Big Water Boat Control
While big winds can be overwhelming for fishermen, there are many positive effects of the wind in muskie fishing. These include higher oxygen levels; light diffusion; current and current breaks; more efficient predator feeding; and predictable muskie location. All these benefits are undeniable and important to understand.
Over the years, many of my most exciting fishing experiences, with multiple fish screaming in, big fish boated, and packs of aggressive fish, have had some type of wind-related influences. When there is a big body of water with major structures in it, especially those near basin edges, those structures are areas of prime fishing locations. This is particularly true if the wind has been blowing on these areas for more than a day. Typically, these are the areas where muskies will settle in packs.
There are several situations where wind-related patterns have impacted muskie behavior, but keep in mind that there are also other instances where fishing activity has shown improvement out of the wind or in sheltered areas. There is so much more to the wind than its ability to “blow on a structure” that I’m not sure anyone can fully understand both the positive and negative influences of wind. However, this article is not about why or when of wind, it’s about how.
It doesn’t matter if you like the wind or not, unless you elect to stay out of it and only fish small lakes or rivers, or if you can pick the days you want to fish and the days you want to stay inside. In most situations, you may have to deal with the wind, at least some of the time, or you won’t be able to fish as productively as you could be, and ultimately this can cost you many big muskies.
Learning how to control your boat intelligently, effectively, and, most importantly, precisely with control and safety, is probably one of the most overlooked but important skills to master in muskie fishing today. On days when most fishermen hide from the wind or blow through spots uncontrollably, watching someone who has these skills can help you quickly realize that boat control is an art form. Boat control masters not only have knowledge of the lake, but proper equipment, and they know what the equipment can do as well as its limitations. Proper boat control techniques and concentration are paramount to success when others only complain about the wind, hide, and make excuses about not being able to fish properly.
On bigger, windswept waters, the difference between fishermen who have the same relative knowledge of the lake, but consistently out-produce others, is simple. Usually, these experts know when to be where, according to what the wind is doing or not doing, and that knowledge is complemented by their mastery of boat control techniques.
Tools of the Trade
Boat Choices — Console or Tiller?
The number of boat designs that have evolved over the last 10 to 20 years is nothing short of amazing. Most muskie-specific boats in the past featured relatively low horsepower, a shallow draft, and had stable platforms with semi-V hulls. This design allows the angler to be close to the water to work fish without tipping or listing. However, these boats had a distinct disadvantage on bigger lakes and in rough waters. The only other options were family fish-and-ski type boats or 14-17 foot deep-V hull, or flat-bottomed, aluminum tiller boats. Neither is muskie specific or designed to address the basic needs of the average muskie fisherman.
The arrival boats designed for bass tournaments, then walleye tournaments, and finally the musky tournaments, which feature new bites on bigger waters, created a new need for the angler and spawned a whole new breed of the boat. Bigger, drier boats with 60-inch livewells, more horsepower and speed, and the ability to take big water are now the norm. Whether you pick a tiller-steered or console boat is a personal choice. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, though most of the highly specialized boats incorporate many of the same features and hull designs.
A console will obviously be able to handle a bigger motor and have more speed. If you’re a tournament fisherman, this can be an issue. Long runs in crosswinds will be a bit drier due to seating arrangements and because the same length console will typically be wider than a tiller. This boat can double as a family ski/recreational boat, which can be helpful when justifying a purchase, particularly with today’s prices.
However, when it comes to complete fishability under all conditions, if the need for blistering speed is not a factor, then a big tiller is a tough boat to beat. There is nothing a console can do that a big tiller can’t, except getting to spots faster, but there are things a tiller can do when it comes to boat control that a console cannot. When the waters get rough, most pros will want to be in a tiller to handle difficult conditions.
Obviously, trolling motors are a key element in boat positioning. When dealing with winds less than 20 mph, the proper equipment should help you be able to position and control your boat using conventional front trolling or back trolling/slipping methods. Once you reach wind speeds of 20 to 30-plus mph, everything changes.
The key to reactive and controlled boat positioning under extreme conditions is to use two or more trolling motors. This can be done either alternately or simultaneously, and even in conjunction with a big tiller, kicker, or even the big motor on console boats, to keep the boat in the proper position for effective lure presentation.
The ideal set-up would be an 8 to 9.9-horsepower kicker and an 80 to 100-pound thrust transom electric, combined with a bow mount of 80 to 120-pound thrust. These powerful trolling motors should be paired with a shaft length of 60 inches or more and need a long control cord or remote control/wireless feature that allows operation from either the deck or the rear of the boat. Even when using a bow mount for 15 to 20 plus mph winds and waves of three feet or more, it is far better to be operating the boat from the rear instead of the front deck for both control and safety. You have instant access to the main motor, should it be needed, and all trolling motors are at your beck and call. Plus, you will not be trying to control the boat from pitching, rocking deck.
When choosing electric trolling motors, there is nothing more important than power — always buy more power than you feel you will need. If you don’t get a trolling motor with 24 volts minimum (36 volts is even better) you will be out of power invariably when you need it most. When operating in the half- to three-quarter power range you have more available power to make timely adjustments under the unpredictable, strong, gusty wind, and/or current conditions.
Whether you are using a tiller or a console, if you are going to do any kind of backtrolling or slipping maneuvers with the transom to the waves, you will need to be equipped with splash guards. Most modern designs, like the Ranger 620VS and VST, have deep splash-wells and well-designed transoms that shed and ride the waves well. Ultimately, splash guards will allow you to deal with a couple more feet of wave height while they keep you from getting soaked or worse when a rogue wave sneaks up on you. As most experts would agree, it is not wise to rig a boat without splash guards included as standard equipment. Sooner or later, they will be needed.
If you’re not going directly into the wind, attacking it instead at an angle, you can get by with just a bow mount trolling motor when in winds up to 15 to 20 mph. However, at the top end of that wind range, you will have to maintain constant control because heavy wind can swing the bow of your boat into a structure the instant you let off the power. As you come around points and bars, you may have to use either the bow mount, kicker, or stern trolling motor in reverse, or throw a drift sock on the tailing upwind side to slow you down. You may also need a combination, depending on how hard the wind is blowing, and slip down along the lee side and on down the shoreline, adjusting your drift as you go.
In headwinds of less than 20 mph, you should be okay with standard operating methods using the bow mount trolling motor only. However, when the winds are approaching 20 mph-plus, a bow mount will need some help, if you are going to maneuver into or against the wind and waves with any control.
To do this, you must first lock the kicker (or tiller) in the straight-ahead position. Adjust the power thrust so that you are stationary or a bit less against the wind, then use the bow mount to pull, adjust, and maneuver the boat. By using this combination, you will use comparatively little of your electric power reserve and have a lot of power left to make your progress and adjustments. If the winds are gusty you may have to kick the gas motor in and out of gear occasionally, as more power or less is needed. However, as you get used to this technique, you will be amazed at how much control you can have. This is probably the best technique for bow mounts in big wind.
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