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Story by Charlie Hammack
Photos by Heidi Roth


Years ago bass boating and fishing was a two-man proposition conducted in a relatively small wooden boat. One man would position himself in the front of the vessel while the other was positioned in the rear. The man in the front would cast and retrieve while the other performed sculling, the somewhat lost art of slowly paddling and positioning the boat with a single small paddle, and doing so without ever breaking the water’s surface.
This provided for slow and almost silent movement of the boat. In some cases the sculler was basically a hired guide, while in others a pair of friends would trade out on fishing and sculling as the day progressed. While I have never had the privilege of participating in this form of the sport, one must believe that it was a very relaxing way of pursuing Mr. Bass.
     As the years went by and our sport progressed through the technical/industrial age, the sculler was replaced by an electric outboard motor we now call a trolling motor. Small wooden boats were replaced with larger and still larger fiberglass or aluminum boats, and the small outboard engines were replaced with larger and larger engines to accommodate the larger boats and the desire to achieve maximum performance. The advances in technology have brought about so many changes that our modern day high performance bass boats only resemble the original sculling platforms in the common fact that they both float.
     Along with technological advances - hydro-dynamic design changes, weight-to-power advances and all the other attributes that go into today’s design of bass boats and outboard engines - comes the undeniable fact that in order to achieve the best possible performance from the new rigs some serious considerations must be addressed when setting up these dream machines. I see a lot of questions posted on the various discussion forums regarding boat performance problems, and the “How do I’s,” that accompany these questions. In a nutshell, that’s the reason for this article.
     While I am not, and do not attempt to pose myself as any kind of expert on the subject (and no Mr. Smart Guy, I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night), I have burned a few gallons of fuel in a bass boat, and will endeavor to pass on my experiences to you if I can manage to get them squeezed through my finger tips through this keyboard and ultimately past the editor. All items in this article are based on my personal experiences, and have no other real merit. If you wish to incorporate or try any of these adjustments or options, you should approach each item with care and common sense.
Setting up a bass boat - new, old or in between - can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it according to the results you wish to achieve and limited solely by the number of hard-earned dollars you are willing to trade for increased performance. Many people seem to have the opinion that Performance and Safety are on opposite ends of the spectrum. I personally do not go along with that opinion as I believe a properly set up and performing boat is much safer than one that is not set up properly.
     Bass boat performance is not just a matter of “How fast can I make it go?” It’s many other aspects including you, the driver.
Regardless of what adjustments or options you add to your rig, you are the operator, the common denominator in the safety equation. It is up to you to have spent the time training yourself on what your particular boat is safely capable of in various conditions.
The safety of your passengers and others on the waterway is your responsibility. When purchasing a new rig, new to you rig or upgrading your existing rig some items of safety and convenience should be considered and addressed.

Accessories and Safety
The first and foremost question should be, “Do I have a kill switch?” While most every new boat on the market now comes equipped with a kill switch, some older boats may not have one. If you do not have a kill switch, get one, and I don’t care if you have a john boat with a 7.5 hp engine. If you see a boat running in circles on the water, it’s a sure sign that someone is in trouble, deep trouble. And for you guys that have them and don’t use them, well…DUHH!? Kill switches, have’m, get’m…and for heaven’s sake use’m. No brainer, enough said.
     For hull protection, I have had a Hamby’s Bow Protector put on every boat I have owned since the item became available. Yep, they are a little pricey, but so is fiberglass work, not to mention the time you have to invest in getting the boat to the repair facility and back. There are other bow protectors on the market, but I’ve never used anything but Hamby’s – I’ve never heard of a failure with a Hamby’s. One side note: whether you use a Hamby’s or another brand, they’re designed to be beaching bumpers – don’t expect them to protect your boat if you approach the beach or boat ramp at ‘ramming speed’. They work great when easing up onto a concrete ramp, sand, or pea gravel…not with larger chunk rock. In my book bow protectors are a good investment.
For ease of operation and safety, I use a Hot Foot Throttle Control. This accessory item provides a foot throttle control similar to your tow vehicle. Once you have put the engine control in gear, the foot pedal controls the throttle setting, allowing you to keep both hands on the steering wheel. I also consider this to be a top notch safety device as the pedal has spring pressure you have to push against - if your foot is off the pedal, the spring pressure returns the throttle to idle.
     Consider a boat operator becoming unconscious for whatever reason with a traditional hand throttle - uncontrolled water missile. With the spring loaded Hot Foot, the vessel stands a lot better chance of going slow enough to reduce the chance of potential injury, while providing for the possibility of someone boarding the boat to render assistance. Personally, I consider this item a necessity rather than a luxury and rank it second only to the kill switch.
     Another item for ease of operation and safety is the steering column/wheel mounted trim switch. The trim switch incorporated into the gear shift, hand throttle lever requires you to take a hand off the steering wheel to adjust the engine trim angle. Having the switch mounted on the steering column allows you to adjust the trim angle with a finger while your hand remains on the steering wheel.
