Competition among Garmin, Navico’s Lowrance and the Johnson Outdoors brand Humminbird is nothing new; the companies have vied for customer loyalty in the narrow marine electronics space for decades. Now, their rivalry is carrying over into the growing trolling motor market.
Thus far, Johnson Outdoors brand Minn Kota — which for 85 years has been making the small motors for anglers — has been the market leader, with the only competition coming from MotorGuide, produced by Brunswick Corp.’s Attwood division. But that changed this summer at the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades show, where Garmin launched its Force and Lowrance debuted the Ghost, both freshwater trolling motors designed primarily for bass fishing.
Garmin and Lowrance both say they have produced unique trolling motors designed in response to their customers’ demands for something quieter, more durable and easier to integrate with electronics of choice.
Joe Brown, senior director of brand management for Johnson Outdoors, says Minn Kota isn’t worried. “It’s another day at the office for Johnson Outdoors because there’s been competition between us, Lowrance and Garmin for a long time,” he says. “Now we have Lowrance and Garmin out with a version of what we’ve already done — and we don’t take it lightly. Fortunately, we’re going to keep focusing on making trolling motors more and more valuable to a consumer by having products connected, and by providing more features and innovation.”
The Force was well-received when it began shipping in August, says Garmin Sales and Marketing Director Dave Dunn. “The sell-through in the few short weeks we’ve been shipping has been phenomenal,” Dunn says. “Most likely, it’ll be early October before we can get caught up with our current orders. Fortunately, we are vertically integrated, so we can adjust production as needed, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
The Ghost and the Force use brushless motors designed for quiet operation, and are touted as being more powerful than the competition. Garmin says the Force is 30 percent more powerful than competitors, and Lowrance says the Ghost generates 25 percent more thrust.
The Ghost is designed to work in 24- or 36-volt systems with up to 97 and 120 pounds of thrust, respectively, and allows for battery and charger upgrades. The Force also operates at 24 or 36 volts, and Dunn says it delivers thrust when running at 24 volts that’s comparable to the thrust that competitors deliver at 36 volts.
“One unique thing Garmin does do with the brushless motor is, it can be a 24-volt or a 36-volt motor,” says Dunn. “If you don’t have room for three batteries, you can get by with two batteries and still get more power and run time using 24 volts.”
The Ghost has fly-by-wire steering that anglers can control with a foot pedal while casting. “The quick response is designed to feel like a cable-steered trolling motor,” says Lucas Steward, Lowrance’s product line director. “When people first try it, they’re wowed by the muscle-memory feel, but now it actually goes faster, it’s quieter and it’s delighting them in some ways they didn’t expect.”
Force also has a wireless foot pedal that feels like cable steering, and a remote for the angler to wear around his neck — features that helped Force earn the Best in Show award when it debuted at ICAST. “You can use gestures to control the motor,” Dunn says. “Say you see a fish flip on your starboard side. You can point to the spot, and the motor will start driving there.”
Lowrance eliminated mechanical steering cables and brushes because those were the first things to wear out during product testing, Steward says. Additionally, Ghost has a two-piece shaft — a stationary upper shaft and a lower shaft that spins — to create a breakaway system instead of allowing the shaft to take the brunt of impact while anglers navigate through stumps and rocks.
“You can’t rely solely on a shaft to take the impact of a 2,000-pound boat. It simply breaks,” Steward says. “Those were things that service centers really coached us on. They replace thousands of broken shafts every year. Our little green bass live in shallow, stumpy places.”
The Minn Kota Legacy
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Brown says, adding that Minn Kota has tried several innovations that haven’t made it to market or that didn’t last long after they did. “The things that Minn Kota doesn’t do is not because we don’t have the ability to do them,” Brown says. “There’s a reason we don’t have fly-by-wire steering, and we have had the luxury of doing trolling motors for a long time.”
Minn Kota formed along the Minnesota-North Dakota border — hence the name — in 1934. The motors are still produced there. In 1987, the company introduced the first mass-produced foot-operated, electric-steer remote control trolling motor; in 2010, it unveiled Spot-Lock, its GPS anchoring system. Most recently, the company added built-in side imaging to its Ultrex and Ulterra trolling motors.
