All the hot new baits and killer tactics in the world aren't worth much if you can't find your quarry. And as any serious Esox hunter knows, there's far more to consistently connecting with trophy pike and muskies than blindly lobbing casts along the weedline.
No matter the lake or river, a system's biggest fish are most often creatures of habit. Identifying the locations that attract them according to seasons and conditions — long a cornerstone of In-Fisherman's formula for success — is critical. Which is why the latest in mapping theories and technology can mean all the difference in your own personal monster quest.
Minnesota muskie maven Travis Frank leans heavily on map-based strategies to put fish in the boat on some of the Gopher State's finest and most heavily fished waters, including Mille Lacs Lake and Lake Minnetonka. He credits much of his guiding success to mapping out battle plans for every trip.
"Location is the foundation of it all," he says. "If you're not on fish, you're wasting your time." This philosophy has turned Frank's pursuit of hydrographic intel into a year-round obsession. "I spend a lot of time ice-fishing walleyes during the off-season," he says. "Many areas that hold winter walleyes attract muskies in summer, so it's great reconnaissance for openwater guide trips."
On Minnetonka, for example, Frank's pursuit of icy 'eyes entails an endless search for isolated rockpiles — especially those lying on deep-water points or along the outside weedline. "The additional structure creates a sweet spot that attracts perch and other baitfish, which in turn bring in larger predators," he explains.
He feels that knowledge of every structural subtlety is invaluable to exploiting its full potential. During winter Frank slices and dices the ice above the rocks, then uses sonar and an underwater camera to scope out every nook and cranny. "This helps me better understand how forage and predators use the area," he says. Many irregularities fail to show up on charts, so when Frank finds a potential hot spot, he plots waypoints pinpointing every twist and turn.
"Mapping takes time and effort, but it's an investment in the future. I know if a spot attracts muskies one summer, it's going to year after year," he notes, adding, "It's not like rocks are going anywhere." Summertime trips yield a wealth of sonar readings and GPS bread crumbs that — together with observations on weedgrowth, weather conditions, the presence of forage, and other factors — provide clues to productive fishing patterns.
"On Mille Lacs, when you're fishing a weedline that runs straight for a long distance — say, 150 to 200 yards or more — anytime there's a twist or turn, you're almost guaranteed there's a muskie around," he explains. "But with the explosion in muskie fishing popularity in the past decade, it's not just a matter of finding the fish anymore, but of staying on top of them and presenting your lure perfectly until they turn on."
That reaffirms the importance of being in the right place. A day spent casting fishless water yields predictable results, while a trip devoted to patiently working a lake's best areas could produce the fish of a lifetime. "By putting waypoints on weedline irregularities, rockpiles, and other high-percentage areas, you can develop a milk run of top spots and eliminate a lot of marginally productive water," he says.
Frank's storehouse of structural data also helps him identify go-to areas that produce fish under specific conditions. "Once you identify key locations, you can tie them into lake-wide patterns," he says. "For example, if you find a muskie on deep rocks, outside vegetation, or along the inside weedline in one area, chances are good that you'll find other fish in similar locations across the lake."
Pattern-fishing can be a huge plus when exploring new waters as well. During a tournament on Minnesota's Lake Vermilion a few years ago, Frank and his fishing partner raised two muskies in five casts on a shallow flat. "It was my first time fishing this huge lake, and I wanted to break it down quickly, so I highlighted all the areas under 5 feet deep on my chartplotter and focused entirely on these shallow flats," he recalls. "I ended up having one of my best days ever."
Given the importance of accurate maps and electronics to the pike and muskie trade, it's a blessing that manufacturers continually offer improvements in sonar and GPS. But the information they provide is only as good as our ability to manage it.
Choke your plotter with a tangle of trails and waypoints, for example, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. Navigating back to a promising piece of structure becomes frustrating, and identifying patterns is an exercise in futility. Fortunately, new tools are making it easier than ever to manage trails, waypoints, and more.
Lowrance's Export By Region feature is a good example. Standard issue on the company's HDS Gen2 Touch sonar-chartplotters, it lets you gather trails and points in a given area and either place them in a folder on the plotter or save them to an SD card for backup and organization elsewhere.
It's a simple enough process, and you get to define the target area. For example, let's say you lay down a series of casting passes around a hot midlake reef complex, and want to isolate the structure from the gazillion trails and waypoints cluttering the rest of the lake. Zoom in to the appropriate viewing level, set parameters around the area you want to pull out, hit "export," save the data in your destination of choice, and you're done.
The SD card option offers multiple benefits. It frees up space on the unit's hard drive, which speeds its processor. But it also allows you to back up the files on a computer or storage device, which can be a godsend if the chartplotter is stolen. Finally, you can build mapping libraries based on state, county, lake, or whatever parameters you find most useful.
