Secret hotspots are the Holy Grails of fishing. No matter what species you seek, finding a fish-producing piece of water and having it all to yourself is nothing short of divine. Unfortunately, locating even one—let alone a milk run—of overlooked honeyholes is a major challenge.
The traditional approach involves sonar, paper hydrographic maps and, more recently, the use of digital contour maps displayed on a GPS screen. To be sure, these are all helpful tools of the exploratory trade—but another source of information can make your quest easier.
The best way to survey the subtle, often hidden, structure that lies beneath the surface of your favorite lake or river would be to drain it, capture a three-dimensional image of the bottom, then refill it with water. Since this isn’t really an option, let’s look at the alternative: aerial photos.
Photographs taken by government satellites and aircraft offer an amazing view of lakes that few anglers ever see, or analyze, in detail. From the air, it’s easy to spot key fish-holding cover and structure that standard hydrographic maps might miss. Studying a map is also an extremely fast and efficient means of locating prime fishing areas that could take countless hours to find on the water with traditional search techniques like sonar or bottom-bumping presentations.
Aerial imagery is especially helpful with fluctuating reservoirs, newly flooded impoundments and clear lakes. Whether you’re fishing bass in Southern or Western impoundments, ’eyes up North, or virtually any species anywhere in between, chances are aerial maps can open your eyes to new, exciting areas.
As we all know, reservoir levels are variable depending on drought, precipitation and flood-control drawdowns. Aerial photos taken during low-water periods can show points, old roadbeds, ditches, stock ponds, offshore humps and more. Some of my highest-resolution aerial images even show spots-on-the-spot, like boulders on points and piles of driftwood lying along the sharp edges of a flooded shoreline.
Similarly, in the case of newly flooded lakes, you can draw upon archives of old aerial photos, shot before the water level rose, to get an intimate feel for the lay of the land.
Good aerial photos of clear lakes are harder to find, chiefly because they aren’t taken under ideal conditions for fishing purposes. Those of peak quality are often taken on a calm day in spring, before algae growth clouds the picture. Finding helpful images is possible, though, if you focus on photos taken early in the season.
Even though the structure and cover is under water, if the clarity is good enough, you can spot hidden treasures like offshore humps, bars and weed-beds that frequently don’t show up on standard hydrographic maps produced by state fish and game departments. Often, these maps—many of which were produced decades ago using rudimentary sonar systems—are the basis for the relatively generic lake maps sold in bait shops.
It’s worth noting that high-definition contour maps of select lakes are available on paper maps and electronic data cards from sources like LakeMaster and Navionics. Created using sophisticated sonar arrays and GPS mapping systems, these wonder-charts are light years ahead of older hydrographic maps, and can reveal many of a lake’s overlooked hotspots. Where such maps are an option, use them. But even then, aerial photos are an added source of information that can expose secrets high-definition maps may miss.
Get The Picture
Right now you’re probably wondering where you can get aerial maps of your favorite waters, and how hard it is to transform the locations you discover into useful waypoints on your own GPS.
Fortunately, obtaining maps and incorporating them into your fishing game plan is relatively easy. There are a number of sources of maps (see Web Extra). Warren Parsons Maps is my personal choice for digital aerial photos, because the company’s maps are formatted to display using Fugawi software.
If you’ve never heard of Fugawi, it’s a revolutionary navigational system that uses GPS data to help you create accurate digital maps from any scanned map, map database or aerial image. Using a computer at home or onboard, you can position waypoints and routes on the map with the click of the mouse, then upload them to your GPS receiver using a simple SD data card.
Fugawi is compatible with most Garmin, Lowrance/Eagle, Magellan and Micrologic receivers (check with the chartplotter manufacturer or Fugawi before ordering).
The beauty of this technology is you can mark GPS coordinates of potential hotspots you see on your scanned map, plug them into your chartplotter, and motor right to them on the water.
Exploring new fishing areas couldn’t be faster. As a bonus, when you’re done fishing you can download new waypoints, routes and tracks from your GPS unit or chartplotter to the scanned map in the computer, then analyze them at leisure on shore—even build your own database.
Chart Your Course
In the end, charting an entire lake should be left to mapping companies because of the time and expense. It’s tough to compete with their high-end sonar arrays for covering a lot of water.
But using aerial maps to pinpoint prime fishing areas is a great way to find key areas even the best of maps can sometimes miss. You can also scout lakes that have not seen high-definition mapping coverage. Either way, no matter where I fish, I always find something new and exciting.