So, you’ve tricked out your GPS unit with one of the latest electronic mapping chips. Before the wrapper hits the trash, you’re sitting in the garage, boat on the trailer, ogling the high-definition maps splayed out at nothing more than the push of a button.
You zoom in and out, giddily noticing the inside turns, dramatic drop-offs, understated points, isolated humps, subtle creek channels and anything else the water has to hide. And in a moment of innocence, you really think you have it all to yourself.
Then you hit the water. There you see that virtually every angler has the same map glowing on the screen. You know, because they’re fishing the spots you just “discovered.” Not only that, but all of the little-known spots you’ve for decades worked hard to find and understand (and keep quiet), are now laid bare to the masses.
It’s a life-changing event for you and the lake. Used to be that nobody knew all of a water’s secrets, and the few who came close got there through years of experience and use of skills most of us lack. Now that maps are better, more widely available and cheaper than ever, the playing field has been leveled—or so it would seem. Pros still catch more and bigger fish than most other anglers, and they do it in the face of this unprecedented competition. Here’s how.
Not Just Contours
Although a high-def electronic map would seem to reveal everything a lake has to offer, many anglers get so distracted by all the information that they forget contours are only part of the puzzle. Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, guide, tackle designer and uber-competitive angler of all species doesn’t.
“The maps accurately show the depth, sure, but they generally don’t show bottom content, changes in bottom types, weed edges or different types of weeds,” he says.
Brosdahl stays ahead by identifying prospective spots on the map based on contours, then breaking them down with sonar once he’s actually on the water. There, he marks all of those non-structural elements that his experience tells him will hold specific species of fish at specific times of year.
Most other anglers simply don’t do this legwork, as a result, they miss the spot-on-the-spot.
Alton Jones, 2008 Bassmaster Classic Champion, also stresses the importance of picking up where maps drop the ball. Although he uses Navionics maps on his Humminbird sonar/GPS to home in on larger structures, that only puts him in the ballpark.
“I use Side Imaging to look at the areas I’m fishing in detail, marking things like brush, logs, rock piles, weed edges and schools of fish,” Jones says. Only after he’s found some fish and has them marked on the GPS will he will go back through the area and try to actually catch them.
James Lindner, host of “Lindner’s Angling Edge” television show, also leans heavily on Side Imaging sonar to find the most critical few square feet of larger structures revealed by his mapping software.
“It’s like having x-ray vision to analyze the structure and isolate specific features on it,” he says. “I use it to see exactly how fish are relating to the structure, then move the cursor to where I see fish and mark them on my GPS, without ever having to drive over the spot and spook them.”
Walleye pro and electronics wizard Dr. Bruce Samson takes studying sonar to the extreme, and he uses his research to make his maps even more useful. He runs Lowrance units, which let you record an entire day’s worth of sonar/GPS data on an SD card, and he takes full advantage of that.
“I record everything then replay it on my computer using Lowrance’s product emulator, which can be downloaded for free on their website,” Samson says.
When he sees fish, vegetation, bottom transitions or isolated rocks on the playback, he moves the cursor to that point on the screen and the emulator provides the exact depth and GPS coordinates of the spot, as well as the time of day his boat passed over it. The tool even lets him adjust the Colorline and sensitivity levels, which can sometimes shed more light onto exactly what was below the boat at that moment in time.
“I then superimpose the waypoint on my lake map and check it out the next time I’m on the water,” Samson says. “If I mark fish, this helps me understand exactly where they were and what they were doing there.”
That underscores an important difference between how angling’s elite and average fishermen use today’s maps. The best anglers aren’t the guys who merely find a productive spot or two—they’re the guys who understand why a spot produces and use that information to establish a pattern they can follow to find active fish anywhere in the lake.
Lindner is of course one of them, and he uses more than just waypoints in his never-ending process of eliminating unproductive water and quickly establishing productive patterns.
The shaded depth feature on his Humminbird sonar/GPS unit lets him highlight on his map the specific depth range (from 1 to 60 feet) at which he’s catching fish. That helps him follow breaklines more accurately and see the most productive contours of the structure more easily.
“A good example of how useful this can be happened last summer, when I caught a decent muskie off the side of a bar next to deep water on a little 15-foot-deep shelf,” he says. “Considering the time of year and the type of spot, I was able to determine the fish was holding there to ambush tullibees.”
After catching the fish, Lindner highlighted the 15-foot contour and quickly spotted several similar areas mapped in other parts of the lake.
“Sure enough, those spots were also holding active muskies,” he says.
Skilled anglers can look at a contour map and immediately recognize potential areas for all species of fish during every phase of the year. However, advanced anglers all use the technology a little differently in terms of how they create and manage waypoints.
“I currently have about 1,300 icons on my 1-year-old Humminbird GPS,” says Lindner. His uncle and co-host Al Lindner does things more old school. “I am always amazed by how few icons there are on Al’s GPS when I fish out of his boat. He notes most things by memory, rather than marking them with waypoints and icons.”
