8 Resources to Plan Your Next Backcountry Fishing Trip

When it comes to backcountry fishing trips, the planning is often half the fun. I’ve spent countless hours perusing maps, apps, and other resources in search of my next fishing spot. Sometimes I even look at places I know I’ll probably never get a chance to fish, just because it’s fun to dream.

E-scouting for fishing isn’t always as easy as it sounds. While it should be as simple as finding a good trail or route that leads to water, even this can be tricky. Maps don’t always agree on where trails exist, terrain can suddenly appear much larger in real life than it did on a map, and places that used to hold fish can be left barren after a bad winter.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on one single resource to give us all the answers. There are plenty of options available that, when used together, can give a very complete picture of a trip before you hit the trail. Here are some of my favorite resources and a brief description of how to use them. Obviously, any one of these could have its own deep dive on how to get the most out of it, so it’s probably best to look up tips and tricks for any that you’re interested in trying out.

1. Google Earth Pro

It’s no surprise that Google Earth has found its way onto this list. It wouldn’t be complete without mentioning this heavy hitter. While I’ve covered using Google Earth for scouting in more detail, I’ll give a brief overview here.

Google Earth Pro (don’t worry, even the Pro version is free) is the Swiss Army knife of the planning world. It shows terrain in 3D, has great satellite imagery, offers historical data, and displays any KML file you wish to see. Because you can import KML layers, Google Earth has a nearly limitless number of options. I view topo lines, snow cover, and more with Google Earth as the platform to hold it all. If I could only have one single tool to look for fishing spots, this would probably be it.

What it’s best at:

Imagery. Google Earth simply cannot be beaten when it comes to the detail of satellite imagery. Zoom in to look at specific rocks and runs along a river, or find the vague hint of a trail that’s not listed on maps. It’s also the absolute best at viewing 3D terrain. Granted, topo maps can give you similar information, but actually viewing the mountains and hills in 3D from different angles is a game-changer.

What it’s not great at:

Roads and other navigational items. While backcountry trips are usually far from the beaten path of a road, finding the best route to get to the trailhead is still a necessary component. Google Earth won’t be particularly helpful at seeing a clean map of roads.

2. OnX Maps

Another tool I’ve raved about many times is OnX Maps (check out episode 7 of the podcast with Jared Larsen). I frequently have it pulled up with Google Earth, as they make great companions. If you already have the option of 3D terrain via Google Earth, having a flat map option side-by-side is very helpful. OnX lets you toggle between satellite imagery, a topo map, and a hybrid map, all of which come in handy at different times. Where OnX shines is the built-in layers. These include things like historic wildfires (useful to know whether the spot you’ve been eyeing might be a charred wasteland), recreational points of interest that include up-to-date weather information, and public land designations.

The private land layer makes planning a trip far-from-home much easier, as you can quickly see whether the spot you want to hit is accessible. There is also a wide array of useful waypoints with different symbols and colors, and other layers like trails and Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM). You can also save areas of five, 10, or 150 miles wide for offline use in the field, so you can see your GPS location compared to your waypoints without service.

What it’s best at:

Private land boundaries and offline use. The ability to get right up to a property boundary in the field regardless of cell phone service is a must-have. Private land boundaries are also super useful while planning your trip, so you know where you can and can’t go.

What it’s not great at:

Detailed views of terrain. While it does have satellite imagery, you can’t view it in 3D or see historical images. It also doesn’t have as much detail as Google Earth. The topo layer is definitely useful, but it’s best when paired with something like Google Earth.

3. Gaia GPS

A similar product to OnX, Gaia GPS is an offline-capable GPS app with plenty of layers and views to use while planning. You can save more customized offline maps than with OnX, as you don’t have to choose between set map sizes.

I don’t necessarily view Gaia as any better or worse than OnX, but rather a complementary product. Both offer lots of layers, but not always the same ones. Gaia offers more options for its layers and basemaps, but because of this, it’s not as quick and easy to use. So, if you have to choose one or the other, it may not really matter which you go with. But, if you can have both at your fingertips, you’re golden.

What it’s best at:

More customization than similar apps. Overall, Gaia has more layers and basemaps than OnX. You can dial in things like transparency and map size, and having this customization is sometimes necessary for accurate planning.

What it’s not great at:

Ease of use compared to similar apps. Like I mentioned, although Gaia is more customizable and fine-tuned, it has a steeper learning curve and takes a while to get set up just right. Something like OnX, on the other hand, is more basic but very easy to pull up and interpret in a short amount of time.

4. Alltrails

Often used more by the “granola” crowd than the hunting and fishing world, Alltrails is still one of my favorite apps for planning a backcountry fishing trip. Alltrails does exactly what its name implies: displaying detailed info on trails. Nothing about it is fishing-specific, but most people will at least start off on a trail when they’re heading to fish. Many trails go the whole way to fishing destinations, too, because everyone loves hiking to remote lakes.

While apps like OnX and Gaia show trails on the map, Alltrails goes into great detail about each trail. You can filter them by length, elevation gain, dog-friendliness, level of traffic, and more. Then, you can view photos and reviews from actual hikers. Sometimes I use this to find the trails, and other times I just like to look up detailed info about a trail I’ve already come across elsewhere.

