October 16, 2015
There's something exciting about running uncharted stretches of my home river. You never see a lot of boats out there. But even better is that you never know what you might find around the next bend: whitetail taking a drink, wrestling river otters, mass of soft-shell turtles basking in the sun, black bear cub clawing at crayfish. Sometimes you just have to put the rod down a moment and appreciate where you are, and that being a catman puts you in the middle of some pretty cool places.
That depth contour maps of this river and many others don't exist has never been a particular problem. Although my modest collection of chewed up propellers might make for a convincing argument. Nonetheless, last spring, when I began building custom topographic maps of the Upper Mississippi (we're talking "way-upper" river where bald eagles outnumber barges 100 to 0), I felt as if I'd suddenly gained access to a hidden dimension of fishing secrets.
Lacking detailed depth maps, you tend to visualize things in your mind as you motor up and down the river, based on past experiences and depthfinder readings. This changed last year when Humminbird-LakeMaster granted me use of a dynamic new do-it-yourself mapping program called AutoChart. Essentially, it's the same type of depth-GIS software LakeMaster techs have used for years to create their high definition digital lake maps.
The difference between what those folks do every day and what I did last year is that I'll probably never build a totally "complete" river map, no matter how many summer mornings I spend running the same 15-mile stretch. Which is fine, because this section of river has now become familiar in amazing ways I hadn't imagined. It's neat to consider you're perhaps the only human on the planet to possess a map of this particular waterway. And the advantages are exciting.
Beginning with the empty blue ribbon of water that appears on my Humminbird, each move I make across the water draws a depth line coupled with a GPS coordinate. Over hours and multiple trips to the river, a map begins to take shape, revealing holes, flats, rockpiles, and other structures in the same 1- to 5-foot contours we see on LakeMaster or Navionics digital cartography.
Humminbird offers essentially two types of AutoChart software. AutoChart and AutoChart Pro each consist of a DVD that loads onto a PC, as well as a "Zero Lines" map card that plugs into your Humminbird sonar unit. The Zero Lines SD card is loaded with the physical shoreline boundaries or "zero lines" of literally millions of water bodies across the globe.
A separate program for users of Humminbird's new ONIX/ION units, AutoChart Live allows you to build and view contour maps, live and on the water, without additional processing. A free software download offers this interactive, instant mapping program. After eight hours of built-in recording, you can either erase the data and start over, or purchase a separate Zero Lines map card to continue mapping live and on the fly.
While I've exclusively run Humminbird AutoChart Pro, Lowrance offers Insight Genesis, an independent DIY mapping program. The difference between the two lies in data processing. With AutoChart Pro, I can take the data from my SD card, load it onto my PC, and receive the new, ready-to-use map instantly. Insight Genesis, on the other hand, requires users to upload mapped data to the Insight Genesis website, which processes and creates a new map for download. Additionally, while your Insight Genesis data are automatically shared with the online community, AutoChart data are kept private, allowing you to share your maps only with friends or other anglers of your choosing.
For me, mapping the river or any waterbody is as easy as sliding the SD card into my Humminbird 1198 unit, turning it on, and activating the mapping function. I've at times been less than systematic with my mapping strategy, which is okay, because each time I'm on the river, I can fill in more contour lines by taking new uncharted courses. Ideally, to collect the best, most accurate data and to fully populate your map with new contour lines, it's best to run parallel paths over a particular stretch of water, cruising along at 5 to 7 mph.
AutoChart also works well with existing LakeMaster mapping data. Say you're on a reservoir that features a map with 10-foot contours, but you want to zoom in and get ultra precise on a particular section. You can set the unit so any new AutoChart data you gather automatically overwrites and improves upon existing cartography. Consider that many anglers use these programs to precisely map small areas, such as a hump, point, or dam tailrace — as opposed to setting out to build a complete map of the water body, which could take days to months of constant surveying.
Last year, I began by mapping larger bends of my home river, because these were areas that held the most interesting structures and were used by catfish. For example, I'd run up the entire 300-yard length of a bend. First pass, I'd hug the shoreline. Then, I'd turn around and run a parallel path 20 to 30 feet from the original. Easing the process, the Humminbird unit draws each path on the screen, so you can parallel the previous course.
In interesting areas, such as a deep hole, after fully mapping its boundaries, I would often turn around and then do another full set of paths perpendicular to the original lines. This meticulous process often revealed minor yet potential fish-holding features such as an individual boulder or a subtle rise that might act as a current break.
Beyond systematically mapping a stretch of river, I'd often also allow the unit to continue gathering data while I fished, to fill in contours in different areas. Then, once off the water and back home, I'd process the data on a PC and load it back onto the SD card, where a new updated map would await my next outing.
A feature of AutoChart Pro I like is that in addition to 1-foot bottom contours, the program allows you to overlay your maps with color-coded bottom hardness indication. For instance, you can set the unit to show hard bottom areas in red and soft bottom sections in yellow, providing another often key piece of the fish location puzzle.
