Things couldn’t have been better. After a prolonged period away, I was finally back on the river. My first spot produced four bass on as many casts – no giants, but chunky schoolers were good enough for me. It had been too long.
I motored toward the place I’d been saving, checking over each shoulder to ensure I was alone. Halfway there, I began to lose power; within a few minutes, my outboard was gasping for life. I turned and headed for the dock, grateful to make it back before dark.
A trip to the shop resulted in a long stay and a significant bill; the entire outboard needing a major overhaul. The culprit: bad fuel.
“Fuel issues are the number one problem we see here nowadays,” the master-tech confirmed. “Times have changed.”
They sure have. Because the fuel has changed.
The problem isn’t our gasoline, in all reality. It’s what being added to it. We’ve all heard the story of ethanol – and recent news reports of ethanol increases coming soon - but how, exactly, does that affect us?
We’ve visited this subject before, but let’s do a quick refresher for newcomers. Ethanol is an alcohol made from fermenting and distilling simple sugars, most notably corn. It’s added to our gas supply at a current level not to exceed 10 percent for standard fuels. The original purpose for adding ethanol to our fuel was to reduce vehicle emissions, particularly in the summer season. Today, however, the ethanol industry has grown to such proportions that it’s outgrown itself, as we’ll see.
In general, ethanol additives are poor to catastrophic for outboard engines. Older motors suffer from parts unable to deal with the corrosive properties of ethanol, which may destroy everything from a simple gasket to an entire fuel tank.
Even more dangerous is ethanol’s affinity to absorb and mix with water. When this happens in your boat’s gas tank, the result is “phase separation," leaving a product that will readily foul or destroy an outboard engine. There is no cure for phase separation and no additive will correct it or totally eliminate the chance of it happening.
AKA “bad gas.”
Why is this important to bass anglers? Because, despite constant nagging and lobbying from groups like the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), which includes over 80 percent of the boat builders in the country, ethanol percentages are on course to increase.
Recently, the EPA announced expansion of E15 across the spectrum by the year 2020. The NMMA responded that such expansion was “short-sighted.”
And ethanol is bad for more than our outboards. Environmental groups have rallied against ethanol expansion for years, as such has been responsible for converting millions of acres of grasslands to farmlands. That’s bad news for pheasants and ducks, and could result in the loss of millions of birds, according to Ducks Unlimited.
Believe it or not, ethanol can be bad for some farmers, too. With 40 percent or more of our current corn crop directed toward the processing of ethanol – with talks of a three-fold increase – there’s simply not enough corn to go around. And, for those who haven’t noticed, a huge portion of our food supply is derived from corn. Nearly everything we eat contains corn or a corn derivative – check the labels. Our meat supply is fed corn as well (livestock takes another 30 percent of the supply). The end result could be a high demand and weak supply of the crop, resulting in elevated prices.
Why, then, are we forcing the issue? The answer is complex, but likely the result of two primary factors. First, we’ve built the machine and need to keep it running. The United States is the world leader in corn production by far, accounting for over 30 percent of the global supply. A major portion of our economy is built on this principle and sustaining such keeps food on the table for many American families. And big industries have strong political power (don’t blame the messenger) that can be counted in votes.
Second, ethanol is the primary argument being circulated for energy independence. While we won’t take time to prove or dispel, we can all agree that any alternative is worth pursuing, as world fossil fuel markets are often insecure. Is corn the right answer to a limited fuel supply? No, but it’s the only one we’ve come up with, so we’re using it.
So, getting back to our theme, what can we do as boaters? Unfortunately not much. I wish I had a better answer for you – and I usually do – but if the NMMA is powerless against this change, I’m not sure a little band of bass nuts is going to have much pull. My purpose, therefore, is mainly to offer a heads-up.
For the time being, our best defense will be to purchase non-ethanol fuels. While these aren’t available everywhere, it appears accessibility is increasing. Many new stations here in Florida are offering non-eth fuel, including the expanding Wawa chain in many locations (and they have killer milkshakes).
Another word of caution: It looks like storage regulations may also be softened, allowing the new E-15 fuel to be stored in the same containers as E-10. The potential problem here is pretty obvious, but evidently not a strong enough argument to inconvenience filling stations.
So look out in 2020, ‘cuz the corn wagon is rolling into town near you! For some, good news; others, terribly bad.
Me, I just want to fish.
And not break down.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)