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Deer from Above: Aerial Photography for Bowhunting

Deer from Above: Aerial Photography for Bowhunting

It’s almost not even fair. The young bowhunters of today will never know what it’s like to have no idea, or at least, very little idea, what a property looks like before they set foot in it. With the rise and technological acceleration of satellite imagery, going in blind is a thing of the past.

Now, without ever having been anywhere near a spot, we can figure out food sources, access points, travel routes and a host of other deer-friendly features on a property. Once we get there, we can navigate via our smartphones to each boundary, marking sign and potential stand sites the entire way through. On paper, it seems almost too easy.

In real life, that food source might turn out to be a fallow field without a calorie in it for the local ungulates. Your best access point might not be the secret it appears to be, and you might find a beaten path from it to that also not-so-secret pinch-point you were hanging your hopes on. Aerial photography is awesome, but it’s not the only step you’ve got to take when it comes to figuring out killer ambush sites.

Get In, Get Around

When you’re researching a new property, especially a chunk of public land, it’s always prudent to mark every access possible. Some states have nice parking areas every quarter of a mile, and that means just about anyone can get just about anywhere. In other states, you might just find a corner of the ground touches a public road, or the backside of a parcel is bordered by a small creek that facilitates access.

wildlife management area signage
Aerial photograghy is an amazing way to start to learn a property, or take a new look at a place with which you’re already familiar. It’s also only as good as your ground-truthing tells you it is, so after digital work comes the in-field recon.

My strategy is to figure out every which way hunters might enter a property. If it’s too easy, I’m not going. I also take a look at private roads that might allow locals the opportunity to come in from neighboring farms. I’ve got a great spot in Nebraska that only has one access where the hunting public can park and get int, but the amount of people who drive in on nearby private parcels is pretty amazing. They nearly negate the effort of hiking to the back side of the property by having permission to come in from an easy two-track on private ranch.

Through your digital scouting, mark each potential access point. If the imagery starts filling up with too many waypoints, it might be time to move on.

If it doesn’t, you’ve got to figure out how to get through the property. This is easiest by checking out trails, two-tracks and logging roads. That’s also where everyone else will go, so instead of focusing on the easy walking, think about routes to the difficult-to-reach stuff. Do you need to climb a bluff or cross a river to get there? How will you do it? Many of these questions can be answered via satellite imagery, and a thorough, honest look at how you’ll get through a property is essential to making the most of your computer-based scouting.

Digital Destinations

Food sources are obvious. So are water sources. Travel routes are a little trickier to spot in some environments, while in others they are plain as day. In fact, with the resolution levels of today’s satellite imagery, you can actually zoom in and see deer trails in CRP fields or in any grass if it’s tall enough (and it doesn’t have to be that tall). You can also see river crossings a lot of times.

Pick apart your chosen property and mark every place worth taking a first-hand look at this spring. I try to plan the most efficient routes for my spring scouting, which means looking at as much as I can in some sort of circuitous route. It’s important to remember that this is best conducted with little or no snow on the ground so you can get a full picture of last year’s sign and the usage levels of the trails. It’s also important to note that if your hunting plan consists of crossing a river to leave the competition behind, you might not be able to safely do so in March. You might have to return in the summer, or find a way in from the backside.

As I walk a property and take a look at various spots, I like to update my phone to contain waypoints, with notes, on spots that I’m actually interested in hunting. A lot of times I’ll mark what looks like a killer funnel or travel route, only to see it in person and not get the warm-and-fuzzies. Or, it might just not be conducive to hanging a stand or setting a blind for whatever reason.

deer sign in the backcountry
Finding killer looking spots via satellite imagery is a good start, but you won’t know what you’re onto until you get in and take a walk to check out the sign and overall deer usage in your potential spots.

I also like to add in my notes what wind direction would be best for the spot, and when it’s most likely to be productive. This might seem like overkill because in the scouting moment you’ll think you’ll remember everything, but by summer you’ll start forgetting. By next September, when you’ve got a stand on your back and are heading in to hunt, you might not remember many of the most important details of any given spot. Take notes on your phone – you won’t regret it.


Aerial photography is a gift, but you still need to use it correctly to be an efficient and effective whitetail hunter. Make sure to spend plenty of time scouring satellite imagery of your potential hunting spots with a critical eye for all access points and all potential deer hotspots. Then, combine that knowledge with in-field scouting. Most of the areas you identify will be a bust, but not all of them - and that’s all that matters.


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