“We never come from a position of hubris, and I think the strength of our brand demonstrates that,” Brown says. “When we could rest on our laurels with essentially no competition, we’ve never sat back and said, ‘That’s enough.’ I truly don’t see any feature that is compelling to a consumer more than Ultrex. There are people that will buy their trolling motors, but I don’t see the side imaging or Spot-Lock. If the motors do what they say they do, then they’ll have a place in the trolling motor market, which is a good thing, because we’ve been a business of one.”
A Laborious Task
Entering the trolling-motor market wasn’t an endeavor taken lightly at Garmin or Lowrance. “It was a stretch to think of Garmin coming out with trolling motors,” Dunn says. “That’s not to say people don’t have confidence in Garmin, but our competitors have years and years of experience.”
Simplifying options for dealers and OEMs was a major goal, and that’s part of the reason Garmin initially introduced a freshwater product. “We can cover more boat styles and anglers with two SKUs, and when you get into salt water it’s a little more nuanced,” Dunn says. “Initially, we just want to prove to the market that we are capable of producing a good trolling motor. Now that it’s in the market, OEMs realize they can simplify their options list to their dealers, and dealers like it because they can simplify the options list for customers.”
Lowrance worked on its motor for four years, and worked on evolving concepts and redesigns along the way. “You can see why no small company would just jump into this market,” Steward says. “Starting from scratch has advantages and disadvantages. We took a fresh look at what was there and had a long list of things we wanted to do better, which is why we did the engineering in-house and are producing it at our factory, instead of working with a third party.”
Lowrance, which has a contract with Mercury’s MotorGuide, will continue to work with other trolling motor suppliers and vendors, Steward says.
For Garmin customers who still want to use a Minn Kota, the company offers adaptor cables, but plotters won’t connect directly to the motor, Dunn says. “All the software will be done through Wi-Fi, so people will use their phones to update software,” he says. “It’s going to be very software-driven, and you can do all that from a smartphone or tablet.”
The fact that Garmin has fewer SKUs than competitors has already been a selling point, Dunn says. “We’ve been in lots of talks with very prominent bass boat builders, and that’s been really been the driving force of getting us in the door,” Dunn says. “It takes a lot of pressure off of them to stock different SKUs.”
Where the Market is Heading
Though freshwater trolling motors are the lion’s share of the market, the motors have an expanding presence in saltwater applications — an area that Lowrance and Garmin have their eyes on. Still, many bay, center-console and hybrid boats don’t have the space for the batteries that trolling motors require, nor do those boatbuilders have experience with the weight of the cables.
“This is more of a freshwater bass boat product, and 90 percent of those boats get trolling motors,” Dunn says. “Most of those are prewired at the factory for that.”
For retrofitting, bass boats typically have compartments built for battery storage, Dunn says. On the saltwater side, space and weight can still be an issue. “That’s the fastest-growing side of the market,” Dunn says. “They’re putting them on 30-foot center consoles and putting long enough shafts on those, and GPS anchors, so they can bottom fish and don’t have to drop a 60-foot anchor and get it caught in a wreck.”
The scissor-lift style of trolling motors is not conducive to a lot of saltwater boats because of the space it takes up on the mount. “You don’t want to risk sacrificing a hatch to mount a trolling motor,” Dunn says. “We see a need for a saltwater version [of Force] as well that will utilize the more common pivot space, so it won’t take up as much room on the deck or sacrifice a hatch.”
At ICAST, Minn Kota debuted the Riptide Terrova, a bow-mount saltwater trolling motor with an 87-inch shaft that provides 112 pounds of thrust, joining the company’s 72-inch offering.
“When I first started running a Minn Kota on my 25-foot Parker, I got a lot of strange looks,” says saltwater Capt. BJ Silvia. “But now that guys in my area have seen what a Minn Kota can do in terms of boat positioning, they’re all looking for ways to install one. This 87-inch motor will open the door for bigger boats.”
For Garmin, the initial undertaking has been laborious, but subsequent iterations — possibly for saltwater applications — shouldn’t take as long, Dunn says. “Trolling motors are getting better, and customers are getting more clever about how they’re using them,” Dunn says. “We are having conversations with OEM partners on what they’d like to see in the market to make sure if and when we did come out with something new, it would be the right product.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.