     I know I’m harping about keeping both hands on the wheel, and you may wish to ‘blow that off’ as being too mother hen-ish; that is, unless you talk to someone who has had a steering link failure, or anything of that nature. You’ll hear a horror story that you do no want to participate in. If your hand slips off the wheel, especially with cable systems, and the wheel makes a half revolution while you’re running, you, and any passengers will be out of the boat and in the water so fast you won’t even know how you got there. Newer rigs have hydraulic steering systems that aren’t as susceptible, but to be safe…two hands on the wheel as often as possible.

Engines, Props & Jack Plates
Engines, Props and Jack Plates seem to generate the most of the questions on boat setup, probably due to the sheer number of different possible combinations for any boat. In most cases your boat, engine and prop were initially setup by the dealer. Generally, the dealer will set the boat up according to the average boater, or possibly according to settings provided by the boat/engine manufacturer. These set ups will please 90% of the public 90% of the time, and that is really all the Dealer can do.
     Dealers cannot afford to spend a day on the water with you, experimenting with different props and settings to tweak your rig to its peak. They’ll set it to average settings and then it’s up to you to tweak it on your own. And understand that you cannot achieve peak performance until the engine is at least a few hours beyond the break-in period.
     You might think that with all the history available to manufacturers from previous years that they would be able to ‘blue print’ the settings you need straight out of the box. In reality they have – that’s how the ‘average’ settings come about. Whether a manufacturer will admit it or not, every boat is a little different, every engine is a little different, and the same applies to props. All manufacturers strive to duplicate their products exactly, but in reality it’s difficult to do time after time. And of course all of us fish differently and load and operate our rigs differently, so it’s easy to see that one set up can’t be the absolute pinnacle for everyone all the time.
     First of all let me take just a brief moment to state, without reservation, that no boat should be equipped or operated with an engine in excess of the horsepower indicated on the manufacturer’s rating plate. If you have a chance to buy a boat that’s ‘new to you’ and there’s no rating plate, then contact the manufacturer, provide the serial number and they should be able to help you. The manufacturers know their products and place a maximum horsepower rating on them for a reason.
     I run a hydraulic jack plate on my boats. The plate allows raising the engine for shallow water or stump fields, and dropping it down when Mother Nature gets really nasty on Rayburn or Toledo Bend and I want to keep the prop in the water. Or, when I get really nasty it will get me approximately 2mph more when the weather and water conditions are right. The hydraulic jack plate is operated by a switch mounted on the steering column/wheel like the trim/tilt control. Actually it’s all-in-one, a Dual Pro Trim Switch, mounts on the steering column with the trim on one side and jack plate on the other.
     A hydraulic plate provides a lot of flexibility, allowing you to simply raise and lower the engine while making your setup runs, and noting the position of the jack plate. One sincere word of caution regarding hydraulic plates; you can get yourself in big trouble by jacking the engine up too high while running. For one you can raise the prop up to a point where it loses its bite, this generally occurs when you cross a boat wake or a decent sized wave.
     If the prop is too high and totally loses its bite, the bow will fall and you could spend the next several seconds (feels like eternities) doing 360’s. You won’t have any control and the centrifugal force will put your partner on top of you or out of the boat, or you on top of your partner or out of the boat. If you have propped your boat correctly, i.e. within 100 rpm’s of the rev limiter at wide open throttle (WOT) and full trim, you should hit the rev limiter before you get high enough to create this situation.
     If you do not want to spend the bucks for the hydraulic unit, you can get a manual jack plate for about 30% of the cost of the hydraulic unit. While it will not adjust engine height while on the water, it will allow you to fine tune to the most desirable engine height for your particular needs. Engines bolted to the transom of the boat without a jack plate provide very little potential for adjustment as the bolt holes are on ¾-inch centers and it’s a hassle to rig an engine jack to remove the engine from the boat and reposition it to make a change. Manual jack plates allow you to make adjustments right at the boat ramp.
     If you have a new boat, or just a new engine, the first thing on the agenda is to get that puppy broken in properly. I run Mercury Outboards and I’m plenty proud of it. My boat, a Bass Cat Cougar FTD is rated at 285 horsepower, but I choose to run a 225 OptiMax. I get excellent performance even though I’m 60hp below maximum. I order the Smart Craft System Gauges which have a digital window in each gauge, in addition to the speedo and tach readouts. There is a ‘break-in’ feature which times the specified break-in period of 120 minutes - a helpful item preventing second guessing as to whether the engine has gone through the full break-in period.
     Breaking in the engine is something I do very methodically. I take the boat to the lake with one task in mind, to properly break-in the engine. I generally put my normal tournament load/weight in the boat, to generate a load on the engine. Having a light load and trimming the boat up to a normal trim position won’t provide the necessary loading and the break-in clock won’t count down.
