Trolling Motor Buyer's Guide
See which trolling motor technologies, features, and brands make the most sense for your style of fishing.
by Huston Heatherly
If you are in the market for a trolling motor, the number of options and seemingly complex concepts of thrust and GPS software, just to name a few, can make the process a bit daunting. We hope to help make your search more enjoyable and less time-consuming.
In this article, we will attempt to provide you with an in-depth guide to navigating the market for trolling motors. We will cover the various types of trolling motors as well as their features, some key trolling motor terms, and take a look at the major trolling motor brands.
See the winners and check prices from our shortlist of this year's Best Trolling Motors:
Open Table of Contents
Advantages of Trolling Motors
For a piece of equipment that is a mainstay in the world of angling, we expect that equipment to convey some significant advantages to the angler that they could not have otherwise.
And that is most certainly the case with electric trolling motors. Below we have listed several of the most significant advantages.
Finesse Boat Control
One of the biggest advantages to a trolling motor is the level of finesse you have when controlling boat direction and speed. For a lot of fishing situations, the hot spots never seem to be in clear unobstructed areas. Underwater structures and bank cover can make access and casting lanes difficult to overcome. With the fine control of a trolling motor, you can easily navigate these type of waters and position yourself perfectly for difficult casts.
More Access and Fishing
This goes hand in hand with finesse boat control. A trolling motor lets you access more water. This could be shallow areas, weedy areas, or shallow and weedy areas. With modern trolling motors, you can even cover specific trolling lanes without manual control and spend more time focusing on the fishing at hand.
Trolling motors might also provide a means of mechanical movement on waters where gas-powered motors are banned.
Overall, these motors get you into places you might otherwise be restricted whether by law or by nature.
Another byproduct of electric motors is the reduction in noise when maneuvering the boat. With smaller props run on electricity, you don't get the same power as large, gasoline driven outboard motors but you get a lot less noise and disturbance. With the above advantages to a trolling motor, the added benefit of stealthier approaches makes them incredibly well adapted for angling right on top of the fish.
If you have been fishing long, you have probably been out in the water, several miles from the launch ramp and ended up with a dead outboard motor. Having a trolling motor gives you some piece of mind in this type of situation. The going might be slow, but you’re not going to have to call for help or paddle back to the launch site.
How Trolling Motors Work
Trolling motors are gear driven motors powered by electricity usually from one to three 12 volt deep cycling marine batteries. Unlike outboard motors, trolling motor power is given in thrust (lbs) rather than in horsepower and range in their max thrust usually from 30 to 112lbs.
These electric motors are mounted to the boat by floor brackets or by mounting clamps that stabilize the body of the trolling motor. These brackets also allow the trolling motor to be easily stowed out of the water when not in use.
Trolling motor direction can be controlled via a hand tiller, foot pedal, or wirelessly depending on the style of trolling motor you choose. Manual directional changes, most often mediated by cables that run to the control head, pull the control head, rotating it in the desired direction. This changes the position of the submerged prop which is connected to the control head by the shaft.
When the speed is adjusted, whether wirelessly, by the hand tiller, or foot pedal, the signal is sent through the control head, down the shaft tube, and to motor head which controls the prop.
Trolling Motor Categories
When you get down to choosing a trolling motor that is the best fit for your fishing and boating needs, you have several decisions to make based on the environment the trolling motor is designed for, the boat position the motor is designed to be mounted, and the method that the trolling motor is controlled.
In this section, we will go through these various categories and discuss when and where you might want one option over the other.
Motor Environment: Freshwater
The majority of models that are currently available fall under the freshwater category. While there is nothing added to a trolling motor to make it freshwater compatible, they do lack certain features that would allow them to be used in saltwater environments.
These trolling motors come in a variety of motor position and motor control types.
Motor Environment: Saltwater
If you are fishing in a saltwater environment, you do not want to make the mistake of using a freshwater trolling motor. Saltwater is extremely corrosive, and even with fervent washing after use, the motor is going to break down pretty quickly. Luckily, major trolling motor manufacturers design trolling motors for saltwater use.
