By Sam Webb

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It was about nine in the morning on one of those perfect days. Steam was rising off the water giving the reservoir an air of mystery, no wind, blue sky and just a hint of frost.

We carried our pontoon boats to the water, made a trip back to the truck to get our gear and then made a third trip to get our motors.

About five minutes later we had the gear stowed, the motors attached and we moved out into the lake. We wanted to fish the far side of the bay so I twisted the handle on the trolling motor to high. The front of the two pontoons came up out of the water and away I went.

Dave Scadden pulled the starter rope on his gas motor and it sprang to life. He throttled up and raced past me like I was standing still. That little gas motor had some real get-up-and-go.

It only took a few minutes and we pulled within casting distance of the far bank. Scadden shut his motor off and began to kick parallel to the shoreline while he cast. I twisted the handle on my motor to "one" and started a slow troll.

Almost immediately we were into fish. We had motored right into a huge school of cutthroat. Unfortunately they were all between eight and 10 inches long.

We were looking for bigger fish so we fired up the motors and moved down the shoreline. The motors made moving around the lake an effortless task. This new freedom made using a pontoon on flat water a real pleasure.

One of the frustrations I have had with tubes and pontoons is that you are restricted by your ability to fin or paddle around the lake. And unless you are in fantastic shape, that means you can’t go very far from your launch point.

Then there is the constant worry that the wind will come up and blow you half way across the reservoir. Or worse, that a storm will move in and you will have to fight for your life as you try to get back to the bank.

A few months ago my wife and I were bass fishing at Starvation Reservoir. It was a wonderful day, warm and sunny with no wind. The only real threat was from a line of thunderclouds off to the south and west. I kept an eye on the clouds but they seemed to be moving away from us. We motored down the lake, fishing the best structure as we went. We stopped for lunch on a nice, sandy beach and again I checked the clouds.

Apparently the upper winds had changed direction because now the clouds were headed right for us. We hastily finished our lunch stowed our gear and jumped into the pontoon (two person). I cranked the trolling motor to high and headed toward the truck. I figured we had moved almost a mile down the lake and we would be in a race to see if we could get back before the nearest thunder cloud overtook us.

I ran the pontoon into the bank, grabbed our gear and, with my wife, ran to the truck just as the sky opened up and we were engulfed by the storm. Without the motor we would have had to beach the pontoon and try to find shelter in the rocks until the storm blew past. No doubt we would have been soaked, freezing cold, miserable and our trip would have been over. With the motor we were able to get back to the truck before the storm hit, where we were warm and dry. We waited out the storm and then resumed our fishing.

No doubt about it, putting a motor on your pontoon will open up the lake to you, increase your range and fishing opportunity, but more importantly, the motor will allow you to get off the lake quickly and easily if the wind comes up or if a storm blows in.

So, you’re convinced. Now, which motor should you buy? First let’s look at electric motors.

Electric Motors

I bought an electric motor for three reasons:

  1. a) They are so quiet. When I am out in my pontoon I want to enjoy the peace and quiet. I want to blend in and become part of the scenery. I can turn that electric motor on and it is almost noiseless.
  2. b) Electric motors are very reasonably priced and there are lots of different motors to choose from. You can get a motor that is suited to your needs and fishing habits and with just about as many features, bells and whistles as you want.
  3. c) Electric motors don’t take any maintenance, are basically worry-free and last a long time. Modern electric trolling motors are extremely well built, are reliable and give excellent performance for years and years.

Electric motors do have a few drawbacks. The most important drawback is the battery. If you buy a trolling motor you will also have to buy a battery and it is generally best to buy them together so you get the best battery possible for your motor.

Batteries are heavy, generally weighing almost as much as your pontoon. They also require lots of maintenance. Batteries have to be charged regularly, the fluid level must be checked and refilled as needed. They must be kept clean and they must not be dropped or bounced around.

If a battery falls over, generally in the back of your truck, acid will leak out and destroy everything it gets on. So to sum it up, batteries are a pain. On the other hand, modern batteries are pretty amazing things and properly taken care of, will last a long time and provide outstanding performance.

