By Matt Beckler

Arriving at a lake for the first time and dissecting its features can be a cumbersome task to deal with for any fisherman, novice, intermediate, and professional. Once the boat is launched it can be challenging to orientate ourselves to points of the compass and whether or not we need to go left or right to come face to face with the dam, if there is one. This is not the first time that we need to look at the lake or a new section of a lake that we have fished before. To be proficient at locating fish hangouts, corridors, and feeding areas one must study as best as they can on dry land at home before we get the bunk rails wet.

Lake maps are generally composed of three different visuals. Topographical maps, satellite/aerial view, and your plain old artist rendering maps. The latter of the three are the ones you see at the marinas with the pictures of people skiing, swimming, and enjoying dinner at one of the lakeside hotspots. These are of no use to us as fisherman because they do not give us any underwater or shoreline visualization. Topographical and satellite view maps are the tools that fisherman must have in their tackle boxes to give them a head start on the fishing and eventually dissecting a bass's backyard.

Topographical maps or "Topos" are comprised of contour lines that depict elevations and elevation changes. The closer that the lines are together the steeper that the bank is going to be and vice versa. The best way to visualize this is to visualize yourself on a roof looking down at a ladder leaned up against the wall at a steep angle. The rungs of the ladder are going to appear very close together. If the base of the ladder is moved farther away from the wall then the rungs of the ladder are going to appear farther apart. This is the same way that cartographers utilize contour/elevation lines on a map. Looking at a lake map with these lines everywhere is overwhelming. Think of the ladder leaned against the wall and visualize it as the bank with the rungs being the contour lines and it is easier to understand.

Now, your map is opened up and your eyes are wandering from one end of the map to the other and it all becomes a blur. You have to dissect an area at a time, like a long creek, or a section of a river. Try this trick that I like to use, purchase highlight markers with the sharpest point that you can get. Start coloring from the bank to the first contour line in yellow, which is generally from 0-10 feet and is where 85% of fisherman cast. Next, take green and color from 10 feet to the next contour line, which is generally 15-20 feet. You will find that the map is easier to understand and see. Also, you have identified the areas where 95% of tournaments are won.

Now that you have a map full of color let's take a look at what these colors mean and how they relate to each other. Flats are going to be wide areas of solid color. Ditches in the flats will have a thin line of green running through the yellow. In areas where you have a flat, or broad band of yellow, that becomes shrunk down and is very thin is generally a channel swing, ledge, or a roll-off. I have found that by coloring a map in this manner I can quickly skim over the water and find the sweet spots on a flat, in a creek, or large cove. Furthermore, any section that is out of the ordinary in an area, that is consistently the same, will generally be the best place to start looking. If the fish are not directly on that location then they will be in the vicinity usually. Small bands of different colors close to one another that have been colored are going to deep banks and if the colors become one in the same then it is a bluff.

Every lake map that I own has been colored. It was a trick that I utilized when map reading for myself when going to water for the first time. Even though I have learned to understand what the cartographers have drawn without coloring the map, I still color the maps up in green and yellow to help me find the haunts and homes of bass. Look at your maps in the off season and mark them based upon what you have learned. I hope that this helps you to catch more fish and facilitates understanding what the maps have to say.

Flippin' you the best,

Matt Beckler