I recently jumped in the truck and drove 31 hours to fish a body of water I’d never seen before. As a full-time professional angler and guide for more than two decades, I’ve been able to travel and film fishing in some amazing destinations. In many of those cases I was fishing with a local who showed me the ropes in some fashion. But it’s safe to say that outside help isn’t always available or affordable, and maybe not even very helpful if it is. If you find yourself in that situation, here are five steps that will help you break down new waters as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Online
While anglers are typically secretive as all hell in person, they often can’t help but spill their guts online. A decade ago it was forums, today most of best information has shifted to groups or pages on social media. Potholes and farm ponds aside, you probably can find conversations dedicated to that body of water or region, allowing you to get a good feel for what to expect. While you aren’t likely to get GPS coordinates, finding out the best depths, forage, bait, lures, and colors is a big find. Join a group well before your trip and just observe. Like gramma says, “sometimes you learn more with open ears and a closed mouth.”

Local Bait Shop
One thing that hasn’t changed is patronizing the local tackle shop. Bring a lot of the lures and baits that are likely to be needed, but make sure to spend a few extra bucks and get a few of the local favorites. The guy behind the counter has more real-time info than you can find anywhere. A smile, a couple dollars, and a few astute questions go a long way to getting top-shelf intel. On my recent adventure, we learned what the fish had been feeding on from a guy cleaning fish and literally looking in their stomachs. Paired with past experience from other lakes, this information told me where we needed to start looking.

Digital Mapping
You can call it luck, maybe it was, but the first hole I drilled on a lake I had never fished produced six perch over 14 inches. I found that exact spot the week before leaving while looking over LakeMaster charts on my GPS from the comfort of my couch. The Humminbird ChartSelect webpage allows you to download an individual lake map to a SD card for your flasher or on your phone for a small fee. While phones are convenient, having that map on the largest screen possible will allow you to see the most detail without having to zoom in and out constantly. This allows you to get a better feel for the real layout of the structure and contours.

One of the most underutilized tools of digital mapping is the ability to highlight a given depth or depth range in certain colors. Once we found the depth the big fish were hanging in, I could find other similar spots while driving a snowmobile at 40 mph. A day later when the fish moved shallower, we simply adjusted the chart highlights and that showed us new water to target.

360
In a boat, I follow all the aforementioned steps but then drive around and graph at 20 to 25 mph with 2D sonar to narrow down water as quickly as possible. Next, I drive 3 to 5 mph with side imaging to fine-tune what we located. Lots of things look good on a map or digital cartography but, realistically, most of it doesn’t hold fish. The same is true for ice fishing, but we don’t have the luxury of driving around and seeing everything below us for miles on end.

Traditional ice fishing electronics are great to notice and engage fish that are just below you, but do little to show what else is just out of reach. In the past, this meant drilling lots of holes in a given area to see structure and fish. This is time consuming, spooks fish, and is just plain tiring. Now you have another choice with the advancements in 360 sonar technology. I was able to not only see fish in a hundred foot diameter, but also view all of the bottom contours. It’s pricey, but was key in our trip’s success.

Underwater Cameras
This next statement probably won’t be a popular one, but believe it to be true in most if not all fishing circumstances. Underwater cameras are very tough to use while ice fishing because they only allow you to see a small window into what’s going on. Think of it as a horse with blinders. The cables are also tough to manage and get in the way. For these reasons I rarely use cameras while fishing. Instead, I find them extremely valuable for recon.

On the recent perch adventure, we were marking fish constantly but many of them were not engaging. After dropping down a camera, it was clear they were packs of very small perch. In other encounters, I’ve been able to find out that the fish we were marking weren’t the desired walleye, but rather shad or whitefish. My camera doesn’t get used much, but a few seconds of sending one down the hole can help explain what you’re seeing on the flasher and save valuable time. Even being able to see the bottom composition or finding the edge of a weed line is enormously useful.

When you fish a lake without any guides or you just prefer the DIY ethic, you need to take some steps to put the odds in your favor. Having a buddy who lives on a lake is great, but realistically even luck or a good friend aren’t going to cut it day in and day out. Prepare yourself ahead of time for ice fishing success on new waters.

Feature image via Seth Morris.