To make quick sense of what might be hundreds of spots, Alton Jones uses icons that look like the things he is marking. What’s more, he routinely whittles down waypoints and icons to only those where he caught fish or had bites during pre-fishing, deleting everything else so he has a clutter-free map for tournaments.
Although most of us aren’t fishing for a paycheck, the lesson still applies. Refining waypoints down to the most meaningful ones will maximize your time and effort on the water, which translates to more fish in the livewell.
Brosdahl marks a spot whenever he catches a fish, but he doesn’t name every waypoint. If a spot really produces he gives it a one-word name, and if it’s an absolute honey hole, he gives it a two-worder. That lets him quickly sort through a sea of marks on his screen.
He also uses waypoints and icons differently depending on whether a high-definition electronic map has been created for the given lake. On waters without one, he essentially makes his own map by using icons to mark contours of the structure, then plops down waypoints to mark schools of fish and other non-structural elements.
He treats lakes with high-def maps differently because there is obviously no need to mark bottom contours. Instead, he uses icons as disposable markers to pinpoint schools of fish, weed edges, rocks and contours not accurately portrayed on the map.
The Human Element
That brings up a critical point: All high-def electronic maps on the market, although scary accurate overall, involve a significant human element in their creation. Manufacturers are understandably tight-lipped about their exact mapmaking process, but oversights do sometimes occur and small structures are occasionally missed altogether.
The rare instances when such gaps do slip through usually occur in the middle of a large waterbody, where map plotters might have run faster. Although it doesn’t pay to deliberately look for this stuff, you’ll notice it if you stay alert and plot waypoints accordingly.
It pays. I guide on Lake Winnibigoshish in northern Minnesota, and I know of a couple small humps the map companies missed. As a result, they are now among my most productive spots.
A much more common scenario, however, is that just a corner or knob on a larger mapped structure is missed. By marking these subtle features you might find virtually untapped fish on what’s otherwise a community spot.
Samson embraces technology more than just about any fisherman on the planet, and he uses it to find cover and structure even the best commercial maps miss.
When he approaches a new lake, he acquires several electronic topo maps and aerial photos of it from sources such as the U.S. Geological Survey or Warren Parsons Maps, then uploads them into Fugawi, a specialized mapping program, on his home computer. He then “geo-references” them, matching up known points on each map to the actual GPS coordinates of that spot, which ensures each photo/map is accurate and in sync with the others.
Fugawi’s final product is a multilayered map upon which he can place waypoints and outline promising structure. These marks immediately transfer to all of the other layers. For example, if Samson outlines a rocky hump he spots on an aerial photo layer of a given lake, that outline will appear in the exact same location on the topo map layer, the contour map layer, etc.
Best of all, once he’s finished doing this recon from his computer, he transfers the data to the memory card of his Lowrance so he can drive right to these spots when he’s on the water.
This provides an unbelievable edge on reservoirs or lakes that have experienced extreme low-water events, as they often show unmapped structure, roads, trees and other features.
Map It Yourself
Samson also makes his own high-definition contour maps using another kind of software, DrDepth. The Swedish-born program pulls data from your GPS and sonar and creates a contour map of the area you pass over. Although he says the process is generally too long and involved to map an entire lake, it does let him scour every inch of the most promising, prominent structure.
“Commercial maps like those from LakeMaster are still the way to go for entire lakes; DrDepth just fills in the gaps,” he says. “I don’t map entire lakes—only my fishing spots.”
DrDepth data can be converted to a contour-style map and used on your GPS aboard your boat, or can be viewed and studied as a 3D model on your home PC. Samson actually does both, taking a Panasonic Toughbook laptop aboard his boat and mounting a wireless touch-screen monitor to his dash on a Ram Mount alongside his sonar/chartplotter.
And if you want yet another way to display and analyze this data, DrDepth also lets you take the contour maps you create and superimpose them, in their exact real-world location, on a Google Earth photo of the lake.
If this is going over your head, don’t despair—it’s not as hard as it sounds.
“It’s like anything,” Samson says. “Most people can now run a program like Microsoft Word without a second thought, but it wasn’t like that the first time they sat down and tried to use it. Same with Fugawi and DrDepth.”
To help anglers speed up that learning curve, Samson holds comprehensive seminars that teach anglers how to use this technology. To learn more click on Web Extras at FishingClub.com.
Dealing With Competition
Fishing pressure isn’t isolated to tournaments; now that so many anglers are armed with high-def electronic maps, even serious weekend anglers have to overcome tremendous competition.
Samson obviously does this in part by creating his own maps and augmenting existing ones, but he also uses the information on standard over-the-counter maps to find overlooked key spots.
“The average guy will buy a chip, go right to the most obvious areas and won’t look beyond that,” he says. “You can get ahead by looking for what I call ‘hidden structure.’ It’s the subtle stuff that’s barely noticeable at lower zoom levels, but suddenly becomes significant when you zoom in.”
