How To Read A Map

Learn how to read a lake map to help you find the hotspots for catching big fish!
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Hey, guys. This is Gene Jensen with In my opinion, if you want to become the best fisherman you can possibly be, you've got to know how to read a topo map, or how to read a lake map. That's what I'm going to talk about today. I'm going to talk about what are the different things you're looking at on a topo map, what the contour lines mean. I'm going to talk about a bunch of things, so let's go ahead and get things started and dive right into a map.


   What I've got here is a lake map of Clark's Hill Lake. This is the lake I'm on right now. First thing you do when you get any map, whether it's a topo map, a road map, or anything else, first thing you do is you look for the map key, or what this is called is map symbols. I'm going to bring the camera down here so you guys can see that. You look at this, and it will tell you what each of these little symbols means. This right here, that right there is your river channel, or your main channel. Then these little dot-dot-dash-dot-dot-dot-dash is an SOS sign. Not really, but that's your creek channel that runs right up the middle of a draw. You got islands and humps and things like that. We'll talk about that here in just a second, but that's the first thing you do, you look at the key of your map and figure out what some of the symbols are you're going to be seeing as you're studying this map, what they mean.


   In order for me to be able to teach this, I've got a dry erase board and some dry erase markers. I'm going to bring the camera down to this dry erase board, and I'm going to draw out some of the things that you're going to be looking for on the map. Some of the key places that hold fish. First thing I do when I go to a new lake, is I look for main lake points, depending on the time of the year. If it's the spring, I'm looking for spawning flats, and then I'm working my way out of the creek channel and fishing points on there, but the first thing I always look for is I want to find a good point, especially in the summertime.


   First of all, a contour line. The fish are schooling behind me. You see these lines on a contour map. These are called contour lines. Some maps, they're five foot intervals, some maps they're ten, some 20, some 30. You want it to be the lowest number as you can get. In this map, I'm going to say it's one foot intervals, just for teaching purposes. Start off, this is a point. It can go way out here and so on and so forth. You start off and this is the land and then all of this is water. You've got one foot deep, two feet, three feet, four feet, five feet, six feet, seven feet deep. Goes all the way out. This is a point, you can see how, if this was a three dimensional image, it would look like this.


   I'll come up here and I'll throw a Carolina rig, or crank bait, or a jig, or something, and I'll drag it off of this point, like a spinnerbait, for search bait, things like that. I'll stay out here and I'll fish at all different angles and throw up onto this point.


   If you're looking at a topo map and you see circles, usually it's associated with a point somewhere. They're not going to be as pretty as these circles, but this is the hump. You can see if it was a three dimensional image, the land would slope up and come up and it'd be a hump. On the mainland we call this a hill, but when it's underwater, we call it a hump. You've got one foot, two foot, three foot, four foot, five foot deep hump.


   Now this also shows something else. The land between the point and the hump, this little spot right here, it's called a saddle, if you're looking at the mainland. On a regular map, when I learned map reading in the army, we called it a saddle. Underwater we call it a draw, or you'll call it several different names. The lake that I'm on right now, Clark's Hill, we call it a blow-through if it's a shallow draw because the wind will blow across, and the fish will position themselves right here with the wind blowing this way and it will blow bait fish across that saddle and they're sitting there eating it, feeding on it.


   Right now, it being summertime, I've been finding the fish in these saddles, deep, 15, 20 foot deep saddles. I haven't been able to catch any because for some reason, they're not eating, but I know they're there. I see them on my depth finder.


   This is a pocket, or a cove. I'm going to try to draw it. It's going to look a lot like a point, but instead of this being the land, this is all the land. This is shallow water, this is deep water. On a map, you might see a line going up in there. That's your creek channel. You'll see it all the way out as deep as it'll go and that's what you're looking for, if the fish are holding down in the creek channel. This is your highway. You got your main body of water that has the river channel, and then the creek channel. That's your highway. That's what the bait fish will travel up and down and that's what the largemouth will travel up and down chasing the bait fish. Really good place to fish, but very difficult when it gets out deep.


   Let's talk about a flat. Each of these contour lines, the further apart they are, the flatter the land. The closer they are, the steeper it is. Say, for instance, I've got a point that looks like this. Very steep point, then all of a sudden you start seeing contour lines do this. This is a flat point. This is in one foot intervals, so it's a one foot change, and this amount of distance and one foot change in this amount of distance. It's a very flat point and what I love is long, flat points that look like this. Some people might call this a flat. Some people may call it a lightly sloping point, but if you're looking for a flat, say, this is your mainland, it lands over here. You see a contour line come out like this and a contour line come out this, and all of a sudden you've got a contour line way out here and a contour line way out here.


   Here's your flat. This is where grass grows. This is where there are stumps. A lot of different places, and if there's good current, or there's good bait fish in the area, the bass will be positioned on the stumps. I'll come in here with a crankbait or spinnerbait or, Carolina rig, or something that I can hit these stumps with. They're not going to be that pretty. That's one of the things that I love to do is fish a grass flat, or a stump flat.


