Success through Fishing Maps

By Russ Warye, author of Fishing the North Country books, guide and researcher.
Catching fish starts with preparation! Yes, a big statement…but in the end successful anglers have discovered a tool more important than custom fishing rods, “secret” lures or state of the art depthfinders. Preparation spent studying quality contour fishing maps is always important. This time spent reading and learning from researched fishing maps is the most significant key to improving skills so fish are caught on most outings- from gamefish (walleye, bass, northern pike, even the elusive muskie) to crappie, bluegill, pumpkinseed sunfish and the always aggressive rock bass.

It has been said before but deserves repeating. A quality fishing map has been compared to the pirate’s treasure map, leading us to the spot that yields our special prize…treasure in the form of the fish we want to catch. Good anglers take that next step in skill by challenging themselves with new waters – whether a family vacation to northern Wisconsin or serious fishing on a club or tournament basis. And going to new water without studying the contour map is like going to fight a grizzly bear armed with a pen knife.

In the last 30 years hydrographic maps (with contours) have come into their own as fishing equipment has moved through a sea change of technology – quality depthfinders, GPS, underwater cameras, along with huge changes in rods, reels and terminal tackle. Much of the push has come from the incredible success of bass tournament trails and further enhanced recently by walleye, crappie, catfish and muskie organizations promoting tournaments. While all of us can get swept up in the latest fad, lure or gadget, fishing maps and map books provide the basic knowledge for everyone – from rank beginner to famous names on television and tournament circuits, including a Kevin Van Dam.

Today’s fishing maps are the product of various organizations – state game and fish departments, federal (U.S. Geological Survey, Tennessee Valley Authority, NOAA, Army Corps of Engineers, among others) and private organizations and commercial companies. Yes, satellite mapping is being used but remains limited because of the inability to “see” and map below the surface of stained water. New computer created mapping technology has enhanced accuracy, but most fishing maps remain based on state or federal efforts, which originally came about not for fishing but boat navigation.

A quality fishing maps starts with the fundamental framework – an accurate representation of the lake outline and contours. Contours are no more than a series of lines that depict the lake or river slope from the shoreline to the deepest basin. With contours in place, quality fishing maps providing superb clues to fishing success – bottom components (sand, gravel, rock, muck, for example), and displaying submerged islands, reefs, humps, flats, elongated submerged points, flats, and more. These basic components are loosely called “structure” – a term dear to the hearts of any fisherman – beginner to expert.

Each map – no matter whether detailed or hand- drawn will have some form of legend and compass direction – the arrow pointing north. The map legend defines the symbols that can range from sd for sand to access symbols, defining boat ramp locations. Typically, the map legend may include bottom materials, drowned wood, hazards, boat ramps, submerged roads, creek channels, cribs or fish shelters, marshlands, and more.  Take a minute or two to learn the symbols before settling in to study the map before the fishing trip.

The contour map is far from the whole story. Most lake maps get to the contour stage, including some of the newer computer generated on the market…but won’t take the next steps, which require research, study and understanding of the relationship of fish to their environment throughout the seasons, written by anglers/writers who understand aquatic ecosystems.

With the basic outline in place, enhanced fishing maps display annual weedlines of the three basic aquatic vegetation varieties – submerged (muskie weed, coontail, milfoil, etc) to emergent on the shorelines – wild rice, bulrush, reeds, etc. to floating varieties – lily pads, lotus, spatterdock, among others. Often called cover, each weed type has a significant attraction to gamefish and panfish – providing cover, refuge, and ambush locations – as well as an attractor of forage. Further, transition zones between weed types are a significant holding zone for gamefish – muskie weed varieties transitioning to coontail is a prime example for walleye and muskie.

All of us quickly discover the fundamental law – no “food” – no fish. With the sole exception of spawning, gamefish and panfish will always – and “always” is a strong word – be relating to “groceries” and weedlines tend to be the most important attracting cover. Fish will never be far away from their next meal…except for the most unusual circumstances, not important to our discussion. The forage or prey ranges through the whole cycle – from microscopic zooplankton for fingerlings to juvenile panfish and large minnows for gamefish. All are available on the weedline cover and the legend of a good map must display the symbols of the three basic weed types.

If your map has weedlines, it is an excellent beginning. But now for the next test! Researched fishing maps must provide information on more significant fish-holding cover – what we loosely called “drowned wood.” The addition of fallen trees on a shoreline, manmade cribs, drowned stumps and cutoffs as in the case of a flowage or reservoir, and even the presence of docks or old sunken rowboats are significant to attracting and holding fish. Most fish relate to the protection that drowned wood provides – again everything from offering sanctuary to providing an ambush point for smallmouth, largemouth and muskie. In northern Wisconsin manmade cribs have been placed in many lakes where weeds are absent or depleted in an effort to offer more cover. Obviously, the location of cribs often means catching fish!

However, there is even more to the quality map. Does your map depict bottom materials – sand, gravel, muck, rock, etc? A quick glance at the legend will determine if symbols are in place.  Changes in bottom materials can be everything to fishing success. As anglers, if we know where one component transitions to another, fish will be caught. The change from shoreline sand to gravel or gravel to broken rock, or sand to mid-basin muck, for example, creates edges attractive to all fish. Walleye will often move loosely along transition zones of gravel merging to broken rock or cobble. In the spring and summer smallmouth use gravel and broken rock zones for feeding, as well as nest building and spawning.

