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Researching New Waters

Part of the fun of exploring new water is the research before heading out.
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The adventure and challenge of exploring new waters and catching fish in them is, for some individuals, one of fishing’s great pleasures. One excellent way to spend these upcoming winter months (between winter sports and ice fishing of course) is planning next spring or summer’s fishing trip to a place you have never visited.  Part of the planning process is doing research on the area you intend to fish. This gives you a starting place in developing your list of tackle necessary for the trip (if you get it done now you might be able to add it your Christmas list).

There are many useful tools available that will make researching your trip easier.  Books, newspaper articles, the internet, maps of the area, and of course, the telephone are among the tools used to gather information for your upcoming trip.  There is an astounding amount of information available to the angler these days.

Before you start gathering information pick the dates for your trip.  This is useful because it allows you to search for fishing reports and tournament results on the internet or in past articles from magazines for the dates that you plan to be in that area.  Generally, conditions are the similar year to year around a particular date, plus or minus a couple of weeks.  However, variables, such as cold fronts, moon phases, high run-off due to rain or snowmelt, can affect year-to-year conditions somewhat.  That’s where you’ll need to adapt when you actually take your trip in order to maximize your chances of success.

Next, create a list of questions. What types of fish are present in this body of water?  What do they eat?  What are the stocking plans for that water?  A phone call to the biologist who manages the body of water will answer many such questions.  Are there biological studies available from the Division of Wildlife (or other managing agencies)?  Knowing the types of fish and how they are managed gives you a place to start learning about the habits of those species you will be targeting.

Learning everything you can about the habits of the fish you intend to catch will make your trip more successful.  Read all you can, attend seminars and sport shows, and ask a lot of questions to learn as much as you can about the species you plan to pursue. 

Books are a great source to learn about fish behaviors

Next get yourself a map, look it over carefully, and mark likely locations based on what you know so far.  Keep this in mind, fish basically do two things while they are alive –spawn and eat.   

Maps are a great resource
During the time you plan be on the water are the fish spawning, going to spawn, or have they have already spawned? Where do they typically spawn, streams, gravel parts, etc.? What are their migration paths between spawning grounds and their feeding areas? If your trip is planned to be well after the spawn and the fish are in their summer or fall patterns (assuming spring spawners), those fish will be focused on feeding and so plan accordingly.

What do the fish eat in this body of water during this time of year you will be visiting? In order to find feeding fish you must be able to find their forage. It’s necessary to understand the habits prey as well as those of game fish. Take walleyes for example, 85 percent of their diet is other fish. If the primary forage base at your destination is shad, then the walleyes will be with the shad. Shad are a pelagic fish; they suspend in the open basin during the summer. Thus, it is likely the walleye will be suspended with them. How do you fish for suspended fish that are focused on shad? In this situation I would plan on trolling suspended crankbaits. Or if the walleye’s forage is primarily perch, you should look for the structure that attracts perch.


In this case, you can cast crankbaits or jigs. Something with orange on it is a good option when walleye are feeding on perch. If the perch are spread over a broad flat then you may want to troll in order to cover the water.

During the time your trip is planned what will the water be like? If it’s a stream will the water be running fast or dirty? If it’s a reservoir will the water be falling, rising, or stable? Fish will follow the water in a reservoir. Walleyes, for example, will typically be in the bays during rising water and on points or suspended during falling water, depending on time of year and water temperatures. Make a call to the Corp of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, or water agency to get information on water conditions. Visiting their websites will often provide reservoir water levels or stream flows. This information can help you predict possible fish locations to mark on your map. If water will be running high and dirty, ask yourself if you should change the dates of your trip to a time when the conditions are better. That is assuming that run-off isn’t a good thing for the type of fish you’re after.

Another great source of information on any body of water is a local bait, tackle, or fly shop.  Pick up the telephone and give them a call. Ask to speak with somebody who is knowledgeable about the water you’re planning on fishing.  Be sure to tell them when you plan to come.  Find out what type of baits, lures, or flies work during that time of year.  Get friendly with these folks.  Most of them have time and are willing to talk during the off season.  Be sure to stop by the shop and buy something from them when you get to your destination.  It’s a good idea to buy a map and have the shop personnel mark it up for you.  They might even be willing to mark one up and send it to you before your trip.  Consider hiring a guide for a day if you’re unfamiliar with the area and species. You can learn more in one day with a guide than a week trying spots by yourself.

Phone calls are great ways to get first hand information

Recently the internet has become a great source of fishing information.  Fishing reports over many years are still there and are easily searchable to find.  Posting to a forum, such as the one hosted by Fish Explorer is a great way to ask about a body of water and gather information.  You might even meet someone who is willing to take you out and show you around for a day when you get there.  Offer to take someone out if you have a boat.  Anglers love to brag about their successes; so take advantage of it!

If you have the chance, fall and winter is a great time to go visit the reservoir or a stream you’re planning to fish.  The water is low, and structure is visible.  Take your camera and GPS, if you have them.  Take photos of interesting structure and mark the location with your GPS or use the old fashioned way; triangulate between landmarks.  Be sure to take a notebook to write things down.  It will all look different when the reservoir is full, there are leaves on the trees, and six months have passed, so be observant and take good notes.

Once you’ve done your research, you need to plan on where you’re going to start and decide what presentations you’ll want to use.  This just gives a starting point and can help you create your equipment list of what to bring and possibly buy.  You’ll need to adapt your locations and presentations as you learn more while on the water.  Part of your plan should be to visit the shops you’ve been calling and talk about what’s been happening to the bite. Be sure to plan on spending some money on new baits or flies as a thank you for their help.  Plan to stop by boat ramps and visit with people who are leaving the water.  If they’re catching fish they’ll talk about it.  You may have to modify your plan after gathering all this new information, but maybe not, if the locals aren’t catching fish.

Get ready for your next new fishing adventure by doing your homework now.  Learn about the fish and the area you’re planning on visiting.  Make some new friends over the phone and on the internet while you’re doing your research.  Most of all have fun with this because it’s part of the adventure of exploring new water!


© 2024 Dan Swanson
Photographs by David Coulson, Colorado State Editor,
About the author, Dan Swanson:
Dan Swanson is a multi-species guide in Northern Colorado. He is an instructor and seminar speaker on fishing techniques with a specialty around the use of fishing electronics. Dan competes professionally in walleye tournaments around North America. He is on the Pro-Staff for Ranger Boats, Evinrude, Lowrance, St. Croix Rods and Costa Del Mar.