Trolling Motor Buyer's Guide

It is no wonder that the subject of trolling motors is confusing, you don’t troll with them. I don’t know who decided to call them "trolling" motors, but if you want to control your boat you need one. And when conditions are tough, you need the right one.

What anglers are really after is boat control without noise and smoke. Beyond deciding where to fish, with what lure, at what depth, which presentation, rig and color, selecting an electric trolling motor that will meet all of your needs and expectations is probably the most challenging decision you will have to make.

When you look at all of the variables in boats and conditions that have to be dealt with, it's not surprising that anglers are sometimes disappointed with their decision, once they hit the water. The search for the perfect motor generates a rising tide of questions. Freshwater, saltwater, power, shaft length, bow or stern mount, type of mount, hand control, foot control or remote, 12-volt, 24-volt or 36-volt? Do you want sonar built into the motor or do you plan on adding it later?

If you take a methodical approach, one issue at a time, you can avoid the common pitfalls and end up with a motor that will serve you well for many hours on the water. To address some of the subtle issues of boat control, I spoke with Brad Olson, Cabela's trolling motor expert.

Brad advises, "The first issue to address is how big of a boat are you going to be pushing around, and where? Obviously a small Johnboat on a small, protected lake will require less propulsion than a large walleye boat on Lake Erie. Size is relative to weight, but also to wind. Even a relatively small boat with a high gunnels and bow is basically a sail when the wind kicks up, making it harder to control. Simply put, the bigger (or taller) the boat, the more thrust you'll need to control it."

Combustion engines are measured in horsepower, and electric trolling motors are measured by the thrust they produce. Three decades ago, when they first appeared on the scene, 18 pounds of thrust was a big unit. Today, motors produce up to a whopping 165 pounds of thrust.

The size and weight of your boat translates into your need for power (thrust) and endurance. The basic rule of thumb for determining the amount of thrust you need is five pounds of thrust for every 200 pounds of weight. Don't forget to include the weight of your boat's contents in the calculation. To be sure that you have enough power, take the boat's estimated weight and add in its maximum weight capacity. A boat that weighs 1,500 pounds, and has a maximum weight capacity of 1,200 pounds would need a motor with 67.5 pounds of thrust. (1,500 lbs. + 1,200 lbs. ÷ 200 = 13.5 x 5= 67.5)

"Generally speaking, if you have a boat that is over 16 feet and you're a daylight to dark fisherman, you're going to want at least a 24-volt system. For the angler that goes out for a few hours on the weekend, a few times a year, a 12-volt system is going to be adequate, but for anglers who hit it hard all day, several times a week, a 24-volt system would be the minimum and a 36-volt system would be optimal. It's all about endurance and performance!"

Extended PowerElectric trolling motors have evolved into multi-battery systems because anglers wanted to be able to use their motors at a higher level of performance over longer periods of time. Having two or three batteries in series just gives you more capacity to draw from. Batteries for marine application have also evolved tremendously. In the beginning, the only option was to use the same type of battery that was designed to start a vehicle, which only requires a brief burst of power. Batteries that are designed for starting a motor perform miserably in marine applications, except for firing up your main engine.

Today, anglers can choose from beefier "deep-cycle" varieties including gel and dry cells that cost as much as $250 each. Top end deep-cycle batteries have thicker cell plates that store more electricity and recharge at a faster rate. Gel cell and dry cell batteries are ideal for marine application because they don't require maintenance, don't spill acid, and are more impervious to vibration, a real battery killer. The term "deep-cycle" means that a battery is designed for repeated deep discharging (cycling the battery to as low as 10.5 volts) without premature failure.

New Technology
Wind, current and heavy vegetation are the big three when it comes to battery sappers. The continuing quest to design more efficient and powerful motors has produced some pretty amazing fishing tools. Today's high-tech motors squeeze every amp of efficiency, and MotorGuide has even gone digital. MotorGuide's patented Digital Guardia™ technology is housed in a sealed, self-contained module located in the lower unit. It controls the speed and continuously monitors vital motor components.

"Digital has a number of advantages. Digital modules are impervious to heat, moisture, corrosion and shock and can be easily replaced without an inconvenient trip to the dealership. Digital motors run cooler, quieter and more efficiently than their analog cousins, which results in improved efficiency when it comes to sustained battery life and staying power when the fish are biting. A side benefit of cooler operating temperatures is longer motor life," Olson said.

Another advantage of digital technology is the elimination of interference with sonar, which is sometimes a problem with analog motors.

Minn Kota has taken another direction for extending battery life and improving performance. Minn Kota uses larger brushes, windings and commutators to reduce heat, noise and lower operating temperatures, which in turn extends motor life, and conserves battery power. Their exclusive Maximizer™ technology yields up to five times more running time on a single charge. Minn Kota's solid-state circuitry efficiently converts electrical energy into mechanical thrust.

