Many anglers have become chartaholics in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of electronic charting applications.
In saltwater and in fresh, it now makes sense for avid anglers to invest the money and time to procure and learn to use the amazing variety of navigational/sonar gear available. And surprisingly, some of the complex navigation stuff is available at bargain-basement prices for smart phones and tablet-type computers.
In hard-fished waters such as the west coast of Florida, finding a few "secret spots" can make a huge difference in enjoying your time on the water. A bit of study of electronic charts can pay off in a big way when you finally get out on Tampa Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.
The nice thing about discovering productive fishing spots from chart study — rather than getting them from a friend or guide — is that some of them will be relatively or even completely unknown. On the contrary, any secret hole that's shared with you is likely to be known to a dozen other close buddies of your source, as well.
And even worse, most of them are going to be at the lake on the same weekends when you have time off to go fishing.
Navionics is one of the best sources of e-charts for Lowrance electronics. Their PC/iPad apps are incredibly detailed, intuitive to learn and very easy to mark up with your own locations, which can then be transferred to an SD card and plugged into the GPS on your boat.
The basic app for a cell phone or tablet PC is $9.99, and the high-definition version is $49.99. It offers many of the same functions found in the cards provided for full-featured GPS charting machines at prices up to $250, and can be downloaded through www.navionics.com in minutes.
If you have a smart phone or tablet PC — but not a GPS — these programs can be amazingly useful on your boat. They show the exact position of your boat, just like a conventional GPS, as well as giving closely detailed underwater charts of every inch of all major lakes and bays throughout Florida and most of the southeastern United States.
The detail is amazingly useful for anglers.
For example, let's say you're looking for wrecks and rock piles in Tampa Bay to collect winter sheepshead and trout. The chart will show you where a number of them are located and, with the GPS function, will show your position as you approach them, just like a full-featured GPS.
One area where the e-charts are less useful is in water less than 3 feet deep — virtually all flats areas — because they show little or no detail in most areas.
You can't pick out those nice little sand-bottomed pot holes surrounded by eel grass that are what snook, redfish and trout love in the springtime. There's no satellite photo overlay available on these low-priced apps that you get with the more expensive programs available on chips for your GPS.
In coastal areas, you can click on a spot, then on the "Tides" menu, and the tides for that particular spot will pop up — for that particular minute. What's more, there's a sliding bezel on a wave chart showing relative tide height that allows you to see exactly where the tide will be on that spot in 15 minutes and exactly how high it will be (assuming strong winds don't alter the situation from normal tide flows).
The times of sunrise and sunset, as well as moonrise and moonset, along with the phase of the moon are included.
There's also a "Currents" section, which varies from the tide considerably in some areas.
Say you want to fish a strong flow at Florida's Gandy Bridge for pompano. The visual representation shows which way the current will be flowing and at what speed, minute by minute, as you move a slider along the timeline. Some say grouper bite best on low or slack tides, so you can dial up the slow flow periods at many locations.
Turn on the "Wind" forecast in the settings menu and the map jumps to a broad regional view showing expected wind direction hour by hour as you move the indicator. It projects up to 48 hours ahead, though naturally it becomes less accurate the more you try to peer into the future.
The apps are "resident" on the device, meaning they don't depend on cell-phone coverage to function once you download them into your tablet or phone. (You need a cell-phone uplink to see the location of your boat, however.)
For a moderate price, these programs offer a big return, whether you fish far inland or along the coasts.
Navionics also offers a broad selection of even more detailed programs for installation in an assortment of marine GPS units.