boat control three men fishing in boat

Boat Control

Few people realize how essential boat control is to successful Ontario fishing. I’m here to tell you that it’s the quintessential difference in locating and staying on active fish. PERIOD! If you can’t effectively control your boat, I don’t care how many fish are impatiently waiting to inhale your lure; you won’t catch a dang one of them!

What is boat control? It’s the boat driver’s ability to maneuver into a strategic position and thereby maximizing opportunities to catch fish. In layman’s terms? Put your boat over the fish and stay there.

Countless times, I’ve been guiding and the following situation rears its ugly head. In my boat, people are laughing, carrying on and having a good ol’ time. In the trailing boat, there are sour faces and continual perplexity. Our boat is pounding walleyes. The other passes by us again and again, like a Tasmanian Devil tied to a tree with a rubber band. We are hovering over the sweet spot; they are stuck in spin cycle going back and forth.

Of course, by day’s end there are some pretty good ribbings. All anglers are quick to compare notes and see who has been triumphant. The people in the “other boat” always come in second. The reason? It’s not the fish, it’s not the tackle, it’s not the pole or the lake. It was the boat driver’s ability to keep the boat on the best piece of real estate. (Everyone’s heard of “location, location, location”).

So what are some of the boat control tactics we can employ? There are many! But for this conversation we’ll assume you are fishing out of a 14ft – 16ft, bench-style aluminum boat. In Canadian Shield terms, that’s the hot rod for the turf you’ll be on. If your outfitter supplies boats, it’s a sure bet it’ll be the variety mentioned above.

Drift Sock

Personally, I carry a drift sock with me everywhere. They’re light weight and fold up neatly into my backpack. There’s no assembly required, and the good ones have a weight system that makes deployment easy and keeps the sock positioned horizontal in the water column. Quality drift socks are made of tough nylon which allows for fast drying and quick storage. Ruggedness is also important for another reason, as you’ll see.     

First let’s talk size. Remember, we are focusing on 14ft – 16ft aluminum boats. These light-weight boats are easily pushed around by currents. They rest high on the water and have large surface areas that attract wind like a magnet. It can be frustrating to keep these boats in a perfect position, even in a slightest breeze.   

I’m of the philosophy go big or go home! I like to upsize everything but fast food. Although a 20 inch sock is recommend for our boat size, I up it to 40 inches. That’s about the perfect size. It still allows for non-cumbersome storage, yet it’s beefy enough to get the job done in moderate to moderately heavy winds.  If you have to go bigger than 40 inches, you’d better get off the water because the danger meter is in the red zone. Any size smaller and I’ve found it just doesn’t grab enough to effectively slow you down. 

If I am targeting a reef or related structure, drifting with a sock is simple. Go upwind, kill the motor, throw the sock out, and let the wind and resulting current float you over the reef. It’s important to go far enough upwind to let the sock deploy. At the same time, you don’t want to go too far. You’ll waste precious time waiting to drift over fish. 

When drifting, I use a long rope of 10 feet or more to tie off the sock. I do this to avoid becoming entangled when fighting a big fish. Longer rope also gets the sock out far enough where the current break from the boat has less impact on the sock’s performance.  If it’s too close, the water displacement from the boat can cause the sock to spin and not grab water like it should. Think of an anchor. The rule of thumb for an anchor rope is to use a length double the depth of the water.  Same concept with a drift sock–the longer the rope, the more effective the sock is–to a point, of course. 

When it comes to using a drift sock, there are basically 3 tie off points to consider. First, the bow. Depending on the size of your boat, the shape of the structure, and how many people are fishing, the bow can be very effective in controlling a drift. If you have 3 in a boat, as I often do when guiding, I’ll tie to the bow to allow everyone to fish effectively. Once the sock locks in, the nose will turn into the wind and we’ll drift backwards. Doing so lets us fish on either side of the boat, typically jig fishing or dragging slip rigs. Ideally, the front person fishes the port, the middle the starboard, and the driver (usually me) the port (I’m right handed).  This set up allows everyone to fish with little concern of getting tangled with the guy in front him or with the drift sock itself. Tying up front is also effective for fishing narrow reefs that layout in the same direction the wind is blowing. It enables you to maximize the time spent over the reef while at the same time, everyone gets to fish. 

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The second place to tie off is the side of the boat. This is used more with two people in a boat verses three. Tying off on the side turns the boat perpendicular to the wind where two can fish out the same side of the boat. By turning sideways, the amount of surface the wind can catch on the boat is increased. At the same time wind is pushing the boat, the drift sock is pulling the boat. This push-pull concept creates pinpoint accuracy and full performance from the drift sock. To me, this is the most effective use of the drift sock.

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The last place to tie off is the stern. This is where your rugged drift sock is essential. Our goal with tying off to the stern is not to drift; rather, the goal is to troll. Few people realize how deadly effective trolling with a drift sock can be!

