Scouting New Waters

    Make your first cast count by doing your homework before you hit the water.


    — By Dylan Tramp

    In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it’s easy to wish we were able to spend more time on the water. Fortunately for us, there are now more tools than ever to help all anglers, regardless of skill level, make the most of their time on the water.

    Many of us are familiar with the term “scouting” as it relates to preparing for the deer or waterfowl seasons each fall, so why not apply the same scouting principals to our time spent on the water? In this article we will dive into different tools that anglers can use while preparing for a trip to the lake, reservoir or river. These tools can be extra beneficial for trips to unfamiliar waters.

    We are very fortunate in the Dakotas and Minnesota to have so many bodies of waters to choose from, but, at the same time, it can quickly become an overwhelming task trying to pick a lake, reservoir or river to start fishing. If you want to make an educated decision on where to start, there are a few tools out there that can help with just that.

    Online Resources

    My first stop when planning a weekend trip to unfamiliar waters is typically the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department website where there are plenty of surveys and reports that can help me find a starting point. As a side note, I’m a South Dakota resident, so I will specifically refer to the tools found on the SDGFP’s website as examples. However, most state wildlife agencies have similar resources available. They might have different names for varying reports or a different layout to their website, but with a little effort you can pare down the information found on any wildlife agency’s website to help you target specific fish species in specific bodies of water.

    For fellow South Dakotans following along, navigate your way to Here you will find many useful and, in my opinion, underused tools such as fish surveys, stocking reports, angler surveys and several handy maps.

    The first thing I check are the species-specific graphs that identify how many fish were surveyed at each lake by state fisheries biologists. This provides a quick and easy snapshot of what fishing might be like at any given lake and where you might best concentrate your efforts.

    It is important to understand how these surveys are compiled prior to making a decision on which lake to fish. Generally speaking, fish numbers are surveyed by means of gill net, hoop net, frame net or electrofishing methods.

    The gill net is the most common survey method, as this is the most conducive and effective method to sample a lake. However, to effectively sample panfish populations, a frame net is required. Likewise, to sample largemouth bass, electrofishing is often used.

    Fisheries crews from state wildlife agencies run various open-water surveys from ice-out when spawning efforts start through the fall until ice shows up again. All of the species- and lake-specific data is recorded and available for anglers to use to their advantage. Photo courtesy SDGFP

    In terms of the most popular survey method, multiple gill nets are set out and left overnight to collect fish. The number of nets used often depends upon the size of the lake being surveyed, as more nets are required for larger bodies of water to get a fair sample size. Biologists then check the nets and document the number of each species of fish caught in the net. A quick measurement is also taken, and the fish are quickly returned to the water.

    What all this means for anglers is that these surveys are compiled in a user-friendly graph that quickly allows us to see how many walleye, perch, bass or other species of fish were caught in each lake. The surveys are typically displayed in a color-coded bar graph that also displays the size classes of fish that are in each lake. For example, if you are looking for that trophy walleye, you can quickly see which lake had the highest number of walleyes netted that were over 20 inches in length. In South Dakota, these graphs are species-specific, which makes it really simple to pick out a lake after determining which species you might be after. After identifying a few prime candidates, you can then take it one step further and select lake-specific reports and see the history of surveys along with other pertinent data.

    The best way to predict the future is to study the past, and survey information from state wildlife agencies can help anglers target specific fish species in specific bodies of water.

    Another useful report is the stocking report. Here you can see where and how frequently fish have been stocked. This report is extremely helpful, as net surveys are not always a perfect representation of what fish are in any given lake. There will always be outliers and things that happen to skew the data. For example, if you see that a lake has been stocked intensively with walleyes each of the last 10 years, odds are you should stand a pretty fair chance at finding a few walleyes to test out your hookset.

    Another interesting report often available to fishermen is the creel survey. Creel surveys are interview-based in which anglers are asked various questions ranging from which species they were targeting to how many fish were kept or how long it took to catch the fish.

    These surveys can be interesting to read, because interpreting the data gives you a decent snapshot of what you might expect while fishing a certain lake for a particular species. You might also notice trends such as an increase in harvest, a decrease in harvest duration or seasonal trends in which anglers have better luck catching a certain species during a particular time of year. Creel surveys are essentially real-life fishing reports, as documented by credible fish biologists — no fish stories or misleading information here.

