The Old Town AutoPilot isn’t the old canoe that you once fished from at summer camp. This motorized fishing kayak illustrates just how far angling off a paddlecraft has evolved over the last few years beyond paddling itself. That is, human power is no longer a prerequisite.
In launching its 2020 fleet under the new Sportsman Line, Old Town offers seven different boats with options to propel in the traditional sense, by way of paddle, as well as by pedal drive, and by motor power. The fleet includes established models like the Topwater series, new pedal options intended for coastal waters in the Salty PDL 120 and Bigwater PDL 132, plus Old Town’s new power models, integrated with Minn Kota electric, trolling motor systems. These are the 106 Powered by Minn Kota, and the Sportsman Line flagship model, the AutoPilot.
Like you might guess from its name, the AutoPilot goes a step beyond motor power. Proving the venerable 122-year-old brand can meet the new wants of tech-savvy outdoorsmen, Old Town introduces a kayak operated by a handheld device via Bluetooth connection, with the ability for GPS-guided piloting. In short, a motor controlled by device: a Minn Kota i-Pilot remote, or your smartphone, with a downloaded app. A wired motor also means the boat can in fact go on autopilot, maintaining a heading through wind and current. The company line also touts Minn Kota’s Spot-Lock Technology to maintain a position by way of GPS location.
It all seemed like a ton of tech to grapple with, on top of fishing equipment; I needed to test an AutoPilot to see if it was indeed possible to remove the pilot and focus entirely on the fish.
Fortunately, I got a chance to join a recent saltwater shakedown of the AutoPilot 120—the smaller of two sizes—in the fishy South Florida waters. Near Fort Lauderdale, we prowled along the shadows of mangroves for barracuda and snook, tossed a line in deep canal channels in search of jacks, and went after some spicier conditions along the inlet.
At first take, the AutoPilot hull resembles the popular Topwater (now marketed as the Sportsman 106/120), as it’s based on the same, stable pontoon style. The AutoPilot 120 weighs in around 110 pounds with the engine installed, with a usable capacity of 400 pounds. (There’s also a larger 136 available.) The open deck checks out with modern, performance fishing-kayak features galore: ample stern storage for a crate of gear and/or cooler; a comfortable, raised seat that has high and low options; multiple rod holders both forward- and rear-facing; four pre-installed accessory tracks for fishfinders, GPS, or POV cameras; a paddle lock (a good reminder you are still in a kayak); a small hatch near your starboard elbow to easily stow electronic items, phone or hotbox; plus a large new retractable rudder system that works with the directional motor system. The motor itself acts as its own steering mechanism, the rudder operates manually via foot pedals any kayaker understands.
About that motor. It protrudes above the deck toward the bow—similar to a pedal drive—but much farther forward, and not intrusive to your fishing space. This opens up a surprising amount of cockpit space between knees and feet. With a 37-inch-wide hull, the open padded deck area here makes a solid standing platform for sight-casting.
A rope system with a small clam cleat hoists and lowers the propeller, making it quick and easy to pull the engine up in the shallows or on landing. A self-tethered magnetic kill switch key connects to the motor, so should you go overboard, the engine cuts out. The engine battery (not included) is housed under the seat.
For those less-than-patient with instructions, the i-Pilot remote has large, easy-to-use buttons. They are marked with symbols, which keep the remote un-cluttered—a no-brainer, but still worth a quick orientation with the functionality of each before hitting open water.
I was certainly eager to get there. Wanting to get the AutoPilot to the action, I right away opened up the Minn Kota engine, full bore. It felt like it was cruising along at a good clip in calm conditions, maxing out between 4-5 mph. I dialed it back some to test out the boat’s namesake auto-pilot feature, which was indeed functional, and fun. The feature held my heading, allowing me to ready some tackle and scan a chart. Not to mention, trolling a line. I was even able to stand up and scope out terrain while the kayak motored along.
One serious consideration to take into account with the AutoPilot: A device is the only way to operate the engine. There is no throttle control or steering of the motor without a device. If you are looking for a motorized fishing kayak with all the functionality built into the boat itself, you may want to look at a simpler motor system, like Old Town’s 106 Powered by Minn Kota.
The AutoPilot feature I enjoyed most was Minn Kota’s Spot-Lock, referred to as a “GPS anchoring system.” Having spent years in current, wind, and waves trying to maintain a position while casting, I was curious how well this kind of abstract anchor would hold. When a light tidal current attempted to tug me along, I hit the i-Pilot anchor button and watched as the motor moved one direction to another, working at a low trolling speed to keep me always within a few feet of the selected location.
What impressed me most, however, was when I was out of the kayak, back in a pedal-powered kayak. Fishing in the inlet, with heavy wake and a south wind trying to push us up on a beach, we worked a grass bed for sporty barracuda. This time though, while I pedaled away, ferrying back and forth through the wind and the waves—feeling pretty good about holding my position—I looked over at my fishing partner who sat nearly motionless with the Spot-Lock engaged as he made casts, like he were on a calm lake. Meanwhile, I was breathless. I have to say, at that moment, I had kayak envy.