I got into trouble on a local fishing forum site once. The crime? I gave away a secret spot. At the time, I had just discovered a program called Google Earth. It lets you look down at the globe from the company's incredible satellite system. The conspiracy-theorist inside me was worried about Google knowing where I was – but since it also let me show people where the fish were, I threw privacy to the wind and installed the software. The danger – and elegance – of Google the global entity, isn't the subject of this article – using it as a powerful tool to improve your understanding and ability to catch fish is.
It's likely you haven't spent the time using Google Earth as we have; since the onset of our site, we've used our namesake “FishySpot” maps, to provide local anglers places they're likely to catch fish. This image – of live elephants storming across the grasslands of Africa – is only one of the incredible images you'll find on the site, and in its supportive blogs, forums, communities like National Geographic (who supplied this image to Google for use in the Google Earth database), and sites like ours. Google might be scary, but man it is an incredible source of visual, statistical, and scientific data.
Let's look at using the free, public version of Google Earth as a fishing tool.
Using Google Earth for Trip Planning
Stop for a minute and think about one of your favorite places to fish. The more serious anglers involved in the sport don't have only, one, two, or five “secret” spots. And, they know that however many spots they might have, that they're not all that secret. In the world of offshore angling, a spot fifty yards away might actually be a bonanza Mango Snapper hole, but the number(s) you have, seem like it is a dead wasteland producing nothing but soft sand; exact locations can be secretive, and held very carefully from prying (and fishing) eyes. It's why professional charter captains won't let you carry a GPS capable of marking their holes.
Screen shots like this one, shot in a place called “Sweetwater,” on the north side of Tampa Bay, can be very helpful to an angler unfamiliar with a specific spot. This broken sea wall's been there for 80 years, and has been producing wintertime redfish and snook ever since. Sharing these simple images got the author in trouble years ago on local forums; the digital maps we supply now – that can be easily downloaded to your phone or GPS, or printed for carrying in your tackle box – are sure to raise a few more eyebrows. Like the old saying goes: “Hook them if they can't take a joke.” Or something similar in meaning.
Google Earth comes with a wide selection of built-in icons. Each icon represents a “Marker.” Markers can show anything from where to get a bite to eat, if you're addicted to tofu-burgers, to where to find a highway. When we build FishySpot maps, all this stuff gets turned off, and we use a custom collection of icons we built ourselves when we created the feature (and installed the commercial software we use to build and publish them). They represent the fish we catch and things like kayaks, flyrods, and wading clothing. When you first start working with Google Earth, we strongly suggest you spend the time exploring the incredible depth of knowledge the site offers.
The bells and whistles included with the program when you first install it, includes everything from roads, areas of special interest, traffic, local weather, and much much more. There is definitely a “global awareness” lean to the content, but the wealth of scientific and statistical data you can find and use in the program, far outweigh concerns about privacy or propoganda.
Using the Satellite Views
The incredible thing about the program is that you're looking down on the earth. The distance you are at depends on how far into the earth (or far away) you zoom in (there are a dozen ways to zoom in and out, and you'll have to pick one you like). So if you zoom into a place like Sweetwater (a residential neighborhood), you can first look at the entire area, and begin the process of fishing trip planning. It's when all the bells and whistles (albeit fun, useful, and very well-designed) are turned off that the fishing tool begins to appear.
On the left of the image is a boat ramp. The right center is the neighborhood called Sweetwater. It's an excellent wintertime snook and redfish spot, and Google Earth can easily help you plan a trip where you drop in your boat, run to the fish-rich residential dock structure, effectively scout the area, and return.
Important Tools for Anglers
There are dozens of things you can do with Google Earth. You can record trips from the sky so you can zoom in and out, and over areas of interest, as if you were in a silent and invisible aircraft. You can stand on the street and look around, picking out the perfect restaurant in a strip center around the corner, or around the world. You can put images of a store's interior onto the map, so a potential customer can walk into the store after they've found its street address. But, for the angler in me, there are several things it can do that are of particular importance.
It can let you drop “Placeholders.” By default they're little yellow pins like you would stick on a cork-board on the wall of your office, or (appropriately) on a map. The program comes with a collection of alternative icons, and you can control their size and color. We've built a collection of custom icons, which you can download from our site.
It can Create a Path. Paths you create let you estimate – almost to the inch – how far your boat is going to go, from the moment you drop it off the trailer, until you stop at any number of spots along the way. It's a great gasoline-usage estimator. (companion programs like NCEarth add the ability to estimate actual gas usage with Google Earth overlays).
It can mark an area with a Polygon. This is particularly good for sharing broad spots with fellow anglers, like the fan-shape formed by spillways, where freshwater spills into brackish or saltwater after good rains.
It can save the maps. We cannot stress the importance of good log-keeping. If you want to continue to grow your skills as an angler, you need to know what happened last year in this same spot under the same – or very different – weather conditions. Knowing the conditions relative to the results of your efforts, creates a connection between you and the fish's environment, that you will never learn from a guide, a friend, or a fishing forum (even our incredibly cool forums).