    Other Scouting Tactics

    As great as these resources are, keep in mind that not all lakes are surveyed and incredible fishing opportunities could exist in the lake next door that wasn’t surveyed. This is where more conventional scouting methods can still be effective.

    For starters, consider calling the local bait shop, fish biologist, game warden or fishing guide to inquire about Lake A or Lake B. When planning an out-of-state fishing trip or a trip to a new lake, don’t completely overlook cyber scouting such as published online fishing reports, fishing forums, Facebook pages or even fishing-related smartphone apps. This type of fishing report isn’t likely to be the most effective way to find a hot bite, but it can simply supplement your scouting and give you a further taste of what you might come to expect when you show up at the boat ramp.

    Another advantageous tool that some state agencies provide are lake topographic maps. These maps aren’t always as detailed as the topo maps that you can load onto your electronic fish finder, such as the Navionics or LakeMaster chips, but these are free of charge and give you the same basic layout of the lake.

    If you have the time, it’s often a good idea to study the lake prior to your arrival rather than studying the contour map on your 5-inch fish-finder screen while your fishing buddies are anxiously waiting to cast their lines. If you study the map prior to your fishing trip, you can develop a plan of action and know exactly where you want to start searching for fish upon arrival. After all, we want to maximize the amount of time we spend on the water and would rather not spend half the day at the boat ramp discussing where to start.

    If you are not familiar with reading topo or contour maps, the concept is very simple. These maps have contour lines that represent a certain depth. Contour lines will be labeled with a number that correlates with how deep the water will be in that part of the lake.

    The author, pictured here with a nice fall walleye, is an avid angler, public-land bowhunter and freelance writer from Rapid City, S.D.
    Photo by Dylan Tramp

    More detailed maps show contour lines in 1- or 2-foot intervals, while some may show 5-foot depth changes. The closer together the contour lines are, the steeper the bottom of the lake drops off. Conversely, if two contour lines are farther apart, this represents a much more gradual depth change. If you find circles on your map, this could either represent a deep bowl or an underwater hump. Check the number associated with the contour line and reference it to the next closest contour line. This will tell you if you are looking at a deep hole or underwater hump such as a rock pile. Some maps go even further and identify other features such as weedy areas, areas of submerged timber, rock piles, marinas, boat docks, etc.

    These paper maps can be an invaluable tool in your tackle box. The key is understanding these maps and finding features that might hold fish. Fish and baitfish are often found in close proximity to structure or lake features that are out of the ordinary. For example, if you are fishing a lake that is a large bowl and rather featureless, the one or two abnormalities such as a steeper drop off or underwater hump might be just enough to concentrate fish and baitfish alike. For reference, a few key features that anglers often hone in on are points, islands, submerged timber, flats, steep drop-offs, highly vegetated areas and even manmade structures such as riprap along roadways.

    Open-Water Scouting

    The last scouting measure I often employ happens on the water. Here, I often like to survey the lake with my electronics and let the fish finder (or graph or depth finder or whatever you want to call your electronics) tell you if fish are, in fact, holding in the areas that you have previously identified. As simple as this may sound, it is often times overlooked in our haste to simply start fishing.

    Why spend precious fishing time at a spot that doesn’t appear to be holding any fish? Most fish finders will read the depth at any given speed, but they aren’t always as efficient at identifying fish at higher speeds. My fish finder seems to become less effective above 10 mph. Play around with your setup and find that optimal speed in which you can effectively mark fish while still traveling at an efficient rate of speed. Keep in mind that being able to survey while keeping your boat up on plane is ideal.

    Now, there certainly are drawbacks to spending time scouting the lake with your electronics, but I believe most times the pros outweigh the cons. A scenario in which I would exercise caution would be when fish are in very shallow or extremely clear water. If the fish are skittish, cruising your two-stroke above their heads might be working against you. Regardless, this can be a very effective tool and, at times, will put you on fish faster than you otherwise would have stumbled upon them by fishing before finding.

    If you are the type of fisherman who likes to kick back and simply enjoy time on the water, that is great. This is, after all, certainly an underlying reason why most of us love to fish. However, if you want to make your fishing trips more calculated and make the most out of your limited time, consider these tips for scouting new waters.