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Stained Black Lines

Anthropologists believe that a cave painting in the Czech Republic is the earliest example of a map that we have. The markings seem to represent local mountains, valleys, and rivers. It isn’t hard to understand that for millennia we’ve wanted to do what we can to identify where we are and what is around us. These ancient peoples obviously did what they could to construct something that helped them comprehend their natural surroundings. The features on the map were of the fields and hunting grounds that they depended upon. Although unconfirmed by leading historical cartographers, there was also probably a section of river on the map that is designated as catch and release, fly fishing only.

Regardless of the authenticity of Neolithic special regulation waters, generations of anglers have relied heavily upon maps. There is a lot of water around, and without a map there might be countless hours of fruitless scouting or fishing. Some might find this adventurous or the purest form of experiencing nature. These people might be unemployed or otherwise burdened by too much free time. The rest of us, to one degree or another, utilize maps.

Even in the few decades that I’ve been fishing, I’ve employed a number of forms of maps. When I started out, I remember seeking the printed out or hand-drawn maps from fly shops. These were probably the timeliest, with scrawled notes and up-to-the-minute corrections. Copied versions of copies from time immemorial, these maps represent a strong, personal engagement. Scale isn’t really the forte of such maps, with poorly rendered houses and fences attempting to serve as the distinguishing features around an otherwise nondescript squiggly line.

This led to using a topographic map in tandem with the fly shop maps. Although by no means technical, topographic maps did provide a relative wealth of information. Not only were there elevation lines to determine stream gradient, there were shortcuts, land designations, and those ubiquitous fish-with-a-hook icons that seemed to be scattered randomly. Especially useful for high-elevation, small-stream trout fishing, a stack of topo maps was always in the back seat. However, I couldn’t get away from my hand drawn heritage. Highlighter was used to designate special regulations, and asterisks marked parking options. Grease stains marked where to get barbecue.

A lot of this was prior to the explosion of the internet. The web is so incredibly valuable for information gathering in nearly every facet of fly fishing. I can’t imagine planning a trip, getting water levels, or researching where I’ll be getting dinner after a day on the water without the internet. But even the best sites are often lacking when trying to get specific and comprehensive stream details. Interestingly enough, I’ve encountered a number of websites that simply scan and upload the old maps. Virginia features an image of a hand drawn Mossy Creek map on the VDGIF site.

Guidebooks exist on the other end of the spectrum. These are often overkill. Like an encyclopedia, they cover everything – just a little bit. Sometimes these do have hand drawn maps, but the detail level stops at road crossings or rail road tracks. You can usually tell what part of the state the author is from or fishes the most, as the descriptions are significantly more in-depth and written with more gusto. Although they have the potential to be quickly out of date as it relates to regulations or access, the descriptions and insights do offer a good synopsis of unfamiliar waters. I have a stack of these, most of them functionally obsolete and underutilized. But they do fill up my bookshelf, so there’s that.

The first time I fished the Battenkill in Vermont a few years back, I stopped into the Orvis flagship store for some guidance. For such storied water, there is not a whole lot available online as it relates to how to fish the river. I just wanted ask where I might find good access and avoid the bulk of kayakers on a beautiful summer weekend. To my surprise, the employee at the fly fishing counter pulled out a Xeroxed map and began drawing lines, arrows, and margin notes. Immediately I felt prepared. This guy could have been sending me to my imminent doom, but I had confidence in his instructions. It was also relieving to not have to buy some laminated, tri-fold map with a bunch of unnecessary information. I just wanted a little bit of knowledge, and it was offered freely and tangibly. I could, quite literally, take it with me

I keep a lot of fishing stuff in the name of nostalgia. Too much, in fact. I have a stack of old licenses and Trout Unlimited calendars that I’ve packed and moved more than I’ve looked at. If I could do it all over again, I wish I would have saved some of those fly shop maps. The first time I was given a map of the LeTort. Arkansas’ White River access points. “Memorabilia” like that is a much more real link to where I’ve fished and how I came to know those places.

The reality is, nothing is going to ever be an adequate replacement for time on the stream with a local and seasoned angler. Whether it be fishing with an acquaintance or a guide, no media is going to be as helpful as an on-stream experience. But maps that have been given in conjunction with specific information are the next best thing. Combining technical advice with stained black lines is a surefire way to increase success on a new stream. Plus, there is a certain charm to sitting in your car, looking at a map with a scribbled copse of pine trees circled in pen, and looking upstream to see that precise location. That is where you’ll fish, and that is where you’ll fish with a little more confidence.

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