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By trolling with a drift sock, we’re able to fine tune our speed and direction. It’s like operating in slow motion–think Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. Not only do you have surgeon-like control, it slows things down to the point where we can react to whatever is happening. Someone gets a fish on? No problem–I can still maneuver the boat, keep an eye on the electronics, and land a fish, all at the same time. Furthermore, I can pause for a second, absorb the situation, and capture in my head the processes to replicate it again and again.

When tying off to the stern for trolling, you might want to consider two drift socks, as the pull from just one can be pretty significant. Or better yet, tie it off to the center of the stern and avoid the pull all together. 

You can also tie a drift sock to the bow for trolling. I’ve done that as well, but remember that even the slightest of turns will be magnified tenfold. Also, you don’t want a long rope or the it will end up in the prop.

Don’t have a drift sock with you? No worries, you can make your own out of a 5 gallon bucket. Just tie a rope on the handle and *voila*, you have a makeshift drift sock. If you have permission from the owner, I recommend you knock a softball-size hole in the bottom of the bucket. That makes its performance much more consistent to that of a regular sock. 

If you want to troll with a 5 gallon bucket, you’ll have to punch some holes in it for sure. I also recommend replacing the handle with a very sturdy rope. The drag from trolling will snap the regular handle out of bucket faster than you can set the hook on a walleye.

Final word on drift socks: make sure you use a bowline knot to tie off to the boat. If you don’t, the torque from the sock dragging in the water will cinch your knot down to the point where you can’t get it undone. 

Stern Mount Trolling Motor

Stern mount trolling motors are very light weight. They clamp on the stern and, more often than not, you don’t have to move the tiller motor to make it fit. You simply clamp it on and you’re all set. Last year, I started playing with this boat control method a lot. I like it!

What I don’t like is the deep cycle battery they require to operate. Batteries of this nature are heavy, awkward to carry, and high maintenance. You’ll have to charge them after every use, and for all intensive purposes, batteries designed for our cars are not very practical in the Canadian bush.

But if you have a lake that you can get a stern mount and battery into, it’s well worth the effort!

If for nothing else, it’s the noise, or rather lack of. I do a lot of back trolling. If I don’t have a trolling motor, that means running the tiller all day. It sucks gas, it can be loud, and the fumes detract from the beauty surrounding me. With a stern mount, I eliminate all those things. They’re quiet, usually have enough power to back troll, and they’re very easy to operate. 

Where stern mounts fail is in moderate winds and longevity. You can eat up a battery charge pretty quick, especially if you’re battling a little bit of wind. You also have to be careful with the exposed battery terminals. Anybody who’s spent time around vehicle batteries knows they’re prone to sparking. Often times on portable trolling motors, alligator clips are used to affix to the battery terminals. Inevitably sparking will occur. That can be bad if your battery is next to your portable gas tank. Catch my drift?

Back Trolling

By far, I use back trolling more than any other boat control technique. 

Quite simply, back trolling is turning the stern of the watercraft into the wind and using the motor in reserve to maneuver. The large surface area of the stern catches the wind while the power of the motor pulls backwards. The wind, waves, and reverse power enables you to be surprisingly precise. Think of two equal opposing forces. When the two powers are equaled, the result will be a deadlock.  Back trolling can be used to stay stationary or maneuver along an edge. It’s an extremely effective technique.

The pluses to back trolling are many. It enables tremendous accuracy, you’re not limited by battery power, and it’s great for fishing multiple people out of a small boat. If you’re forward trolling, your vision is obscured by the other anglers in front of you and constant adjustments are required to stay on course. In back trolling, your field of vision is clear. You can even mark reference points on the shoreline and know exactly where you are in comparison to GPS waypoints or marker buoys. When not fishing, I’ve used back trolling to navigate through rock hazards. But my favorite technique is lure presentation. I can get completely vertical in presenting my jig which allows me to stay on top of a school of fish. On multiple occasions, I’ve watched my jig on my electronics (Lowrance HDS5) and dropped it on a fish’s head. People love it when I call out a fish strike. I’ll see a fish maneuvering for someone’s lure, yell it out, and *whamo* fish on!

The downside to back trolling? First let me say the upside far outweighs the downside. But having to listen to the motor all day can be annoying. In the case where you have a smoking, oil burning 2-cycle, the exhaust fumes can be a detractor. And people not paying attention can get caught up in the motor which is a pain in the butt. Side note – never, ever leave fishing line in a prop. It will get wound up so tight it will destroy the lower end seals and could leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Boat control–it’s as essential to fishing as the lure. Without it, you’re in for long days of little action. You’ll be perplexed by the stringers of fish the other guy has, and you’ll be subjected to some pretty good ribbings. Arguably, lack of boat control is the biggest contributor to a poor day’s fishing. Learning the simplicity of it is not only easy–it’s vital. To employ all the techniques available to you will leave you memories of a lifetime and the pictures to prove it.

Until next time…


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