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Take the Fear Out Of
Navigating Big Waters
By Phil Rolfe
Navigating big waters does not have to be a traumatic experience, especially if you are prepared and have the commitment to learn the water. Many vacations are ruined because of lost lower units or boat damage. This does not have to be the case. Reality is that in almost all cases: hitting underwater hazards is due one thing; operator error. Possible exceptions are poor maps for a particular body of water.
Furthermore, the more you learn about a given body of water, the more fishing opportunities come your way. On more than one occasion, I have talked to guests at Witch Bay Camp, where I serve as walleye pro, who never left the bay which is only two miles long. Granted, these are in the minority, but none the less it still happens. The underlying reason is that they are afraid they’ll either get lost or hit a reef. Neither has to happen; especially if take the time for a little preparation prior to hitting the water.
First, you need a good map. Don’t cut corners here. Get the best map you can for the particular body of water you are fishing. On the Lake of the Woods, that happens to be the Canadian Hydrographic Service, Fisheries and Oceans Department Charts. This is the most accurate map I have ever used. For our area, it’s chart number 6212. If this map says it’s there; it’s there, count on it.
In addition to the great accuracy, I like the fact that everything shallower than twelve feet is shaded in blue. These areas show up very well, they seem to stick out at you. Not only does it bring out the hazards, but some very good fishing spots as well.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back preparation before we hit the water. Time to get some help as to where the fish have been biting. A local bait shop should be happy to mark up your map for you. It’s to their benefit if you catch fish, you might come back to the area, you might even bring some people with you. In most cases, you’ll find them extremely helpful. In fact if they weren’t helpful, I wouldn’t do business with them.
So now you got some hot spots to try and you are all keyed up and ready to go. Not so fast, time to look that map over real good. Pay particular attention to the underwater hazards that can do you serious damage. Put a big circle around them so they’ll stand out. I’ll do this without fail everytime I fish a new area. Got to know where the trouble is.
In addition to a good map, a compass is part of the mandatory equipment for safe boating, not optional, but mandatory. With a compass, map, and a little common sense you can get around the lake quite safely and improve your catch rate as well.
Let’s add one ingredient for an awesome navigation package. Without mentioning the name, most of you already know that I am talking about GPS, the hottest piece of navigational equipment to hit the scene, ever.
GPS allows you to do so much. You can mark waypoints for navigation, build those waypoints into routes, mark navigation hazards, and of course find and refind fishing spots. This wonderful piece of equipment has done more for anglers than any single innovation since the sonar.
Bear in mind that not all GPS is created equal. There are your price point units that are relatively inexpensive, they give you basic information and functions. From there, each step up costs more money and in most cases performs more functions. This is the case whether you are talking portable (handheld) or mounted.
Then there’s the top of the line units. Most of these fall into the category of what is now called ECS (electronic charting systems) which have built in mapping through the use of cartridges. Generally, these maps show land and water, but nothing underneath such as contours. These units are quite sophisticated yet fairly user friendly.
One unit that offers more map detail is the Global Map 2000 with their C-Map cartridges which also show contours. This is such an asset, that in my book it puts the Global Map 2000 in a class by itself. At least until some of the other players start adding detailed mapping.
Talk about piece of mind. Knowing that you will be able to find your way back to camp that night is reassuring. Also, knowing that you are not lost, other than you just don’t know where you are; takes the panic out of the moment.
Placing waypoints in a straight line so as not to run you over reefs, islands, or whatever is paramount. You should space your points as far apart as is safe, yet still allowing you a straight-line run
Waypoints are easy to navigate during the day, but what about during night or foggy conditions when you can’t see landmarks. This thought should be key in your mind when saving waypoints.
As you place points to and from frequently visited areas it is wise to build them into a route.
Another valuable use of my Global Map 2000 is for relocating fishing spots. Especially those off shore underwater humps and islands. Common sense says that the harder a spot is to find, the less it will get visited by other fisherman. GPS makes returning to those hard to locate spots a breeze.
In my job as fishing pro at Witch Bay Camp on the vast Lake of the Woods, I need to be able to find those hard to reach spots with a minimum of time and hassle.
I find it works well to build a route of fishing spots in a specific area. For example, I have a route called North Slate Island which includes all my spots in the Slate Island area. Spot hopping becomes a cinch with this kind of information.
Another good use from the fishing perspective is run the 20 or 25’ contour on an off shore hump, placing icons denoting the layout of the structure as well as marking the spot on the spot. And believe me every structure has a spot on the spot, you can count on it. Key points are the inside and outside turns, the extended points, and the sharp breaks.
Last but not least is using the GPS to mark hazards. At Witch Bay Camp where my job is to put our guests on the best walleye spots (free), it is paramount that I do not lead a bunch boats onto a rock pile. Each time I visit a new area, I seek out the hazards and enter them into my Global Map 2000 as a waypoint. Even though each will have a different waypoint number, they will have the same name---”Danger.”
These areas are prominently displayed on my map screen and give me confidence to run safely in areas that I have limited experience in. I would offer that keeping “off” hazards is probably one of the most important uses of the GPS for me.
So there you have it, a good map, compass, and GPS will take the fear
and stress out of navigating big waters and I guarantee that you will put
more fish in the boat.
About the author: Phil Rolfe is the walleye professional at Witch
Bay Camp. For more information on the camp call 807-468-5262 or check
their web site at
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