Your success during the season depends largely on your efforts before the season.
Serious, successful bow-hunters are always scouting. All year long they're thinking about bowhunting, preparing for bowhunting, and looking for any and all information that can help them succeed. And, as the season approaches, their scouting efforts only intensify.
Obviously, trail cameras are valuable scouting tools, but they present a complex subject for another day. Consider these other scouting aids as you work to put yourself in that magical location bowhunters call "the right place at the right time."
Whether hunting your backyard for whitetails or Wyoming for elk, you can benefit by learning to find and define your hunting area through the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). This incredible satellite technology gives you a stunning bird's-eye view of almost any location on the planet, including that spot just over the hill you've always wondered about.
The satellite images aren't real-time, but you can still zoom in and gain an accurate understanding of the lay of the land. Landmarks like roads, ridges, ponds, saddles, and even funnels and pinch points can be easily seen and correlated to your maps. You can place icons on the image to mark treestand/blind locations, entry points, fence crossings, etc., and print them for sharing, further study, and more marking.
It's also easy to take GPS coordinates of visible landmarks from satellite images and input them into your GPS unit so you can find the landmarks later. Or, do the reverse by inputting coordinates from your GPS and let the program find and mark your saved waypoints. I have all my treestand locations marked on aerial images I've printed, and I have also used this technology to study hunting areas I travel to from Alaska to Arizona.
Here's a list of excellent GIS websites that'll help you with your scouting:Google Earth (http://earth.google.com) -- It's incredible what you can see, and the free version is all you need to access almost any spot on the planet. Some areas have better resolution than others, but most areas are fine for scouting purposes.
Acme Mapper (http://mapper.acme.com) -- This excellent site, based on Google Maps, is easy to navigate. The quality of the images is outstanding, and you can choose the view ranging from map, topographic map, satellite, hybrid, terrain, and NEXRAD with weather radar. Images can be easily printed or e-mailed, and it's free to use.
ArcGIS Explorer (www.esri.com/products/indexb.html) -- This is another free version of a professional-level GIS system. The image quality is high, but the site is complex enough that you'll need some decent computer skills to get the most out of it.
Terraserver (http://terraserver-usa.com) -- This one is less detailed than the others, but it's free and functional. To get to a desired location, you just input longitude and latitude and then click "Go."
Once you find the spots you plan to hunt, you'll still need good maps you can hold in your hand, whether they're on paper or on your GPS unit.
You can download and print map versions from the sites above, but you also can order more detailed custom-made maps. Visit sites like Delorme.com, GlobalMapper.com, MyTopo.com, Photomapsusa.com, and Topofusion.com. Of course, you can still get topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey at http://topomaps.usgs.gov/, but those are based on quadrangles mapped out by the U.S.G.S. The custom maps can be centered to cover your hunting area.
Another extremely useful tool is a county plat book. Available from your county courthouse, usually for around $40, plat books map out property lines and list landowners' names and phone numbers so you can make contact.
If you own a relatively new GPS unit, you can download maps directly to the memory in the unit or buy memory cards with an incredible amount of mapping information on them. Your best bet is to go through your GPS manufacturer to get the appropriate mapping software for the area you plan to hunt. You'll be amazed at the detail.
Wherever you're scouting, you need to keep good optics close at hand so you can quickly scope-out and evaluate animals from long range.
A quality spotting scope on a window mount in your truck or on a tripod can be indispensable, but if the action is fast, you might want something a little quicker to use, and that's when "scouting" binoculars come into their own. High magnification with large objective lenses, something on the order of a 15x50, is about right to carry along on scouting walks or to have at the ready on the seat of your truck. Adapters are also available so you can mount your binoculars to a tripod. Another plus is that using both eyes -- opposed to one eye with a scope -- reduces eye and brain fatigue when glassing for long periods.
Here's a list of scouting binoculars with at least 15-power magnification, ranging from economical to high-end options:
Brunton Eterna 15x51 (www.brunton.com) -- This is a mid-priced, quality scouting binocular.
Leica Duovid 10+15x50 (http://us.leica-camera.com/sport_optics/) -- This two-power binocular, which gives you both 10X and 15X magnification, will set you back almost $3,000. Needless to say, the quality is high.
Leupold Golden Ring 10/17x42 (www.leupold.com) -- Switch Power technology with 10X and 17X magnification will cost you about $1,000, but the versatility may be worth the price.
Nikon Action Extreme ATB 16x50 (www.nikonsportoptics.com) -- This very serviceable porro-prism scouting binocular is economically priced at about $300.
Swarovski SLC 15x56 WB (www.swarovskioptik.com) -- At about $2,000, this high-end, high-quality binocular is a favorite of many guides and serious Western hunters.
Vortex Kaibab 15x56 (www.vortexoptics.com) -- If you don't have the $1,500 for the Kaibabs, check out the Viper 15x50 at half the price.
Zeiss Conquest 15x45 T* (www.zeiss.com/sports) -- At just over $1,000 and weighing only 22 oz., this glass is another high-quality, high-value option.
All these optics companies and others also offer spotting scopes, should you prefer that type of glass for your lon
g-range scouting. You'll reach out farther with a spotting scope, which can be useful when you're scouting game from extreme distances.
ON THE GROUND
While virtual and optical scouting methods are integral to the process, there's no substitute for scouting "on the ground." Seeing the hunting area, visiting landowners, and just talking to the locals in the coffee shop can often lead to tips on big bucks or even produce long-term relationships with property owners.
Early spring, before new vegetation emerges, is an excellent time for whitetail hunters to see the woods as they appear in the fall, and finding a shed antler of a big buck is just as good a motivator as actually seeing him. Summer scouting trips can be very helpful when hunting the West. Just getting familiar with the terrain and conditions is invaluable, especially for first-timers.
Finally, weather conditions are always a factor in hunting. Last fall was a perfect example. Extremely wet weather across the Midwest delayed the corn harvest, which had a huge impact on deer hunting. I "scout" the weather constantly on my computer and BlackBerry, both before and during the hunt. Sites such as accuweather.com and the National Weather Service at weather.gov will give you all the important data such as wind direction and speed, temperature, and radar. How you respond to the vagaries of weather can determine your success.
Simply put, you cannot know too much about the area you plan to hunt. Think of it as a mining operation where you're looking for that golden nugget of information, that glimpse of a monster, that tip from a farmer, or even just an aerial view of the perfect spot for a treestand or ambush.
Scout smart and scout year-round. You just might find the treasure you seek.