They are compatible with GPS and Mobile Devices. Something we're going to be talking about in future articles is the use of sites like TheOnlineFisherman and our FishySpot maps on your mobile devices. Our team is already focused on mobile versions of the site, and the maps will be a major component of that functionality.
They can be shared. From our FishySpot maps to that special secret place you just found by accident, the ability to share the maps you or others create in Google Earth will expand your reach to your fellow anglers. The growth and cooperation exhibited by our community is what makes it so much fun, and so very sustainable.
The three most important tools for creating your own maps are the Add PlaceHolder, Add Path, and Add Polygon. PlaceHolders can mark specific docks, specific holes, and exact places you've caught fish. Paths can be used to determine how far you'll move for a specific trip plan, and polygons let you mark shapes – larger areas you want to remember and/or share with your fishing buddies.
Creating a Fishing Trip Plan
The first step in creating a map is to create what the program calls a “PlaceHolder.” You simply zoom into the place you want to mark (in this case a boat ramp near a local bridge called The Courtney Campbell Causeway, or CCC for short), and click the tool. A new one (named “Untitled” until you change it) appears on the map. It contains an exact GPS coordinate, with Latitude and Longitude accurate (so “they” say, whoever “they” are) to 5 meters, or about 15 feet. Rename it, and add descriptive copy if you want, and add the Placeholder to your map.
Placeholders are simple to create: click the Tool's icon on the top toolbar and change the name, add descriptive copy, and drag the marker to the exact spot you want to mark. These marks contain highly-accurate Longitude and Latitude information.
You're encouraged to use the extensive field controls the program provides. The Description field alone can act as a page connecting your trips to the exact places you caught specific fish. We use physical logs – the ones from FishTale Logs, but we wouldn't want to live without the information that we end up putting into Google Earth Maps.
In this example, we zoomed into a spot where a good tidal outflow often causes snook to pile up in a fan-shape around a tiny and almost invisible creek. Sending our friend a copy of this map with this single Placeholder on it, gives them the exact numbers they need to enter into the GPS on their boat – or an exact visual to use if they're fishing on a Kayak, or in a Canoe.
When you create your maps, you can define a specific view – the altitude, the angle at which you're looking down at the scenery, the compass heading you're facing at the time, and many other Placeholder-specific data. One placeholder can display the view from one angle, altitude, and heading, and the next a completely different set of data.
Using Paths to Measure Distance
The second thing the software provides the digitally enhanced angler, is the ability to draw Paths. Drawing paths allows the program to use its satellite input to measure how far you're traveling. In these times of high gas prices (when I bought my Robalo, gas to fill the 72-gallon tank was under $1), planning includes knowing how much gas you have to burn. The program can tell you whether it's more economical to put the boat in “here” or “there,” depending on how far you have to move. You would be surprised at how different the actual numbers are compared to what you thought they were when you first start using a tool like this. And, it strongly supports the theory that the straighter the line you can run in a boat, the better off you are.
Paths contain information about how far you travel from Point-A to Point-B, and back again. They're an excellent trip-planning component that shows you exactly how far you're going to be moving in the No-Wake zones that pepper urban fisheries, like ours.
You can click in one place, click in the next place, and connect straight lines between the two. You can also “sketch” with the Path tool and actually measure – in miles or kilometers – the distance you will travel if you get on your boat and follow the path. If you think about it, the tool could be used just as (maybe more so) effectively if you're planning a wade-fishing trip, where you need to know just how far you'll have to walk in waist-deep water with a soft muddy bottom.
The Path tool is used to draw the way you're going to travel by boat, paddle in your kayak, or walk on the sandy bottom (if you're a wading angler). Not used by many anglers we know, this component alone makes learning how to use Google Earth to improve your fishing, worth the time and effort.
The end result of our simple Path creation exercise? A trip that covers a little over seven miles on the water, and stops at three well-known fishy spots, offering literally hundreds of scouting opportunities.
Creating Polygons is the third excellent feature the program offers the geekier among us. It lets you draw a shape (that can be made transparent, showing what's underneath the shape) that covers, and describes an entire area. Where a Placeholder marks a specific GPS location, the Polygon tool outlines regions. You will see them appearing on our soon-to-be-enhanced collection of productive and proven offshore FishySpot numbers. Being able to contain three-to-five numbers in a given shape allows for excellent deep-water planning.
Saving and Sharing Your Maps
When you're done Dropping your Placeholders, drawing your paths, and creating your polygons, you can organize them into a folder so you can turn them all on or off at once. To create a Folder, you simply use the Add Menu and create one. Name it and it will appear in the Temporary folder on the left side of the display, which is where all the new stuff you create begins their lives.
Once you create a folder with an appropriate name, you can drag all the related components into the folder, where they can be emailed, shared, or activated the next time you want to fish the same place.
The Earth in Your Tackle Box
In the end, you can end up with a dozen different placeholders, a few shapes, notes, paths, and even image overlays showing the redfish you caught at a specific dock, on a windy day in March, three years ago. The possibilities this program offers the digitally-savvy angler, can't be described in a short article on a digital daily fishing magazine. When we started writing the article we figured it would be a few hundred words. We realized at the end, that if we had the time we could write a book about it.
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