Both MotorGuides' Digital Guardian™ approach and Minn Kota's Maximizer™ technology offers an infinite number of power settings, as opposed to the traditional low, medium, and high settings found on early generation motors.

Bow vs. Transom Mount
The issue of where you want your trolling motor to be mounted is related to your fishing style. Neither location is limited to a particular species; however, traditional walleye anglers who like to backtroll seem to be irrevocably bound to the transom. Since the bow of a boat is pointed, mounting the motor in this position does give a decided advantage to control in wind and waves. Simply put, you can't push a rope but you can drag it all day long.

For anglers who use electric power exclusively, especially in areas where combustion engines are prohibited, transom motors are a popular choice and the latest innovation from Minn Kota is a powerful option. Minn Kota's Vantage transom-mount motors have a unique articulated steering feature that will eliminate awkward reaching and quicker response time. This motor has a 4 to 1 steering ratio so it only takes 90 degrees of tiller movement to give you a 360-degree turn. Other features include up/down auto-control on the handle that raises and lowers the motor, a breakaway mount for stump collisions and a dual-position directional indicator that is reversible for backtrolling. The Vantage is available in 74 and 101 pound thrust models and 24 or 36 volt systems with Maximizer technology.

Mount Options
"A critical issue with trolling motors is the mount, especially with the higher thrust models that can generate a tremendous amount of torque. Where and how you mount your new motor can be critical to its performance. A good mount must be solid in both the deployed state as well as when it is retracted. Heavy waves can do serious damage to a motor with a long shaft that is free to slap against the deck. A motor stabilizer bar is a good option to consider for motors with long shafts," he added.

Another critical issue with the mount is the ability to lock or remove it for security. Smaller motors that attach with clamps are easy to remove, but the larger units that bolt on are not as easy to protect. MotorGuide offers a mount that is removable, but other motors require an additional quick-release mount to give you this peace of mind. If you travel and stay overnight, with your boat in a motel parking lot, you might want to give serious consideration to a quick-release option. These mounts enable you to easily remove your motor and stow it safely inside your room or a locked compartment in your vehicle. It might seem like an unnecessary expense until you've bought a motor for a "midnight angler."

"Banging into stumps and rocks is another problem for motors and shafts. It's not as critical when you only have the inertia of a small boat pushing against the encumbrance, but larger boats are harder to stop and damage can result without a sturdy, flexible mount. For example," he said, "Minn Kota's Bowguard 360® Breakaway Mount breaks away on impact from any direction, protecting your motor, shaft and boat - then it automatically resets itself. Combine this Bowguard feature with Minn Kota's ultra high-yield composite shaft and you won't have to hold your breath when you hit a submerged log. This composite material has been tested to be three times the strength of steel. Virtually indestructible, it flexes on impact and then returns to its original position. Unlike steel, will not kink, break, rust or corrode."

"MotorGuide mounts also have a breakaway feature designed around spring mounts with a hinged door for easy removal. All parts of thTrolling motor length guidee MotorGuide mount are made of extruded aluminum except for the 3/8" stainless steel pins for lock-and-stow and lock-and-run."

Shaft Length
In the motor selection process, the other factor relative to the size of your boat is shaft length. "For bow-mounted motors, you need to measure the distance from the top of your bow to the waterline. For a transom mounted motor, measure the distance from the top of the transom to the water line. After determining the mount-to-water distance, add 18 inches to your measurement for optimal performance. For engine-mounted motors, measure the distance from the top of the cavitation plate to the waterline. A minimum of 13" is mandatory for an engine-mounted motor," Olson explained.

The chart at the left provides shaft lengths relative to actual measurement, and adds additional length for fishing in rough water or when standing using a hand-controlled unit.

Control Direction and Speed
Trolling motors are either controlled directly by hand, foot pedals, or remote units. Total directional as well as speed control is accessed from any of these options. Generally, the type of fishing you do and to some extent, personal preference, will determine the type of control you use. Bass fishermen who spend their day moving constantly, casting from the bow, prefer the hands-free advantage of a foot pedal, remote control unit or advanced features that control the boat automatically based on preset parameters. Anglers that work smaller areas of water, at a slower pace often opt for less automation, and the associated costs that accompany technology.

"On particularly rough days, when swells and pounding waves make it difficult to stand up in the bow, remote control is a decided advantage; however, some anglers opt to simply extend the cable on their foot pedal and move it to a more stable position in the rear of the boat. Depending on the motor you choose, cable extensions are available that will lengthen your control up to 30 feet, when added to your existing cable."

"The amount of control you have over speed varies with each motor's level of sophistication. On the lower end of the scale motor speed is controlled by a resistive power controller or rheostat, which uses more electricity and offers fewer options than newer technology. Options range from single to multiple speed units to infinite settings available with Pulse Width Modulated (PWM) and the latest digital controls."

