Choosing a Bow-Mounted Trolling Motor System: Part II
Key West mechanic Tim Donald and I thought through just about every aspect of trolling motor installation before he began doing the actual work. Tim has long experience in installing trolling motors of all kinds, from tab-mounted motors to transom mounts to bow mounts like the one I purchased. But of course every boat owner has personal preferences about motor placement, components, and other adjustments.
Based on recommendations from other full-time guides and serious anglers, I decided to go with 3 batteries: two deep-cycle for reserve power, and one starter battery, with the two larger batteries hooked up in series to create a 24-volt system. (See the video below for a good introduction to hooking up batteries in series and in parallel.) The batteries I chose, based on price and on performance reports from other skiff owners, were the Deka 8A22NFM (starter) and the Deka 8A24M (deep-cycle). Since I am running a 70hp Yahama outboard, the cold-cranking requirements are minimal and allowed me to get away with a battery rated for 350 cold-cranking amps (CCA). (Even though Yahama recommends a 380-CCA minimum, the 350 amps seem to be plenty.) If you are running a larger engine, consider the manufacturer’s CCA recommendations carefully when deciding on a starter battery.
Hooking Up Batteries in Series (to increase voltage) vs. Parallel (to increase amperage or run-time) for Multiple 12-volt batteries
I also decided to install both the Minn Kota 3-bank on-board Precision Charger–a unit designed to charge the batteries when plugged into an outlet via an external receptacle–and the MinnKota 2-bank DC Alternator Charger, which collects excess amperage from the outboard engine’s alternator during operation and uses it to charge the batteries in sequence.
Here’s a photo of all the components (less the starter battery) prior to installation.
Fortunately, the dimensions of the three batteries together allowed us to fit them all inside the console, along with both chargers and a battery switch, albeit with little room to spare. (We measured all this before buying the batteries, of course, and we would have simply moved to smaller deep-cycle batteries if that was necessary.) Tim also added a “kill switch” toggle that allows me to interrupt the electrical circuit to the motor unit on the bow just to be doubly sure that the motor was not drawing power during any extended storage. Here’s an image that shows most of the console components in place. The batteries are strapped directly to the deck without trays to save room.
It’s also important to note that the chargers were mounted as far from the batteries as possible, since the charging process generates a lot of heat–an enemy to efficient charging. On that note, it is worth pointing out that Minn Kota’s Precision chargers are designed with temperature compensators which change the charging profile depending on ambient temperature. This helps prevent over-charging and under-charging, and it is not something that is standard on most current on-board chargers, but it will make a big difference in the life of your batteries. Depending on your charging environment, if you are dealing with the same kind of cramped install as we did, you want as much ventilation as possible to ensure the temperature stays low–the batteries will charge faster if the charge is not being “throttled” by higher temps. You can either leave the console door off during charge–as I do–and you can even mount a fan to flush the heat, as I did during hot summer days.
The battery switch enable complete disconnection of all three batteries from the system, connecting only the starter battery, connecting the deep cycles only ((in case the starter battery fails and you need to start from the others), or connecting all three batteries. Typically the switch would be turned on to connect only the starter to the main motor system.
I had asked Maverick to install the wiring from the console to the bow during boat construction–something to consider if you are having a skiff custom-built as it is very easy to do before the cap is attached to the hull. If you are adding the forward-running wires to an already-built boat, it is simply a matter of fishing the wire to the front and securing it so that it doesn’t rattle around. Depending on the boat manufacturer and whether you are mounting your batteries inside the console, in a rear storage compartment or in the bow, this can be easy or mildly challenging task, but many recent skiffs include wiring “tunnels” for that very purpose.
We mounted the external female plug for charging on the console port side just beneath the handrail.
For the motor bracket location on the bow, I depended on Tim’s considerable experience in balancing motor location against pushpole access and other factors like ease of retracting the motor and storage position. In short, you’ll likely want to mount the motor bracket so the the fully retracted motor extends opposite the side where your pushpole is stored. For most skiff-owners, who store the pushpole on the starboard side, this means the bracket goes to the right of the bow point, as you can see here in finished install.
Since I wanted to be able to easily remove the motor (and batteries) when fishing super-skinny water or when it was simply not needed, Tim and I decided not to hard-wire the motor in place but use a flush-mounted receptacle instead. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that water can collect in the receptacle and cause corrosion, but it has not been an issue so far. If you’re planning on never removing the motor, you may want to considered the more reliable direct wiring option.
Before beginning to drill holes in your cap, measure. Then measure. Then measure one more time. Think about where you want the receptacle if you are mounting a removable motor. We put mine as close to the bracket as we could possible get it, and with as short a connecting wire as made sense to reduce clutter, and I’m happy with the result.
There are other considerations outlined in the instructions provided by the manufacturer for the install, but that hits all the components and key considerations.
The Trolling Motor Experience
I fished about 25 days with the trolling motor after the system was installed, both solo and with additional anglers. Here’s what I discovered.
