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Electric Motor Auto-Pilots

By Mark Romanack

Thanks to technology that allows NMEA 2000 and
touch screen sonar to be networked, it’s possible
now to control an electric motor using the touch
screen on a sonar unit.
A lot of cool new fishing products have hit the market in recent years. Among my favorites are the
latest generation of auto-pilot electric motors. For those of you who haven’t experienced one of these “trolling smart” electric motors, I can only say that once you go “auto-pilot” you will likely never use a traditional push-pull cable style motor again.

Auto-pilot electric motors provide anglers some important advantages. The ability to keep the boat moving on a particular course and desired speed tops that list.

Operating an auto-pilot electric motor is a simple three step process. First the angler needs to deploy the electric motor and determine the direction of travel at which he or she wants the boat to move.  Next the desired trolling speed needs to be set using the rheostat style speed controls. Once the boat is moving in the desired direction and speed, simply engage the auto-pilot button to lock the electric motor onto that compass heading.

When operating in the auto-pilot mode and electric motor is truly a “hands free” system that enables the angler to concentrate on more important business like setting lines or changing out lures!

Sometimes an auto-pilot electric motor is described as “cruise control” for your boat. Actually cruise control only controls the vehicle speed. An auto-pilot electric motor enables the angler to control the direction of travel, trolling speed and even program the motor to follow a pre-determined route!

The basic steering ability of an auto-pilot electric motor is a huge advantage for most anglers and angling situations, but the benefits of an auto-pilot electric motor run deeper. By interfacing the electric motor to a sonar/GPS unit via a NMEA 2000 network cable it becomes possible to program a series of waypoints that allows the electric motor to follow a particular route or path.

Essentially, this programs the electric motor to drive to a specifically selected set of waypoints. Let’s say an angler is making a trolling pass and saves a waypoint for every fish caught on that pass. When it’s time to make another pass all that angler needs to do is program the electric motor to return to those selected waypoints. Using this technology anglers can effectively setting up a trolling route that drives the boat directly to places that have already produced fish! Amazing, technology but it gets better.

Creating routes is especially useful when open water trolling and it’s important to make multiple passes through the same water. Programming a route is also the ideal way to fish a meandering weed edge or structure break. Programming a route certainly beats the “old school” methods that required gluing your eyes to the sonar and making constant direction and speed adjustments.

Auto-pilot electric motors like the MotorGuide Xi5 mounted on the author’s
boat are playing a critical role in both finding and staying on fish.
The Fishing 411 crew has these electric motors on both of their filming boats
and wouldn’t dream of going fishing without them.
The next step in these advancements in electric motor technology is something called Gateway. This networking system allows linking a MotorGuide Xi5 electric motor to a Lowrance touch screen HDS Gen II or Gen III sonar/GPS unit. Gateway provides the ability to control the Xi5 electric motor from any sonar/GPS system on the network.

Not only does Gateway allow the angler to make the same control adjustments possible with the key fob and foot controllers, Gateway goes a step further and allows for something called Heading Lock.

Heading Lock effectively plots a series of waypoints ahead of the boat and drives the boat along a perfectly straight line. The advantage here is the boat wanders less, maintains a particular speed better and enables anglers to fish precise depth levels never before possible without this highly sophisticated boat control system.

Another cool function of the Heading Lock feature is it is easy to override this function while trolling and tweak the direction of travel as necessary. For example, say you’re trolling along and another boat is going to intercept your direction of travel. With a simple key stroke you can adjust the boat’s heading a few degrees to avoid other boats, then resume the desired direction of travel once the coast is clear.

Jake Romanack and the entire Fishing 411 team are using auto-pilot
electric motors for jig fishing, casting applications and open water
trolling situations. 
Another highly useful function of the MotorGuide Xi5 is called the anchor mode. This function allows the boat to hover in a desired location. Recently while lake trout fishing on Grand Traverse Bay I was using the Xi5 to slowly slide the boat along structure while I watched the sonar and hunted for fish.

When a fish would appear on the graph, I’d hit the anchor mode on the Xi5 effectively hovering the boat directly over top of the fish. All I had to do next is drop my jig down to that particular fish and catch it! I call this style of fishing “see fish -- catch fish” because it’s amazing how often I mark individual fish and get that fish to bite.

Auto-pilot electric motor technology may well be the single best thing to happen to sport fishing in my lifetime. Boat control is critical to fishing success and never before has boat control been this precise or easy to master.