A trolling motor is a moderately powered (almost always electric) engine for moving small and mid-sized craft through water quietly at low or moderate speeds. They are ideal for fishing because they are slow and unobtrusive enough to move through prime fishing spots without disrupting the environment with noise and vibration. One of my favorite fishing crafts ever was a canoe that had a square stern hull where I mounted a 12 volt, 30 lb. trolling motor. It was perfect for all of the lakes in western Maryland where I like to fish. It had enough speed to move around quickly to other spots in the lake if fish were not biting, and it had enough power to deal with wind and currents (and plowing through reed beds), but it was quiet enough to keep the fish unsuspicious when you found a hot spot. In this article I will walk you through the basics of how you can find the best trolling motor for your craft and your local conditions.
How to Choose a Trolling Motor That is Right for You
Here are the important factors you should keep in mind as you start your search:
Freshwater or Saltwater Motor?
Not too much to explain here. If you are using your boat in estuaries or oceans, make sure you pay a little more and get the motor that has been designed for salt water. There have been very good improvements in the fishing industry for all saltwater products to develop material that is more resistant to the corrosion caused by salt water and to include more efficient seals to prevent water from getting in where it can cause damage. It is a necessity unless you want your freshwater trolling motor to have a short and unhappy life on the high seas.
Bow Mount or Transom Mount?
You could put this more simply by saying “front (bow) or back (transom)?” The bow mounted trolling motors are more expensive and generally designed for larger craft. They pull the boat instead of pushing it and this has some advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that it gives you a much more precise method of steering the ship. If you have ever been caught on the water on a bad day when you are fighting the wind, you can feel immediately the advantage of a power source that is right at the tip of the boat as opposed to a power source located in the stern. When the transom mounted motor thrusts the craft into the wind, it causes a struggle in keeping that tip pointed where you want it to stay pointed. The skipper using a bow mounted motor much more easily controls the direction of the ship.
A somewhat coincidental advantage of bow mounted motors is that because they are high-end products they are more often accompanied by other attractive features such as wireless steering control, foot pedals, power steering, and Auto Pilot.
With bow mounted motors, there is a disadvantage in pulling the boat in that it is not as efficient in the use of your electrical power, but these motors are generally designed with enough thrust to compensate for this. Of course, another disadvantage is that they are more expensive. You can buy many good transom mounted motors for less then $200 and most bow mounted motors will start at over $300.
For many smaller craft, an expensive high-powered bow mounted motor is more than you need. In fact, for many smaller boats, you do not have an option. Very often there is not enough room in the front, so you have to mount it on the transom. The advantages are that you save money and can find a good and useful motor for many fishing scenarios. The disadvantages are less precise steering control and fewer options with the flashier features mentioned above.
The shaft is the long tube that connects the handle with the piece that contains the motor and the propeller. When you begin to look at options for purchase, each model will be listed with a particular shaft length or several options in length. To figure out what length you want, there are three segments of length that you must add together to see what shaft length you want to buy:
- Measure the distance from the gunwale (the “railing” along the top of the ship’s frame) of your boat to the water line.
- Below this first measurement, add a foot since the propeller needs to be a foot into the water.
- The third measurement depends a little on personal preference. Some fishing boats permit you to stand and cast. If you want to be able to stand, you have to set the handle higher and you need a longer shaft. If you are standing and using a foot pedal, you do not need the longer shaft. So, decide on your preferences and measure how far above the gunwale you want the tip of the shaft to be and add that measurement to the first two.
Thrust measures the power of the motor and it is one of the most important factors in your decision. Thrust is measured in pounds and trolling motors range from 20 to over a 100 lbs. This is an important factor to get right. You do not want a motor that performs feebly and you do not want to pay for power that you really do not need.
|12 feet & less||20 lbs.|
|14 feet||25 lbs.|
|16 feet||35 lbs.|
|18 feet||45 lbs.|
|20 feet||55 lbs.|
|22 feet||65 lbs.|
|24 feet||75 lbs.|
|25 and up||90+|
To try to make this choice well, you need to think about the size of your boat, how much speed is necessary for what you want to do, and what kind of water conditions you are likely to be facing.