The additional weight is a factor in a skiff that weighs only around 1000 pounds, especially if you are fishing multiple anglers. On the other hand, the total weight of the system I installed was about 159 pounds (38.5-pound starter battery and 2 X 53-pound reserve batteries plus 65-pound motor and bracket and 5 pounds additional for chargers and wiring)–essentially the weight of an additional medium-sized adult. So in terms of poling, having the trolling motor is similar to poling around an extra person. In the Maverick, I didn’t find the additional weight to be a distraction, but it’s certainly there. As for running in the skiff, if you are running a smaller outboard motor as I am (70 HP), it does make a difference in top-end speed, just as having an additional person on board would–probably 2-3 miles per hour.
Not surprisingly, there was a learning curve on finding out what the system could do and figuring out how to make it a part of my fishing.
Lowering and retracting the motor is pretty easy for a reasonably fit person, though it’s not like picking up a sack of groceries. When the motor is down, you step on the release mechanism to slide it up, then the motor automatically locks once it is horizontal. Lowering the motor is the same process in reverse. Removing the motor, should you wish to do so, involves unplugging it and sliding a pin out of the bracket. Simple.
Managing the remote was probably the easiest part: I left it hung around my neck with the remote itself tucked into shirt pocket. Very convenient. I won’t say that the controls were immediately “intuitive,” but once I figured out which features I would actually use the most, it was simply a matter of muscle memory. I still have to look at the remote to be sure I’m pressing the right buttons, and I still occasionally press the wrong ones. But I don’t see how Minn Kota could have made it any easier, given all the options in the system.
What did the motor allow me to do that I couldn’t do before? Here are the few things I have found most useful:
- Using ‘Spot Lock’ to hold the boat in position on a channel edge or even in deeper water where one might anchor (if, for example, you are looking for “floaters” or live-baiting) is almost too good to be true, especially when fishing solo. The motor keeps the bow of the boat within a five-foot circle (usually), pointed into the wind, and with typically very silent operation. I hooked many tarpon with the motor running and doing its thing to hold me in position in a 15-knot breeze.
- Being able to approach and leave flats without using the outboard was also a very welcome change. Many of the permit flats I fish are more than 2-3 miles wide, and not having to pole myself into water that is 5 feet deep before starting up is a huge energy-saver. It also makes me less inclined to put the engine down too early–in short, it makes me a better steward of the flats. I also found that being able to shut down in the middle of a channel or in other deep water when approaching a tarpon flat made me feel more confident that the fish were not spooked by my approach.
- Crossing channels or moving to other nearby flats across deeper water is a breeze. I never liked having to put the outboard down to move 200 yards. Again, this seems like it is also better for the fish. Train your fishing partner on the bow to put the motor down and pull it up.
- Extending courtesy to other boats is much easier too. If you’re fishing laid-up tarpon, you probably won’t be using your motor except to enter the area, but leaving with your electric rather than your outboard means the fish are more relaxed for the next angler–not to mention probably improving the fishes’ comfort level in general and making them more likely to hang around. And if you’re fishing with other guides just beyond casting distance, as sometimes happens, the electric allows you to get far out of range before needing to start your outboard.
All of this extra mobility and utility depends on your ability to maintain battery power, of course. If anything, I was blown away by the amount of power stored in the system that I had chosen. Since I was putting the motor through its paces, there were many days that I intentionally ran the motor for 3-4 hours at higher speeds. I found that I could fish this way for 3 days without reducing total available charge by more than 30%. How much of that charge was maintained or recovered by the inline charger I don’t have a way of measuring, but I don’t believe it was much as I intentionally avoided running long distances. In practical application, what this meant was that I did not have to charge the batteries more than once every 4-5 days. It is better, of course, to keep the batteries fully charged, as it extends their life, but I was seeing what I could get away with. Very impressive.
Am I now a die-hard convert to trolling motors for flats fishing? Not at all. I will always be of the mind that “simpler is better.” It’s an attitude that comes from my desire to think about nothing else but the fish and what’s going on around me when I am on the water. But do I have a much greater appreciation of how technology has changed the opportunity? Absolutely. Frankly, I would never have considered solo fishing in a skiff effective without experiencing the electric-assisted option. And I can easily see how the proper use of trolling motors as a way to access shallow water could benefit the fish, the habitat, and fellow anglers. I can also see how improper use could bring negatives: anglers “trolling” the flats, or becoming dependent on the motor to exclusion of the pushpole–something that could mean fewer fish caught and unnecessary pressure on already-pressured fish populations. As with any new technology used in an environment that deserves protection, an ethic needs to be established to negate misuse.
End the end, my own investigation won’t be complete until I’ve experimented for several more months and seen how well the components work through more than a single season. Meanwhile, perhaps the best current test of whether the trolling motor makes sense is whether or not I’ve taken it off the skiff yet.
Parts List for the Installed System
- Minn Kota ST 80, 54” Shaft (1363714) – with the i-Pilot preinstalled. $1449.99
- Minn Kota RTA-17 Quick Release Bracket (1854017). $74.99
- Minn Kota MK-345PC Precision Charger (1823451). $449.99
- MinnKota MK-2-DC Dual Bank DC Alternator Charger $129.99
- Minn Kota 12V Plug & Receptacle (1865102) $29.99 and Minn Kota 6 Gauge Adapter (1865104) $14.99.
- Starter Battery: Deka Intimidator 8A22NFM AGM Deep Cycle Battery. $129
- Deep Cycle Batteries (2): Deka Intimidator AGM 8A24M Deep Cycle Battery. $165 per battery