Fishing maps still have their place in today’s high-tech angling world

In today's high-tech world, many of the latest and greatest accomplishments in the fishing world are electronic gadgets that help anglers dissect smaller portions of a lake or river. Paper lake maps, on the other hand, still provide anglers with big-picture details that provide more information about a waterbody than a small, digital screen.

Although the advent of digital fishing technology has anglers more plugged in than ever, an old standby still guides plenty of them as they wander around the waters of northeastern South Dakota.

While digital, electronic fish-finders and microchip-fed navigational charts with GPS can provide anglers with precise, up-to-date information, paper maps still have their place in today’s fishing world because they provide a look at the big picture, said Jim Billig, president and publisher of Sportsman’s Connection fishing maps in Duluth, Minn.

“Some people prefer hard copies of maps because you can get your head around them easier,” he said. “With GPS technology and digital lake maps on a small screen you can only see so much of the lake, especially if it’s a larger body of water like Lake Oahe. No matter what type of paper map is out there, you can visualize and look at a body of water comprehensively. There’s really no substitute for it.”

Research tool

Sportsman’s Connection has been making fishing maps since 1992, when Billig published his first compilation of maps for an area that included the lakes within a 50-mile radius of Duluth.

“At that time, the internet didn’t exist, and it was much more difficult to find lake maps or other reliable information,” he said. “That first book, our flagship publication, was a success, and we expanded from there and now have fishing guides in 12 states, including South Dakota where we cover virtually every publicly accessible lake.”

Billig said fishing maps are ideal research tools for a number of reasons that go beyond simple contour lines and access points.

“In our case we’re not just making maps,” he said. “It’s really a research tool that gives you an overview of the lake that you just can’t get from electronics. On top of depth contours, we include all the vital statistics on a lake — access points, the makeup of the vegetation, where flooded timber is located, (state wildlife agency) stocking reports and surveys, tips from fishing guides or local bait shops — to provide a background of the lake, how it’s being managed and how to fish it.”

In South Dakota, the state Game, Fish and Parks Department has basic lake maps, stocking information and survey results available for most of the state’s fisheries online at However, clicking between pages and compiling all of that information for one body of water, let alone a handful lakes, can be time-consuming. Billig said paper lake maps are still relevant in today’s digitized world because they can provide all of that information in one easy-to-read package anglers can use at home or on the water.

“The big difference between digital information and, for lack of a better term, printed maps is there is usually no accompanying information included with the digital product,” he said. “When fishing concentrated areas the digital products are tremendous, but we want to provide all the other info that you can’t get from a chip — the how to, when to, where to of fishing — and the info you’re not going to know about unless you’re aware of it. We provide everything in one place.”

How they’re made

As far as the actual lake map goes, Billig said most state wildlife agencies and map-making companies rely on decades-old information derived from the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work-relief program during the Dust Bowl era that was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal package.

“In the 1930s and ’40s the CCC crews went out and did some of the mapping and drew the maps,” he said. “The GFP saw fit to maintain and, at times, update that information with their own crews with more modern tech.”

To make a lake map, Billig said corps crews would crisscross a lake with intersecting lines to develop a map of its contours and correlating depths. He said impoundments are a different story, however, and that topographic maps made prior to an area being flooded are often used to develop lake maps for reservoirs.

“We rely heavily on the work government agencies have done,” he said. “For reservoirs or other bodies of water, we take information from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Army Corps of Engineers and even power companies to make the maps. We’ll even use satellite imagery and Google Maps to get an aerial view to provide more detail.”

Billig said obtaining the basic map information is just the start of the process.

“We get the hard copies and digitize them,” he said. “From there we embellish them with color, research where the emerging vegetation is, or look at old maps to find where roadbeds were prior to flooding or impoundment. It’s basic cartography work in gathering the data and then creating the map you see in print.”

Enclosed bodies of water, such as some of the glacial lakes found in northeastern South Dakota, don’t change much through the years because their water levels remain relatively consistent and there is little that could potentially alter the lake beds’ contours. Maps for other water bodies with significant current, such as Lake Oahe or lakes that keep growing such as Waubay and Bitter, are updated regularly, Billig said.

“Most of the natural lakes, like the glacial lakes that run through the northern states, they’re largely static,” he said. “They do improve the maps over time, and we watch for updates and then update ours accordingly. We updated all the maps again in 2016, but we still sell some of the older books, as they do have an extended shelf life. Some things change, but a lot of the information is timeless in nature.”

For more information on Sportsman’s Connection, go to Each of their fishing map guide books is loaded with info, including:


  • Lake data, including location, size, depth, access descriptions, accommodations and more so you know what to expect before you arrive
  • Easy-to-use area maps so you can find any lake quickly and also discover other nearby fishing opportunities
  • Public ramps and accesses where you can launch your fishing boat, canoe or kayak
  • Fishing piers and other shore fishing locations that are perfect for family fishing trips
  • Marked fishing spots to help you find fish the first time out
  • Practical fishing information from DNR personnel and fishing tips from area experts for local insight into many of America’s top fishing lakes, rivers and streams
  • The best fishing techniques for bass, bluegills, crappies, catfish, muskies, perch, northern pike, salmon, trout, walleyes and other gamefish
  • Fish stocking data and surveys for your favorite fish, including bass, catfish, muskies, panfish, trout and walleyes


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Civilian Conservation Corps Museum of South Dakota

The Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the first of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to take shape after the Great Depression beset the nation. The corp’s goal was two-fold: conservation of natural resources and salvaging young men, many of whom were out of work and had families to support.

The project was intended to promote environmental conservation and to build good citizens through vigorous, disciplined outdoor labor. It existed for fewer than 10 years, but left a legacy of roads, bridges, buildings and, yes, even lake maps, throughout the U.S.

Between 1933 and 1941, more than 3 million men served in the corps, and more than 27,000 men contributed to many significant projects in South Dakota.

The Civilian Conservation Corps Museum of South Dakota is in Hill City and provides access to the historical significance and accomplishments of the program in the state. It is home to a growing collection of photos, artifacts and a roster of the men who were part of the corps.

For more information on the Civilian Conservation Corps, go to or

Source: Civilian Conservation Corps Museum of South Dakota