) which improves the efficiency by about 35%.
That doesn't mean you get more power, just that you can stay on full power for a longer time.

For those who know all about batteries, skip on down and we'll catch up in a minute..... For the rest of us, lets finish off power by talking about the batteries that make the motor go. Most all boats use a 12 Volt system, or in other words, the single starting battery that powers the starter and all of your electronics has a potential of 12V, (we'll skip the basic DC electronics for another day.) You'll badly want a second 12v battery, at minimum, to power your trolling motor. About the last thing you want is for your trolling motor to suck your only 12v battery dry, leaving you stuck on the water unable to start the big engine. The normal Wet Cell batteries we use weigh about 60 lbs or so, (there are other types of batteries, but that too will have to wait for another day.) This means to you just adding a trolling motor and a single battery to your boat is adding around 100 lbs or so. If you're running an 18' Ranger, this probably isn't a problem. If you're in a 12' Jon boat, it well may be a problem. As we said, we really don't have much choice on the first battery, but realize the power hogging bigger motors run on 24v, and therefore you need 2 batteries. Again, this is standard in most of the bigger boats, but if your adding a motor to a small boat, then really worry about whether or not you want to lug another 50 lbs or so around all day to get that extra 7 lbs of
thrust. Now even the bigger boats can sometimes get away with a 12V motor. On the 18 footers, a few years back one of the best motors out there was the Mercury Thruster which was a 12V motor. Many using this motor carried 2 extra batteries, but wired up to deliver 12v instead of 24v, giving them max power all day long. In my opinion, for lighter aluminum boats, 12v motors and a single battery is all you'll probably need for a day on the water and the weight savings makes the compromise worth it even for those that can afford a bigger motor.

OK, back to motors. Everyone with Us? Great.

The next most obvious decision you'll need to make is Hand Control verses Foot Control. This is another debate that will never be answered. Foot control motors rely on a pedal with a built in momentary switch to control power and steering. A hand control normally also has some type of floor mounted button for
controlling power, but instead of the pedal/cable arrangement, the user just steers by moving the motor head directly.

Hand controlled motors are probably the most popular and have a couple of advantages. The most obvious advantage is a relatively clear front deck since you don't have this giant pedal and cable laying around. This is important if your boat has limited room on the front deck or if you're fishing with 3 people in the boat and need to keep as far forward as possible, (the reason this style is used almost exclusively by guides.) Normally you add, (at additional cost), a couple of foot switches screwed into the
front deck in the front corners. You need 2 since you're never sure which way you'll be facing when fishing. You also add an extension to the head, generally known as a "guide stick", so you don't have to bend over or lean forward to steer, (all respect to Bill Dance.) Expect to pay around $30 for the two switches and another $40 for the guide stick. Add that to the cost of the motor, and you'll find out that even though the hand control motor is cheaper to buy than a similar class foot control, the end cost is roughly the same. One thing you'll notice about hand controlled motors is that a lot of people generally steer with their foot. Rather than free up a hand to steer, they just kick the guide stick with their foot in the general direction they want to go. There are even extensions specifically made to be kick steered. This kind of shoots the idea that hand controls let you keep both feet on the deck, which wasn't all that true to start with because of the deck mounted switches. The disadvantages of a hand control has to do
with your hands. If you grab the trolling motor, you're stuck with only one hand on your rod. This is noticeable when you are running a shore line or contour with a lot of points and cuts, or in rough water where the friction holding the motor in a particular direction never seems to be quite enough to keep it there. And, of course, when ever you do need to grab the motor, you always see to be facing the wrong direction requiring you to switch hands with your rod before steering, (which in turn always leads to an immediate bite, which you miss.) The less you need to steer, the more you'll like a hand controlled motor. The open water types love their hand controls, and they work great for that application. Anyone with bad knees will love a hand control, except if they fish setting down. Hand controlled motors are generally a pain in the posterior for guys who like the comfort of a chair on the front deck, even given the clutter of the alternative.

