In whitetail hunting, success doesn't depend on who you know, but how much you know.
While studying an aerial photo, I identified a "pinch point" that looked like a good travel route for deer. It was!
The other day, A slightly over-eager beginning hunter asked me, "What's the key to taking big bucks year after year?" My first thought was, Heck, I don't know. Ask someone who does it.
I've arrowed my share of good bucks, but being consistent on mature deer year in and year out with archery tackle is something few hunters achieve. After a long pause I said, "Information."
Obviously puzzled by my answer, he replied, "What about scouting?"
"Yes, but that's just part of the process," I said. "Information is king."
This exchange got me to thinking about all the information available to hunters today. In my view, successful hunting, whether for trophy bucks or strictly for venison, has three components: 1) information, 2) hunting skills, and 3) a little Lady Luck. Hunting skills are something you hone over time, and Lady Luck is unpredictable. Information, on the other hand, is something you can control and gather when you need it.
Whether you realize, the availability of information has revolutionized hunting. It takes a little know-how, but today any hunter can quickly gather important information that didn't exist a decade ago. With just the click of a computer mouse, you can view aerial photographs, state big game harvest records, and data on deer populations, right down to the county.
Don't misjudge me. I'm no technology nut. In fact, when it comes to hunting, I'm somewhat of a Luddite -- a person who is anti-technology. I appreciate good woodsmanship, relish the solitude of nature, and choose a simple wooden longbow as my hunting weapon. Furthermore, I truly believe there is no substitute for experience. However, whether you're hunting in your backyard or thousands of miles away, knowing how and where to gather information underlies hunting success.
Maybe I can best illustrate this through a mock hunt: Let's say your mother-in-law is having hip surgery and your wife must go take care of her -- and you have to go along to help. Your wife informs you that you will leave your home in Pike County, Illinois, to spend the first week of November with your recovering mother-in-law in Ithaca, New York. Oh, the cruelty of life!
Okay, can you squeeze some lemonade from this lemon of life? New York isn't Illinois, of course, but it must have some whitetails, right? Your mind reels with questions: What are the season dates? Can you buy tags over the counter? What counties have the most deer? Where are the best areas for trophy bucks? Is there good public hunting? How will you make up for a lack of on-the-ground scouting?
Start With The BasicsAll state wildlife agencies have websites. Some are easy to use and full of information, while others simply give you the bare bones. If you don't know the name of the agency in the state you plan to hunt, go to an Internet search engine and type in a search phrase like "wildlife in New York." In most cases, the state wildlife agency's website will be one of the first five links displayed.
This map from the Quality Deer Management Association shows deer densities in each county. From this, you can see that the counties west and south of Ithaca have the highest densities. However, that doesn't necessarily mean they produce the biggest bucks.
Look for a tab or link on the agency's homepage about hunting or buying a hunting license. For New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, the web link reads, "Hunting & Trapping Guide." From here you can usually find all that you need to know about season dates; bag limits; and buying a license, either online or at a retail store. In our mock scenario, you are in luck -- New York's southern zone archery season runs from October 14 to November 17, and nonresidents can buy a license by mail or over-the-counter.
Find the "Best" Place to HuntThe potential for discovering new areas remotely gets better each year with the addition of new technology and data. In our scenario, let's start scouting on a broad geographic scale and narrow the possibilities to a few preferred spots.
Your first concern is the distribution of deer, including trophy bucks, across the state. The best place to find this information for any state is on the Quality Deer Management Association's Whitetail Map Guide website (www.i-maps.com/qdma/). Here you can view whitetail deer densities and Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett records by state and county for the entire country. The map's shading tells where deer densities are highest and which regions have produced the most P&Y and B&C bucks. With this information, you can narrow your hunting focus to a county, or even a particular part of a county.
Getting back to the mock hunt, you see that overall deer densities are generally highest in the counties west and south of Ithaca. However, if you look just at P&Y bucks, the map shows a different pattern. Tompkins County, which includes the area north of Ithaca, east of Cayuga Lake, and immediately south of town, has produced more P&Y animals when compared with counties immediately to the south, east, or west. If you have to leave Illinois for New York, Ithaca isn't a bad place to be. It's still lemonade, but it's getting sweeter.
