Sporting Life

Time for a Fall Tune-Up

By Dennis Doyle

I glanced at my rod racks lining one wall of my writing area to be sure my numerous fishing sticks are rigged and ready to go, and they are. Unfortunately, outside my front window the increasingly leafless trees are wrestling mightily with the wind, and I’ll not be bending any pole in a battle today. And that’s troubling because this is the best time of the year to be on the water.

Our rockfish, white perch, spot, Spanish macks, spotted seatrout and even a few redfish are swarming the shallows and channel edges feeding up for winter. However, there are some angling duties that should be addressed promptly before the really frigid weather puts us completely out of play. Foul fall weather is just the right time to address at least one of them.

One of the most important aspects of an outboard motor is its lower unit, the part of the motor where the power is transferred from the engine through the transmission to the propeller. This is a particularly critical connection. The transmission’s gears and bearings are protected and lubricated by heavy duty lubricant and most boaters know that it should be changed at least every two years. What is less widely realized is that it is especially prudent to check it each and every fall, before your boat is due to be put up for the season.

The seals are a critical element of a motor’s lower unit transmission and protect it from the intrusion of saltwater. Seal failure can be caused by a number of issues but the introduction of braided, ultra-thin synthetic fishing lines has become the single most significant cause. This is due to accidental wrapping of the fishing line around the propeller shaft, which then work their way up and past the shaft seals causing them to shred and leak. Saltwater intrusion into the transmission and lower unit then follows.

There is no obvious, immediate symptom of this failure but over time the eventual results of the penetration can be catastrophic. Corrosion is a definite possibility to the internal machinery and if enough water accumulates in the lower unit, the outboard cases may split from inside freezing over the wintertime. A lower unit replacement can be a very costly affair.

Monitoring the integrity of your lower unit’s lubricant is simple and now is the ideal time to perform the task. There are two plugs that allow access to the transmission oil level for your lower unit. To monitor the lubricant status simply remove the drain bolt or screw at the bottom of the unit skeg completely. The heavy lubricant will not drain out without additionally loosening the plug at the upper level. Loosen that one very gradually and you will notice the lube will gradually begin to ooze out.

A dark brown color is normal and not cause for alarm, though a shade of black is a definite sign for a lube change. If the lube is a cream or gray color, that is an indication of water intrusion and seal failure. At this point you can then re-tighten the unit’s plugs and know that you very likely have a problem with your seals and they will have to be replaced.

If temperatures have begun falling below 32 degrees it may also be prudent to drain the lower unit of oil completely in preparation for delivery to a maintenance shop. Once drained you cannot run your motor again without risk of transmission damage. Leaving the moisture-laden lubricant inside the lower unit risks damage from freezing.

Over winter repairs are not a problem and you can easily schedule the service at your nearest marina. Unfortunately fall is a busy time as marinas are busy with winter preps so be prepared for a late-winter delivery appointment.

But be doubly warned if you decide to wait until next spring, it may be a month or two before repairs can be addressed. Springtime is the busiest time for marine repairs and boat preparation.



The fall fishing crescendo continues with the most active bite of the year. The only down side of autumn are the wild wind conditions but when those aren’t a problem it’s a good idea to get out there every chance you get. Rockfish are taking trolled small and medium sized bucktails tipped with sassy shad in white, yellow and chartreuse (no surprise), medium spoons in silver and gold and similar lures behind umbrellas and chandeliers. Soft paddle tails in both light and dark colors on half to three-quarter ounce jig heads are taking stripers to 30 inches cast around structure both early and late in the day as well as cast to the edges of birds working water. Poppers and spook type plugs are working as well. White perch are still taking spinner baits in the tribs as well as schooling in the mouths of the tribs and eating worms, clams and shrimp in preparation for moving to winter quarters. Spanish mackerel can be found under seabirds mixed in with a few bluefish. Crabs are dwindling and will shut down and move into the mud soon.