Saltwater trolling motors feature more encapsulated electronics and gear systems, and they have several additional coatings of corrosive resistant chemicals and paints for the body. They also feature zinc anodes which help to draw corrosion away from sensitive areas of the trolling motor.
These trolling motors come in a variety of motor position and motor control types.
Motor Position: Bow Mount
Bow mount trolling motors are perhaps the more popular style when it comes to mounting. By mounting the trolling motor in the forward position of the boat, the angler has much finer control than from a transom mount. From this position, the trolling motor is pulling the boat rather than pushing it.
Bow mount trolling motors are mounted to the floor by a bracket where they can be easily stowed and deployed when needed. This style of trolling motor also has a wide range of control options that include hand controlled, foot controlled, and wireless.
Motor Position: Transom Mount
Some trolling motors are designed to mount to the stern of the boat and more specifically the transom, as you probably deduced. Some fishing vessels do not have enough bow space for a floor mounted bracket, and the transom mount offers an electric motor option.
One of the advantages of this trolling motor is its versatility. While it is designed to mount on the transom, with a little tinkering, it can be mounted in a variety of positions on a wide array of boat types. This even includes smaller single man vessels such as kayaks.
Transom mounts also have the advantage of not having to drill into your boat, as you must with bow mounts, instead, the clamp can easily be removed and mounted elsewhere with no modifications to the vessel.
You generally do not see as many model options for transom mounts as you do for bow mount trolling motors or the same amount of added features. You do have some options in max thrust as well as shaft lengths, but that is usually it.
Motor Control: Wireless
Wireless motor control is still in its infancy, but more models are becoming available every year that utilize a wireless control system. As of now, wireless control options are limited to bow mounted trolling motors.
Wireless control often involves the use a remote where you can manually control the motor as well as use the various software features that are included. These options usually have a physical connection between the trolling motor and foot pedal. There are a few models where everything is completely wireless, including the control method, usually in the form of a foot pedal.
Motor Control: GPS
Perhaps one of the biggest advancements in trolling motors is the use of GPS in assistance in handling your trolling motor. We wanted to put this in its own category, but in reality, trolling motors with this features overlap with both the wireless and foot controlled categories.
Each major trolling motor manufacturer has its own GPS software, but they ultimately provide the same features which we will cover shortly.
Motor Control: Hand Tiller
Hand controlled motors utilize a hand tiller that extends directly off of the control head. This handles often extend up to six inches in length, and some can be adjusted for the angle of the tiller coming off the control head. Speed is also adjusted by the hand tiller by twisting the handle.
Hand controlled models are advantageous if you are using the motor as the main source of power for your boat as well. This is mainly because you have an advantage in changing motor direction and speed quickly if something pops up in your path.
Motor Control: Foot Pedal
Foot control motors are probably the most popular method of control for anglers using medium to larger sized boats. The biggest advantage for foot controlled models is they are hands-free. For fishing, this is a huge advantage and allows you to focus more on presentation and retrieval rather than having to constantly set down the rod to maneuver the boat.
There are now some trolling model options that are foot controlled and can use the more classic cable driven steering mechanism or electronic, wireless mechanism. Foot control options are also available that utilize the GPS control software.
Foot pedals usually take a little more time for the new user to adjust to, but are very self-intuitive and easy to get the hang of using.
Foot controlled models are only found on bow mounted trolling motors and are available for both fresh and saltwater models.
Trolling Motor Users
In today's angling world, just about anyone with a boat is going to utilize a trolling motor. They just provide too many advantages for you not to have one mounted on your fishing vessel. These are not just reserved for guides or those with an excess of cash; these motors can be bought, installed, and used by absolutely anyone.
Small Vessel Anglers
Some of the most exciting fishing can happen in the smallest of boats. Whether it is a single man pontoon or kayak, there are trolling motors that are compatible with these boats. Small, low thrust transom mounts are the favorites for these situations and their versatility in mounting makes them one of the few mechanized choices for single person vessels.
Today's modern trolling motors can offer anglers trolling long stretches looking for holding schools of fish. Some scenarios might require more speed then trolling motors can provide, but there is transom mount trolling motors available that can provide the thrust needed for long trolls. They are quieter and a little lighter on the wallet as you will not be burning gasoline.