Let’s pause for just a moment. Everything said before indicates that gamefish and panfish are creatures that relate to objects – boulders on the lake bottom, humps, submerged points, weedlines, docks, old roadbeds…well you get the idea. Let’s think of “edge” as the key concept….fish relate to anything that provides an “edge” and all of these structure and cover elements provide something different…our “edge.”

With that said, contour lines are the tools that allow us to visualize the slope and shape of the lake bottom. To visualize we have to “see” below the two dimensional world of the lake surface. One must create a mental image of what lies below…the gradual slope that drops sharply to the lake bottom; a hump that rises from a bottom of 20 feet and tops out at 10 feet; the long underwater point that is shown by the contour lines, a lake hole surrounded by shallower depths; an inside turn depicted by the contour lines, and so forth. For example, a submerged point – usually an important lake structure for a variety of gamefish – will appear as a series of contour lines pointing away from the shore like a finger or knife blade.

Remember the basic rule – the closer the contour lines the steeper the drop-off edge…or conversely the wider the interval the more gradual the slope…perhaps to even a region very flat. The numbers on the contours tell us the contour interval – if one line indicates five foot depths and the second line 10 feet, we have a five foot contour interval. This interval again helps develop the visualization of how steep the slope.

When a famous tournament anglers or northwoods guide sits down to study a fishing map, they are looking for those “edges” already mentioned.  An edge or change in bottom or cover (weeds, drowned wood, docks, etc.) will attract and hold fish for a number of reasons although the most important one usually revolves around attracting forage. While looking at the contours try drawing the hump, inside turn, submerged point, basin hole, etc. depicted by the contour lines. This exercise really helps in learning the visualization process.

But a restrained comment about angler behavior is needed.  Pulling out a map book or fishing map while motoring away from the dock is too late…unless serious time has been spent studying the map to formulate a plan for fishing. At my favorite Canadian fishing camp I am constantly stunned by those who have never look at the excellent hydrographic map available for Lake of the Woods…until they arrive or worse yet, are sitting in the boat at the dock waiting impatiently for their partners to come to the boat…so they can charge out to go fishing. They will plan every detail, including favorite “secret” lures but not look at the map to formulate a game plan based on the basics – what species and what season.

We catch fish by solving the location puzzle. The basic parts are quite simple:

A. Study your favorite species seeking several answers. When do they spawn, what is their forage, what is the water temperature preferred, where are their locations on a seasonal basis. Significantly, where does my favorite species live in the lake – weeds, drop-off edges, drowned wood, docks, cribs, deep underwater points….well, you get the picture. Expert anglers are knowledgeable about the fish to be pursued – from bluegill to muskie. It can’t be said more forcefully – know the habits of the fish you’re after.

B. Obtain a quality map book or fishing map that shows species and forage available and describes structure and cover (weeds, drowned wood, cribs etc.)

C. Learn the map and mark areas to begin fishing…again based on where fish should be located based on the season – spring, summer, and fall. If provided marked fishing areas, fish them and add to the areas by marking the map with information important to you.

D. Seek information – ask questions at the bait shops. Are the bass in the shallows yet? Is spawning complete? Are the walleye still relating to the shallow weedlines…or have they moved deeper yet? What are the lake levels….because if down 3 feet; we have to be aware of possible “new” hazards because of the change in depth. Go over a map or map book with bait shop personnel, asking good questions on location of your favorite fish.

A researched product – either map or map book – is a library of information – far more than a mere depiction of contour lines. It starts with species…is there a good walleye or bass population available or can we find family bluegill fishing on this water. Is the fishery sustained by stocking or natural reproduction? Is it stocked occasionally or regularly…for example, on alternate years, which is often the policy. What are the trends – is the fishery up, have populations improved…or have changes occurred? What are the growth rates – fast or slow. Each question answered opens the door to success – fish caught.

Successful anglers use a combination of tools for success. Obviously, a quality depthfinder is a must…as is learning to interpret what is being shown. However, knowledge about your favorite gamefish coupled with location details – the map book or fishing map – is the real key to success. No secret lure, new rod or reel, or gadget can match knowing your fish and their aquatic world. The location question is easily solved when equipped with great information based on solid research and analysis.

We at Fishing the North Country Publications believe our fishing books in Vilas, Oneida and Sawyer counties provide the absolute best combination of researched fishing information and accurate maps with structure and cover details in Wisconsin.

Russ Warye is an author of fishing books, seminar speaker, guide, fishing educator/teacher, recognized freshwater fisheries researcher and activist on clean water issues. As the former senior research editor and fishing spokesman for Fishing Hot Spots, Inc. (Rhinelander, WI), he authored or co-authored numerous FHS books and freshwater fishing maps that specialized in the “where-to” mission of the company. Currently, between fishing, angler education and research Warye spends the spring to autumn months actively engaged with research projects which includes many days on the water. His winter months are spent writing, delivering seminars and speaking engagements at outdoor and fishing shows as well as researching new fishing books. For more information about Russ Warye author of instructional fishing map books please visit: