Reading maps is a lost art. What began with plugging an address into MapQuest a decade ago evolved into simple smartphone GPS navigation that we are used to today. A DeLorme Atlas would be about as foreign to your average elementary school student as a book written in cuneiform. Many millennials wouldn’t fare much better.
I could go on about the potential deficiencies of not knowing how to read a map: math application, special awareness, and just general problem solving. But more pertinent to you and me is the fact that being proficient in reading maps can open up a world of fly fishing possibilities.
You’ve probably heard it a million times before, but if you just stick to the popular and well-marked streams you are missing out on some amazing fishing and some real adventure. Short of just taking off into the wild, you’re going to need to utilize a map in some capacity to find water – and more importantly, water with fish in it.
While a primer in cartography might be needed (“obviously this blue part here is the land…”), that is not something I feel compelled to lay out today. And though nothing will ever take the place of being able to read a topographic map and make an educated decision, there are some great tools that can be an entry point in exposing an angler to using maps.
Fly fishing guidebooks have sometimes-crude illustrations that give basic maps of watersheds. By coupling these drawings with the descriptions in the books themselves and landmarks you may already be familiar with; you should be able to make some deductions about where else fish might be. Fly shops have similar maps that highlight hot spots to help visiting anglers. It might be tempting to just head to access point A, B, or C. But leaning on some basic “reading the water” skills, a fly fisher with even a little bit of experience can make some good assumptions of what new water might be worth a shot.
Many state fish and game agencies will actually provide maps for the purpose of explaining where catch-and-release waters begin and end, private property extends to the bank, or some other reason. These can do a good job in keeping you in the good graces of the local game warden or property owners, but they can also illuminate a lot by what they do not show.
Here are three things to look for:
- What is upstream, and what is downstream. Unless there is a dam, a fence, or some other major obstruction, fish will move all over a body of water. And sometimes not even those aforementioned barriers can stop fish. As long as angling is legal, fishing above or below the water that is managed by the state can yield some great results. And, chances are, some real solitude.
- That stream looks a lot like that other stream. If two mountain trout creeks have nearly identical flows and gradients, they should have similar ecosystems and fisheries. One might have a certain designation that gives it more “publicity,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better. In some cases there is a legitimate reason for rivers getting labeled, but in others – especially in locations where there is a lot of water – it can be relatively trivial.
- All streams being equal… Don’t be afraid of fishing somewhere new. Even if it is delayed harvest, a little further away, or just different. Being a creature of habit can have its benefits, but in fly fishing the adventure is a big part of the fun. Poring over a map, figuring out someplace new to try, and then planning your attack can be a really enjoyable aspect of this pursuit. Plus, there is some real ownership when you figure it out on your own.
Whether you hop online or break open that old Gazetteer, taking a few minutes to look at your favorite lake or river can pay off significantly. You’ll learn things about waters you are familiar with, and potentially discover all sorts about new opportunities.
Plus, you’ll be participating in a lost art – which is always a great way to get a little bit of culture.