Foot controls, when they first came out, were thought to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, for the first 3 hours. Foot controls do represent hands free fishing. The normal configuration is a rack and pinion steering mechanism on the end of a cable controlled by a pedal. Push down, you got one direction, lift up you go the other. A momentary switch is mounted on the pedal, and generally even the speed can be controlled with your toe. The pedal is either screwed to the deck or has a weighted plate on the bottom to keep it in place. With a little practice you can control the direction of the motor and the switch while still keeping at least some weight on your leg. Unless you're closely related to a flamingo, this is a good thing. Those that like to sit and fish will adore foot controls if they can avoid tripping over the cable and falling out of the boat when they do stand up. And anyone who need precise boat control in tight quarters, this one's for you! Most of the folks who love to flip near tight cover love their foot controls. When combined with the new near-weedless props maneuvering around tight cover is about as easy as fishing open water. Since you generally just keep your foot on the pedal, (at least after you learn that keeping your weight on the pedal trick), rough water isn't even an inconvenience anymore. Assuming you are equally coordinated with either foot, and that you didn't screw the pedal into the deck, switching sides is merely a matter of fighting the cable into the new position. If you own a foot control, you quickly master the art of adjusting the trolling motor bracket. You can control the angle of straight ahead in the pedal by simply turning the head of the motor in the bracket. And you quickly figure out that raising the head of the motor higher in the bracket means the cable is up in the air, nor wrapped around your feet. For the most part you never want the head of the motor pointing straight ahead even though this means you can steer equally in either direction. By turning the head to one side, you not only adjust the straight ahead setting, but you now can back straight up, something you can't do with the head centered on the boat, (only 330 degrees of rotation for most motors.) Turns out not having equal steering to either side isn't much of a problem, even in tight quarters. About the biggest challenge you have with a foot control is trying to stay aboard the boat. Without an obvious indication, like the tiller sticking you in the side, it's all too easy to punch a motor, generally on full power at the time, directly to one side. This has the disturbing effect of moving the boat directly out from underneath you, your partner, or both. A few of these adventures quickly demonstrate the value of either a butt seat or hand rails with a foot controlled motor. Of course you can always take the much more direct route of simply tripping over the pedal and taking a head long plunge while simultaneously trying to keep the tension on the 5 pound fish you are playing at the time.

Always ready to magnify any problems with their own products while extracting additional cash from their customers, the motor manufacturers how found new and innovative ways to inconvenience the fishermen. Instead of a bulking, inflexible cable going to an oversized pedal, you can now buy, for only a couple of hundred more, a small delicate undersized pedal connected with a highly flexible wire approximately long enough to reach from your trolling motor back to your car. This new improved offering simultaneously prevents you from putting any real weight on the pedal without breakage, (at least for the human foot), while the many coils in the new cord assures that you can still enjoy tripping over the pedal at the worse possible moment. There is now even an improvement over this one that eliminates the cable altogether! An RF connection between the pedal and the motor lets you inject noise into every depth finder and radio in the cove and gives you one more 9v battery to run down at 8:30 in the morning. And the redesigned pedal, no longer tethered to the motor, looks sleek and ergonomic as it flies off the rear deck at 50 mph. I don't guess they are really all that bad, as much as I hate the new servo motor controls that electronic steering brings. You do now have an additional motor to burn up and the strength of the
motor is not sufficient to turn in heavy weeds or against wood. Since I prefer a foot control in heavy cover, I don't want to turn over the turning speed or the power to turn the motor head over to another electric motor. The cable system gave me direct feedback on any underwater obstruction and I could feel the motor start to dig in when I ran shallow. The electronic steering eliminates the feedback when I want it the most. I guess to each his own.

One electronic steering motor does stand out from the rest. The Pinpoint motor incorporates an internal depth finder and computer which allows the motor to actually follow contours hands free! This truly is a great innovation if you love open water fishing as I do and can afford the $1500 price tag which I can't. I do think in the future more motors of this type will be offered and accepted by the general public. Minn Kota has offered an "auto pilot" for several years which locks on a shore alignment and corrects for drift. Going in a straight line in the wind is not nearly the trick of following a creek channel. Just make sure you're ready when the creek takes a sharp bend.

One other "feature" on Minn Kota I'm not sold on is their ramped start up. This little jewel is suppose to cure the problem of throwing yourself out of the boat with a foot control on full throttle. Instead of coming on with full power, the motor ramps up to speed with a smooth acceleration. Suppose to be the difference between a passenger car and a fuel dragster. I guess if you throw yourself out of the boat on a regular basis, it's a pretty good idea. As for me, I'm likely to be found in the middle of a weed bed trying to hack my way to the next grass mat. When I'm floating in the weeds, the LAST thing I want is a motor that ramps to speed. I'm pretty much depending on that power surge to help clear the prop. Not a shallow water fisherman? Then 1) why did you buy the foot control, and 2) why do you have it on full power anyway? I guess ignorance is bliss for one of us.