The amount of weight that your motor is driving is the starting point in your considerations. A common rule of thumb is that you need 1 lb. of thrust for every 50 lbs. you are moving. You can often find the stated dry weight of your boat in specifications. If not, look up a boat with similar size and construction materials. Then you have to add it all of the weight that will be added during a typical expedition. This includes, people, fuel, batteries, water for a live well, coolers, other accessories, etc.
If weight is hard to calculate, you can use length to get an estimate of the needed level of thrust. For boats that have a normal weight for their length, I offer a table (using information from Minn Kota) that summarizes common estimates of what thrust you need for a given length.
These are minimum levels of thrust and I would definitely round up when you purchase. This chart gives you a baseline, but you have to consider your conditions. If you are fishing in more open water or in water with faster currents, you might want to go significantly up from the baseline.
Control of Steering Options
There are three options you have in controlling the steering of the motor. These are the traditional hand-controlled styles, foot pedals and wireless controls. The traditional method is the extended handle that allows you to turn the shaft to change the direction of the propeller blades. It has the advantage of low cost and simplicity of design, but it ties up your hands so you can not be casting at any moment that the boat needs to be managed.
Until recently, if you had a transom mount, you had a hand-controlled motor. Now, there are now some models that have foot pedals like the MotorGuide Bulldog. There also some accessories that you can buy to turn your hand-operated transom motor into a foot-controlled motor.
The foot pedal has the great advantage of allowing you to stand and cast while you are maneuvering the boat. If your technique is good, you can wreak havoc fishing under docks by casting under docks and then steering the boat with your foot pedal as you slowly drag the line back under. If your fishing needs do not involve such finessed techniques and you are basically parking at good spots, then you may not need this more expensive feature.
The most high-tech device is the wireless option. You use what looks like a small television remote that tells the propellers to change directions. This gives you an even greater advantage than the foot pedal in that you are not tied down to any spot at all as you go after the fish.
If you want the latest and best options on your trolling motor, here are a few:
These are GPS devices that can do amazing things. You can lock in on a spot and have the motor keep you there. You can operate the direction of the motor from your fishfinder and you can set it in on automatic and just follow a coastline without ever touching your motor.
Protected Sonar Devices
You can buy high-end motors with sonar devices in the casing with the motor and propeller, so it is both more accurate and protected from corrosion.
Remote Trim Adjusters
These pedals can pull your motor up out of the water when you need to without having to take a step to do it. These are handy if you are operating in shallow water.
Mobile App Compatibility
You can get command of speed, steering and advanced features such as spot lock or auto pilot from an Apple of Android device.
Our Best Trolling Motor Picks
Keeping these factors in mind, I offer profiles of a few trolling motors that will work will for small and medium sized crafts that will take a transom-mounted trolling motor. These are reliable workhorses for the average boating fisherman such as myself and hopefully one might be the best trolling motor for you.
Minn Kota Endura C2 30
This is a good low-price trolling motor from the company that has been manufacturing trolling motors the longest. It is a transom-mounted freshwater motor that comes in three shaft sizes: 30”, 36” and 42”. It has many positive aspects apart from its low price. It is an efficient motor that gets consistently good reviews on how many hours it lasts out on the water. It offers 5 forward speeds and 3 reverse speeds and the lower speeds are very quiet. Minn Kota takes great pride in the construction of its carbon composite shafts, which for the C2 and for all of the other models and options, comes with a lifetime warranty. They have put intensive research into creating a shaft that is both strong and flexible, so that it will not break under stress and has enough flex to prevent dents. These motors are easy to mount and the six inch telescopic handles are comfortable and easy to use. The only real drawback is power. If this motor has enough oomph for your small to medium boat and the moderate water conditions of your expeditions, this is a good buy. One last tip: if you want to bump up in thrust because of reeds, weeds, and lilies, you can buy an upgraded “weedless” prop without having to pay for a higher model motor.
