Get rigged right for winter’s rough seas

It’s one thing running inland lakes, rivers and bayous when the wind and waves kick up and protected waters are never too far away; it’s another story when rough open waters of a large lake or open Gulf separate you from the fishing grounds or launch ramp. In the latter scenario, both you and your boat need to be up to tackling the situation.

Bass pro Joe Balog cut his angling eyeteeth fishing what has been called the nation’s most dangerous body of water for boaters — Lake Erie. The shallowness of the lake combined with exposure to winds that pop up spontaneously and have nothing east of the Rockies to slow them create conditions that have sunk more boats than any other area for its size.

Avoiding that sinking feeling is first and foremost on Balog’s mind when he rigs a boat for what he calls “big water fishing” whether it be on the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Pontchartrain or back home on the Great Lakes.

“What you have to keep in mind when fishing big, wide-open waters,” warns Balog, “is that in the event of a storm, things can get real ugly, real fast.

“We’re not talking seas building to the 3- and 4-footers over the course of an afternoon; we’re talking 6- to 8-foot walls of water that may have been 4-footers a few minutes earlier, and flat calm a half-hour before that.

“Also, when you’re fishing open water, you may be three or four or more miles from land. If you break down out there, it’s not just a matter of using your electric trolling motor to make a five-minute run to the closest shore.

“You’ve also got to consider that in the Gulf you’re dealing with tidal current. People don’t realize that. You and your boat can drift a long way if your rig is dead in the water.”

Balog considers one of his most important pieces of safety gear to be a portable, 1,000 gph bilge pump, which he fits with a 6-foot length of flexible hose. He places a large alligator clip on the end of each of the two 4-foot-long wires that feed electricity to the powerful Rule pump to make it truly portable, and then keeps it handy.

“My Ranger has a pair of 1,000 gph bilge pumps built-in, straight from the factory,” said the big-water bass angler. “But if there’s a breakdown anywhere in my electrical system, and those pumps aren’t getting juice, or are broken themselves, I know I can break out the portable unit and with the clips attach it quickly directly to the terminals of any battery I have aboard and get water flowing out of my boat fast.”

It’s a given that you should have all the USCG-required safety gear aboard any boat, according to Balog, but when fishing offshore on large expanses of water, he stresses the importance of regular inspections of items like flares and fire extinguishers to make sure they’re going to work when you need them.

To summon emergency assistance, Balog recommends having a portable VHF radio aboard, with extra batteries. As a back-up, Balog never leaves the dock without a fully charged cell phone, which he has programmed with the number of the local USCG station and the local sea-tow service. He also has programmed into his portable telephone the number for the pre-recorded national weather service forecast for the area he will be fishing.

When air temperatures average below the 60-degree mark, Balog makes a habit of having a dry bag aboard, stuffed with a spare set of wool clothing, including socks, hat and gloves. He also invests in foul-weather suits designed for offshore sailors, and keeps the PVC-lined raingear aboard all season long.

Holding ground

“Something else I do different than most bass anglers I see,” said Balog, “is I carry a big anchor and lots of line for it. I see so many bass anglers out here with tiny token mushroom anchors and 40 feet of line just to meet the requirements. What good is that set-up going to do if you break down and have to hold your ground in 50 feet of water? Or even 20 feet if things are rocking?”

Balog equips his Ranger with 120 feet of rope attached to an 18-pound Richter Anchor, which has a compact design made to sink fast and to hold on a variety of bottom types, using five beveled prongs that snag rocks or dig into mud or sand.

Securing gear

“Items in the bow of a boat going across waves take the worst punishment,” explained Balog. “And most of us have an electric trolling motor mounted up front, so it must be super secure.”

The first thing Balog does when rigging an electric motor to the bow of a boat he’ll use in big water is throw away the four bolts that come with the mounting plate.

“I replace them with six stainless steel bolts backed with half-dollar-size fender washers and lock nuts. I’ve seen it happen, and I don’t want that mounting plate ripping off the deck of my boat.

“Next, I add a stabilizer or what we call a ‘bounce buster’ if the motor doesn’t come equipped with one. R-A-M makes a good aftermarket stabilizer that’ll fit most bow-mount motors, and Minn-Kota offers a bow mount stabilizer kit for its motors.

“Then I lash the motor down with three tie-down straps. The first one I install is down at the motor end, to keep it and the prop from twisting loose; the second strap is the conventional one about mid-way up the shaft that comes standard to hold the motor against the deck. The third strap goes from around the head of the motor to the bow cleat to pin the head down with pressure against the bounce buster and the deck.”

The hard-core, open water angler does a similar job of securing the batteries that power his bow-mount motor and his outboard’s starter. Balog uses two straps to tie-down each battery, and positions the cells as far astern as he can to keep the batteries’ movement to a minimum and to keep the bow of his boat as light as possible. That way, he can use his engine trim, rather than weight forward, to tuck it low when he has to. Even the spare prop he always carries is securely lashed in a locker as far aft as possible to concentrate weight close to the transom.

“Don’t overlook protecting what it is you went all the way out there to catch,” added Balog. “Fishing large waters means long runs — that are often rough — back to the dock. If you’re fishing a tournament and have a livewell full of fish you need to get back to the dock, you’ve got to consider them too.

“Keep enough water in the wells over the course of a long run to arrive back at the dock with healthy fish. I carry a few transom plugs that fit my livewell overflow drains for just that purpose. Heading back to weigh-in with a livewell full of fish is the only time I actually try to keep water in my boat!”

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