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Zero-Impact Scouting

Zero-Impact Scouting

To ensure your best chances at a big whitetail, learn to tread lightly.

After map-scouting an area one day, I killed this buck there the next -- the first time I had set foot in that location.

In the pitch dark, I killed the headlights, powered up my GPS, and set the GPS on top of my truck to begin acquiring satellites. After dressing and gathering my gear, I checked the GPS -- it was ready to navigate to within 24 feet of the target. Excellent. Tapping some buttons, I pulled up the waypoint for my stand site and clicked "Go To." An arrow pointing the way to the stand site popped up. As I navigated 433 meters to the stand, I wondered how the day would unfold.

Settled into my treestand in the gray light of dawn, I caught a flash of white on the middle ridge. Slowly, I raised my binoculars and focused on a bone-white deer rack bobbing through the brush. Immediately, my eyes probed the tangle of limbs for an opening, and with the buck closing in quickly, I found a clear lane.


When his head dipped behind a tree I came to full draw, and as he stepped into the narrow opening I grunted softly. Unfortunately, he took another step forward, which conveniently placed a wrist-sized sapling between me and his vitals. As my sight pin searched for an opening, the buck's eyes probed the hillside below me...

HOW DID I GET in that situation? You might say I'm a map nut. In my work as a wildlife biologist, a day rarely goes by without my studying aerial photos or topographic maps. Couple that with my interest in Geographic Information Systems (GIS, a computer program that allows you to layer data over a base map), and it's easy to see why I rely heavily on these tools in scouting for whitetail deer. Don't get me wrong -- I still wear out plenty of boot leather scouting after the season. But during the season, if I feel a need to rest an area or to move to avoid competition from other hunters, I often fall back on my maps. And when planning out-of-state trips, I rely almost exclusively on these tools.

I'm convinced the best chance at arrowing a buck at any location occurs during the first hunt there. If you scout an area on foot to confirm your findings on a map, you might as well hunt it because any deer passing through later will detect you, despite your greatest precautions. Why risk "wasting" an area scouting it during season when you can likely pick one of the best ambush spots off a map and hunt it fresh? I've killed numerous does and some of my best bucks using this tactic, probably because I never tipped my hand ahead of time. Here is my approach to zero-impact scouting and hunting.

Topographic Maps
Hands down, topographic maps are my favorite tools for scouting areas with a lot of relief (terrain). I could write an entire book on all the terrain features that funnel deer movement, but it's already been done -- and well. Brad Herndon's Mapping Trophy Bucks really digs into the nitty-gritty details of utilizing topographic maps for finding the best stand sites.

Years ago, I read a great article on how deer relate to positive (p) and negative (n) terrain features. When reading a topo map, the positive/negative analogy is a great way to visualize terrain. Being lazy, like most human beings, deer will pick their way along a steep ridge top, looking for an easy way down (p). They'll avoid steep creek banks (n) in favor of shallow crossings (p). They'll cross ridges through saddles (low areas between two peaks) (p) rather than crossing at high points (n). You get the picture.

With experience, you'll learn to recognize habitat "signatures" on aerial photos. As an initial scouting step, I have labeled all vegetation signatures on this aerial photo, as well as inside corners and other significant vegetation features.

If you don't know how to read a topo map, buy a map for a familiar area and simply walk the ground, relating your location to terrain features on the map. If your area receives any snowfall, wait three to four days after a snow, and then follow deer tracks and trails in the snow while relating them to your map. You will quickly learn how deer respond to positive and negative terrain.

Now you can apply this knowledge to other areas you're interested in hunting -- without actually going there. A deer is a deer is a deer, and they all relate to terrain in much the same way, regardless of geographic location.

One caution: Many topo maps are outdated in regard to vegetation (white areas are open, green are timbered). While the terrain won't vary, what appears to be a field on your map could now be a thicket -- or subdivision.

Aerial Photographs
Aerials, too, can be outdated, so make sure you get the latest versions. A few years ago I helped a friend analyze aerial photos for an area where he'd drawn a special tag, but I made one mistake -- I failed to ask how old his aerials were. Upon arrival, my friend discovered that all three high-odds spots we'd picked had been clearcut five years earlier!

To avoid a repeat of that, I always search the Internet for the most recent photos. My search parameters are "state name + DOQQ." DOQQ stands for Digital Orthophoto Quarter Quadrangle, which is an aerial photo that's been corrected for image displacement due to terrain and camera tilt. This should reveal the most recent photos for the area, and from there it's a simple download. Other excellent resources include Google Earth, Mapcard, and other mapping software.

In some places I've lived, such as coastal Georgia, where the terrain is flat, topos are almost worthless. In such areas, I scout almost exclusively with photos. However, in hilly terrain, photos leave something to be desired. But put the two together, and you have the best of both worlds. With both, picking a few good ambush spots should be no problem.