>> Check Current Price Here <<
Minn Kota Endura C2 55
The C2 55 is a significant upgrade in power on the C2 30 with all of the same features that make the C2 an attractive product. You are moving up more than in cost, but If you are getting a bigger boat, you are carrying more weight or if you are finding that the C2 30 is straining in peak conditions, it is a necessary move.
>> Check Current Price Here <<
Newport Vessels NV-36 and NV – 62
Newport Vessels is a ten-year old company that specializes in high quality inflatable boats and trolling motors to power them. They have become a challenger to the established powerhouses in the motors market with competitively priced products that offer some advantages over the older brands. The NV series represents the company’s latest line, with upgraded materials to prevent corrosion of parts, advanced circuit breakers and the slick 5 point LED battery meter. Although not a game changer as a feature, it is very nice and gets comments in customer feedback. You can look down and see by the number of lights exactly where your battery charge level is without having to press a button as with other models.
One general advantage of the NV series is that they are all saltwater compatible. Newport Vessels is a California company and true to a state where saltwater fishing is king, they do not make any freshwater-only motors. Another nice feature is that all of the shafts are adjustable in length. This is a nice feature if you are using it in on more than one boat. An appealing feature of the company is that Newport Vessels permits you to buy directly from the warehouse at a cheaper price.
A downside of the motors is that they are all transom mounted and they do not offer the fancy features that are typically offered with bow mounted motors.
The range of thrust in the NV series goes from this model, the 36, up to 86 (36, 46, 55, 62, 86). In price, they go from about $125 to $385 across this range. The NV-36 is a low-priced motor with a good track record for efficiency and endurance. It is specifically designed for the small craft that it serves well. This includes kayaks, row boats, jon boats and bass boats, not only the inflatable boats that Newport Vessels manufactures. It has the six-inch telescope handles that are now a pretty standard feature in trolling motors as well as the 5 forward and 3 reverse speeds.
>> Check Current Price Here <<
The NV – 55
If you are not looking for foot pedals and remote controls, you do not want to go up any higher because you do not need the power and you do not want to go to 24 volt and therefore a second battery to power the higher thrust options, this is a very good choice. It is cheap in comparison to other models’ 55 thrust options and as we start to get a track record on this new line of a new company, boaters are very happy with them. They are particularly a good bargain if you are using them in salt water because as they are all made with the brine in mind, you do not pay more for a salt water option.
>> Check Current Price Here <<
Cloud Mountain 36/40/46/50/55/60/86/LBS
Another California company that is new to the market is Cloud Mountain. In a surprising twist, a company that specializes in outdoor furniture has made a bid to break into sports and fishing markets and it has produced a solid product in its Cloud Mountain Trolling Motor (in 7 power options from 30 to 86 lbs.) These trolling motors resemble the NV series of Newport Vessels in features and in price. They are saltwater friendly up and down the line. They are all transom-mounted. They have the adjustable telescopic handle and they have the same combination of five forward and three reverse speeds. They have an even fancier LED battery charge indicator with 10 points on it.
A drawback of the Cloud Mountain is that there are only two options in length of shaft: 28” (for sitting only) and 36”. Like the NV series, you are not going to have the options of the high-end accessories you can get with bow-mounted motors.
Another drawback of this product is that it is brand new and some of the follow-up and customer service is still a little spotty. Although customers rated its performance highly and praised it as a good product for the price, there was an issue with a lack of response when there were problems.
>> Check Current Price Here <<
In choosing between these models, so much depends on what you need. If you are going to take the motor into saltwater, you get a better deal on the Newport vessels and Cloud Mountain motors. If you want the established company that is pushing the edge with new technology the Minn Kota models are what you want. Minn Kota also offers a little more in warranties and customer service. In terms of price, Minn Kota is generally more costly although the C2 30 holds its own with competitive brands in that category. As you get into the low-middle range (like these options), you can get a better deal with the NV models or Cloud Mountain, but you might be sacrificing a little in shaft sturdiness and design.
