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December 18, 2008

Heading in a New Direction

Today's autopilots enhance fishing with advanced moves

Maybe you've read about autopilots during the past decade and learned how they've adapted to smaller boats. But there you stand, at the helm of your 30-foot center console, wondering, "Why do I need a machine to steer a straight course?"

"I can put the pilot on when I'm going down the channel at idle speed while I get bait rods ready. It doesn't wander, and I can still keep a lookout," says Greg Stotesbury, sales manager for AFTCO and a Southern California, light-tackle striped marlin specialist who uses a Simrad AP28. "I do a lot of fishing with my wife on the boat too. If she hooks a fish, I can come out of the tower and clear lines. I can take the pilot with me - hanging the handheld controller around my neck."

OK, two reasons right there. But an even more appropriate discussion about today's autopilots should address why you need one to help you catch more fish.

How about these capabilities? You can:
? set trolling patterns such as figure eights, spirals, boxes and lazy S's
? troll along depth contours
? hold position in current or over structure
? plot search grids for locating new bottom structure

Sinuous Steering
"Autopilots can provide an extra 'hand' when you're trying to set lines and steer a course. But when you get [beyond that] to advanced fishing functionality, there are a ton of features...I find I spend more time fishing now and less time driving," says Louis Chemi, executive vice president for product management of the Navico brands (Lowrance, Eagle, B&G, Navman, Northstar and Simrad).

The exact features depend on the autopilot brand and model, of course. But most new autopilots offer fishing modes that allow captains to design fairly intricate trolling patterns.

For instance, if you're running Raymarine's Smartpilot X-Series, you can choose one of nine preprogrammed   fishing patterns such as a cloverleaf, spiral, zigzag or figure eight. You can adjust the pattern - depending on its shape - by distance or degrees. A zigzag or lazy S changes the presentation of trolled baits by forcing them to sink or rise in the water column and travel in and out of clear-water alleys during turns. Sometimes that's just enough to incite strikes.