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Online fishing site introduces interactive maps

Princeton, Wis. - The newest online tool for fishing enthusiasts may not guarantee you catching "the big one," but it might help you locate some promising spots to cast a lure.

A newly developed web application featured on Lake-Link.com integrates topographical maps of about 1,000 Wisconsin lakes with global positioning information to provide anglers a resource for targeting ideal fishing locations. The application requires only an Internet browser and Flash Viewer.

Lake-Link was spawned by two avid fishermen and outdoorsmen whose ultimate goal is to host the most comprehensive fishing website in the country.

Casting about in the dot.com pond

Brothers Steve and Darin Novak were fishing in northern Wisconsin just as the dot-com bubble began inflating. Armed with a copy of HTML for Dummies to compensate for their modest knowledge of web development, they set out to build a business on a novel idea - an online resource that could deliver consolidated information on fishing conditions and lake destinations.
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"We had high hopes." Darin said, "but we soon found out that you cannot sell advertising unless you have traffic."

So they went on road for a week trying to sell the idea. They were able to attract a few clients but soon realized they wouldn't be able to make a living on the idea right away. Consequently, they went in separate directions. Steve got a job in web development at Milwaukee-headquartered Rockwell Automation while Darin went to business school.

They continued tinkering with site and applied what they were learning about Web design, even building a fish report board forum, but for a year the site essentially sat idle.

Later on, Darin used a statistics program to discover that the site was receiving about 1,000 visits a month, "which was an impressive figure to us at the time," Darin said. With the site's value becoming apparent, the brothers focused their attention, devoting evenings and weekends to develop it.

In 1999, the Novaks took the plunge and began redeveloping the site full time. Their basic lake map application utilized colored, printable maps, and other online services provided equivalent mapping applications with zooming features. Darin, however, wanted more functionality. In 2004, he hired a web developer to construct a set of topographical lake maps integrating data from a geographical information system provider with a GPS overlay.

The current version of the program allows users to create personalized lake maps with GPS way-points, notes, and updates, which are then automatically saved on Lake-Link servers. Because the maps utilize surveys taken in the 1960s and 70s by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, allowing map updates is important to compensate for natural changes to plant growth and other lake features.

Hooking new users

Darin and Steve are working to assemble interactive lake maps covering vast areas outside Wisconsin. They are currently in the process of expanding their repertoire of maps to encompass the entire Midwest, starting with Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Indiana. Darin said it is a costly and tedious process to retrace maps and apply GPS overlays.

"Ultimately, we're looking to go national," Darin said. "Once funding starts coming in, we're hoping these states pay for themselves. We've been approached by venture capitalists and investors, but we have held out on that because feel we can do it on our own. This is going to be a big year for us to see how far we get on this map application."

Besides the membership fees required to access the interactive maps and purchase classified ads, Lake-Link has attracted major sponsors like Yamaha Motor Corp., Dodge, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, and between 300 and 400 small businesses like lodges and marinas.

Darin said that although the interactive fishing map feature requires a membership fee, site users are attracted to the supply of additional information the site provides. Free fishing reports, lake information, a forum section, monthly fishing articles, and online video account for 95 percent of the content.

"People come back three, four, five times a day just to check our fish report boards out," Darin said. "That's by far our most popular section."

Darin is in talks with other companies to provide a downloading function allowing users to mark spots on their computer and access their customized maps on portable GPS units. The brothers also are working on version 2.2 of the map finder application to provide added features such as distance markers between selected points.

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