There’s an App for That: Technology on the Water

For many anglers, a day on the water is an opportunity to get away from it all—“it” mostly being the demands our computers, smartphones, and tablets put on our lives. If you are one of those folks, and I’m deeply sympathetic, let me suggest that you take your phone with you for safety and convenience, but put it in “airplane” or “do not disturb” mode.

The Stream Map USA app includes mapped stream flow gauges. By clicking on each icon, users can access the the latest measurements from USGS.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Today most smartphones include GPS chips that will give you accuracy of about 3 meters, or about 10 feet, which on Google Maps is a coordinate expressed to the fifth decimal place (like this: 30.69583, -97.82797). In some areas and with some handsets, you can expect submeter precision. Given that, it doesn’t make much sense to carry a dedicated GPS unit while you are out exploring a Texas river. Nor, given the quality of the cameras on recent smartphones, is an expensive DSLR a requirement to record your adventures.

Depending on your carrier, you will have a signal in most of the places described in Fly Fishing Austin & Central Texas. Heavy tree cover and deep canyons will limit that, of course, and some reaches of the more remote rivers (the Lampasas above the Old Maxdale Bridge, for instance) are iffy on the water.

Whether you prefer Android or iOS, most recent models feature outstanding cameras (almost all of the photos in the forthcoming book were taken with Samsung Galaxy devices), decent waterproofing, and a host of useful apps. Here are a few I use.

An IPX8 rating is meant to assure phone users their devices can withstand spills, rain, and an accidental drop into up to 2 meters of water for 30 minutes. That rating also means it’s probably okay to stick your phone under the water to snap a photo like this one, taken with a Samsung Galaxy.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Map Apps

Google Maps is the undisputed leader in digital mapping and can be customized to show traffic, terrain, or satellite views. You can download map areas while on Wi-Fi ahead of a trip into an area with spotty cellular service. Your GPS receiver continues to work just fine (though it may take longer to acquire a signal) in the absence of mobile towers. Google Maps is free and comes preloaded on most Android devices and also is available for iOS.

I primarily use Google Maps for driving directions (and it is usually, but not always, on the money); you may prefer Apple Maps, Waze, or another app.

Gaia GPS offers a free version (limited to Gaia Topo maps) that does not allow users to download maps for use in out-of-service areas. The paid versions ($20 annual subscription, $40 for the premium version) do have that functionality, and I have used them all over the Southwest for off-road adventures. I like the ability to create tracks, easily add waypoints (with elevation data), and flip back and forth between the base map, satellite view, and USGS topographical maps. Other maps include nautical charts and historical and printed maps (how fun is that?). Gaia also includes map sets for public and private lands, which can be helpful in determining where it is okay to climb out of a river. Users can layer maps, as well. Alternatives that you might like better include AllTrails, or Spyglass, an augmented-reality GPS app that is overkill (navigate by the stars? Sure!) but a lot of fun.

OnX Hunt is primarily aimed at hunters, but the detailed public and private lands data are incredibly useful while figuring out legal access on Texas streams. The app can even give you an idea of whether a streambed is state-owned or covered by the Small Bill. Because I don’t use the app for hunting, I turn off the TX Hunt Zones and TX Public Hunt Areas layers, leaving the TX Gov Lands, TX Private Lands, and TX Possible Access layers enabled. OnX Hunt allows users to download maps for off-grid use, measure areas and lines, and record routes and waypoints. The app itself is free, and subscriptions are sold on a state-by-state basis for $30/year. An alternative to OnX Hunt is the highly rated Huntstand.

