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The Past, Present and Future of Angler-Built Maps: The LakeMaster Story
By Jim Edlund

“What you’re about to get is the short story, not the long story of bad weather, killer mosquitoes, getting stuck on rocks and trying to figure out how to get off them, and destroying props 20 miles from nowhere,” laughs LakeMaster founder Mike Wood, whose official retirement was July 31st, 2013.

Taking a break from snow-blowing his driveway, Mike recounted the Cinderella story of a small PC software company that made good in the fishing industry by creating a whole new technological product category that helps anglers catch more fish. 

MikeWood


THE PAST

“We founded the original corporation WayPoint Technologies in 1993,” says Wood. “The core of our digital mapping and GIS business was providing digital maps in a PC program for various industries. Our target markets were street maps used in school bus routing, the real estate market and 911 locations.”

“We were pioneers at that point, creating our own charts and street maps. We had a product based in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area using the map CDs and books. Then came the internet and maps were free – and it’s pretty hard to compete with free – so we shifted gears in the late 1990s with a ready-to-go backup product for my favorite industry, fishing. So we converted our platforms to display lake maps.”

The original product was crude compared to where LakeMaster is today, but the seed was planted and a whole new product category was born. The fishing industry would never be the same. 

“In late 1999 we released our first product with 101 lakes, which were pretty much basic DNR maps, and you know the accuracy of those, but you could load them into your PC and plot waypoints and transfer them to a number of GPS units. We also started selling paper maps. But keep in mind that there really weren’t any maps on GPS at that point. So, with 101 maps for $49 we walked into Gander Mountain in November 1999 and asked them to put our product in the store for Christmas.”

And that’s when Wood says he learned how outdoors retailers play ball. 

“They laughed at us and said you’ve gotta talk to us in January of the year before to get the product in the store for the holidays. They said we’d be lucky if we got it in for next Christmas!”

“But, since we were there, I asked them to at least look at the product, and so we gave them the dog and pony show. We had it on their shelves a month later.”

Wood says this early opportunity really built their confidence. “I feel fortunate that Gander Mountain took a chance on us and started selling them.”

Another pivotal experience was their first year exhibiting at the Northwest Sports Show in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

“Couldn’t sell them fast enough. A handful of cash in one hand and a disappearing pile of CDs in the other. It was quite a trip. But the PC product was tough to get on the water with anglers. So our goal was to develop a PC for a boat, but once we started realizing what was involved we figured our best bet was to partner with some of the industry’s fishing electronics manufacturers.” 

Smart move. And at this point Wood and his team started work on the first digital GPS map chip for Lowrance. 

“Our initial product was called the Tournament Chip, and had Minnesota’s Mille Lacs, Leech, Cass and Wisconsin’s Winnebago on it for the PWT Tour. But even at that point we were still using primarily state DNR maps and quickly realized how inaccurate they were.” 

Following the launch of the chip for Lowrance units, it became painfully apparent that Wood and his team would have to start creating their own maps with the kind of data anglers really needed. 

“In 2001 we started trying to figure out how to survey lakes without acquiring very expensive, deep water ocean survey equipment. So we had to invent that side of the business ourselves, too. After a lot of trial and error we came up with a process and we introduced our first maps based on our own surveys. We literally sold one or two lake maps for $199 each, but they were so accurate anglers couldn’t get them fast enough. Everybody and their brother wanted our Mille Lacs lake map, so it grew quickly. Around this time Garmin developed a product for Minnesota—and the race was on.”

That’s when Wood and one of his partners, Jerry Relph, took up residence in the back of their pickup trucks, traveling from lake to lake across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, personally doing the initial lake surveying for three years. The map database grew larger and angler demand grew the business by leaps and bounds each year. Wood added more crew and boats.

“We’ve got our own survey crew plus a large network of independent contractors. We’ll have one or two guys in some locations working all the time; on larger water bodies crews can be as large as six surveyors.”

This hands-on approach is one of the major differences between LakeMaster and its competitors. But the on-the-water surveying, gathering proprietary data, is only part of the process. “We bring our lake data back to the lab and our GIS technicians are all anglers; our surveyors are all anglers; and they don’t want to release a product unless they feel good about it. If there’s any question on the technical side they contact the surveyor and ask them ‘Do you know what this was?’ or ‘Is this really here? Can you go back out and verify?’ It’s that second and third effort that really puts us over the top with quality product that we’re proud to put our name on.”

GIS_Team

“(L-R) John Navin, Bryan Diebel, and Nicole Hogan, members of LakeMaster’s GIS Team, look over the LakeMaster ‘expansion’ map”

ZachDeVoe
“Zach DeVoe turning field data into a bathymetric chart”


He adds: “We’re not just shipping our data off to China, India or Mexico to have them turn the crank. We’ve got anglers that really crank on it. And it really makes a huge difference. Eats a little more profit on this side but we’re good with doing that. It’s how we do things.”

