Benefits of Trolling-Motor Autopilots

Trolling-motor autopilots let you concentrate on fishing

skiff boat
The Right Boat: Electric trolling motors work best on flats skiffs and bay boats with low-profile bows. Since the maximum shaft length is 70 inches, finding a trolling-motor long enough to reach the water and stay there in choppy seas will be tough with an offshore boat with a high prow. To control a boat larger than 20 feet, you need a 36-volt system, which means a dedicated bank of three 31 series deep-cycle batteries.Jim Hendricks

A big tide swing pushed a strong current through the cuts in the Florida Keys as Capt. Robert “R.T.” Trosset used a bow-mounted 36-volt Motorguide Xi5 trolling motor with Pinpoint GPS to bring his Yellowfin 24 Bay close to one of his favorite bridges to fish for grouper. “Are you going to anchor here?” I asked. “Sort of,” Trosset answered, activating the anchor function on the boat’s Lowrance HDS ­multifunction display, which was set in the Smart Steer mode and linked with the trolling motor, making the boat hold steady. Trosset had set us up for ­fishing the abutments without even ­opening the anchor locker. As if tethered by an invisible rode, the Yellowfin 24 held its position into the current until Trosset used the jog arrows on the HDS display to move the boat from side to side to fish different abutments of the bridge.

fishing with autopilot
Pilot Program: 1.) Direction - Trolling-­autopilots such as the Xi5 house guidance control in the head. 2.) Setup - Shaft length best suits bay boats and skiffs. 3.) Durability - Select a model designed especially for saltwater use.Jim Hendricks

Practical and Productive

Virtual anchoring is just one of the practical functions afforded to saltwater anglers using GPS-guided trolling-­motor autopilots, which can also ­automatically run an established course, take your boat to a ­specific waypoint, drive a predetermined pattern and more.

Minn Kota and Motorguide ­offer self-contained systems utilizing bow-mounted ­trolling motors — Minn Kota’s i-Pilot and Motorguide’s Pinpoint GPS — operated with wireless remotes. Both also interface with multifunction displays for enhanced autopilot capabilities — the i-­Pilot with a Humminbird unit via i-Pilot Link, Pinpoint GPS with a Lowrance HDS Gen2 Touch or Gen3 model via the ­Pinpoint GPS Gateway module (the HDS models also serve as the autopilot control panel for a properly equipped outboard-engine steering system using the Lowrance Outboard Pilot function.)

autopilot
Fobs let you control the autopilot from anywhere in the boat.File Photo

The i-Pilot system is available in a range of Minn Kota trolling motors, but only the Riptide series is designed for saltwater fishing. Pinpoint is available in the Motorguide Xi5 trolling motor, with the SW series engineered for the brine.

Both systems free up the captain to focus more on fishing rather than maneuvering, positioning or anchoring he boat. As Capt. Sam Heaton, who works with Humminbird and Minn Kota, says, “It’s like having an extra crew member on board, except he doesn’t get in the way.”

wireless remote
Wireless remotes allow you to move about the boat.File Photo

On the Edge

Trolling-motor autopilots give you the ability to work along a channel drop-off, a seawall or mangrove-lined shore. Linked with the appropriate Humminbird multifunction display, the Minn Kota i-Pilot also follows a contour line on the chart plotter using Humminbird’s electronic charts. You can also re-trace a path that ­produced well on the first pass in the hopes it will ­continue to yield fish.

Last winter, Lowrance/Simrad tournament pro Mark Maus used the Pinpoint GPS and Lowrance Smart Steer autopilot function to follow a series of waypoints with the Motorguide Xi5 as we fished along a rock wall in the Florida Keys. The result was nonstop action with snapper and black grouper for well over an hour. “This is really a huge advantage,” says Maus. “This keeps us right in the strike zone without me ­having to drive the boat.”

autopilot on fishing boats
All autopilot controls are available at the helm on an integrated system.File Photo

Stay Vigilant

In use, resist the temptation to set and forget; a blown fuse, electrical malfunction or drained batteries can leave you and your boat at the mercy of wind, waves and current. Prudent seamanship calls for vigilance, even with automatic systems.