April 06, 2020
By Joel Nelson
We had a 40-plus mile run ahead of us on the largest freshwater lake in the world. Weather was good that July afternoon on Lake Superior, and the convoy was made up of 22-foot long, deep-hulled boats traveling in tandem for safety. The haul started in 1- to 2-footers as a casual boat ride in big water, but ended well after dark in exhaustion. Gordon Lightfoot was playing in the back of my head, knowing water temps were averaging around 50°F.
The closer we neared the invisible shoreline, the bigger the swells got, and closer the wave period (space between them) became. We were losing sight of the lead boat and taking the occasional wave over the bow that crashed the windshield, knocking loose our sonar/GPS. As darkness fell, with only intermittent navigational support through our graph, we throttled hard up to the top of the swells, then backed off on the stick as we coasted down each chute, being careful not to spear a wave at the base of the trough. I had run the big walleye waters of the Midwest many times before, but never this, and I was quite unprepared. Several hours later, and a swap at the helm with a good buddy, we arrived happy to see land.
Whether you run big water frequently or rarely, big can become bigger in an instant, and knowing a few tricks at the wheel can make all the difference. Bret Alexander, famed guide and expert rough-water runner plies his trade on Green Bay, often fishing greater Lake Michigan as well. “I can run comfortably in up to 4- to 5-footers, but if I’ve got older clients or there’s a small-craft advisory, I might cancel the trip,” he says. “I think I’m lucky on the big water I fish because the longer the fetch and larger the lake in deep water, the less choppy the waves. Those are the one’s that pound you.” It’s the shallower, large lakes then, that can also be challenging to run as the waves don’t develop as predictable a path of travel.
Bret likes running parallel with the trough when possible. “As long as there’s good distance between each wave, in big swells, that’s what I prefer as long as they’re not capping,” he says. “Quartering them is the worst. A lot of times I overload the boat with clients to the opposite side so the hull sits higher to the side facing the waves. That helps keeps everyone fairly dry.
“When it gets bad though, there’s not much you can do but expect to travel slower. Trim up to get the nose high, and belly into them.” He’s a stickler in those conditions on having safety gear handy, with everyone in the boat wearing life jackets. “I’ve got my throwable handy, with flares, cell phone, backup marine radio, and EPIRB (emergency beacon) ready for worst-case scenarios,” he says, “I always carry a backup bilge pump, too. A few years ago I had both bilges fail in big water, making it tough to pick up speed and get back to shore.”
But how big is too big? Mark Romanack of Fishing 411 has made a living on the Great Lakes, fishing for about everything that swims, mostly on big waters. He turns the question on its head: “Everyone has their own fear factor, as 3- to 4-footers are fishable, but once you get to 5-plus, how much fun are you having?” His goal is smooth running. “I can either get on top of them and try to run them flat on plane, or I can take it slower by pushing in, bow up. Either way, I’m experimenting to find the best ride that imparts the least abuse to my body and boat.”
Boats have come a long way over the years, and the accessories to help tame rough water can certainly help tame the sting of big water, especially for tournament anglers who “need” to run on days where the average angler would likely bow out. Popular among them are various styles of seat-mounted shock absorbers. “You still need to exercise caution,” Romanack says. “Those products make the ride easier, but if you use them unreasonably to over-throttle, I’ve seen cracked motor cowlings and kickers snapped off clean. My perfect ride in rough water is when I can just get on plane and do 20 to 24 mph in 2- to 3-foot seas.”
He emphasizes hull design for those who consistently run rough water. “I’ve been running deep boats my whole life, and I’ve found that the deeper and steeper the deadrise the better,” he says. “You can’t stop there though. A reverse-chine hull makes the steep deadrise shine, as it gives you lift. That’s what keeps the bow up, and that’s what prevents the pounding that so many people are trying to avoid.”
Much depends on how you run the throttle, too. “Powering at the wrong time is a problem, either at the base of a wave or at the top,” Romanack says. “At the bottom you’ll drive right into one, and at the top, you’ll squirt out and then come back down and spear one just the same.” For that reason, the “hot-foots” so popular on bass boats make running the big stuff a challenge. “A wave hits and you get jerked forward, making you step down on the foot throttle and getting you into trouble,” he says. That’s why the traditional T-shaped power handle is still preferred in big water situations.
Romanack recommends one of two techniques to gradually feather that style throttle such that you don’t experience sudden power-ups or power-downs. “You can cup your throttle hand, putting the heel of your hand towards the base of the handle and between thumb and forefinger. That’ll take the jump out,” he says. “I prefer holding the palm of my hand on the gunwale, when it permits, to feather and find that sweet spot where you have control.” Steadily regulating throttle usage is an important part of running any big-water craft in rough water.
Knowing when to sit it out makes for the safest of situations, but when done properly, it’s not a problem to run in waves approaching 4-plus feet. Modern boats in excess of 20 feet make it easier, as both Alexander and Romanack agree that one foot of difference is huge when running the biggest water. Bridging those waves with length could be the greatest single variable that makes running in rough water a snap. Following those tips and not pushing limits in tough conditions makes the experience more enjoyable and safe.
*Joel Nelson, Cannon Falls, Minnesota, is an exceptional multispecies angler and angling tactician, who writes about the outdoors and appears in videos and on TV, teaching about all-things fishing (joelnelsonoutdoors.com).