The program also allows recording and displaying a "Side Imaging Mosaic" over your contour lines, creating a map depicting a photo-realistic picture of the bottom in all surveyed areas. This is the likely future of mapping, offering anglers a complete underwater view of depth as well as a visual depiction of individual boulders, trees, and other structural features. Seeing what's possible with military and industrial-grade side-looking sonar, we've just begun to realize the potential of this technology for fishing.
With AutoChart, you can utilize such regular LakeMaster cartographic features as depth highlight, water-level offset, and shallow-water highlight. And when coupled with Minn Kota i-Pilot Link, your trolling motor can be instantly programmed to follow specific depth contours appearing on your DIY maps.
As a map takes shape, you gain an immediate understanding of spots that may have never been fully fished before. The advantages haven't been lost on Captain Brad Durick, a catfish guide primarily working the Fargo-Grand Forks stretch of the Red River of the North. This past year he surveyed his home river with AutoChart Live, secure in the knowledge that no chart has ever been made of this famed channel cat fishery. The data he unlocked might be worth a small fortune — something he realized having received offers to buy his maps.
Even though Durick already knew the general lay of the land here, he's had numerous underwater discoveries. "We were out filming a TV show last summer, fishing a piece of river I'd never seen before," he says. "I was running AutoChart when we came over a little hole. On the unit I watched the depth quickly change from 14-15-17-14- feet. I'm not sure I could have found that little depression again, had I not recorded it with AutoChart. But in 20 minutes, I motored up and down over about a 100-yard stretch of river. I found a trough and hole that rolled up onto a big flat. The screen also revealed the head of the hole, where I moved up 30 feet, entered a waypoint, and set anchor. In less than a minute, we had a 20-pound fish on."
During another outing, he was fishing with clients in an area he knew well, having run side-imaging sonar on it frequently. "I mapped a small stretch of river, through a sharp bend and around a corner. In a half hour, we'd mapped the entire bend, and I found all the sweet spots, which allowed me to quickly mark key anchor points, 30 to 40 feet upstream of each area."
Durick last year rediscovered a trough he'd found in 2010, which had been one of his primary honey holes. "With its history of floods, the Red River changes every season — new snags appear in different locations, old ones vanish or erode. AutoChart showed me that trough had shifted over the years. When I mapped it last summer, the surrounding sandbar had pushed the trough closer to the bank. I also found that it was about 20 yards long and that a secondary hole had appeared along the bank. I did three circles through the trough with AutoChart, going back through it again with side-imaging. We clobbered big cats there last fall."
Already one of the sharpest guides working this famed channel cat water, Durick now owns an advantage over other anglers. "It's neat to see contour lines fill in my map of the Red for the first time in history. As water levels rise and drop — which they do every season here — I can define a new water-level offset on the unit and immediately be looking at exact depths."
While the Red River is subject to massive water-level changes, my home river is less volatile, even though new deadheads and other hazards emerge each season. One of the biggest time-savers for me is the ability to map each shallow rockpile in certain hazardous stretches of river. In previous years, I'd never been confident running through these sections.
With new mapping data, however, I'm able to save time by safely navigating around each potential hazard. This doesn't mean I recklessly run the river, eyes glued to the screen. It's always best to pay attention to what's ahead — such as other boats or floating debris — rather than rely just on your mapping unit. But knowing the precise position of each potential hazard means I no longer need to idle through these often-lengthy stretches of river at under 5 mph. That means more time with bait in the water, less time spent getting there.
With DIY mapping, most valuable to me are the dozens of newly discovered mid-river spots. Think of how many times you run the river and watch the depth on your sonar suddenly sink or rise. Often, we run right across these areas with scarcely a thought. I decided to slow down and map a few of these curiosities. Turns out, the middle of the river holds some awesome, rarely fished locations, which I now have mapped.
Consider the straightest, most boring stretches on any river. Running a combination of AutoChart and side-imaging, I've found over a dozen large trees and several isolated rockpiles on sprawling flats. Over time, these objects form small holes behind them that can house big catfish. On many summer days, rather than immediately running to my favorite bend hole, I often stop at these objects. Within minutes, soaking a jig and cutbait, I can catch a nice fish or two before moving on to the next spot.
As Durick notes, you often find little holes, depressions, or humps on otherwise featureless flats — spots you'd possibly never find again without marking their location. While such spots don't always hold big numbers of fish, they can attract some of the biggest ones.
The same idea applies to complex areas, such as dam tailwaters. One of my favorite channel cat spots lies in a tailrace. It's a maze of unmapped boulders, points, troughs, and sunken timber. I've just started charting it, but have already discovered several new areas to fish. Such an abundance of underwater secrets can leave you feeling a little like sneaky, perhaps the same way Blackbeard felt about his private cache of treasure. –
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an accomplished catfisherman and regular contributor to
Catfish Insider Guide.