Choosing the Best Autopilot

Autopilots are a joy to have, but picking the right one for your system is not always a simple task. 

An autopilot won’t exactly turn your fishing machine into an autonomous self-driving boat, but having one sure is nice. There’s no more fighting the wheel while cruising, trollers can press a button then dart into the cockpit to lend a hand when the action is hot and heavy (just as long as you maintain a proper watch, of course), and believe it or not some units can actually help you catch more fish. 

Features like figure-eight and cloverleaf patterns can help turn a single strike into multiple hook-ups. 

On the other hand, autopilots can be temperamental, unreliable, and raise your blood pressure on a regular basis. Have you ever been aboard a boat with the autopilot active, when it made a sudden and unexpected turn? Have you ever heard the captain say “it’s not working”? Have you ever watched a boat make so many S-turns that you wanted to grab the wheel and manually correct that brainless automaton steering the boat? If you’re an experienced mariner the answer to all of those questions is probably yes, yes, and yes. 

Autopilot Brand Considerations 

All of the major electronics manufacturers make decent autopilots, so for many people, the choice will be simple. If you have (or are getting) a complete Furuno Navnet TZTouch3 system, for example, you’ll probably go with Furuno. If it’s all Garmin gear aboard, then it’s only natural to go with Garmin.  

If you have an electronics package from a single manufacturer, often it makes sense to stick with the same brand. 

But life — and marine electronics — aren’t always so simple. Many of us have mix-and-match systems. Or, maybe you’re happy with your brand-centric electronics package, but the autopilot that the brand offers doesn’t have the features and functions you really want. My own boat is a great example; I have a Suzuki Df300A with Suzuki Precision Control, and Furuno developed software for its plug-and-play NavPilot 300 to provide “FishHunter Drive.” That means speed can be regulated electronically regardless of wind and current, I get Point Lock position fixing, and also Sabiki mode to hold the stern into the wind or current while catching bait. So, taking the advantageous Suzuki/Furuno marriage was a no-brainer even though it made for a mixed system. 

Furuno’s NavPilot 300 offers some special perks, and teams up well with modern Suzuki power systems. 

In some other cases, you may have a system that’s not new enough to play nice with the same brand’s latest offerings and they may have retired the autopilot unit(s) that were originally intended for it. This is where brands like Si-Tex often come into play, because they have some straightforward units that work well as simple stand-alone autopilots. 

The bottom line? There are so many different power, steering, and electronics systems out there that each has to be considered individually. Which brand is best for any one specific boat often boils down to “it depends.” 

Critical Autopilot Features to Look For 

Beyond merely steering the boat, there are plenty of autopilot features to look for. And, as we mentioned earlier, some can actually help you catch more fish. Figure-eight and cloverleaf patterns, for example, which are found on many modern units. Let’s say you’re trolling for yellowfin and you have a knock-down. Whether you catch the fish or not, naturally you’ll want to go back over the mark. You’ve made two passes without any follow-up action? The big question now is, which way did the fish go? You have no way of knowing, but hitting a figure-eight or cloverleaf pattern on the autopilot lets you analytically work the area around the mark as opposed to taking a guess. Tip: set the parameters of the pattern ahead of time, or the factory-set radius of the turns may be so tight you tangle or run over your lines. 

Zigzag patterns can also be a serious catch-boosting feature. You can send your baits back and forth across the wake, or work the different depths of a contour. And orbital patterns can keep your baits or lures passing over a wreck or reef continually. 

The ability to hover over bottom structure and jog back and forth across it is far more effective than anything you can do with an anchor and rode. 

Some of the newer features found mostly on higher-end units were designed specifically for the needs of anglers. That Sabiki mode, for example. And station-keeping functions that allow you to hover over structure, then jog 10 or 20 feet in any direction to put your baits on a slightly different portion of it. Imagine pressing buttons instead of dropping an anchor, then later pulling and re-dropping the anchor to reposition the boat. Not only is it a heck of a lot less work, it’s a heck of a lot more effective. 

Read: DIY or Buy? Should you Install New Marine Electronics?

Autopilot Installation Considerations 

If you’ll be doing a DIY installation job, remember that putting in some systems will be tougher than others. They physical installation isn’t usually a huge deal, but integrating the system with your pre-existing hardware and software can be a bear. In this case brand-matching is usually a good idea, but be aware of the fact that you’ll still have to perform tasks like going into the menu system to “tell” the unit what specific heading sensor you’ve installed, or bring up a calibration screen and turn the boat in circles for a few minutes before the unit will know which way is up. 

Or, you could just take the easy way out and have a pro do the installation. And hey — isn’t making life a little bit easier part of why you wanted an autopilot in the first place? 

Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His...