This Salado Creek black bass exhibited traits of both Guadalupe bass and spotted bass and sparked an interesting debate when uploaded to iNaturalist and added to the Fishes of Texas project. A Ph.D. fisheries biolotist weighed-in and, after counting scales and rays, suggested that it may be a hybrid. The prevalence of Guadalupe x spotted bass in the creek was later confirmed when a large number of samples were collected and subjected to DNA analysis.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Stream Map USA focuses on waterways and color-codes segments so minor creeks and tributaries are easy to find. The app offers several map overlays, including USGS topographical maps and satellite views and basic waypoint-marking functionality. The standout features of Stream Map are the ability to search for streams by name, and the inclusion of mapped USGS stream flow gauges. Data is provided in regions (all of Texas is included in the Stream Map USA—South Central download) for $9.99 a pop. I rarely use Stream Map USA, but it’s nice to have—especially if I want to quickly identify an unsigned waterway I just drove over. Also check out the USGS Streamer app (website only) (, a handy tool that traces larger streams upstream or downstream and provides basic information about those reaches. (Update: January 2023: Stream Map USA’s site is no longer working. Here is a site that reviewed Stream Map and has links to the regional sites that cover the Texas region.)

Nature Apps: Weather, Fauna, and Flora
Mobile phones also give anglers the ability to check the weather while in the field. For my inland adventures, Weather Undergound’s free app is useful. Dark Skies ($4) routinely draws rave reviews, and Carrot Weather also is popular. You may want to simply add a home screen shortcut for the NOAA forecast for your area. To keep an eye on thunderstorm activity, RadarScope ($10) will reproduce NEXRAD loops on your phone and also provides National Weather Service severe thunderstorm, tornado, and flash flood alerts.

Snapseed, a free app, provides shutterbugs with a robust suite of tools for editing on the fly. It even develops RAW images.
Photo by Aaron Reed

To help you identify plants and animals, iNaturalist is a terrific crowdsource identification tool. Take a photo (preferably geo-referenced; your phone probably does this automatically), upload it to iNaturalist, and then click the “What did you see?” field; the app’s algorithms will provide a best-guess match, and usually it’s pretty close. Add the observation to a project, say “Birds of Texas,” or “Fishes of Texas,” and experts will chime in. Researchers use the verified observations to chart the distribution and occurrence of various species. It’s useful, and a bit addictive; at the time of this writing, I’m up to more than 400 observations of 243 species.

Plant Snap (free and paid versions), Picture This, and Leaf Snap are AI-powered plant ID apps you may want to try out.

For photo editing on the fly, I like Google’s free Snapseed app (here’s the Tom’s Guide review). It does all the basics—crop, rotate, adjust contrast and brightness—quickly and intuitively, and you can access more advanced features to get rid of noise, etc. Snapseed will develop RAW images as well. I’d offer an alternative, but there really is nothing better.

Tips for Taking Your Phone into the Field
If your phone isn’t waterproof, or even if it is (most flagship models, including those from Google, Samsung, and Apple are), consider getting a case rated for IPX7 or IPX8 (immersion). If you are paddling or floating over deeper water or in fast current, a floating foam strap can make your otherwise waterproof device retrievable.

To extend battery life while in the field, put your phone on “Airplane” mode; your GPS chip will still work, as will your camera.

Regarding the photo at the top of the page, I had no idea what this extravagant plant was, but after uploading it to iNaturalist, I quickly had an answer: Leavenworth’s eryngo, a member of the parsley family.

Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed is an award-winning outdoor writer and Army veteran. He currently splits his time between his native Texas Gulf coast, where he drives a tugboat, and his home near the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas. He is a founding member of the Texas Streams Coalition and has worked for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. In 2020, he was awarded the prestigious FFI Roderick Haig-Brown Award. When he is not working, chances are you can find him knee-deep in a stream somewhere around Austin, often with his wife and one or more of his three boys, trying like heck to become a better fly fisherman. His stories and photos have appeared in Southwest Fly Fishing, This is Fly, Kayak Angler, Texas Outdoors Journal, Texas Sporting Journal, Texas Fish & Game, Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, Lone Star Outdoor News, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Business Journal, the Taylor Press, Soldiers magazine, Leatherneck magazine, Liguorian magazine, The Washington Times, and elsewhere.

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