Pro anglers know the difference in LakeMaster from the competition. Just last year Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson and partner John Peterson won the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship (FFCBC) by relying on the then-new Version 4 Rainy/Lake of the Woods LakeMaster card, rarely looking at sonar readings. 

“The new LakeMaster Version 4 Woods/Rainy card has a lot more detail than Version 3, which really paid off for us,” said Gustafson. “Helped me find nearly a dozen little humps and shoals that held fish I never even knew were there, even though I’d fished the area seven or eight years.” 

Wood also tells of a pro walleye angler who ripped off his transducer at the start of an event, but kept fishing based on the chart and still placed in the money, sans sonar. “It’s testimonials like these that make us feel better after putting so much effort into creating the very best product.”

One of LakeMaster’s surveyor job requirements has always been that candidates be anglers. Industry luminaries and fishing professionals like Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, Jon Thelen and bass whiz Jamey Caldwell have all logged hours as LakeMaster surveyors. Wood says walleye pro Doc Samson has been a “one-man LakeMaster advisory team” since the first products were released. His professional knowledge has helped improve many LakeMaster products over the years.

BroSurveying
“Pro angler Brian ‘Bro’ Brosdahl says years surveying for LakeMaster made him a better angler.”-- Photo by Bill Lindner Photography. 


“As anglers, our guys can visualize what they’re surveying. As a result, the kind of data we get is geared toward fishermen. They leave no stone unturned and if something seems weird, they’re going to go over that area several times.” 

Wood add that surveyors have come back to him after extensive surveying to tell him they now have a whole new perspective on lake bottom.

“When surveying they’re not looking for fish, they’re understanding the bottom of the lake, but the entire process makes them much better anglers. Guys mapping their own home waters think they know their lakes but leave a survey with their mind blown. Once you’ve done a lake, shore to shore, you’ll never get it out of your head. Still today, I can visualize many of the lakes I did, and tell you where every rock pile, break and flat is located.”

Grand Rapids, Minnesota-based guide and professional angler Brian “Bro” Brosdahl recalls his days as a LakeMaster surveyor. “From 2004 to 2006 I surveyed at least a dozen lakes in between guide trips, tournaments and promotional responsibilities. What I learned definitely made me a better angler. I learned how lakes work in a way that you just can’t get while you’re fishing.”

For example, he says sometimes there are connecting bars from hump to hump that you don’t always see when you’re fishing and watching your electronics. 

“You spend enough time surveying and you start noticing little slivers of hard-bottom area, tall spots on humps, micro humps, steep shoreline breaks and points, and what I call the root system of humps, which fish will follow to the next hump. I discovered a lot of strange-looking shapes in waters I thought I knew.”

Brosdahl adds that when you survey you realize that some of the “dead areas” could be good at times – like where a break changes into a flat – which serve as travel areas for fish during spring, summer and fall. 

“The surveying process gave me a solid understanding of how the lake was formed. Like river channels that end at a shoreline. Then on the other side, in another lake, that river channel may pick up. Erosion, lake settling, it all plays a part.”

Wood says the most satisfying part of the business has been building a product that anglers – some of them pioneers and mentors like Al Lindner and Doc Samson – believe in, while constantly improving it based on their input. 
AlLindner

“Al Lindner plotting his next course while looking at LakeMaster chart data on both screens” -- Photo by Bill Lindner Photography.


“I used to love talking to everyone from weekend anglers to guides to pros and ask them ‘What are you looking for?’ Listening to their needs and really making an effort to solve their on-the-water problems gave us the extra push to keep going. I know their compliments certainly helped, too. There were good times and hard times: competition, recession, long stretches of being on the road away from family and friends – but the extra effort paid off.”

THE PRESENT

Fast forward to 2014 and LakeMaster’s database now includes thousands of lakes and spans regions from Florida to California, north to Lake of the Woods and south to the coastal states. 

“In the past 10 years we’ve covered most of the U.S., half of that work in the past two years since Johnson Outdoors acquired it, giving us a little more capital to get it done.” 

Wood feels positive about the sale of LakeMaster and its joining Humminbird and Minn Kota under the Johnson Outdoors umbrella. 

“When I reinvented the company in 1999 I didn’t have a clue about the fishing industry. I loved to fish. Still do. So, I brought along  partners like Jeff Hedlund and Jerry Relph who were serious about fishing, convinced my wife who had a financial analyst background with a Minnesota software company to be the CFO and we got to work. But when you start a company from scratch and it’s your idea, your blood, sweat and tears and you get it to a point where it’s successful and someone is even willing to acquire it and fold it into their company, like Johnson Outdoors, it becomes such a whirlwind that when you look back at your successes, achievements and failures it ends up being a proud moment to see the company continue on, the employees carry on, and the products get out without my heavy lifting. Then you see them bring talented people to the brand and see the vision continue–so you can walk away and feel good.” 

But Wood’s retirement doesn’t mean he’ll be camped out 24/7 on one of the lakes in his head. He’s positioned himself as a Fishing Industry Consultant currently reviewing new products and markets for LakeMaster and looking beyond digital charts for opportunities to be a part of the greater fishing industry here in the US and around the world.”

