There are as many different ways to check out a new fishing hole as there are fishermen out there. This one works the best.
First decide on where you want to go. Will it be close to your home so that you can go often at a moments notice? Is it a place that you are heading to on vacation? Do you want it to be a short drive to a little get-a-way where no one can find you and your secret fishing hole? No matter which one of these questions you answer 'yes' to, basic research will pay off rather than just heading out and casting out your line.
Narrow down the area that you plan on going to. You could get the USGS quadrangle maps to see how the terrain is laid out especially if you are hitting the back country. Now we have other options too. Before we used to pull out these paper maps, but now pull up something like Google Maps; you can even use the terrain feature. Zero in on the area that you are thinking about. Is it a pond or lake, stream or river, or a bay or ocean?
As you look at the area, notice all of the 'quirks'. Where are streams or rivers flowing into the larger bodies of water, even a small river into a larger one; these are places that carry food to fish. Watch out for places where, if you head downstream, the water takes a 'right' which would create an undercut bank along the outer side of the curve; here fish lie in wait for food to come drifting down in the current into their mouths. Watch for islands in the middle of rivers; the downstream sides tend to accumulate a 'tail' of debris (rocks, sticks, stumps, logs) building up to collect sand and leaves that will eventually decompose into dirt extending the island even more; a similar effect takes place in the ocean with sand spits. In this process, the end of that tail provides fish a place to rest and conserve energy while they wait for their food source to come by and attack it. Sometimes you will find rivers that were created with 'oxbows'; these are formed when rivers shift directions and either partially or completely cut of these oxbow sections; they may also result in the formation of more islands.
When you zoom in further you may even be able to see individual or groups of large rocks along the edges of the shoreline; these are places where fish like to hide in waiting for their prey. I know a few places near some lighthouses that are great places to catch striped bass in the right season. Seek out other rocky formations along the shores where fish may hide themselves. Along the coasts you will find places where large rivers empty out into the sea creating spits from their deltas into the ocean by dropping off debris. Sometimes if this does not occur naturally, you will discover man-made jetties. These type of formations can be a great way to get yourself further out in the water (Be VERY careful of rising tides and strong currents!) where the fish are going in and out of these channels to feed with certain tides.
Look for bridges over rivers, lakes, etc. These also give you the opportunity to get further out into the water without a watercraft. In some places there are specially built piers just to fish off of them. An important place not to overlook are the posts and pilings that hold up bridges, piers, docks, wharves, etc. Fish again usually hang out on the downstream side of these structures; a big plus is that these offer fish protection from the hot sun in the summer months.
Look about for swamps to investigate. Swamps are areas that were once dry land but for a variety of reasons have become flooded, raising the water level to the point where it eventually drowned and killed the trees that lived there. Some swamps will still have the trees at their full height, some have fallen over, while others have had the tops of the trees either rotted or cut off. In some swamps be careful if you are boating because these obstacles may be submerged and may be a hazard to your boat. These trees and their old root systems create great places for fish to both hide from and seek each other.
Similar to swamps are marshes. These can be fresh or salt water marshes. These are usually alive with feed bait for the larger fish; they are a nursery area for small fry; you will find eels, different types of worms, crayfish and crabs, and many other larvae and insects hanging out here. These marshes are rich food sources for fish and, in turn, for you as a fisherman.
If you have a fish finder, you can find channels that the water currents have created. These channels can also be a holding place for fish if the cut is right. They may be found in any large body of water. Even streams and rivers have a continuum channel where feeder streams flow into the larger one.
Another thing to check for are weed beds. Sometimes you can spot these on the maps if the shots are taken at the right time of the year. You can even see ponds and slow-moving sections of rivers where the duckweed or other aquatic plants get trapped by the current; on maps at the right time of the year, you may almost miss these ponds and mistaken them for lawns of or fields because of the light green color and how completely the growth covers the ponds. Small fish love to use the roots of these water plants as cover to hide from the larger fish. You will discover areas of pond lilies and other water-loving plants like arrowheads and cat tails if your zoom resolution is good enough. Of course, you know that you will be finding the big ones seeking their food there too.
Waterfalls can be places where fish congregate not just during spawning season for salmon or herring like you see in videos or on television. In hot summers, waterfalls offer fish a section of water that is richly oxygenated when other areas may become extremely low almost to the point of being depleted of oxygen which can cause fish kills. You can spot the waterfalls on maps as a flecked or wavy gray area against the darker color of the river usually with a straight sharp edge to the upstream side; dams may appear straight or curved. White water or rapids can be spotted the same way on the maps, but without the sharply defined edge. They have the same effect on fish by oxygenating the water; here you will find fish resting behind big rocks or boulders.
After you have gone through the area that you are going to fish on Google maps, see if you can locate some bathymetric (depth) maps of the water bodies that you have zeroed in on. Try the state fish and game agencies in that area; some maintain maps on their websites as well as listing which type of fish you can find in that specific body of water. There are books written for different places that you might find information about your location; some dealing with fly-fishing will drill down to certain pools along rivers to target. If you are fishing say for trout in the hot summer's months, look for the deepest water places because those spots will be the coldest and that's what trout like. Yes, know what the particular fish that you want to catch likes because each species have different requirements. Check for areas where there is a steep drop-off; sometimes these appear in person as two different water surfaces divided such as one side may have waves (large or small) and the other side can be as smooth as a millpond. Fish usually hold up along the drop-off somewhere; this could be due to temperature.
You can print off the maps of areas that you want to focus on, then circle or highlight the best spots to try. Bring them along with you on your fishing trip. Even laminate them in plastic to protect them from the weather and getting dunked in the water. This is especially valuable if you find that particular area to be extremely productive for fishing.
Another option which is the easiest route is to invest in a fish finder. The more inexpensive models will show you the fish where you are. The more expensive models have maps either loaded into them or can be loaded into them. Another feature some have is the capability of recording and storing the sonar charts for future use. Some even have global positioning systems (GPSs) as part of their programs which can save you big time either in a foggy situation or after it gets really dark on a moonless night.
Pouring over maps is a great way to spend those cold winter months. Researching new possibilities can give you a new prospective on fishing a certain place, but can open up your eyes to even more opportunities by exploring those maps and discovering potential new spots that you were unaware of before. It is much better than sulking around wishing for fishing season to begin again.
You are the only one to decide which path you will take into researching your next new fishing sweet spot. Whichever way you do it, have fun and catch that big one.
I have enjoyed learning new things since I was very young. I love to share my experiences and knowledge with others to improve their lives. I feel that this is the way to creating a better world through communication and shared knowledge which leads to a more harmonious global community.
To get some ideas, check out: My Best Fishfinder Reviews