Using Autopilot as a Fishing Tool

Modern autopilot systems do more than just steer you straight.
Ron Ballanti

Having autopilot on board can help you catch more fish.

Autopilots have become increasingly popular aboard offshore and coastal boats, mostly for the navigational benefits they provide when making a long run offshore or cruising from fishing spot to fishing spot during the day.  

True, the primary benefit of an autopilot lies it its ability to steer your boat along a heading or course plugged into your navigation system. This leaves the captain free to keep an eye on the radar, watch the sounder for targets or temp breaks, or even glass the horizon for birds and any stopped boats while traveling. And if the coast is clear, you can hop down from the bridge for a quick bathroom break.


Autopilots can also be powerful tools for fishermen in other, angling-specific ways. Several of these advantages stem from the networking of an autopilot with a compatible chartplotter or MFD. For example, the Depth Contour Steering feature available with certain Simrad autopilot/MFD combinations allows users to program the autopilot to track along a certain depth. This is very useful when trolling along a particular fathom curve or steep ledge that's holding tuna and billfish. These same bottom contours tend to create temperature and current breaks, concentrating baitfish and stacking up floating mats of seaweed and kelp paddies. Whether trolling or searching for the next paddy that might be loaded with yellowtail, tuna or dorado, a dialed-in autopilot/plotter combo can keep you in fishy waters.


Another feature offered in top-end autopilot/MFD combos is the ability to "track back" to spots on the sounder display. Whether you run over a school of bait, mark some tuna offshore or spot by a big rockpile you've never seen before, you can drop a mark on that area of the sounder display -- with touch screens it's as easy as touching the spot on the screen -- and the pilot will steer the boat back to the mark you passed over. It's almost like magic.


Many autopilots offer a variety of pre-set turn patterns that anglers can utilize when trolling. Engaging "lazy S" turn patterns will periodically swing trolling lures across and clear of the boat's wake -- at times, just what's needed to make non-committal fish bite.These pre-sets often include a "box" or spiral pattern also designed to help offshore anglers. When you find lots of birds or other signs of potential action, this autopilot function will help the captain thoroughly cover the water before moving on.


Even basic and relatively inexpensive autopilots like the SI-TEX SP-110 provide important advantages for anglers. Their ability to "take the helm" when you're needed back in the cockpit is like having an extra man on board -- one that won't get distracted or make an ill-advised turn at precisely the wrong moment during the heat of battle.  

When fishing with downriggers to slow troll for everything from salmon to kingfish, getting all of the lines properly set out and deployed at the perfect depth without tangles is key to success. By keeping the boat on course while away from the wheel, an autopilot allows even single-handed anglers to spend more time in the strike zone and less time messing with gear.

Offshore anglers can rely on their pilot whether setting out a trolling spread, or grabbing a rod to drop a live mackerel back to a lit-up marlin that's smacking a teaser. Autopilot keeps your boat on the straight and narrow whenever you need to leave the helm to make the best possible presentation. But, autopilot also comes into play once the game is on as well.


Fighting the biggest of big mako sharks off Southern California, for example, requires keeping the boat in gear and moving at all times. This keeps the fish up on the surface and prevents it from shooting under the boat, where all kinds of bad things can happen. While the captain stays at the helm through most of the battle, it's not unusual for his assistance to be needed in the cockpit from time to time, especially when the fish is brought alongside the boat to be tagged and released or gaffed and tail roped. Using the autopilot lets everybody stay focused on the fish, while the boat idles forward on a chosen course.

The same is true with the bruiser bluefin tuna that punished So Cal anglers last summer around the offshore banks and islands. Anglers who fished these tuna from a dead boat often found themselves in brutal straight up-and-down battles that lasted for hours and ended in agony and heartbreak. Hot stick private boaters, however, found that they could beat tuna of 200 pounds in less than 30 minutes by always keeping the boat moving. Doing this while exerting maximum drag pressure lessens the angle of the line and forces the fish to the surface. When you're talking about two or three guys dancing around a center console while going toe-to-toe with a giant tuna, it's easy to see why autopilot is more than just "optional equipment."

These are just some examples of how today's autopilot technology can help anglers find fish, stay on them, and put a few in the boat.

Autopilots provide a number of tools that captains can use to help them catch more fish. These systems will hold the boat on a course while setting out a trolling spread or reviving a fish. More advanced autopilots can even follow a depth contour.
Autopilot provides a much needed second hand to hold the course when fishing solo or if you need to move from the helm. Pre-set functions include a "box" or spiral pattern to thoroughly cover the water of a potential hot spot.
When dealing with big fish such as a large So Cal mako shark, you may need all hands. In these cases, the autopilot helps you keep the boat moving straight while you release the beast.
Many autopilots integrate with multi-touch screens. This integration lets you create waypoints from the sounder or chartplotter and engage the autopilot to take you back to the action.

Save time and fuel with the FishTrack app.