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Navigating Rough Waters with Mark Zona

Practical advice from a seasoned Mercury Pro Team member.

Navigating Rough Waters with Mark Zona

If you enjoy being on the water as a recreational angler or boater, sooner or later you will find yourself in rough water conditions. Even with some of the best weather and wind apps at our fingertips, there will be times when the wind blows a little harder (or perhaps from a different direction) than was forecasted. That smooth, glassy surface that graced the waterway in the morning might become a little “sporty” when it’s time to return home in the afternoon.

Mercury Pro Team member Mark Zona, host of “Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show,” knows the feeling. As a Michigan native, Zona grew up fishing the Great Lakes, so he knows a thing or two about running rough water.

“I’ve been there many times,” Zona said. “You run to a protected bay in the morning to fish and when you start back in the afternoon, you realize the main lake is rolling a little more than you had expected.”

If you find yourself in this situation, Zona offers a few tips on how to better deal with these conditions and make the ride as comfortable as possible. But before providing advice on bumpy boat travel, Zona is adamant about avoiding truly big water altogether in the name of safety. He runs a Nitro Z21 XL with a 250hp Mercury Pro XS® outboard and admits operating such a craft does not make him invincible.

“My boat is a beast and can handle big water,” Zona says. “But I’m not ashamed to say, if I get out there and I’m staring at 5-foot rollers, I’m waving the white flag and calling an audible. It’s simply not worth the risk of spearing waves or beating everything up if there is an alternative.”

Slow Down. Strap Down. Trim Down.

In most cases, anglers and boaters will encounter the roughest water when crossing open areas of lakes and bays to a reach a calmer side or cove. With that, there is definitive transition between the calmer area you are leaving and the rougher main body you will be entering. Sometimes boat operators make this transition too fast and the size of the waves catches them by surprise, only escalating the situation.

“A big mistake I see boat drivers make in rough water usually happens right out of the gate,” Zona says. “They come flying out of a protected area and run right into the teeth of the bigger waves on the main lake. They are already hitting the big water way too fast to navigate it correctly.”

The goal is to get the boat into the most stable, manageable position possible before that transition and enter the bigger swells under control.

“Just slow – it – down,” Zona advises. “I can’t emphasize that enough. Before planing off and running straight into the rollers, take extra time to make sure all equipment is strapped down, everyone has their PFD on and is seated securely. Take just a minute to get in the ‘go slow’ mindset. Realize it’s going take much longer than usual to get to where you’re going. All your focus needs to be on running the waves.”

Before transitioning into the big water, trim the motor all the way in. This provides the best “bite” for the motor, resulting in better control of speed and direction.

“Trim it down and leave it down,” Zona adds. “There is no need to be trimming your motor way up in rough water.”

Bow Up

The next step is to accelerate the boat until it’s on the verge of getting on plane – this will get the bow up and put the boat in a position that gives the operator the most control in rough water. The idea here is to stay right on the crux between being on plane and not being on plane. Finding that fulcrum point allows you to use the weight of the boat as leverage in the waves.

“For a bass boat, the ideal rpm range to maintain good boat position is somewhere between 2800 and 4000 rpms,” Zona explains. “This achieves several critical things. One, it gets the bow up without the motor blowing out. Two, it gives the operator maximum control, where just a bit more acceleration will push the boat up onto pad and decelerating will cause the hull to dig in, which is the only form of ‘braking’ a boat has.

“The Pro XS is extremely punchy in that 2800 to 4000 rpm range, which is a huge plus in rough water,” he adds. “When you are at that fulcrum point with the boat, the responsiveness of the Pro XS is exceptional.” (Click here to see how maintaining this rpm range delivers a smooth ride in rough water.)

Find Your Rhythm

Once in the waves, the rhythm of the accelerating and decelerating will depend on if you are running with the waves or against them.

“Going against them usually requires a steadier speed, where the bow is high and you are literally plowing the waves.” Zona advises. “Going with the waves requires more accelerating and decelerating. You will have to accelerate to climb up the backside of a wave and then decelerate and ‘dig in’ coming down the front side to keep the bow from punching into the next one.”

Zona also advises operators not to get frustrated if veering off course to traverse the waves at a better angle becomes necessary.

“It may seem counter-intuitive not to go in a straight line to calmer waters,” he says. “But sometimes you have to sort of tack one way and back the other to make forward progress – that’s just the nature of the beast.”

For many, rough water situations bring a sense of urgency: the desire to always go faster to get to land sooner, which is understandable. However, getting in a hurry while running rough water is counterproductive.

“When I fished tournaments, the guys who were passing everyone in rough water were the first ones pulling out tools to fix stuff when they got to the other side,” Zona recalls. “Don’t be looking at the GPS to see how fast you’re going or how much father you have to go – strap down, trim down and slow down.”

(Click here to see how maintaining this rpm range delivers a smooth ride in rough water.)

Navigating Rough Waters with Mark Zona
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