(Author's note - I wrote this post well before the Talking Trout episode with their founder, Zachary Pope, which I found very informative - video is embedded near the end of this post. Knowing more than I did when I first wrote this post, there are some later comments that are italicized in parentheses within the text below. The Wisconsin Trout Unlimited Talking Trout YouTube video is linked at the end of this post - and in this sentence if you want to watch it first.)
TroutRoutes seems to have a very loyal following; I am a bit more on the fence myself. Some of this is a lifetime of using paper maps, some is that I can largely get much of the same information online for free - and I like free. I will try to lay out the pros and cons as I see them and for whom it works and those that may not get $40 a year worth of use out of it. After a season of using it, I am on the fence about renewing my subscription next year (in full transparency, I have a free year's subscription next year for assisting with Talking Trout). And their free version is pretty much useless so the $40 a year subscription is really a necessity to use it in any meaningful way.
First, a bit about what TroutRoutes is. It is a phone app but there is also a desktop version that maps trout streams and access to them. As I write this, there are 33 states that are mapped (though that includes a few troutless or nearly troutless states), over 25,000 trout streams, and over 150,000 access points. (To add, I now know that number will be 40 by the time this is published or shortly after and they are working to have the lower 48 completed by the end of the year.)
The apps maps trout streams, public lands, boat landing, campgrounds, fly shops, and other map features around trout fishing. It is really one-stop shopping for the trout angler. Outside of the states that are not mapped, there really is not anything comparable. Yes, there are other mapping apps - On-X would be the most commonly used - but Trout Routes is dedicated to trout fishing and access. There are, I am sure, online options for each state but this puts it all in one consistent and very convenient package. That is to me, the big selling point of TroutRoutes. An angler can go anywhere - outside of the currently unmapped states - and TroutRoutes will work for them. And it will look the same anywhere they go.
There are three map styles - basic, guide, and public access - and three different base layers - roads, topography, and satellite - giving the user a good number of combinations. The basic style maps the streams but provides no information about the stream or public land information and honestly I have no idea why anyone would ever have it turned on when the other options are so much better. It is available on the (nearly useless) free version. The guide style is their most popular and, I think, the most useful style. The public access layer includes more information about public lands but it also makes the map a little busier. The access layer is likely best used around national forests and other public lands where you need to be sure you in the right place and not on private property. The layers are quick and easy to move between on the desktop and phone versions.
All of the map layers (roads, topography, and satellite) are available on the free and "Pro" version (paying $40 a year makes you a "Pro"). The layers are, as you would expect them to be and quite good. I typically use the roads layer most of the time and then switch to the topography (labeled terrain in the mobile version) and satellite layers for more detailed exploration once I get in close. The satellite view coupled with the guide or public access styles and your phone's GPS is very useful for locating the exact location of access spots. It will literally show you what fence line the easement is along and where you should park to access an easement. This alone might be worth the annual subscription price for many.
While most users are most commonly using the phone app version, it is quite nice to have a desktop version for trip planning, exploring on a larger screen, and just day dreaming. The desktop and phone versions look very similar - a large advantage in ease of use. One of the great strengths of TroutRoutes is how easy it is to use. The mobile version does have a slightly different terrain feature and does include a map with the regulations. Otherwise, they are very similar and both very easy to use.
I will put my own personal bias out there early before getting to the analysis of pros and cons. I have a philosophical issue with companies taking information that is freely available and repackaging it for profit (I'm looking at you AccuWeather). I had the same issue with the "Map Guide to Improved Trout Waters of Wisconsin" - yet I eventually bought a copy. The app is mostly a repackaging of information that is already free and available online. Yes, they have "a proprietary stream rating system" but I see little information for Wisconsin that the WDNR does not provide for free. It is a very nice repackaging - the app is very user friendly, easy to use, and attractive. But most every state resource agency has already done essentially the same thing and let's face it, a company out of Minnesota probably is not going to provide a ton of insight above and beyond what local state resource agencies do for free. (Though I do now know that they put a lot of effort into enhancing what can be found for free and they do update quite regularly.)