Jeff Hedlund, head of operations, and Jay Erwin, GIS Data manager with his GIS team responsible for data processing, are key players who helped build LakeMaster from the beginning and continue today to grow the LakeMaster products. Likewise, brother Steve Wood, who joined the company in 2005, remains in his role as Product Specialist for LakeMaster. They will carry on under the direction of Mark Gibson, director of Humminbird R&D, and Dale Logue, Humminbird Director of Marketing. 

JayErwin

“Jay Erwin, LakeMaster GIS Manager, taking a turn at working in the field”

“Humminbird’s foresight is admirable. They saw LakeMaster as not only a functional product but an R&D tool, and have incorporated it into the function and development of the chart side of Humminbird. So, we’ve grown from a little PC software company to a digital chart company with paper maps to a full-blown chart platform operating in the Humminbird operating system. LakeMaster has grown along with the industry and the technology. 

“When we first said ‘PC in a boat’ the first combo sonar units weren’t powerful enough to display our data. The hardware had to catch up with what we wanted to do. When you look back at the first units – when maps were just pixelated dashes across the screen – to today’s high-resolution screens and the ability to have processes happen before your eyes on the water, it’s pretty amazing. The technology moves quickly. If you’re innovative, and can catch it and capitalize on those changes, you can come up with products that anglers love.”

Case in point, Humminbird’s new LakeMaster AutoChart software allows anglers to build their own high-definition lake map using their Humminbird unit and PC. And now everyone from the average angler to the professional angler will be able to dial in for a surgical look at their favorite waters, whether it’s been mapped or not.  

AutoChart

“LakeMaster’s new mapping software allows anglers to map their own waters without having to upload data to a third party, potentially compromising winning spots.” 


“AutoChart is going to fill in the areas that we haven’t gotten to – or can’t get to. Now anglers can map or fix their own spots and keep it to themselves,” says Wood.

He reiterates that it “puts the power in the angler’s hands.” 

“If an angler’s not happy with the data on his favorite mid-lake hump, he can redo it to his liking and keep it to himself. And if we can’t get to his lake he can do his whole lake. To be able to perfect that ‘spot-on-a-spot,’ that’s what we’re offering. And that’s not something that we’re going to collect and re-sell. It’s theirs. We say, ‘You map it, you own it.’”

Pro Brian Brosdahl is similarly excited about AutoChart. “When you know what something looks like, it makes fishing way more efficient. Fish are there in ambush spots to feed. When you learn a lake, you have such a big edge over the average person that it’s unbelievable. Knowing every nook and cranny of the lake, well, that makes you the lake specialist. Map with AutoChart and you’ve just earned your lake Ph.D.”


THE FUTURE

Wood says that to fully appreciate LakeMaster, it’s important anglers look at it as a total fishing system. “You can adjust water level, highlight depth ranges and now follow the contour with i-Pilot Link and make your own maps with AutoChart. Everyone at that semi-professional to professional level says, ‘it changes the way I fish.’ And you could have fished for years, but with these technological advantages it really does change the way you fish.”

And now, with the recent introduction of Humminbird’s touchscreen unit platform ONIX & ION, and SmartStrike, that system approach offers anglers even more features, including extensive search algorithms to pattern and locate fish like never before.

“ONIX and ION represent the most versatile and powerful sonar hardware on the water. Now add SmartStrike software to the mix and the power and technology is truly unprecedented,” says Dale Logue, Director of Marketing, Humminbird.

Based on search parameters like fish species, season, time of day, and weather conditions, SmartStrike highlights areas of the lake map where fish are likely to be located, minimizing time-consuming searches. It will also “Find Similar Areas,” which means it’ll match areas where you catch fish with other areas like it on the map.

“Let’s say you find fish on a the southeastern corner of a mid-lake hump,” says Brosdahl, “Now you simply click on that area on the map and SmartStrike will search millions of data points to find other locations on the water that map those same attributes. It’s going to be huge.” 

Smartstrike1

“Via the new Humminbird ONIX touch screen sonar platform, SmartStrike allows anglers to pattern fish-holding locations faster than ever before.”

 



  • For more information, please visit Humminbird at  www.humminbird.com.

    Requests for product specifications, customer support and general inquiries should be made through our Customer Service Department.

    For media/editorial inquiries, please contact:

    James Edlund


    Johnson Outdoors Marine Electronics, Inc. consists of the Humminbird, LakeMaster, Minn Kota and Cannon brands. Humminbird® is a leading innovator and manufacturer of fishfinders, fishfinder/GPS combo units, ice flashers and digital depth gauges. LakeMaster® is the premier brand of high-definition electronic fishing charts. Minn Kota® is the world’s leading manufacturer of electric trolling motors, as well as offers a complete line of shallow water anchors, battery chargers and marine accessories. Cannon® is the leader in controlled-depth fishing and includes a full line of downrigger products and accessories.