How Old Town created the Best in Show Autopilot

Products that help anglers catch more fish are debuted each year at ICAST, the sport fishing industry’s monster trade show. Technology and innovation often combine, and that was evidenced by the latest model of kayak.

This year at virtual ICAST, Johnson Outdoors introduced the Old Town AutoPilot kayak, which features a 12-volt, 45-pound thrust Minn Kota motor with Spot-Lock technology that revolutionizes small craft fishing. Simply, it allows anglers to spend more time fishing.

“Anyone who has paddled or pedaled a kayak, there’s not a true way to fish hands-free,” said Alex Sherbinow, marketing manager for Johnson Outdoors watercraft division. “There’s always some sort of minor adjustment to do with your hands, to control the rudder, go forward or back. When you’re in the AutoPilot, you can hit Spot-Lock and you’re honestly just truly hands-free, whether you’re saltwater fishing or a guy like me who goes out and fishes on Lake Michigan looking for smallies way out there on shelves.”

Spot-Lock is a feature accessed by a remote control or smartphone that allows the angler to hold their position despite wind or current, which is handy when casting, battling a fish, retying lures, measuring a fish or anything else.

“It can handle the waves, it can handle the wind,” Sherbinow said. “You still have all the enjoyment of small craft fishing, but you have the comfort of big bass boat fishing.”

The AutoPilot won ICAST’s Best of Category in the watercraft division as voted online by media and buyers, then was selected Best of Show in the 30 category winners.

“To win Best of Category is a nice pat on the back, but to win Best of Show, that as a team, we took a lot of pride in,” Sherbinow said. “It was rewarding for everyone, not just the marketing and R and D (research and development) team, but in the factory. There’s a lot of people in the factory who work incredibly hard to get these out to customers.

“ICAST and that award carries weight. It helps you gain recognition, especially when you’re talking about Best of Show. That’s recognizing that this is the innovative product that came to market this year. This is what changed the fishing industry.”

The 12- and 13.5-foot AutoPilot models sport tons of features, like foot-brace steering that offers great maneuverability and motor lift assist for easy deployment or retraction. There’s a premium seat of UV resistant Textilene that’s adjustable and can be removed, flush mount rod holders, tracks to mount accessories, quick access to a measuring board and even inserts to mount a shallow water anchor.

“In the kayak space, shallow water anchors are growing more popular. The whole Sportsman line is designed for anglers,” Sherbinow said. “We had to address the fact that people might want to put a shallow water anchor even with Spot-Lock. When you get guy fishing for redfish in four inches of water, where they’re pulling up the motor and using a push-pole, we had to address that.”

Sherbinow said the AutoPilot was the next step in the evolution of the fishing kayak, and people have been waiting for such a craft. Being able to fish and continue fishing while moving or stationary has been desired since before kayak tournaments gained in popularity of late.

“Kayak fishing is blowing up, and competitive kayak fishing is blowing up,” he said. “In kayak fishing, when you catch your fish and you get blown off the spot because you’re trying to take a picture, and another angler comes in and swoops your spot, that’s a kick to the gut. This definitely makes it so you can stick on the fish all day.”

There have been makeshift trolling motors on kayaks for years, Sherbinow said, but the teams at Johnson Outdoors worked through numerous channels to make the fully integrated AutoPilot. The R and D team confers with sales and marketing to address needs of anglers. While in development, Old Town brought in pro staffers and influencers to Maine to test and tweak the AutoPilot.

 “We definitely listened to and tapped into the community. You make one innovation then you think about how you build on it,” Sherbinow said. “We have an internal R and D team for Old Town in our watercraft division who are living and breathing innovation in the watercraft space every day. It’s definitely a team effort. Our sister company is Minn Kota, so it makes it really easy to innovate and collaborate.”

Companies like Johnson Outdoors continue working to create innovative products anglers desire in what’s become a stout field of kayak manufacturers.

 “That’s because we all have that competitive spirit,” Sherbinow said. “There’s not just a drive of, ‘We want sales.’ I think the industry as a whole is filled with passionate people who want to make it a better place. It’s all about making kayak fishing better, a more enjoyable experience.

“That’s my passion. I was a kayak angler before I came to Old Town and I’m going to be a kayak angler 10 years from now. I want to be a part of something greater. It’s all about getting out there and enjoying the outdoors.”

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