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September 21, 2007

Look Ma, No Hands

Step away from the helm-let an autopilot find the fish.

STEP ON IT: Autopilots can run a zigzag course to cover the water around dropoffs thoroughly.
LUCKY CHARM: Cloverleaf patterns can slow-troll up kingfish around fixed structure.
WRECK HUNTER: Numbers off? Turn on the search pattern to find that hot spot.
Illustrations: Steve Sanford

Within minutes of leaving Palm Beach Inlet we had reached the optimal depth for sailfish. As the crew readied gear for the first drift, Captain George Mitchell punched the buttons on a control box, stepped away from the helm and reached into the live well for a goggle-eye. With his autopilot running the boat, Mitchell could concentrate on the baits.

"With charters I'm nearly always by myself," he explained. "For me to tell the client to steer the boat toward a point while I get everything ready is just not feasible. So I use my autopilot instead. It's more a tool than an electronic gadget. It lets me do other things and at the end of the day, that means more fish."

Mitchell is not alone. Increasing numbers of boat owners install autopilots with their outboards. But these systems are not just high-seas cruise control for long-distance runs. They offer preprogrammed trolling and search modes, remote control and reliable performance. The latest autopilots help anglers improve their catch rate. Here's how they work.

Nuts and Bolts
Autopilots use magnetic headings to steer the boat. The system includes an electronic flux-gate gyroscope compass, a pump tied into the boat's hydraulic steering system, a processor and a control box. Data input, used to adjust the course, comes from either a rudder feedback mechanism attached to the outboard(s) mechanically or from rapid electronic pulses fed into the processor. The electronic system is becoming the preferred choice.

"Forty-five percent of past autopilot failures were due to rudder feedback problems," says Sean Ryan, Nautamatic's director of operations for Florida and the Caribbean. "That's understandable since the mechanisms are constantly exposed to the salt water environment. Our system ties into the engine tachometry to measure the true speed of the boat."

Tachometry updates more frequently than GPS, so it's ideal for this application-after all, the engine is always running when the autopilot is in use. "For example, if you're doing four knots trolling live bait, the autopilot knows the engine is going 600 rpm," Ryan explains. "Or in the case of multiple engines, the pilot will sense you have the port engine in gear and will steer to starboard to compensate."

Outboard autopilots have various operating modes and most can be networked into GPS and chart plotters. Pilots can be set to steer toward a waypoint with corrections factored in to compensate for wind and current. Encounter an obstruction and the operator takes control by switching into standby mode. Some systems detect the skipper's hand on the wheel and stand down automatically, resuming the preset course if it stays unchanged for three seconds. These features address real-world conditions.

Fish Course
The new generation of autopilots meets anglers' needs like never before. Preprogrammed settings let a system run the course the operator wants-and it does not have to be a straight line.

Autopilots can steer a zigzag course, covering a wide swath of fish-holding water. The angler sets the tacks, changing the degree of turns and the time period between them. Blanket both shallow and deep sides of a dropoff, tweaking the swerves to hunt up wahoo.

Or set the pilot to circle in 500- to 6,000-foot loops, dragging the water around a found object or a frigate bird-and putting a bait in front of any dolphin around.

For a fixed object, try orbit mode. The autopilot will stay 600 feet off an offshore buoy or fishy underwater structure like Big Rock off North Carolina. Cloverleaf search patterns radiate off a fixed position like a buoy, rig or wreck.

HOLD FOR BAIT: Autopilots stem the current so you can gather bait.
Photo: Steve Sanford

The length of each "leaf" is adjustable-great for trolling live baits for kings around oil and gas rigs in the Gulf.

A true search pattern, tracing a course of outward spirals, is ideal for the first visit to a wreck or artificial reef. If the GPS coordinates you got from a flaky source don't show anything on the sounder, start the pilot at the known position and turn ever-widening rings.

The autopilot manufacturers include some or all of these preset patterns, so do the research to figure out the best setup for your kind of fishing.

How much are we looking at for these systems? Ryan says a Nautamatic system for a twin-engine center console runs around $3,850. Professional installation will range from $800 to $1,500 more depending on the region and the boat. If you're comfortable working with high-pressure hydraulics, you can install it yourself, but it affects the warranty. Are the costs worth it? Mitchell thinks so.

"The more time you spend running over to the wheel, the less time you have to actually fish," Mitchell said after we went three for three on sails. "In my mind, that's money well spent."

Pilot Programs
Find an autopilot system that works for you.

Furuno (www.furunousa.com):
FishHunter mode makes sweeping spirals as it steers the boat toward a waypoint to cover more water, and the NAVpilot-520 remote has an LCD display that enables the operator to steer from the bow, stern or tower.

Nautamatic (www.nautamatic.com):
Reverse mode backs the boat down or stems the current near structure to catch bait or fish off the stern.

Northstar (www.northstarnav.com):
The 3300 has a "dedicated turns" mode button for instant access to primary steering functions. It also has adjustable alarms for course and cross-track errors and networks with a radio and a navigation system.

Raymarine (www.raymarine.com):
SmartSteer technology controls the boat's rate of turn based on vessel speed, while the S100 wireless remote clips on a belt like a pager-but looks much less dorky-and can operate up to 32 feet from the base station.

Simrad (www.simradyachtingusa.com):
Virtual Rudder Feedback system uses software algorithms to make adjustments, while the RemoteCommander controls the AP16 Series pilot, but also works with networked radios, radar and chart plotters via Bluetooth technology. - D.L.