I do not think that the desktop version does anything that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Geographic/Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) mapping features do not do. In fact, I rather prefer the Wisconsin T.R.O.U.T. Regulations and Opportunities Tool's desktop version when I am on my computer. It has a number of options and allows the user more freedom to customize the maps to their preferences. It reminds me a bit of the Apple (TroutRoutes) versus PC (WI T.R.O.U.T) users and how involved they are, can be, or maybe have to be. As someone that has taught classes in GIS, I am pretty comfortable with turning on and off layers, changing their transparency, etc. - that is probably not what everyone wants to do, however. TroutRoutes has little of that which makes it more user friendly but a little less versatile. On my phone, the TroutRoutes mobile app is preferable - particularly when there is no coverage and I can use offline maps (note, you have to download them ahead of time), a huge advantage of TroutRoutes. And when you have coverage, TroutRoutes will link to your mapping app where you can get driving directions to a spot. I found this to be very useful.
Large number of mapped states - particularly in the Midwest
All-in-one convenience and ease and consistency of use
Diversity of mapping options
Offline mapping capabilities
GPS mapping in real time
Proprietary trout stream layer
Can be personalized - and personalized information is not shared.
Incorporation of stream gages (though around me, there are not enough to make it very useful - not TroutRoutes' fault.)
Elevation profiles for streams (I really like these)
The $40 annual subscription price
It is a repackaging of what is free online (for the most part)
Missing some significant states in Northeastern and Western US (though not for long) and anadromous tributaries not mapped currently
Proprietary trout stream layer is not very useful - at least not in Wisconsin - IMHO.
"Map tools" on the desktop version - how the hell do I turn it off and get it out of my damn way?
Lack of flexibility
Without question, the biggest pros of the PRO version of TroutRoutes is the convenience and ease of use of their all in one package. With the paid version of TroutRoutes, I do not have to search around the internet to find each state's GIS mapping applications. And as they are all different, I do not have figure out how to use them. I do not have to buy an atlas and gazetteer for each state - though once I own them, I do not have to pay for them year after year. For comparison, a paper versions of a DeLorme atlas and gazetteer for a state sells for $20 to $25. I think the $40 a year TroutRoutes subscription price is a bit steep...but then I saw that On-X is $99 a year. I know I do not pay annual subscription fees for any other apps and most that I purchased were well less than $40. On the other hand, $40 is less than a tank of gas, a meal, a drink, and the tip at the Driftless Cafe; a mid-priced bottle of Bourbon; or any number of other things I routinely spend more than $40 to purchase.
The largest con aside from the annual subscription price is that there is not really much new and novel there and they are essentially just repackaging what I can find for free elsewhere. Again, it is a GREAT package and is very easy to use but if an angler is willing to do a bit of work on their own, they can find the same - sometimes better - information online. They boast of a "proprietary trout stream layer" and a "custom classification system" which I did not find useful but maybe I need to explore it more. They list waters as "gold medal/blue ribbon" and class 1 through 3 but seeing that Wisconsin's DNR does not use a "Gold Medal" or "Blue Ribbon" designation, TroutRoutes does not have any Wisconsin streams labeled as such. It makes me assume that their proprietary stream layers are mostly the state resource agency's categorization systems with a few tweeks. Though, again, maybe I need to dig deeper?
From what I have seen, they are working pretty hard to bring new states online - yes, those with trout streams and not the low hanging fruit like troutless Florida. They started in the Midwest and have seemed to move both East and West from there. That their aerial images are fairly recent is great as floods have altered a number of streams. They have incorporated the county easements for a number of Wisconsin counties. In comparing TroutRoutes to Wisconsin T.R.O.U.T. tool, I see both are missing a few places that have public easements - generally county or local conservation clubs.
