George Watson and I had just experienced two of the finest days of fly fishing for striped bass that the Elizabeth Islands offer. It was early June, and hungry schools of big stripers were on their way north, migrating along the rocky shorelines of the islands.
Figuring out just how to best cover the 15 or so miles of island shoreline, while staying within a fly cast of the beach, can be a little perplexing. The noise of a gasoline motor can definitely scare fish, and the vagaries of winds and tides make drifting in such a vast area an inefficient technique. Still, these have historically been the only choices for covering the shoreline. But we had a secret weapon.
On the third morning of our trip, we arrived before light at a ragged protrusion of sand and boulders that had treated us well the previous day. In the darkness, I lowered the remote-controlled, bow-mounted trolling motor into the water and turned on the power. The unit was dead!
For a minute I fumbled around, unsuccessfully looking for the problem. Watson's ebullient chatter trailed off, and he leaned nervously in my direction. By sheer luck, I finally pushed hard enough to close the undetected gap in the power-cord connector, and the motor's control head lit up, ready to go. That nervous moment of silence brought into focus just how important that motor had become to our success in fishing the shoreline over the last few days.
Strangely enough, though, I've observed very few fly fishers who use an electric motor as we do - to move systematically in, out and along an irregular shoreline. It's not uncommon to see guides use electric power to augment their poling of tarpon flats, or to see fly fishers sneak into skinny water under the quiet power of an electric motor. But that's about as far as it goes. It's a shame, because there are several important ways in which a bow- or transom-mounted electric trolling motor can add greatly to your saltwater fly-fishing efficiency.
To begin with, let's discuss the relative merits of bow and transom-mounted motors. A bow motor requires a bit more effort to operate since you must go to the bow to both raise and lower the motor. The advantage, though, is that a bow mount will change the boat's direction immediately as it literally pulls the bow directly toward the new course. A transom-mounted motor - including the motors that mount onto the lower units of larger boats - must push sideways against a much more reluctant stern.
In adverse currents or windy conditions, a bow-mount is far easier to control, though either design will require frequent steering corrections to allow fly casting while moving under power. However, the relatively new radio frequency-controlled motors, or RF models, have touch-button control modules that clip onto your belt. These make directional corrections very easy. There is no handle to tangle your fly line, or to ruin your retrieve as you stretch your arm out to reach for it. After a little use, the location of the directional buttons becomes second nature, and an occasional touch of the control between strips keeps you headed in the proper direction.
With these motors, it's possible to move along under power - stopping, starting and changing direction as needed - while casting and retrieving. Because the bow of a boat is so easily swung around, and because the RF motor can rotate beyond 360 degrees, the boat can literally be backed up or turned around, even in the tightest spots.
The transom-mounted motors, however, have the benefits of simplicity, instant response and more convenient location. I steer my Parker with a tiller-equipped outboard, so I'm already at the back of the boat. Therefore a tiller-controlled motor responds instantly to a flick of the wrist. The time required to put an RF bow mount into the water, and then select both the appropriate thrust level and steering direction is significant, meaning the RF bow mount is best utilized in situations where it will be left in the down position for some time. They are both excellent tools for somewhat different purposes.
Despite my utilization of electronic motors, I also do a lot of drifting while I fish. There are a number of ways it can be productive to combine the two techniques. Many of the biggest stripers in Vineyard Sound come from the sandy-bottomed tide rips. The productive casting zones along these rips are often less than 100 feet long. Drifting at 3 knots - about 4 feet per second - means you're only in good water for about 25 seconds.
If the tide is really ripping, you need to drift back with the current, or your fly won't sink into the strike zone. Often, however, you can slow the drift, and extend your productive time, by running your transom-mounted motor just fast enough to slow, but not stop, your movement over the bottom.
The transom motor excels in this application, since it is quickly deployed and doesn't require the time it takes to walk from the stern to the bow of the boat - made doubly hard with two anglers and fly lines.
At the beginning and end of the tide, the current slows down dramatically. These can be golden times to fish since the larger bass will find it easier to chase a fly that's a little outside of their preferred strike zone. A bow-mounted RF motor can be used at these stages of the tide to slip along the edge of the rip, allowing you to cast a fly to the choicest part of the structure as you go.