Trolling Motor FAQ’s
1) What is a trolling motor?
A trolling motor is a low to moderately powered unit that consists of an electric motor, a propeller blade, a shaft and (most typically) a steering handle. To operate it you run cables from the motor to one or more batteries on the boat. The motor can be mounted on transom (the back) of the boat or on the bow (the front), depending on the size of the boat and the size of the motor.
2) What are trolling motors used for?
Trolling motors are often used to propel fishing boats, but this is not their only use. They are also used for charter boats in rivers and lakes. They are popular for kayaks, inflatable boats and canoes with squared hulls whether or not the crew members are fishing.
3) How fast does a trolling motor go?
This can depend on many factors such as the weight of the boat, the weight of people and materials on the boat, the power of the motor, the size of the propeller and weather conditions. If you assume calm water, you can calculate the MPH by calculating the length of the propeller times the RPM of the motor (and multiply this number by .85 for inefficiency). Then multiply this times 60 (minutes in an hour) and divide by 5280 (feet in a mile). The maximum speed you are going to hit with a trolling motor in optimal conditions is going to be between 5 and 6 MPH. In good conditions even with a low powered motor you can get up to 3 MPH.
4) How do you make a trolling motor go faster?
As the motor is in a contained water proof unit that you should not open up, this leaves you with the options of making the boat lighter, adding larger propellers, or lessening the load the boat is carrying.
5) How do you fish with a trolling motor?
“Trolling” refers to the practice of throwing out lines behind the boat and dragging them through water as the boat proceeds slowly forward. The idea is to pull the lines over drops offs, through reed beds, or over rocks where there is a lot of structure to attract fish. Of course, you do not need to troll when you are in a craft propelled by a trolling motor. You can always fish from the sides or turn off the motor altogether and park in a good spot.
6) What size battery do you use for a trolling motor?
The requirement of trolling motors vary according to the thrust of the motor. There are three levels of voltage: 12, 24, and 36 volts. What you use in the end are one or more 12 volt marine or deep cycle batteries. Depending on the manufacturer, you generally use one 12 volt battery up to about 55 lbs. of thrust, two 12 volt batteries between 55 and 86 lbs. and then three 12 volt batteries as you get into the upper range of power.
7) How do you grease a trolling motor?
Take a wrench and remove the propeller so that the shaft is exposed. First, wash it off by turning on the motor and running some water and detergent over it. Then, use a lubricant that is water resistant, and prevents rust. Products that work include Nano Wax, WD-40, 3-in-One Multipurpose Grease, White Lithium Grease as well as specific products sold by motor manufacturers. Spray it deeply within the shaft and then put the propeller back on
8) How deep should my trolling motor be in the water?
Estimate about one foot below the waterline. This maximizes the effectiveness of the motor and keeps it from damaging the boat or being damaged by the bottom
9) How do you determine trolling motor shaft length?
Measure the distance from the gunwale of your boat to the water line. Let’s call this “X.” Below this first measurement, add a foot since the propeller needs to be a foot into the water and let’s call this “Y.” Your shaft should be X + Y + Z, where Z is how high you want it to be above the gunwale. If you plan to sit down, it should be just a comfortable few inches above the gunwale. If you want to stand, then add another 6 inches to a comfortable height.
10) How long will a trolling motor run for?
This can vary according to factors like the weight of your ship and water conditions, but here is a formula that will give you a good estimate. Find the amperage hour rating of the battery and then find the draw of the motor (measured in amps). Divide the first by the second. So if the amperage hour rating is 200 and the draw of the motor is 25, then it should be good for eight hours. This will vary according to the speed you use. To be on the safe side, estimate your time figuring higher speed than you might actually use. Any good motor and battery combination should be able to give you 6 + hours and some can give you as much as 20.