     During the break-in period you should be changing rpm’s every couple of minutes. Generally, I get the engine warmed up and start out at 3000 rpm’s for two minutes, increase to 3500 for two minutes, to 4000 for two minutes, and then back to 3000 – that’s the first hour. The next hour I start at 3000, then 3500, then 4000, then 4500 with several short two-minute runs at WOT, watching the count down clock as I go.
     My procedure is well beyond Mercury’s required break-in which mandates only the first hour - but once I’m done I know my engine has been broken-in thoroughly. Incidentally, with the Smart Craft System Gauges once you’ve performed the initial break-in the break-in window is removed from the scrolled menu. While this procedure is in accordance with Mercury’s break-in outline, I’m sure other makers use a similar outline, and the Owner’s Manual will have it spelled out specifically. Once the break-in is complete I feel free to run the engine at any rpm I need in order to dial in my settings. But, it’s recommended not to run new engines at WOT for more than 10 minutes at a time for the first several hours.
     As you might expect, I run Mercury Props. Even though I run a relatively large boat I still prefer a three-bladed prop. I ran the four blade models for a couple of years but finally decided that three blades suit me better. My choice is the Mercury Tempest Plus, which provides for variable ventilation to achieve decent hole shots, while maintaining excellent top end performance.
     If I am rigging a boat with a manual jack plate, I obviously start off with the height settings as recommended by the manufacturer. I roughly time the hole shot (time to plane) by a simple counting method, and then progress to wide open throttle while trimming the engine and watching the tach. If I achieve maximum trim and wide open throttle before reaching the rev limiter I take a couple of quick looks behind the boat to observe the rooster tail. If you are throwing more than four to five feet of roost at WOT fully trimmed, the engine is set too high. Conversely, if you do not see a foot or so of roost above the engine cowling, the engine is probably a little too low.
     I go back to the ramp and make height adjustments, making changes of about a ¼-inch at a time until I achieve the roost effect I’m looking for. If during this process I find I can’t run at WOT fully trimmed without hitting the rev limiter, I know I need more prop pitch. Conversely, if I can’t get fairly close to the rev limiter I reduce the pitch by one size and recheck it. Bottom line, what I am looking for here is to operate at WOT, fully trimmed, with approximately a four to five-foot roost and engine rpm’s within 100 rpm’s of the rev limiter.
    Once I’ve found the most desirable engine height and the optimum prop for my specific needs I go back to the hole shot. If during experimenting the hole shot exceeded four seconds, then I concentrate on improving that performance. As stated above, I use a Tempest Plus so I can adjust the ventilation to achieve the best possible hole shot. Warning: you can over ventilate. Only go as far as you need, and no further. The Tempest utilizes plastic plugs with various hole sizes - the larger the hole, the more ventilation you will get. I start with the smallest hole size and test. Good hole shot? Great, leave it alone. If you’re not happy it’s back to the ramp, the cordless drill and enlarging each plug opening one or two sizes.
     You might have to do this a few times to get the ventilation fine-tuned for your rig. When you feel you have the hole shot in good shape, bring the boat up just on plane and run for a minute. Then, very slowly ease off the throttle and see exactly how slow you can operate before the ventilation overcomes the prop and you lose the bite. If you lose the bite before you simply slow below planning speed you have ‘over ventilated’ the prop. At this point, remove the plugs and start over, being careful not to increase the openings as much. Got your hole shot about right? Final test, when you load the boat on the trailer and you are powering on, the engine should load up for a second or so and then ventilate, providing the necessary rpm’s to get the boat loaded.
     All this sounds like a lot of work, and it does take some effort, but in most cases I’ve set my boats up, or helped friends set theirs up in two to three hours with a handful of tools and a few props. Of course you should always carry a spare prop and hardware. If you buy a new boat don’t get a spare until you perform your set up. The original prop may be the spare when all’s said and done. If you already have your boat and go through the set up procedure, you should be able to decide whether you need a size larger or smaller from the information above. Then when you purchase a new prop you will be heading in the right direction.
     Additionally, be aware that engines run stronger during the colder/dryer months as compared to the hot/humid months. Cold, dry air is denser and contains more oxygen per cubic foot than does hot, humid air. It’s common to lose a couple of hundred rpm’s during the summer months (at least in the south) as compared to the colder months. I may run a 26” pitch during the colder months and switch to a 25” pitch during the summer. The cause is the oxygen content and the engine’s performance will be affected over the full spectrum of operation, including hole shot. With that said, if in July your hole shot is a little slower and you don’t get that last 2-3 mph you had back in February or March, don’t be alarmed – that’s the natural course of things.
     For those of you engineering types that want to know everything there is about props, you can go to www.MercuryMarine.com and click on propellers and then on technical information. Sometime next week you should finish reading their material.
This process works for me and I hope it will work for you. Good Luck, Good Fishing and God Bless.
 

 
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