We've already talked a bit about PCM circuits, but do they just save power? Turns out the latest answer is no. They have one other characteristic anyone who fishes in weed beds should love. When you set the speed, you're setting the prop RPM instead of just shunting the power from the batteries. This is a very serious improvement. In the past, when you set the speed, it just varied the resistance in the circuit so if you loaded up the prop with weeds, it may not turn at all. With PCM, the frequency is set but the pulse length can be varied to continuous, so the motor will pull as much power as needed to turn the prop at the desired RPM. All this Engineer Speak is about that if you set the prop to turn at 300 RPM then run straight into a weed bed, the prop will still turn 300 RPM even after it's loaded with grass. It's not really
the long term answer to weeds, since when the weeds wrap around the hub, you're still not going anywhere, but it's an improvement.

One other switch I demand on my trolling motor is a continuous switch. There are even some motors out there that don't have momentary switches, but on/off switches instead, (greatest open water guide motors ever built.) When I'm working into the wind, I'm very likely to put the motor on a slow speed and hit the continuous button. Now I just creep along working my line and forget about the trolling motor for a while, (a nice relieve about 1:00 in the afternoon.) With any kind of fairly steady wind this works like a champ. You can install a continuous switch on a motor that doesn't have one, but finding the physical switch that will take that kind of amperage is a bit of a problem. If installing a switch for the first time, make sure you can still grab one of the wires. It turns out on high speeds most switches will simply weld
the contacts together and now your stuck with a motor you can't turn off, (funny only 2 years after the fact.)

Speaking of speeds, I'm a huge fan of variable speed motors instead of having 4 or 5 preset speeds. The reason is simple, the wind doesn't blow at preset speeds, so why would I want my motor to run at them. If you're like most people and ignore what your boat needs and buy the most motor you can afford, then you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. It's really not that difficult to get a motor that goes too fast even at its lowest speed. Variable speed motors are a little bit more expensive, but if you like that continuous switch, well worth the money.

Now to the business end of the motor, the prop. The Holy Grail of prop design is a prop that pulls good in open water but still does not foul when you go into a weedbed. We're not there yet, but we're closer. Motor Guide has taken to different blades and numbers of blades. A few years back, they came up with their "ninja" prop, a little 4 blade prop with a reduced throw. This was indeed an improvement over the standard prop, and a larger 2 blade prop, or "power prop" was introduced. The trouble was the 4 blade didn't move enough water when in open water to pull the boat and you effectively lost a lot of thrust. The 2 blade pulled great in open water, but still didn't work that well in grass. Their latest offering is a 3 blade compromise, which unlike most compromises works very well in both situations. Minn Kota took another route and worked on hub design to reduce the likelihood of the weeds wrapping around in the first place. This was marginally successful. It worked pretty well for large, stiff weeds like spaddock and standing hydrilla, but floating hydrilla, milfoil, and pepper grass would still do a number on them. I've
seen an after market prop for Minn Kota motor that has a pair of stainless steel knives attached to the leading edge, balanced and ready to go. While I'm sure this will work, I'm a little leery of a 1000 RPM dicer on my front deck. I'm not all that good with sharp objects anyway and I have visions of being called "Lefty" with one of these props in a moment of inattention.

Of course I'm really not much better with a little trick a friend showed me several years ago. I take RTV and mount a single edge razor blade to the housing of my motor running to right up behind the blades. I bend it down to touch the hub, look for the thickest pepper grass I can find, and make instant salad. It still doesn't work all the time, (and careful has a whole new meaning when clearing a mat), but it's far better than anything else I've come up with.

One of the better reasons to spend all the extra money buying a Johnson Trolling motor is because of the way they attach the motor to the shaft. Everyone else did the obvious and ran a straight shaft to the center of the housing. Johnson did their homework and puts an offset shaft to the front of the housing. I didn't realize why anyone would go to that much trouble, (other than possibly to look cool), until I saw one go through weeds. The shaft acts as a weed guard for the top of the motor and they can go through the thickest weeds with the best of them. Unfortunately, that's still not all that good, but it's an improvement over what anyone else can do. You can get sort of the same effect with a couple of hose clamps and a coat hanger. Clamp the wire where it comes straight over the nose of the motor and vertically for about a foot. Then bend back to the shaft and clamp in place. It does help when pulling through an eel grass bed, but since you now have two vertical shafts for weeds to catch on, drift through weeds is a problem. The Johnson works much better since it only has a single wide shaft.

Speaking of shafted, if you opt for a foot control, spend all the money in the world on the bracket. To make the foot control go, you've got two concentric shafts which will seriously object if one or both get bent. Most brackets have either a breakaway feature or a spring mount, and before going to Lake Fork or anyplace else with standing timber, make absolutely sure the bracket works. If you still need some good reason to spend the extra money, try the following test. Stand in knee deep water, have your buddy put the trolling motor on high and run straight at you with your new Ranger. You try to catch the front end and stop it within an inch or two. After your buddy backs the boat off of you, assuming you haven't drown, you'll have a pretty good idea of the amount of force the bracket needs to absorb to protect your motor.