With one county in mind, it's time to decide exactly where to hunt. The primary question is: private or public land? Some might argue that this decision drives the entire process because public land is often the only option. Frequently this is the case, but with a little legwork, you often can gain access to private lands. Phone calls to family, friends, and local conservation officers can sometimes reveal farmers eager to have someone trim the deer herd. A few years ago I put together a do-it-yourself hunt in North Dakota. After phone calls to a local conservation officer and an acquaintance who lived in the state, I had access to more ranches than I could possibly hunt during my weeklong stay.
With that said, some public lands can be excellent. In recent years, I've hunted public lands in several states that received only modest bowhunting pressure and held good numbers of deer, bucks included. The trick is to do your homework to avoid bad experiences -- as I had a few years ago in Illinois.
Combining record-book information with Internet-based resources like aerial photos and topographic maps can help you quickly select productive stand sites.
After an unsuccessful hunt on leased land, I decided to hit some state lands before heading home. About 1 p.m., I stopped at the Weinberg-King State Fish and Wildlife Area near Augusta. The parking area held only two other trucks, which seemed encouraging. Looking at my topo map, I located some promising funnels, set off with a Lone Wolf climber on my back, and before long was strapped into a tree overlooking a creek bottom with a rub line dotting one bank. The wait was short, but the action wasn't exactly what I had in mind. In the first hour, four separate hunters walked within sight. The last straw came when a fellow with a noisy bucket-seat found himself a spot only 20 yards from my stand! I wished him good luck and headed for the truck.
How can you avoid such overcrowded places? First, be cautious of public lands in the most popular whitetail states, such as Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, and Ohio. Second, learn as much as you can from local hunters. Several hunting websites have state-based discussion forums, allowing hunters from around the country to talk with each other. My favorite is www.BOWSITE.com .
After choosing a site, select a state that interests you and ask a few key questions: Have you hunted the XYZ wildlife area? How much bow and gun pressure does it receive? Is it known to produce good bucks? Do you have any advice about specific locations to hunt? Hunters are often reluctant to give away their "honey holes," but most will give you honest answers.
Okay, let's get back to our scenario. Looking again at New York's Department of Environmental Conservation website, you find that state forest lands as well as state parks lie within your target area. The website tells you that two of the parks, Buttermilk Falls and Robert Treman, permit bowhunting. A local hunter on www.BOWSITE.com tells you that these parks receive little pressure during the regular bow season and are often a good bet for both does and bucks. Based on this, you focus your remote scouting on these two parks.
Remote ScoutingInterpreting topography and habitat features from aerial photos and maps is fun (terraserver.microsoft.com) ). TerraServer allows you to view U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps and black-and-white aerial photos of any given area.
Topo maps and aerial photos give you two kinds of information. Topo maps reveal slopes, benches, saddles, and creek bottoms -- all important features when looking for bedding areas and travel corridors. Aerial photos depict the vegetation in these areas. With a little practice, you can distinguish agricultural fields, fallow areas, thickets, swamps, deciduous forests, and coniferous forests. In TerraServer, you can switch back and forth between maps and photos with a click of the mouse.
In the limited space of this article, I can't fully describe how to interpret photos and maps. A great reference for this is Brad Herndon's book, Mapping Trophy Bucks. My focus here is mostly on how to find map and photo resources.
However, we can take a quick look at one of the potential hunting areas in New York, the Robert Treman State Park. Tightly packed contour lines on a topo map reveal a gorge running through the park. This significant topographic feature likely funnels deer movement and provides safe bedding areas. Good bets for stand sites would include crossing points where the terrain is less steep, as well as tributary creek bottoms where deer travel between bedding areas in the gorge and feeding areas on the flats.
Looking at an aerial photo for the park, you see fields and thickets where deer probably feed and bed. Equally important, the photo shows habitat edges where two or more cover types converge. The inside edges of corners and places where fingers of cover extend into fields are almost always good places to hang stands. With these concepts in mind, a short scouting trip should produce several good stand sites. Now, it's time to get out there, test your hunting skills, and hope Lady Luck is ready to shine her light.
For most of us, time off for hunting is a precious commodity. Collecting information via the Web prior to a hunt can put you days ahead of the game when your feet finally hit the forest floor. So the next time your wife suggests an extended trip to visit your mother-in-law, plan to enjoy a glass of sweet lemonade. Information is king.
The author is a traditional bowhunter from Van Etten, New York.