For example, this past season my dad, uncle, and cousin were visiting during the rut. Before they arrived, I used maps and aerial photos to pinpoint numerous stand sites on a wildlife management area. The first evening, I spread the four of us over a two-mile area in high-odds spots. My cousin Mike was sitting in a strip of woods 150 yards wide, a travel corridor I first identified on an aerial photo. However, the photo showed no obvious pinch points. So I studied a topo map and discovered a steep draw cutting uphill through the middle of the corridor, pinching the 150 yards down to about 20. Perfect. Within 10 minutes of his climbing into his stand at this point, Mike was looking down his arrow at a giant buck, nose down, trailing a doe down the funnel. L

ater that evening we recovered Mike's buck, a massive nontypical measuring more than 170 inches!

By overlaying topographic lines onto the aerial photo, I can fine-tune my selection of stand sites. For example, Stand Site 6 looked good on the aerial photo, but with the topo lines added, I can see it sits on a very steep slope, an obviously "negative" terrain feature. I will eliminate that site -- as well as others showing negative terrain features -- from my hunting plans.

Vegetation Signatures
With experience, you'll learn to recognize the different "signatures" of various habitat types on aerial photos. For instance, young timber stands are easy to identify because they have a "soft" appearance, while mature trees have an irregular look. I always study my aerials for these young stands (Point A) because deer regularly bed in the young, dense cover. Then I try to identify places where deer will be feeding (Point B). I finish up by looking between Points A and Point B to pick the terrain or vegetation feature that chokes down deer movement the most between those points.

In November 2006, I received a nine-pound bundle of fur from a friend in Texas. Shortly after receiving "Bow," I began training him as a blood-tracking dog, and by early January was itching to test him on a real trail. However, I had not hunted since November. With the season drawing to a close, it was time to consult the maps.

I figured deer would be favoring warm, southwest facing bedding areas, and after a few minutes of aerial photo study, I'd discovered the soft signature of two thickets that appeared to fit the bill. My main concern was that three months of bow season and two gun seasons likely had the deer holding tight to cover during daylight hours. This meant I'd have to slip in close to catch them on their feet during legal light.

The first afternoon, I found a spot I'd picked on the aerial photo and climbed a shingle oak. By nightfall, two 8-pointers had walked within spitting distance of my stand. Unfortunately, I had only a doe tag!

A few days later the wind was perfect for the second thicket. Again, getting as close as possible, I settled in to a limby Osage orange tree. As light rain began to fall, I glanced to my right and spotted a big doe closing fast. I barely had time to draw my bow and grunt her to a stop before the Beman blew through her chest at seven yards, smacking into the soggy ground beyond. As she sprinted back the way she'd come, I could hear breaking limbs, a loud splash, and then -- nothing. Funny, I suddenly wasn't cold anymore. A couple of hours later, I returned with Bow, and within 10 minutes he had unraveled the 200-yard trail and was proudly standing over his first "real" deer.

Most hunters know that deer are "edge" animals -- meaning they travel and feed near edge cover. When you think of an edge, you probably think of an abrupt one, such as where a field meets timber. Some edges are not so readily apparent. When scouting on maps/aerial photos, I always look for subtle edges where two timber types come together, such as a pine hill and a hardwood swamp; or where two timber stands of varying ages, say a 40-year-old stand and a 20-year-old stand, butt up against each other. Deer relate to these subtle edges just as they do to a field edge, but they're more likely to do so during daylight hours. Every year, I hang at least a few of my stands along such soft edges, and over the years these sites have accounted for many deer.

Based strictly on my study of vegetation types and features on the aerial photo, I have selected and labeled numerous potential stand sites on this property.

OH, WHAT ABOUT THAT BUCK at the beginning? For over a minute I stood at full draw, feeling the effects of 70 pounds draw weight. Finally, the buck started to move, and I hit him with another low grunt. This time, he stopped abruptly and snapped his head around at the sound. Too late -- the Beman was already on its way. With a solid thump, the arrow penetrated what appeared to be only a few inches, and the buck whirled away like a quarter horse. I listened for a telltale crash but never heard one. A sinking feeling hit the pit of my stomach as I tried to figure out what had just happened. The shot felt good, but the arrow looked bad.

For an hour I waited quietly in my stand, and then I caught movement in the direction my buck had run. Watching closely, I saw an 8-pointer on the edge of the thicket, cautiously walking nose-down over the hill where my buck had run, apparently blood-trailing my buck! Forty-five minutes later, I climbed down and eased over to the point of impact. Nothing.

Walking to where I had seen the 8-pointer pick up the trail, I found a small drop of blood. Ten yards farther I found the back half of my arrow, the fletching covered in "splatters" -- good sign. Cresting the hill, I found heavy sign, and relief washed over me.

Propping my bow against my leg, I pulled up my binoculars and started dissecting the ground ahead. As I glassed the path the buck had taken down the ridge and up the other side, I spotted white tines curving out of the brush. Making my way over, I wrapped my hands around the main beams of my buck. What a wonderful feeling. And it was all due to zero-impact scouting and hunting -- until I let go of the string.

The author is a wildlife biologist from Shelbyville, Illinois.

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