Samson notes that if you, for example, see a small circle denoting a minor depth change on a high-definition map while viewing it at a high zoom level, don’t discount it. “Something’s there,” he says. “They didn’t just put that there for no reason. I’ve checked out these subtle marks against my aerial photos and have found isolated rocks in the exact spots marked on the map.”
For Brosdahl, a big part of staying ahead involves not only deciphering maps but also people. Although he maintains a milk run of absolute killer spots, he rarely fishes them, often opting instead for his lesser spots.
“Save your best spots for those just-in-case times when you need to make something happen,” he says. “Never hit an ‘A’ spot more than three times.” This might sound counter-productive, but there’s a method to his madness.
He warns that in today’s GPS age, visiting honey holes too often or at peak fishing times when there are a lot of anglers on the lake is asking for trouble.
“All it takes is one person to see you, whiz by and punch your spot on their GPS,” he says. “I generally think a person who feels it’s okay to do that isn’t the type who’s going to treat the resource delicately. They’re going to pound it, and it’s going to hurt the spot.”
Get An Edge
High-definition maps and constantly expanding GPS technologies are permanent parts of fishing’s playing field. But that doesn’t mean it’s been leveled. Enhance your tactics and knowledge proportionately, as these elite anglers have, and you’ll be seeing far more fish in your livewell.
Choose Your Weapon
At the moment, there are two primary options when it comes to aftermarket high definition electronic maps for inland waters: Navionics and LakeMaster. Both companies offer two types of maps, those created using state fisheries agency survey data, topo maps, satellite imagery and other sources, and maps created by the companies themselves, using their own proprietary processes.
Lowrance units are compatible with both LakeMaster and Navionics maps, whereas Humminbirds only take Navionics and Garmin accepts LakeMaster maps.
“Doc” Bruce Samson, who runs a Lowrance, always studies both Navionics and LakeMaster maps before fishing a new lake and chooses the most detailed of the two. If one manufacturer offers 3-foot contours and the other has 1-foot definition, the decision is a no-brainer. However, if both maps are equally detailed, Samson compares them with sonar on the water to determine which is more accurate for the specific lake.
Here’s a look at what these leading companies offer and what they’re introducing for 2009:
Navionics is the biggest player, with worldwide regional lake map coverage, coastal charts and other navigational aids as part of a database comprising more than 25,000 chart and port plans; the largest privately owned database of its kind in the world.
For this year, the company has expanded its inland lake coverage to approximately 15,000 waters, about 700 of which are high-definition survey maps.
Navionics’ 2009 Inland Hot Maps Premium chip will retail for $149; the new Hot Maps Platinum goes for $199 and in addition to the standard maps also feature 3D rendering, fade-in satellite imagery and panoramic photos of the most popular lakes.
This company specializes in high-definition lake maps for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and North and South
Dakota. It also offers maps for the Great Lakes and some of Canadian border waters.
The LakeMaster Contour Pro Wisconsin 2008 is loaded with 300 lakes, of which 94 are high-definition LakeMaster ProMap waters, including all of Green Bay in 3-foot contours and all of Lake Michigan in 5- and 10-foot contours.
The company’s all-new North and South Dakota map card has charts for over 1,680 waters; 247 lakes contain depth contour lines and other features; 15 are covered by LakeMaster ProMaps with 1-foot contours.
New Mapping Units For 2009
Humminbird 798ci SI
Exclusive Side Imaging delivers picture-like images to help you quickly identify structure and fish on the 640V x 640H pixel, 5-inch diagonal color screen. Programmable preset buttons make switching between your favorite views a snap, and dual card slots provide top-notch mapping flexibility on the water.
The sonar/GPS combo ($999) sports a built-in Unimap that makes you at home on any lake, river or coastline; a Navionics Bundle model, which features continental U.S. Navionics Gold and HotMaps charts preloaded to the internal memory, is also available for an additional $200.
The 798ci SI is available with a front-mounted internal or external antenna, which lets you mount the unit in-dash or with Humminbird’s Tilt & Swivel Quick Disconnect system.
Garmin Oregon 400i
Garmin’s newest inland marine GPS unit is a touchscreen handheld. The Oregon 400i ($599.99) features thousands of pre- loaded, highly-detailed inland lake maps. It’s amazingly simple to use, and is sunlight readable yet compact enough to easily stow.
When you’re not on the water, you can load the unit with optional topo maps for hiking or hunting, or optional road maps for turn-by-turn driving directions.
Lowrance’s High Definition System (HDS) sonar/GPS combos are the first on the market to combine high-definition chartplotter capabilities and the company’s Broadband Sounder functionality into a compact and easy-to-install system.
Navionics TurboView software provides seamless, fluid pan and zoom, and rotation and pitch—much like a flight simulator, as well as seamless transition between 2D and 3D views, real-time overlay of navigation data on 3D profiles, depth and elevation shadowing, and high-speed fly-through with detailed aerial photo overlay.
Expect a street price of $749 to $2,549, depending on model and options.