There’s no denying it: the open water season is winding down. With attention shifting to ducks, deer, and the holidays, there is precious little time in our busy schedules to continue the hunt for bass, crappies, or walleyes. And let’s be honest – even if we find a few hours at this time of year to hit the lake, cold water temperatures and temperamental winter weather frequently combine to make late-year trips far less enjoyable than the ones we crave in spring, summer, and fall. Before you put the boat and your equipment to bed for a winter’s nap, even if only for a month or two, it’s a good idea to invest a couple hours in tackle and equipment prep to recover from the past season and start preparing for the next one. Beyond the basic winterizing of your outboard, here are five important jobs to add to your season-ending checklist.
Check your trolling motor prop
Bass anglers spend a lot of time on their bow-mount trolling motor. It propels them down the shoreline, pulls them through thick weeds, and locks them in position against wind, waves, and current. A poorly functioning or unreliable bow mount will invariably lead to shorter, less productive trips and high levels of frustration on the water. One of the leading causes of trolling motor damage is fishing line, especially braids, wrapped around the prop shaft. Now is the perfect time to check for line, remove it if present, and assess any potential damage to the motor’s lower unit.
Use a socket wrench to loosen the nut that secures the prop to the shaft, and then remove the prop. You’ll be surprised at how often line collects on the shaft, and it may be that the line isn’t even your own. The longer that line is left in place, the tighter it will wrap itself around the shaft, and eventually wear against and damage the rubber seals than enclose the prop shaft within the lower unit housing. Remove as much line as possible, using needle-nose pliers if necessary. If line is present, one quick way to assess any potential damage is to look for rust stains on the prop shaft or coming out of any screws in the lower unit. Once water bypasses damaged lower unit seals and enters the housing, it will quickly cause components inside to corrode and deteriorate, often leading to visible staining on the motor exterior. If you see any water dripping out of the lower unit or rust stains on the prop shaft, make an appointment with your nearest trolling motor service center to get the problem addressed before the season restarts.
Address your batteries
While our outboard motors depend on gasoline, everything else on our boats – from pumps and lights to graphs and trolling motors – depend on electrical power provided by 12V batteries. A little bit of basic battery maintenance will lengthen their lifetimes and ensure that they’re ready to go once winter fades into spring.
Begin by removing any ring terminals or other electrical connections and cleaning the battery posts to eliminate any corrosion or solid deposits. Significant amounts of blue or white-colored deposits are a sure sign of a wet battery compartment; if you’re in that boat, so to speak, winter is a good time to track down and eliminate any pathways for water to enter the battery space. If you run traditional flooded, wet cell 12V batteries, carefully remove the vent caps and check your electrolyte levels, refilling as necessary with distilled water.
The best way to store any battery is in a fully charged state. Use your onboard or portable battery charger to fully charge your batteries before you put the boat to bed. If you have a modern onboard charger, like the Minn Kota Precision Charger, you can leave the charger plugged in during the entire storage period – the long-term maintenance mode of these chargers will keep your batteries fully charged, regardless of the ambient temperature, so that they’re ready to roll on your first trip.
Tune-up your reels
Reels and the line they hold are put under incredible stress each season. A drag system that locks up, or a frayed line section that snaps while battling a trophy, is a sure way to convert elation into sorrow. Spend some time with your reels and line this winter to strengthen those links in your fish-catching chain.
Begin by separating your reels from their rods. Loosen the drag on each reel all of the way to avoid further compression of drag washers and other components. Add oil and grease to lubricate each reel as recommended by the manufacturer; remember that a little lube goes a long way, as too much grease or oil will quickly attract dirt and impede reel performance. This is also the right time to check and replace your line. Monofilament should be replaced at least once each season, while fluorocarbon and braided lines will last longer. Indeed, a high quality, eight-strand braid like Seaguar Smackdown can easily last multiple seasons, providing you with a longer return on your line investment.
Clean up your rods
Winter rod maintenance addresses a blend of cosmetic and performance issues. Now that the reels are removed and the rods are no longer strung up, begin by checking each line guide – ceramic or metallic – with a Q-tip to clean the surface, and perhaps more importantly, check for cracks or other imperfections that would cause line to wear or fail. Any indication of the cotton from the Q-tip getting hung up on the guide is reason to have the insert, or the entire line guide, replaced by your favorite custom rod builder.
Once your line guides get a clean bill of health, wipe the blanks down with a microfiber cloth that is damp with a weak vinegar solution: a 1:2 mixture of bottled vinegar and tap water is a good place to start. That weak vinegar is great for removing dirt and especially residual fish slime from the blank. Clean up your cork handles with a very light sanding using fine, 220-grit sandpaper. Hold the sandpaper in the palm of your hand, and rotate your hand around the rod handle to make the cork shine.
And finally – your tackle
Moisture and rust are the enemies of any well-crafted tackle collection. At a bare minimum, remove all of your tackle stowaways from the boat and allow them to sit open in a dry room, like your basement or workshop, for several days to dry out. A better practice is to empty each stowaway and wipe the compartments out to eliminate water and other debris, like bits of vegetation or mussel shells.
This is the time to remove any rusted components from your collection. Replace rusty treble hooks or split rings on hard baits with new ones. Corroded single-hooked baits, like spinnerbaits or jigs, should be replaced entirely. Then, spend some effort on general organization to save yourself time and frustration next season – this can be high-level organization, like keeping crankbaits separate from jigs, or fine-tuned organization, like giving each size tungsten work weight its own, labeled compartment.
Spring and the new fishing season will arrive sooner than you think. Use your off-the-water time this winter to prepare for success next year!