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2007, John McMurray, All Rights Reserved
Last updated 3/07
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By Capt. John McMurray
With the technological advance of quiet, yet high-powered electric trolling motors, some with nearly imperceptible twin counter rotating propellers, many flats fishermen are choosing to ignore their traditional push poles and maneuver their skiffs with the flick of a switch or a quick step on a foot pedal. But most still agree that pushing a pole towards a mudding redfish, tailing bonefish, big tarpon or a spooky striper is the best way to quietly stalk these gamefish in skinny water.
When comparing the two methods, we can start with the exhaustion factor. Thereís no doubt that poling can become exhausting very quickly, especially when there is any sort of wind present. In fact, polling when thereís a stiff wind can sometimes be impossible. Push poles in these scenarios can be used as nothing more than a steering mechanism. Itís also considerably more difficult to concentrate on locating fish while having to physically push a skiff around. Trolling motors, especially the trim-tab mounted kind, can go into a stiff wind or current and can turn the boat on a dime with a couple of flicks of the switch. They also allow the operator to focus on looking for fish without having to deal with a cumbersome pole. Furthermore, polling a boat larger than 18-feet can be extremely difficult unless you are Hercules.
That leads us to the convenience factor. Many guides like Captain Ernie French in East Hampton, NY who used to operate flats skiffs via push poles, have recently switched to larger center console boats in the 20-foot range, outfitted with dual trim-tab mounted electric trolling motors. Ernie claims that this set-up allows him to operate a larger boat with a semi-V that can be used in open water applications in the fall when conditions permit the chasing of surface feeding false albacore and stripers, while at the same time allowing him to operate the boat unobtrusively in the flats during the spring and summer months. Additionally, it makes more sense for guides to use trolling motors because they can allow two people to fish at a time. If a guide is poling, the only accessible casting area is the bow. With remote or cable operated trolling motors, a guide can operate them from the center of the boat. A caster can then work the bow while another caster works the stern. Also, if you choose to fish alone, it is very difficult if not impossible, to poll and cast at the same time. With foot operated trolling motor controls or a switch you can mount on your belt one can very easily fish and maneuver the boat simultaneously.
Which brings us to the next method of comparison, the height factor. Itís obvious that the clearance a poling platform provides allows better visibility on a flat then if you were to remain on the main deck. It follows that captains that operate trolling motors from behind center consoles suffer less ability to sight cruising fish because of the lack of height clearance that one would have if he or she were up on a poling platform. However, today there are all sorts of aftermarket custom aluminum towers. My boat has a molded piece of starboard extending out from the surface cushion of my leaning post, allowing me to stand on this surface and sight fish from an elevated platform that is comparable to the height that my polling platform gives me.
Another means for comparison is the skill factor. Not only does it take a good back and considerable upper body strength to be proficient at polling a skiff, but it also takes time and experience. Itís not exactly easy to move a skiff into casting position with a poll, especially with a bit of wind. With twin electric powered props the task is considerably easier. While it does take some experience to get a good feel for trolling motors, the skill level required to operate them efficiently is far less than the level needed to be a proficient poler.
Then we have the price factor. Electric trolling motors can be outrageously expensive and the dual trim-tab mounted type can often run upwards of $3000 with the installation. And donít forget that youíll need a couple of 12-volt marine-grade wet-cell batteries, and more than likely, an onboard charger. It all adds up to quite an investment. Needless to say, stern mounted polling platforms and a graphite pole are cheap in comparison. Furthermore, electric trolling motors seem to come with a host of problems and for the most part, a short life. Because of the many electrical components in close proximity to one of the most corrosive elements in the world (salt water), trolling motors are continuously unreliable and are constantly in need of maintenance. This can be very expensive and downright infuriating when they fail in a flat full of tailing fish. While most popular electric motor systems do carry warrantees, they are usually only one year in duration. Iíve owned two sets of a popular trim-tab mounted brand mounted on two different boats, and have had considerable problems within that first year, and after the warranty had expired as well. While the warrantees cover parts, they do not cover downtime, labor and shipping, which add up quickly. Furthermore, this particular company required that the failed part be sent back and tested before the new part got shipped. After speaking to the upper level management, I was able to convince them to fed-ex a control box at my expense, however getting them to pay for labor was a failed endeavor, even though the malfunction of the part was a result of a faulty system and entirely and admittedly the companyís fault. Of course it goes without saying that dealing with unhelpful people on the phone can be maddening. The point is that customer service, at least in my case, left much to be desired and as a result of these electric trolling motors, I lost a lot of fishing time and a considerable amount of money.
Furthermore, trolling motors are known to eat expensive fly lines on a regular basis. If the fly line is in the water unattended, odds are those electrically powered props are going to suck it in and youíre immediately out $60 and maybe a day of fishing if you didnít think to bring a spare.
Last, and probably the most important factor for comparison is the ďspook factor.Ē Most believe that the traditional pole is the quietest and least invasive method of sneaking up on weary fish. Without a doubt, newfangled polls designed to be very quiet are a technological break through, allowing anglers and guides to sneak around virtually soundless. However, there will never be a total reduction in noise. The grinding of the sand under the pole, or the sucking of mud, or the clatter of a pole pushing against a hard bottom can never be completely eliminated. Those favoring the electric motors claim that the spook factor is negligible, especially if operating along a hard bottom and if the motors are operated correctly. Traveling guide Captain Robin Calitri has caught hundreds of bonefish, tarpon, red fish, striped bass, and bluefish in various flats along the east coast while using his trolling motors. He claims that if a trolling motor is operated at a slow and steady pace, then shut off when in position for a cast, they will spook even less fish than an angler digging a pole into the bottom. However, Robin admits that particularly with the trim-tab mounted trolling motors, if the props are engaged and disengaged fish spook much easier. At times there can also be a very audible sucking sound as the motors cavitate when engaged. This noise can and will spook just about every fish in the area. In the very shallow stuff, Robin claims that polling is the only way to go, especially when the fish are super spooky. While poles do make a bit of noise they are far superior to trolling motors in this scenario.
In short, itís all about give and take. There are pros and cons to each method of stalking spooky fish in shallow water. There is no doubt that the push pole is the quietest and least invasive method of sneaking up on weary fish, however the new trolling motors are faster, can be operated by a novice, are more maneuverable in most cases while having wider applications. If you chose this method, be well aware of the maintenance and cost involved as well as the accompanying aggravation. Last, but not least, keep in mind the courtesy factor. Because the traditional poling method has been around for just about forever, and itís agreed that it is the least invasive method, if you use trolling motors, stay away from the flats where folks are polling for reasons that should be obvious.
Captain John McMurray is the Program Officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York City. He is also the owner and primary Captain of One More Cast Charters Inc., in Jamaica Bay, NY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.