Virtual Captain

GPS trolling motors were just the start. Check out what’s happening now.

With iPilot remote in hand, tournament angler adjusts trolling motor speed and heading on preset route.

On a famous stretch of Florida river, two anglers from Iowa put on an impressive display of high-tech boatmanship. They didn’t win the tournament, but they certainly won my curiosity. John Schantz and Scott Hunt were fishing Lake Monroe, a wide area of the St. Johns River in Sanford. It was a cold February
morning during the 2013 Crappie Masters Florida State Championship. I watched from another boat as John, a mechanic, and Scott, a farmer, landed braggin’-size crappie while using one of the new GPS trolling motors: A Minn-Kota with iPilot.

In Florida Sportsman Magazine we’ve discussed GPS-enabled trolling motors in past columns. As of fall 2013, all three major trolling motor manufacturers offered them: Minn-Kota, Rhodan and MotorGuide.
Basically, you can push buttons on a wireless remote control to tell these motors to hold your boat in position, steer a compass heading, trace a recorded track and other functions. Aboard a deep-vee Alumacraft, Scott and John were slow-trolling a 9-foot depth contour—the edge of a river channel. Water
temps were in the low 60s, too cool for crappie to move toward shoreline vegetation, where they spawn. In conditions like this, crappie often suspend near the bottom in deeper water.

At the bow, the anglers had a Terrova iPilot-equipped trolling motor, 80 pounds thrust. At the stern, they had a pair of gunnel- mounted Perotti Bilt rodholder stems accommodating four rods each. With long poles positioned in the rodholders, Scott and John were able to run eight crappie jig rigs (tandem, 1⁄16-ounce Zip Jigs, their favorites) 30 to 40 yards astern. Distances are alternated to prospect various depths. The length of the poles, and the angle of deployment, gives a separation of about 2 feet between the lines. To a casual observer, it’s a complex arrangement, with awesome fish-gathering potential—and awful risks of tangles.

Importantly, the iPilot system frees up eyes and hands to manage lines and landing of fish (I watched Scott and John pull in two slab crappie before I moved on). A digital controller on a neck lanyard allowed one angler to make tiny adjustments in trolling speed, between .8 and 1.1 mph, to find the best pace for the fish. The route itself—iPilot handled the steering. They’d pre-recorded two different tracks for the tournament.

In the wake of the event: Another leap in technology.Minn-Kota was the first to connect—or Link, in their parlance—trolling motor control to a GPS/fishfinder unit. With a compatible Humminbird GPS unit, fishermen such as John and Scott may now highlight a series of waypoints or routes on a digital chart, and then direct the trolling motor to work that line—in forward or reverse, today, tomorrow, or even next year. Hundreds of such tracks may be stored and recalled on the GPS. For freshwater pros, a LakeMaster Digital
GPS card installed in the Humminbird GPS can be sourced to lock the trolling motor onto a particular contour line. Neat stuff, to say the least.

MotorGuide and Lowrance have partnered on a similar system, Pinpoint Connect. Expected availability is spring 2014. I caught up with John recently and he said the guys upgraded to the new Link system, allowing full control of the trolling motor through the remote device or their 1198 Humminbird GPS unit. John said they’re also been using the Follow the Contour feature on LakeMaster cards. FS

What’s It Cost?

Select Minn-Kota trolling motors factory-equipped with iPilot Link retail for about $1,200 to $2,000, depending on thrust (55 to 101 pounds) and other features. Note that an iPilot or iPilot Link accessory upgrade may be available for your existing troller—check at minnkotamotors.com. To enable the Link feature, you’d need a compatible Humminbird GPS/Sonar Combo. At the top end, the 1198c Side Imaging model, with 10 ½-inch screen, sells for about $2,799.99. The LakeMaster Digital GPS Map Cards—of particular
interest to freshwater anglers—are sold for different regions. The Southeast Region includes lakes and rivers in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, for $124.95.

Bass Pro Shops Crappie Masters Trail

These are fun events for 2-person teams. Many of the regulars are family
members (husband/wife, father/son, etc.) or close friends looking for an excuse to hit the road and catch some fish. The prizes are modest compared to the big bass leagues. Local events such as the Sanford, FL, tournament might pay $3,500 for top spot, or offer a trolling motor or other prize. The anglers are skilled and well-equipped, but everyone’s smiling
at weigh-in.

Two Florida events are
coming up soon:

Jan. 24-25 Harris Chain of Lakes, Tavares, FL

Feb. 1 St. Johns River, Sanford, FL

See crappiemasters.net for more.

First Released Florida Sportsman December 2013