   Let's talk about what a secondary point is. Say, for instance, I've got a point that looks like this. All this is under water. You can see this on a map. You can see the land coming out to it, so you know that's a point, but you don't know that there's another point that comes off of that point. This thing may come way out here. This is a secondary point. Primary point, or main lake point. Secondary point.


   Some people will also call the smaller points that are coming off of the bank, you got your land right here and you just got a little small point that comes out. Doesn't come out very far and then it's just gone. Some people will call that a secondary point, as well. Keep that in mind when you're reading about it. This may be what they're talking about.


   As I was saying, when these contour lines are very close together, it's a steep drop-off. All of a sudden, they start to get further apart. This steep drop-off, if this is the land, the steep drop-off is what we call a bluff wall. Let me change the color. This is all land. Starting from actually out of the water, going straight down, if it's a straight drop, that's a bluff wall. At the bottom of the bluff wall, a lot of times you'll find rock piles and things like that, that'll hold fish that come up just a little bit higher. The fish will be positioned on those rock piles. They'll be positioned halfway up the bluff wall if there's a rock that broke out of it, or things like that, little places for them to hide, they'll be along that bluff wall. Really hard to fish if they're on the wall, but if they're at the bottom, you can usually catch them on a drop shot or something like that.


   Now, a ledge. I can explain a ledge as exactly what is stated. You've got your contour lines coming out here, and then all of a sudden they get really close together. Then there's a space, and they get really close together again. Another space and really close together. This is two ledges. One here and one there. What happens is it's coming along, actually three ledges. One, two, three. Comes along here and the ledge is right where the top of where it starts to drop off really fast. You have a flat spot and then a drop-off and then a flat spot and a drop-off, and a flat spot and it drops off again. Each of these flat spots are ledges, and the bass will position themselves, a lot of times, right on the lip of that ledge so they can attack what's coming out deep and what's coming up shallow. It's a nice little place for them to ambush prey. I'm going to throw up on that ledge. I'm going to throw along parallel to it, or anything else and see what I can get those fish to hit.


   Say, for instance, it could be anything, but I saw one the other day that this is what I'm talking about. We've got the river channel. Try to draw this really fast. That's the main river channel. Then what you see on the map is you see red dash lines coming across. All that's under water. What you have here is you have a road bed. The reason a road bed is so nice is because a road bed is usually hard bottom, it's usually little ledges on both sides of them, things like that. It's another travel route for the bass to go from deep water to shallow water.


   This is a bridge, a submerged bridge. A lot of times, if you see a road bed crossing a creek channel and there's no bridge marking, you'll still find parts and pieces of a bridge. Maybe, they blew it up and maybe it's in little rubble places around here. Maybe, they just didn't put it on the map and it's still there, or the pilings are still going to be there. There's going to be something there that holds fish, depending on the depth. It could be too deep. It could be too shallow for the time period of the year, but it always good to try to fish the road bed and the bridge associated with it.


   You may also see a road bed coming up a point. There may be another road that comes off of that point that way and stuff like that. Look for those things. Bass use them to go up and down the point and things like that.


   Let me do something really quick before I end this video. Let me show you this because I love fishing points so much. A lot of times you'll see a point that looks like that. You got a shallow side of the point and you got a deep side of the point. It's almost a straight drop-off ledge. These fish will hang out right here a lot. Whether this is the main lake, or this is the main lake, they'll hang out here a lot, and they like to use this steep side to get up onto this point. I'm going to focus most of my attention on this side of the point and right on the very tip top of it. I may make a few casts over here if there's a stump or a brush pile, or a rock pile, or something, but mainly, I'm just going to focus right here on this side of the point. That's just me. A lot of bass fisherman will tell you something different. I've always found that I catch more fish on the steep side than I do on the shallow side.


   That's a good start. Let me get this thing to stop rocking. I hope that helps you, at least, get started reading topo maps. Go out there. Study them. Try to figure out the association between your topo map and you see on your fish finder.


   Some of the small lakes, some of the newer ones don't have topo maps, but what I found is if you go online to the U. S. Geological Survey's website and look at the old topo maps, when it was just dry land, a lot of times that will help you out and help you find little places on that small lake. You just have to do your research.


   The pros, when they're going to a new lake, they'll pick up five, six, seven, eight, nine different types of maps, as many as are available. They'll actually study all of them. The reason they do that is because each map will show something different. Some maps will show a road bed and other maps won't show that road bed. Some maps will show more detailed contour lines, things like that. There are good companies and there are bad companies, but each lake has a different good company and a different bad company. Best way I can say it, or good maps and bad maps.


   I hope you can take this and it will help you learn a little bit more about how to locate fish on a lake. Learn how the fish associate themselves to the structure that you find on a lake map, and you'll find yourself being a lot more successful fisherman. Like I always say, visit for the answer to all your questions about bass fishing, and have a great day.

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