While we are on the subject of batteries, it is vitally important that you buy the right kind or you will waste a lot of money and not get the performance you are expecting.

Do not, I repeat do not, use a car or truck battery (starting battery) for your trolling motor. These batteries are designed to be used when fully charged and to be immediately recharged. If they are drawn down by the trolling motor and then recharged and drawn down again they will quickly fail. They are not designed to be drawn down and recharged time after time.

Buy a marine deep cycle battery. These batteries are designed to be drawn down and recharged. They aren’t cheap but they are designed for the job. I bought an Exide Nautilus dual purpose deep cycle battery. It has 630 MCA (marine cranking amps) and 130 minutes reserve.

What all that means is that the battery can deliver 630 amps for 30 seconds and it has enough reserve capacity that it can be continuously discharged at 25 amperes for 130 minutes. That’s a pretty good battery! Again, the main drawback to this battery is that it is heavy.

If you want to eliminate the possibility of spills, cut back on the weight and still get tremendous performance, buy a jell battery. These batterys are smaller, lighter and are sealed so no acid can escape. They cost more but are an excellent choice.

The more powerful the trolling motor, the faster it will draw down the battery. Also, the higher the speed you run the motor, the faster the battery will be discharged.

I bought the Minn Kota Endura 36 trolling motor. It has a maximum thrust of 36 pounds per square inch, has five forward speeds and three reverse speeds. The Endura 36 is a great compromise between more power and staying on the water longer. It pulls a maximum of 36 amps at top speed but at lower speeds is much more efficient. It has enough reserve to get me where I want to go in a hurry, to spend several hours trolling at low speed (if I want to) and still get me back to the truck.

When you buy your trolling motor, make sure it is a 12 volt system. Some of the larger, more powerful motors run off a 24 volt system. You do not want a 24 volt system. For a 24 volt system you will need two batterys and you don’t want the weight of two batteries on the back of your pontoon. Two batterys would be way too heavy.

One last point on electric motors. A transom-mount motor will be the easiest to attach to your pontoon boat. Several of the sporting goods stores sell attachments which make mounting the motor easy. A good, strong mount is critical for proper operation of the motor.

Gas powered motors

The gas powered motors are generally more powerful than the trolling motors and they will get you across the lake faster than an electric motor. Plus, they get about a billion miles per gallon (actually MPG depends on the size of the motor) but you can go all day on one tank full and a full tank isn’t even close to a gallon.

As a matter-of-fact these little motors are tons of fun and make it possible to launch from just about anywhere and fish far and wide from your launch point. The main drawbacks to these motors are that they are high maintenance, are noisy as all get-out and, are hard to slow down enough for slow trolling. The pontoon boats are so light the gas-powered motors tend to push them a little faster than you want to go when you are trolling.

On the other hand, if you want to bring the front end of your pontoon right out of the water and to get to your fishing spot without wasting any time, get a gas powered motor.

Lately I have been thinking that the perfect combination is the gas powered motor to get you to your destination and the electric motor to get you around and to troll once you are there.

Probably the biggest drawback to the gas powered motors is that they are five or six times more expensive than the electric motors. A gas motor could easily cost more than the pontoon boat it is mounted on.

A few hints

When you are motoring across the lake make sure that your oars are completely out of the water. An oar left in the water will act like a rudder and will turn the pontoon. If you can’t keep the pontoon running in a straight line, look for something dragging in the water and acting like a rudder.

Turning the pontoon takes only a small movement of the tiller. Make small corrections or you will have the pontoon running in circles.

Watch the time and keep track of how long the electric motor has been running. Having to row two or three miles across the lake because your battery died isn’t any fun.

If the motor starts to slow down and you haven’t changed the speed setting, the battery is getting drawn down and it might be time to head back to the truck.

Make sure your battery is properly mounted on your pontoon. A loose battery is a disaster waiting to happen. Keep that battery high and dry and strapped down.

Make sure the battery is fully charged before you head for the lake. A half charged battery is less than half the fun.