And speaking of offline strategizing, if you've ever dreamed of plotting future fishing adventures from home, Navico's new Insight Planner lets you do just that. The software makes it easy to create routes, waypoints, and points of interest on a PC, then transfer it all to a Lowrance or Simrad plotter. At press time, this transfer was accomplished by SD card, but wireless options were in the works.
LakeMaster's Contour Elite is another great trip-planning tool. Pre-loaded with the company's high-definition lake maps (available in nine map packages by state and region), the software lets you search for potential hot spots by fish species and customized criteria. There's also a Similar Area option that, once you highlight a spot on the map, details key attributes, then searches for similar structure.
In species-specific search mode — which lets you select muskies, pike, or six other freshwater fish — the program targets criteria based on each species' known daily and seasonal movement patterns, along with reactions to environmental conditions. Once you find a likely spot, you can peruse three-dimensional views of the structure, and mark the GPS coordinates of key areas that are transferrable to your chartplotter for on-the-water exploration.
Lake Map Fishing on Auto
Great maps are only as good as your ability to position your boat within casting distance of the drop zone. Minn Kota's i-Pilot aids in such efforts, lending an electronic hand at the helm so you can focus on fishing. Thanks to built-in GPS, the system lets you lock onto coordinates regardless of boat-buffeting current, wind, or waves, and also record and retrace trolling or casting passes. Although technically not new, i-Pilot continues to evolve. In 2011, it saw notable enhancements in data storage, plus a beefed up remote.
Features such as Spot-Lock, which works like an electronic anchor to hold your boat in place, are a huge help in boat positioning. Dial in a location and i-Pilot activates the trolling motor if you drift more than 5 feet off position. The system isn't just for electronic anchoring, either. Its Record-A-Track option lets you retrace trails up to 2 miles long.
Due to hit the market in spring of 2013, the i-Pilot Link takes the system to new heights, opening the lines of communication between your trolling motor, sonar/GPS unit, and map card to automatically hold whatever course you choose. Compatible with Minn Kota Terrova, PowerDrive V2, and select saltwater bowmounts, it works with most Ethernet-equipped Humminbird fishfinders and LakeMaster digital GPS maps.
This interconnectivity offers multiple benefits, but one of the biggest gains is the ability to record sonar data, then have the trolling motor use it for automated navigation. Additional features include a Follow The Contour function, which, as the name implies, traces the contour of your choice. If you'd prefer to keep the boat a cast-length off a key depth or the shoreline, there's a setting for that, too — called Contour Offset.
Lake Map It Yourself
The latest charts from LakeMaster, Navionics, Lowrance, Garmin, Fishing Hot Spots, and other sources are great, but the ability to make your own detailed hydrographic maps is priceless. On this frontier, Navico's new Insight Genesis shines for its ability to archive inside information on aquatic vegetation and bottom hardness.
It's easy to use, too. The first step is using your sonar to scan the area you want to map. Next, upload the data to a free Insight Genesis account. After processing the information, the service emails you a link that allows you to view the map. If you like it, you can purchase an encrypted download of it for use on a compatible plotter, such as Lowrance units with Broadband or StructureScan modules.
A one-time download costs $19.95, but for $99 you can get an annual subscription allowing unlimited uploads. And for $299, serious mapmakers can purchase a premium package offering slick analytical tools and increased contour line control, plus overlays of bottom composition and vegetation. Other cool features include handy depth-shading options, the ability to merge multiple maps into one master chart, plus online storage and management of your mapping library.
If the thought of making personalized maps showing fish-holding cabbage beds, changes from sand to gravel, and isolated rock humps nestled along outside edges aren't exciting enough, Insight Genesis also lets you scrutinize your map alongside the sonar recordings that produced it. Thanks to this feature — arguably one of the system's smartest — you can check weed heights, monitor the presence of forage and larger fish, and view other important information that can help you map out successful pike and muskie strategies for every trip.
Lake Map App: Phone Mapping
Texts, tweets, and calls can be an irritation when fishing, but Navionics' mapping app enlists smartphones into the hydrographic effort. Though it's been available for a few seasons, the app is still noteworthy — not to mention new to the legions of pike and muskie junkies who haven't tapped its power.
Available for around $10 for iPhones and Android devices, the app offers a variety of slick mapping features for times when using a traditional plotter is inconvenient or impossible. With the touch of a smart screen, it delivers Navionics charts — including lakes and surrounding countryside — to your phone. Much like a handheld GPS.
You can view lake contours, plot fishing strategies, even measure distances or calculate travel time and fuel costs. The app also uses your phone's internal GPS and other clues such as cell signals to plot your position on the chart.
Other features include the ability to save trails and waypoints, then sync the data between multiple devices — say an iPhone to an iPad — or even onto a PC or Mac, from which the information can be saved onto an SD card and ultimately delivered to your chartplotter. For a full rundown of features, visit navionics.com.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.