The app is easy to use and does a really great job of providing the user a simple and effective interface. The desktop version is fine but the mobile app and the ability to see exactly where you are using your phone's GPS and the TroutRoute maps is great. Anglers that are concerned about trespassing or are very unfamiliar with a new place will appreciate these features.
I don't know how to best write this but my most honest assessment is that I get a bit of an an overly slick corporate "vibe". (I will say this was alleviated in listening to Zachary talk about the company and how it all came about but in me being forthright and honest as to my initial feelings, I left this in this post.) The proprietary stuff is nothing special in my assessment, at least for Wisconsin (maybe I need to dig deeper?) and not a reason to purchase a subscription. The free app is (nearly) useless and there are many free options for those willing to look and learn to use them.
Who Should Use TroutRoutes:
Those newer to trout fishing and are not familiar with public access.
Those that explore new water and are looking for another way to find streams and accesses to try.
The traveling angler that wants to plan a trip - so long as the trip is not too far East or West, at least for now, particularly for states with much more strict stream access laws (I'm looking at you, Colorado!).
The angler that wants to get in the car and figure it out as they go.
You don't blink at the $40 a year subscription price and paying for stuff you can largely find for free online.
Those that have not been using the gazetteers, regulations map, and other paper tools for most of their lives.
Who this probably does not work for are anglers that tend to fish their same spots most of the time - me! Some of us accustomed to grabbing our atlas and gazetteer and the trout regulations booklet may have a hard time adjusting to using an online app. More experienced anglers will get less out of it than do those newer to trout fishing. At least for Wisconsin, it does not cover the Great Lakes tributaries (though it sounds like it will at some point).
My Final Thoughts
I have largely given them away already - I am a somewhat lukewarm user of the app but hope to give it a better exploration next season. It is fine but nothing Earth shattering or indispensable for me - but your mileage may vary. I could largely do the same thing with a state atlas and gazetteers, the regulations booklet, and freely available online information - and I and many others did just that for several decades. I do not know that I got the $40 subscription price worth from TroutRoutes this year but my late-May and early-June were a washout due to being sick and waiting on a new fishing vehicle. I rarely fished outside of the Driftless and when I did it was for Smallmouth bass this year and mostly fished my usual haunts which I know well. Maybe in a more adventurous year, it would have paid off more than it did this year. For fishing my old haunts, it did not really provide much new insight.
It has some great features and I can see why so many users love the app. At the same time, it is basically putting a very nice shiny new bow on things I can already find on the internet for free. But, yes, they do put it all in one place and in a very nice and convenient and consistent package. You have to decide if that is worth $40 a year to you.
I will say I wrote this post before Zachary Pope was the November guest on Wisconsin Trout Unlimited's Talking Trout and my stance certainly softened. I truly believe they have put in a good bit of thought and a TON of effort into their product. And they seem to be very good corporate stewards, donating to things like Embrace-A-Stream. That certainly earns some points in my book. The comments I wrote after that Talking Trout episode in italics in parentheses above.
As I have been writing this post, I have wavered back and forth on do the pros outweigh the cons? Certainly the list of pros is longer but personally it is hard to overcome a few of the cons that I have. You may not share my thoughts on profiting from freely available resources, I get that. I am leaning towards rolling with it one more year (since I wrote this, I have access for another year for free - again, in full disclosure) and putting it to a better test as there are some really nice features. I really liked the fact that I can use it to navigate even when I do not have cell coverage - a pretty common occurrence around the Driftless. The integration of your phone's mapping app into the product is great, particularly when you have previously downloaded the maps to be able to use them offline, which is a very quick and simple process. When my friend Mike and I put it to a test the last day of the trout season and fished a number of streams we were unfamiliar with, we found it very useful. The adventurous angler will likely find TroutRoutes to be a great tool to find and explore new waters. I hope to put it to a better test next season - and if (now when) I do, I will report on my experiences.
Have you used Trout Routes? Let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.