Freshwater Game Anglers
While trolling can fall into this category, here we are talking more of convention anglers fishing structures for smallies and bucket mouths or other game fish. Bow mount trolling motors are often the style of choice for these situations, especially when using a typical medium to large sized bass boat.
There is plenty of bow space, and these trolling motors provide the finesse needed to maneuver around obstacles. They also provide the advantage of being able to fish while maneuvering your vessel
Big Saltwater Game Fish
Trolling motors are not limited to saltwater anglers. With saltwater models available that can resist the corrosive nature of saltwater, they can be taken to the flats or deep offshore.
Offshore anglers are going to require heavy thrust motors that can navigate in heavy currents and choppy waters while shore and inland anglers are going to look to the same characteristics as in the previous section.
For fishing where there are not many natural landmarks, the GPS features of the newer trolling motors are also beneficial to re-locate hot spots.
Other Outdoorsman and Adventurers
And trolling motors are not useful exclusively to anglers. Whether you fish or not, the advantages of trolling motors are a big draw for anyone with a boat. For hunters they allow you to move quietly into areas before shooting light and for adventurers, they allow you access to areas you would otherwise be restricted from and give you an easier method of movement should anything unexpected happen.
Key Trolling Motor Terminology
As you navigate through the various websites and reviews while searching for your next trolling motor, there are several key terms that you should have in your vernacular. Some of these are general terms for all trolling motors while some are specific to certain brands. Being aware of these terms will and come of the concepts they are involved with, will help you decide which are more relevant to your search.
Click below for the full terminology list.
See Full Trolling Motor Terminology List
Trolling Motor Features to Consider
There are several components and features you will need to take into account when picking out a trolling motor. Some of these features are going to be present on any trolling motor you purchase while others are added features that while not completely necessary, are beneficial on the water.
Below are some of the general features and potential decisions you will have to make when purchasing any trolling motor. These features do not include mounting or control options. See the trolling motor categories for the advantages and disadvantages between those options.
The shaft length is an important decision that you will need to make when picking out your trolling motor. You will often have anywhere from one to three shaft length options depending on the model.
Luckily, simple tables will give you an idea of the shaft length you will need based on the height from the waterline to the bow or the waterline to the transom, depending on the trolling motor style.
Bow to Waterline Distance
less than 16 inches
Transom to Waterline Distance
less than 10 inches
more than 22 inches
more than 42 inches
The style and design of the prop are going to be pretty standard for whatever model of trolling motor you purchase. The manufacturer does not provide a lot of options regarding blade design. Most people are not going to be too particular on the type of prop that comes with the trolling motor as long as it gets your boat moving from one place to the next.
As far as blades, you are only going to see two or three blade options. There are quite a few differences between a two and three blade propeller, but you don't get an option for this when purchasing a trolling motor. Generally, smaller trolling motors will feature a 2-blade prop which doesn’t produce as much forward thrust, but it is less work for the motor which increases battery life. Three blade props are going to be found on much larger trolling motors generating 80+ lbs of thrust. The extra blade helps move the boat, and while it takes more battery, these trolling motors are generally run on 36V to compensate.
You will also find some props that are labeled as weedless, and it is mostly due to the design of the blades which help them glide through weeds rather than try to chop through them. While they are more resistant to getting bogged down, they are not 100% weedless.
When it comes to trolling motors, bigger is not necessarily better. You need to select the correct thrust metrics to fit your boat as well as the type of waters you most fish.
There is a useful and simple equation you can use to determine the amount of thrust you will need based on your boat’s weight. To determine the amount of thrust that you will need, simply divide your boat weight (in pounds) by 100 and multiply by two. This gives you 2lbs of thrust for every 100lbs of vessel. For example, if you have a 1,000lb boat, the equation would give you 40lbs of recommended thrust ((2,000lbs/100)x2).
Even with these general guidelines, you might want to err on the higher thrust side. This is especially true if you usually carry multiple passengers with a lot of fear and take into account fuel. You might also need to go a bit higher on the thrust range if you deal with heavy currents or choppy waters on a continuous basis.