There are some occasions when either a bow or transom mount may work. One example is casting into a surf line. Often, stripers will hold in the wash, far shoreward of waves breaking on the outer bar. Depending on the frequency and size of the waves (use good judgement, please), you may be able to fish inside the surf line, as long as the bow of your boat is kept constantly pointed seaward.
If the wind is off the land, you'll want to use your transom mount in the reverse mode to keep you from blowing out of the strike zone. The bow mount would be less desirable for this application, since you'd have to push backward on the boat. Besides, it would be difficult to keep the bow from swinging one way or the other while pushing against the blunt stern. If, on the other hand, the wind is onshore, you could head into it with either type of motor. The bow mount would be better, though, if the onshore wind were higher in velocity, since constant thrust would be required to keep from being blown ashore, and therefore more frequent steering corrections would need to be made.
Sometimes, either the structure or the conditions make drifting the best bet. Even in a natural drift, though, you'll find the occasional obstructions - buoys, rocks, moored boats, etc. - to navigate. If all you need to do is move a few feet from time to time, then the transom mount is perfect. If, however, more substantial corrections are needed, then the superior control of the bow mount is required.
Let's say that we're drifting along a beach that has a string of submerged boulders lying 100 feet from the beach. However, the beach works out into a point with a steep face ending in a small tide rip that extends seaward for another hundred feet.
If the wind and tide are obliging, a transom mount will handle the small corrections necessary as we drift along the boulders. But fishing the point and rip line - which are perpendicular to the current's flow - requires several course alterations, and needs the control of the RF bow mount.
Perhaps the most common saltwater application for trolling motors is sneaking up on or chasing surfacing fish. The approach that works best depends on several variables. Is the surface of the water rough or smooth? Is the water 6 feet or 36 feet deep? How aggressively are the fish feeding? How many people are trying to get in on this action?
The more delicate the situation, the more a stealthy approach pays off. Sneak in on those fish under the lowest power setting that you have the patience to use.
I usually operate under the assumption that surfacing fish represent a fleeting opportunity. Since the bow mount takes more time to put into operation, I'd normally opt for the transom mount. Your transom also remains farther away from the fish you're approaching, and in a quiet setting you need every advantage.
Regardless of the motor you choose, you should pick the approach to the fish that is favored by the natural conditions. Generally speaking, if there's a current, go with it; if a wind is blowing, move with the wind. The best use of the electric motor might only be the occasional application of thrust to keep the drift on track. Practice will show that either current or wind is tough to overcome under electric motor power. Combine the two and forget it.
Many saltwater fly fishermen consider sight fishing to be the pinnacle of the sport. For the angler who is both fisherman and captain, a bow-mounted RF motor can replace a push pole. Many anglers will be quick to point out that an electric motor can scare fish; but so can a push pole. Pat Keliher, a guide from Maine, believes that there are times when the electric motor will make the fish too nervous to eat, even though they haven't flushed. I agree, but the same can be said at times for the mere presence of the boat, or of the scrape of a push pole, especially against a rock.
I've used a RF bow-mounted electric motor for a fair amount of northern flats fishing. Admittedly we're usually fishing deeper water than you'd find on bonefish flats, but it's still shallow enough to clearly see the stripers on the bottom - less than 4 feet deep. The electric motor will scare some fish; especially if you try to get too close, but it also allows me to fish single-handedly.
Here are a couple of tips for flats or sight fishing with a bow-mounted electric motor. First, if there's any breeze, leave the lower unit of your outboard in the water and pointed straight ahead while under electric power. This will help keep your stern from swinging in the breeze. It still may hang downwind in a stiff breeze, causing the boat to "crab along," but this is unavoidable, and in most cases it doesn't matter. Just keep pointing the electric motor in the direction that you wish to go.
Second, if the fish seem skittish, don't simply shut off the power when you prepare to cast. The change in noise - from something to nothing - sometimes scares more fish than the constant hum of the electric motor. If the angle of the sun allows, and if the wind and currents aren't too strong, try approaching up-current and/or into the wind. The moving water will help mask your approach, and you can slow down to the point of no headway without shutting off the motor. This allows you to approach fish only as closely as you need to for your presentation.
Try it a few times and you'll agree that trolling motors have many applications for saltwater fly fishing. And I can attest from personal experience that you'll only realize how valuable they are after facing the idea of fishing structure without them.