The Minn Kota Spring Mount system holds some promise for heavy timber. They combine this bracket with a composite nose cone to protect the motor housing and a graphite shaft thatís suppose to bend a bit and snap right back in place. These are good ideas, just not ones that Iím completely sold on. The nose cone has a sharp point to help deflect off solid surfaces which naturally means it has a habit of wedging in slots and branches on most occasions. The shaft may snap back into place, or just snap. All graphite is brittle to some extent, and the Minn Kota shaft will fail under extreme use. Itís a trade off like most things and if you work in tight quarters in heavy timber itís work a look. But for me, Iím still a fan of the Gator Mount. If you love the Minn Kota motors, it might be worth a look at picking up a Gator Mount on the aftermarket.

The Gator Mount has the front bracket mounted on a breakaway pivot that allows the motor to bend back under the boat if it hits something solid. This system is simple and reliable. Most folks replace the standard rubber compression nuts with a standard bolt and nut using the rubber sleeve for vibration isolation. When installed and adjusted right, the Gator Mount is about as good as it gets for protecting your motor in a heavy stable bracket. Unfortunately, most guys just hate it when the bracket slides a little bit when they are trying to back out of a tight spot with the trolling motor on full power. Consequently, these same guys tighten the bracket down so hard it might as well be welded. You can meet and talk to these guys in the trolling motor section of the local sporting goods stores. If you have a hand controlled motor, it's likely just a solid shaft so if you use a cheap bracket, the motor will look funny on the front deck and may resemble a reversed mounted Johnson. But at least you can still steer to get back out of the timber. Also consider that hand controlled motors are a lot cheaper to repair.

I don't guess any opinionated article wouldn't be complete without a brand review. Keep in mind these are simply my opinions, for what that's worth, and are based on my experiences in my area of the country.

I do know a couple of guys in the correct tax bracket to own a Pinpoint motor. They have nothing but wonderful words to say about them. Of course, these are the same guys who own their own business and work 80 hours a week, so they only fish about 15 times a year and I suspect any motor would look good to them. I'd be awfully sure that I'm getting the motor I want before dropping enough cash to buy a used Chevy.

Not far behind in the price race, (around $1,175 retail for a foot control), is Johnson. I know a lot more guys who own Johnsons and just about everyone of them swears they'll never own anything else. They are quiet, at least for the first 4 or 5 years, (even Johnsons get noisy with age.) I guess my trouble is committing to a motor for 10 years, (I have trouble keeping a wife that long), and compared to the more popular motors, are a little under powered. But there is no doubt they hold up well and give good service.

Minn Kota has stepped up a notch or two the last couple of years. It use to be that if I had a Minn Kota, I'd trade it for a dog, then shoot the dog. But the improvements in hub and bracket design over the last couple of years make them a player again. I still wish they would improve the electronics and give me sturdy wiring instead of Auto pilots or RF controls. Their price is attractive and only time will tell if they hold up to the abuse over the years.

That brings me to my old standby, Motor Guide. They too have had their problems from time to time, but overall I still like them. They are by far the most popular motors in my area. They have a lot of good, innovative features and are competitively priced. For those that like to play in salty water, their Great White series is a standard around here. But my number one reason for buying them is the last one I had one break a few years ago. I was at a major tournament and was puzzled one morning when my automatic battery charger was still pulling 5 amps after being on all night. I couldn't figure out what was wrong until I took off the boat cover and caught a whiff of something burning. When I looked at the front of the boat, the trolling motor had a short in a switch and the prop was stalled out against the deck, (doesn't everyone leave their trolling motor plugged in?) The odor was the rubber on the bracket where the head laid that had melted from 14 hours of overheating out of the water and now had a form fit an inch deep around the head. After disconnecting the offending switch, I wasn't surprised that the motor was locked up. What did surprise me was after half an hour when the motor cooled off and I was trying to demonstrate the problem to a buddy, I hit the button and the prop turned. Having few other options, and already running late for launch, I took a chance and decided to try to fish with it that day. The motor, with a couple of interesting new noises, pulled like a champ all day and I paid for a couple of new motors
with a good check from that tournament. The motor was retired to the front of a friend's small boat where, still with interesting noises, it works to this day. I've bought Motor Guide ever since.

Choose a trolling motor that matches you and the way you fish. There are plenty to choose from and you should find one that fits your needs nicely, no matter what your needs are. Trolling Motors have come along ways over the years, and it looks like the best is yet to come.

Paul Crawford

 
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