What it’s best at:

Up-to-date reports and pictures from users. Alltrails has a very large and active community. On more popular trails, it’s not uncommon to find over a hundred photos. Many have trip reports posted daily or several times per week. If you’re planning a trip when there might still be snow or other factors that change seasonally, up-to-date reports are invaluable. Reading firsthand accounts beats a vague internet trail overview any day.

What it’s not great at:

Layers and tools relevant to fishing. Alltrails has several basemaps that can be generally useful, but in terms of getting detailed satellite views or useful layers like private land, this isn’t the best option. Use it in conjunction with one of the options above to get the most out of it.

5. Hiking Project

I’ll keep this one short and sweet, because the Hiking Project is essentially an alternative to Alltrails. The reason I list both is simply that some trails appear on only one or the other.

Although they look a little different and offer slightly different information, they function pretty much the same way: photos, filters, reviews, etc. I find that the Hiking Project often has more detailed descriptions of each trail than Alltrails, which tends to give a very basic overview of what to expect (outside the trip reports, of course). Personally, I also like the interface more. But again, the main purpose is just to open up more possibilities in terms of listed trails.

What it’s best at:

The same as Alltrails: trip reports, photos, trail conditions, and the like. This is for planning how you’re going to get to that fishing spot you’ve been eyeing.

What it’s not great at:

Layers and tools relevant to fishing. This is a trails app. It does that very well, but does nothing fishing-specific.

6. NatGeo Maps

If you’ve ever been in an REI or similar store, you’ve likely seen the waterproof National Geographic Illustrated maps for popular areas nearby. While these professionally printed maps are available for major areas, you can actually get NatGeo maps for really any area you’d like to visit.

On their website, you can navigate to the area you’re planning to visit, and then download and print highly detailed topo maps for that area. These obviously don’t have any of the fancy layers or filters available on the apps above, but it’s the king when it comes to printing.

Not only is it good to have a paper map on you in the field if things go awry, but many people like to plan on paper as well. You can write, highlight, and shade to your heart’s content on a paper map. Digital apps are limited to the functionalities they were assigned, but paper maps are endlessly customizable with a pen or marker.

What it’s best at:

Highly detailed topo lines and hands-on customization. There’s really nothing else to be said. It’s as simple as can be and takes very little technological knowledge to operate.

What it’s not great at:

Digital customization. While paper maps are fully customizable with a pen, they obviously lack the ability to swap basemaps, turn layers on and off, or filter trails. They’re better for fine-tuning your plan once you’ve used digital resources to narrow down the area you want to explore.

7. State websites

This one varies by state, and is usually more about the fishing than the traveling. While most of the suggestions above are about looking for good areas, many states offer detailed fishing info about specific bodies of water. In my state of Colorado, for instance, we have the Colorado Fishing Atlas, an online database of fishing opportunities across the state. It’s by no means comprehensive, but for many popular spots, it gives info about species, techniques, and regulations. You can also filter fishing spots to narrow down what you’re looking for.

While not every state has a system exactly like this, many offer something of the sort. Even if your state doesn’t, you can probably find resources like stocking reports on your state’s game and fish website, which can be used to determine the likelihood of actually finding some fish once you get to your destination.

What it’s best at:

Cold, hard, fishing information. None of the resources above gives info about species, regulations, size, or anything specific to the actual fishing. You don’t want to hike 10 miles in just to find out that the lake you’re heading to has never held any fish.

What it’s not great at:

Planning your actual trip. State fishing websites are great at helping you find out whether you should go somewhere, but they rarely help you actually get there.

8. Federal websites

Like state websites, federal websites can be a great resource for planning a trip. While some may offer small amounts of fishing info, most are best for getting details on public land areas.

If you’re fishing on public land, there’s a very high chance you’ll be in a national forest or similar piece of land. Heading to the Forest Service website (or equivalent site for whichever land type you’re visiting) is a great way to view MVUM info, trail maps, fire restrictions, and other regulations. Much of this information is not available through the resources listed above. We often don’t want to fish somewhere we can’t have a fire, so checking the federal websites to determine where it’s legal to do so is a vital part of planning for us.

What it’s best at:

Area-specific trails, roads, regulations, and recreational information. You need to make sure it’s legal to hike or camp where you want to, and you’ll also find alerts for road and area closures due to weather or construction.

What it’s not great at:

Any sort of actual satellite scouting or layers. The maps you’ll find here will most likely be road and trail maps, which are useful, but not great for determining which side of a lake will hold fish or which clearing you should camp in.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Derek

    I really like MyTopo.com as a resource for printing custom USGS topo maps. Their on-line tools are great at stitching together a custom 24k topo so you don’t have to have 4 different quads with you if your trip is in a “corner” where 4 maps come together. They also allow you to upload a .gpx file (from your Garmin) and print custom data on your map – trails, waypoints and POI’s. I use OnX and other digital apps on my phone, but I never go into the back country without a printed map and compass! The price is not too bad – expect to pay $15-$20 (with shipping) for a typical 24k topo map printed on waterproof paper.

    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks, Derek! Great tip. It does always seem like my destinations appear right at the corner of printed maps. Sounds like a great way to get around this issue.

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