The type of speed control falls into the general features because while there options available, you have to have speed control or else deal with one set speed at all times.
There isn’t much of an argument when it comes to fixed speed controls over digital variable. Regarding efficiency, digital variable always wins out and who doesn't want more control over the performance of their motor? Digital variable motors often bring the price tag up when compared to set speed controlled models.
And its also important to note that regarding Minn Kota and MotorGuide, all of their variable speed trolling motors also feature their digital maximize technology which aids in getting the most use out of a single battery charge.
Leading Trolling Motor Manufacturers
While you can find a variety of trolling motors produced by different companies, it really is the proverbial two-horse race with two brands standing leaps and bounds above the competition in trolling motor innovation and quality. Then there's a third, an upstart, with an innovative business model of its own.
Three Main Trolling Motor Manufacturers
- Minn Kota - based in Racine, Wisconsin and part of the Johnson Outdoors Company
- MotorGuide - based in Lowell, Michigan and part of the Mercury Marine Company
- Newport Vessels - based in San Francisco, California
We'll go into a bit more detail about each one.
The founder of Minn Kota, O.G. Schmidt, invented the first gear-driven electric trolling motor in 1934 to fill the need for more boat control. His product took off, and he established the Minn Kota brand. Named after the states that held his home waters, Minnesota and North Dakota, the company had has risen from humble beginnings to a juggernaut in the trolling motor world.
Minn Kota has earned the reputation for both quality and innovation in the field, and they sport a plethora of trolling motor models that cover any fishing need that you have.
They have various lines of trolling motors for fresh and saltwater environments including bow mount and transom mount models for each environment. These trolling motors range from the basic setup to motors with all of the bells and whistles that we have discussed above. Many of these trolling motors now come with the option for i-Pilot GPS control.
MotorGuide is a second major manufacturer of electric trolling motors and like Minn Kota, offer a wide selection of models allowing you to choose a trolling motor that will be effective with your boat and home waters. MotorGuide was founded in the 1960’s by G.H Harris, who saw the need for a trolling motor that could be controlled by other means that the hands and developed a foot controlled motor. MotorGuide, following in their founder's footsteps, continued for the next several decades to modern day, innovating and improving the electric trolling motor.
Like the Minn Kota, MotorGuide also pushes for innovation in trolling motor design and are regarded as a company that produces high quality and reliable products.
They offer many models designed for freshwater and saltwater use with various lines for of both bow and transom mount motors. The level of features ranges from the bare bone basics to fully outfitted trolling motors. Many of MotorGuide’s bow mounted trolling motors now come with the option for their Pinpoint GPS control. MotorGuide has also been at the forefront of completely wireless trolling motors, including a brand new model released this year.
Newport Vessels is based out of California and compared to the previous two companies, is newer to the trolling motor world. Newport was founded in 2008 and offer a wide array of marine products including trolling motors and inflatable boats.
Newport is unique in that you do not have to go through retailers and other middle men to get their products. Instead, you can purchase an electric trolling motor directly from their factory, which helps keep these trolling motors so affordable.
Newport offers several lines of trolling motors all of which have saltwater resistant properties built into them. While there are several lines of trolling motors, you are going to limited to transom mount designs. Newport has a nice range of max thrust options with trolling motors ranging from 36 to 86 pounds.
At this time, Newport does not offer bow mount trolling motors.
The Bottom Line
Trolling motors are invaluable on the water. If you’re serious about angling, a trolling motor should be in your immediate future.
There are a lot of options, not just in the various lines of trolling motors but in their features as well. If you're new to the trolling motor world, it can seem like a full-time job to determine what you really need for your boat.
We hope that this trolling motor buyer’s guide has made that process much more manageable and will reduce the time to find the motor you need and increase your time on the water.
See the winners and check prices from our shortlist of this year's Best Trolling Motors:
Perennial buyer's tip: When in doubt about any tech purchase, it's better to go with the choice you perceive as most affordable while still meeting your minimum requirements. Tech buyers report higher overall satisfaction on a good deal than a stretch purchase, regardless of features.