Location, Location, Location

Last week Rich and I traveled to the Sacramento Delta. He had fished its labyrinth of waterways on several occasions, but it was my first time – a Delta virgin. The main reason for our trip was to acquaint Rich with navigating the Delta for himself (he has always fished as a non-boater up to this point) and for me to get acclimated before my AAA debut in the WON Pro-Am. In the days leading up to our departure I was warned how easy it is to get lost, to pay attention to the tides, and be on the lookout for big cruiser wakes. No problem.

Honestly, I balked at the “getting lost” admonition. I consider myself the navigator of our team and am extremely familiar with map reading and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). The piece of paper hanging in my office that says I have a degree in geography should be good for something! After being at the Delta though, I understand how easy it would be to get turned around without the right equipment.

The importance of strong navigation skills, especially on large bodies of water that are unfamiliar, is crucial. Reeds and shoreline can begin to look the same very quickly.

Always carry two forms of navigation in your boat, ideally, a paper map and a GPS unit. For the record, just because you have this equipment doesn’t mean you won’t get lost. If you don’t know how to use your GPS or how to interpret information on a paper map, you probably will get lost.

Take time to study the map before you even get your hull wet. Take notice of navigation lights and buoy numbers, contour lines and depth markings, tower and bridge locations, submerged structure, marinas, and culverts that may obstruct passage. Be able to recognize the difference between lines of latitude and longitude, roads, railroads, and power lines. These can all be clues to successful navigation.

On the water don’t be afraid to mark up the map. Keep a pen in the glove compartment and take notes. Where did you catch a lot of fish, where are the 5-mph sections, did you find something not listed on the map or something that was incorrect? This will save you time and energy later. I have the memory of a nat, so notes are my savior.

I love paper maps, but GPS adds a whole new dimension to navigation. The GPS receiver helps determine locations on the Earth's surface by collecting signals from three or more satellites through a process called triangulation. Your location is then displayed on a base map and moves as your vessel moves.

How many times have you been to an area and said I want to come back here. You knew you could find your way back because you remember a yellow trash bag on the shore that was stuck in some rocks. Did you ever make it back? Did your bag fly away in the night? With a GPS unit any location can be marked as a waypoint. By creating a waypoint you are assigning an exact place a latitude and longitude. You can assign a descriptive name to the waypoint like “Ladd’s Marina” or “Big Fish” and then the next day or next year you can use the “GOTO” command on your GPS to return precisely to the same spot.

Nearly every GPS allows you to create routes (a connection of several waypoints), bread crumb trails and utilize a back track feature that marks your trail so you can return safely. There are endless customization options on navigation and map screens, you can adjust map orientation, map data you want visible, and trail options.

GPS units typically come with a standard base map and/or the ability to load mapping detail into the unit. Our unit, a Lowrance X-15, came with a very basic base map with limited detail. To enhance the map I purchased MapCreate, a custom mapping software for GPS, and installed it on my home PC. With the click of a mouse I selected the area I wanted to transfer from the CD-ROM supplied with the program into my GPS. I saved my custom map database to a MultiMedia Card (MMC) that I then inserted into the GPS unit. Voilá, now we have a very detailed map of the Delta. All waypoints previously stored in the GPS get overlaid on the new map.

One final plug for GPS is that it is an indispensable tool when conditions are foggy. Being able to follow your progress on screen can mean the difference between quickly reaching that bed fish you marked and getting enveloped in a white darkness with an irritable partner (yes, I’m speaking from experience).

Last weekend, as we made our way down a bank in Connection Slough a boat approached with two bathing suit clad young ladies. Their boat, a miniature knockoff of the Bat Boat, I’m not kidding, zoomed over to us and the driver asked, “Excuse me, what part of the Delta is this?” Rich told them where we were, but she couldn’t hear over the bat engine. He repeated the location which she failed to get the second time. Instead of turning off the engine they zoomed away forging deeper into the Delta maze. Gadzooks! Don’t be like Batgirl. Don’t get lost, be prepared.