Plenty of boats will go 80 miles per hour, even in the hands of a novice. Many go 70 without even opening the sucker up, and just about anything rated for a 150-horsepower will go over 60.
That’s all cool, but you typically don’t need a license or even any training to get one. There are no brakes, no seatbelts, no painted line markers. Add to that the fact that you cannot really see what’s under the water—unlike on the highway where you at least have a split second to react to that dropped tractor trailer load of finishing nails, ping pong balls, or prized heifers—and it’s a recipe for disaster.
I’ve owned bass boats of varying sizes, speeds, and quality since 1996, and while I like to think I’ve gotten progressively smarter about when, where, and how I drive them, I’ve also made my share of errors. Some were just shitty luck, but others were unforced and unnecessary.
Don’t Believe the Hype Many of us lionize the bass pros who do crazy things in 20-foot, low-profile bass boats: running out into 10-foot waves on the Great Lakes; jumping beaver dams to get into hidden backwaters; taking out the drain plug and removing the cowling to get through a narrow culvert. I can guarantee you that most of these hijinks don’t result in six-figure paychecks. For every dude who wins by cracking up a hull or knocking off a lower unit, there are multiple anglers making an insurance claim or a trip to the fiberglass repair shop. If you’ve checked out the price of insurance, boats, and props lately, you know the odds aren’t in your favor. Neither are the economics. If you’ve checked out the price of healthcare, you know that some of those shenanigans are born from downright terrible ideas.
Slow the Hell Down Look, despite not being a “speed guy,” I’ve had my current boat up to 79.6 miles per hour. It had more to give, but my butt was sufficiently puckered and I didn’t want to push it. I felt like there was a small percentage of the hull and the propeller in the water and one wrong move could send me careening unsafely off course.
There’s nothing wrong with needing a little bit of speed. If you fish tournaments it may be important to beat the rest of your field to your starting spot and to maximize your casts. The rest of the time though, lay off the throttle a bit. This makes sense for a number of reasons.
First, your outboard has a sweet spot when it comes to gas consumption, and I guarantee you’ll burn less at 3,500 RPMs than you will at 5,500 RPMs. In case you haven’t noticed, the price of gas is headed back up, so the cash you save will pay for more fishing trips or lures.
Second, you’ll end up breaking way less stuff at 40 miles per hour than you will at 70 miles per hour. It’s not just the debris that you’ll hit, but when you crash down off an unexpected wave you’re going to put undue stress on your gear and body.
Furthermore, it just puts a lot more strain on your boat’s accessories and moving parts if you’re constantly going WFO. I’m proud of the fact that my marine mechanics always comment with shock about how few of the hours on my engine are over 5,000 RPMs.
Finally, even if your ego won’t let you slow down and your wallet can handle the increased gas usage, think of it from a fishing perspective. At super-high speeds you need to keep your eyes entirely on what’s dead ahead of you, which means you’ll miss subtle signs—fish or bait breaking the surface or a bird diving in the distance—that often lead to bigger catches.
Keep it in the Water After a friend of mine bought a used boat many years ago, he asked the seller, “Now that you have my money, what didn’t you like about the boat?”
“It didn’t make a big enough rooster tail,” the guy replied. He was sad he’d never achieved maximum sprayage. That’s dumbassery at its best. It might look cool to have a big plume of water shooting out from behind your transom, but it’s all wasted energy.
Still, this brings up a good point: You want to have your boat trimmed correctly. Too much boat out of the water and you’re literally teetering on a toothpick. Too much boat in the water and you’re plowing through the nasty stuff with your nose down, ready to stuff a wave. Find a happy medium between the two for each set of conditions and don’t hesitate to give it a bump up or a bump down as needed.
Unfortunately, this is not something you can learn from a book or from a class. It’s all about seat time, and until you have a lot of hours on your derriere, take it easy.
Focus on Navigation Just as there are few shortcuts to learning to drive a boat, there are probably no shortcuts through that stump field in the upper end of your local lake. If there are, make sure you have them down to a T. This should be obvious, but for the same reason that speed is placed at a premium, everyone wants to find a way to get where they’re going even faster, obstacles, tide, and current be damned. If there’s a soft bottom that might be OK, but trees and (particularly) rocks will usually win a battle against a boat. Even if you’re “only” going 30, the damage can be significant. Don’t believe me? Run into a wall at your jogging pace of 5 to 6 miles per hour and tell me how your nose feels.
This should be abundantly obvious, but safe navigation should always be a priority. If you don’t know where you’re going, or what lies ahead, either idle or stay away. Or perhaps ask someone with knowledge, and avoid being the guy who won’t ask for directions.
Spend some money on tools to help you. That not only means functional electronics with depth readouts and GPS, but also a map chip of the waters you’ll be fishing. If you can’t justify the cost of that chip, at least get a paper map, which likely costs less than most crankbaits these days. Those ten bucks can save you thousands of dollars in boat repairs and trips to the doctor.
Know the Rules Do you know which marker you’re supposed to keep on your right as you go up the lake or up a river?
Do you know who has the right of way when two boats come to the same spot? Or on which side you’re supposed to pass another boat?
If you don’t, you shouldn't be out on public waters piloting a boat. It’s not hard to learn, and even if you live where boater education requirements are still relatively lax, you can always go over the basics on the Boat U.S. Foundation website or even on YouTube.
You should have appropriate tools and necessary safety equipment with you at all times too, both to prevent problems and to respond to those that cannot be avoided. All states have very specific, simple laws regarding required safety equipment on watercraft.
Assume the Other Guy Doesn't Have Brains Even if you do know the rules, don’t assume that the guy in the next boat knows them, and certainly don’t expect the guy with a half-full keg and 12 people in an overloaded pleasure boat to follow them, either. You’ll be surprised at how often those with plenty of knowledge and experience react poorly in a pressured situation. Always give the other guy a wide berth.
Again, this comes back to rule number one about speed. If you’re going 70 miles per hour you have much less time to react to someone’s dumbassery than if you’re going 30 or 40. If you can’t figure out what someone else is going to do, and there’s the potential for problems, either sit the boat down until they’re out of your vicinity or go to another area yourself.
And if someone is doing donuts around you, harassing you while you’re fishing, or you suspect them of being inebriated, don’t hesitate to get law enforcement involved. Too many anglers want to take matters into their own hands, which is the wrong approach and just raises the heat and the stakes. Too many others complain incessantly about the perceived heavy-handedness of the law. Remember, they’re there to keep the water and its users safe and should be called in as appropriate.
Reputation of the Sport—We All Pay I’m not arguing that you should only drive your boat like an old lady taking her 1986 LeSabre to church. There’s fun in opening it up. There’s satisfaction in learning to pop and top over big waves. And there’s value in getting to a prime fishing spot first. Nevertheless, when we act like dumbasses or assume that others won’t, we all pay a price.
Whatever you think of boat-related regulations, the more we police ourselves and our communities, the less likely we are to end up with top-down restrictions, the less likely insurance costs are to become prohibitively expensive, and the less likely you are to end up with someone else’s propeller marks running down your scalp. The trade-off seems pretty logical and simple.