"Most foot pedals are PWM controls. A PWM circuit works by making a square wave with a variable "on-to-off" ratio; the average "on" time may be varied from 0 to 100 percent. Using this technique, a variable amount of power is transferred to the motor. The main advantage of a PWM circuit over a resistive power controller is the efficiency. At a 50% level, the PWM will use about 50% of full power, almost all of which is transferred to the motor, a resistive controller at 50% load power would consume about 71% of full power, 50% of the power goes to the load and the other 21% is wasted heating the dropping resistor."

"With PWC controls, the pulses reach the full supply voltage and will produce more torque in a motor by being overcoming the internal motor resistances more easily, but the down side is the complexity of this type of circuitry produces radio frequency interference (RFI) interference with radios and sonar units. More sophisticated, shielded transducers solve this problem with sonar."

Another control issue, especially with high-torque models, is the start. "MotorGuide's soft start feature is an important consideration to any angler that fishes standing up. This feature eases the disarming jerk experienced when starting at a high-speed setting."

While this isn't usually as big of a problem for the operator as it is for the partner fishing in back, who doesn't know when to expect that sudden lurch; when combined with an ill-timed wave it can result in a quick dip for either, or both anglers.

"Pinpoint sonar matched with a PTS MotorGuide motor, gives anglers' newfound freedom with technology that can track an exact depth or contour automatically, keeping your boat tracking on a line of structure that is holding fish."

"Minn Kota's Auto-Pilot works on a compass heading. You simply set the unit in the direction you want to go and the motor compensates constantly for wind and wave action. This system is particularly effective for fishing along a shoreline where fish are active, or holding in current over a pod of feeding fish. Another handy feature of this compass heading control is repeating a productive run. When you reach the end of a run and want to repeat it in the other direction, simply reverse the motor 180 degrees and it will return along the exact same track you've just completed."

"Minn Kota's Co-Pilot gives you two more options, with even more flexibility. You can choose either corded or remote control, with the ability to have complete control of your craft from anywhere, bow to stern. This is a distinct advantage when you're busy fighting a big fish and need to move about. The CoPilot is a small wireless unit that can be attached to your belt, wrist or rod for easy access to five buttons that turn the motor on/off, control speed and direction. Minn Kota also designed the Co-Pilot™ control unit to be waterproof, so you can use it in any weather. Perhaps more important to the average angler, if you drop it overboard it floats. The wireless CoPilot is engineered for use with Grip-Glide™ PowerDrive and Grip-Glide™ AutoPilot motors."

When it comes to sonar, your choice of fishfinder will impact your trolling motor decision. Not all trolling motors match up with all sonar units, and to further complicate the process, not all models are available with built-in transducers. Built-in transducers eliminate unsightly clamps that are a problem in heavy vegetation as well as cables running down the shaft of your motor.

"Motorguide motors can be matched with Pinpoint units. Pinpoint Imaging Displays are unique in that up to three units can be networked together on the same boat through an In-Sync cable, and without interference from each other.

"Minn Kota trolling motors can be matched with Lowrance, Eagle, Garmin, Bottom Line, Humminbird, Zercom and Vexilar."

To simplify the sonar issue, Cabela's has eliminated the challenge of matching units, wiring and transducers by offering certain trolling motors in package deals with pre-installed transducers. "We've taken the guesswork out of this often frustrating process. Before, anglers had to read up on their chosen sonar unit, search through a long list of components and wiring options, and then deal with the hassle of returning product when they made the wrong selection. Our kits are very popular with anglers because they are user-friendly. You can be confident of a hassle-free installation."

For the owners of very large boats, Navigator Tournament Series motors are the answer to the question, "where's the beef?" While the Navigator is available with 35 pounds of thrust for smaller boats, their top of the line unit produces a bone wrenching 165 pounds of thrust. "These engine-mounted electric trolling motors are designed specifically for those times when your boat size or high winds prevent you from using a traditional bow or stern mounted trolling motor. Their Titan 165 is designed for boats up to 25 feet, weighing a maximum of 8,000 pounds," Olson said.

The Navigator Tournament Series mounts permanently onto any I/O or outboard motor and is controlled from the helm. Weatherproof remote controls and Pulse-Width Modulation electronics withstand the harshest marine environments. This motor is very effective in saltwater applications, and comes with stainless steel brackets and hardware for this harsh environment.

When it comes to the invasive, destructive nature of saltwater, you need a unit that is designed to protect delicate circuits from corrosion. "All of the major manufacturers make a saltwater version with beefed up features and various approaches to sealing electronics. Some models offer an optional sacrificial anode that mitigates the problem somewhat, but it's always a good idea to wash the saltwater off of everything it comes into contact with after a trip. Protect your investment and it will serve you for many trips to come."

With the wealth of options for power, automated control and sonar capabilities, anglers today are the beneficiaries of technology that was only a fantasy a few years ago. Never before have there been so many different choices when it comes to controlling a boat, and the best part is that you can pick a motor that does exactly what you want, when you want and how you want. Select your motor, power up and go fishing!