After determining where you want to hunt based upon draw statistics, harvest success, public land percentage, trophy potential and the massive amount of other information available on GOHUNT, it’s your responsibility to scout and plan your hunt. Finding where to hunt within a unit can be just as daunting of a task as picking a unit itself, especially if you have never been there. As hunters, we constantly want an edge or advantage on an area in an attempt to have a successful hunt and, if it’s in a new area, to gather as much local information as possible. When scouting a new area, one of the biggest tools that I have used to gain this edge are maps and, specifically, 3D aerial imagery mapping.
Once I have determined that I would like to hunt and can draw a certain unit based upon statistics, it is time for me to pick apart the unit in search of where to hunt and how to hunt it. Pouring over and studying aerial and hybrid maps, I find and mark the staple landmarks, such as labeled trailheads, roads, private versus public land, elevation differences and labeled water sources. After marking all of these landmarks, then, I concentrate on finding basins a few miles deep and examine them. My goal is to try to find and understand less visible water sources, cover types and animal behavior as well as which roads are accessible without an ATV by looking at this imagery. This information used to be something I would need to put boots on the ground for; however, with the advances of the quality of aerial imagery now available, there is so much more you can determine from your desk than in the past. Doing simple things like zooming into basins using aerial imaging on GOHUNT Maps 3D web scouting tool and then picking apart these basins for intricate details can show you some amazing hunts. By taking the time to study and understand what is going on, you will increase your chances of finding animals on the first day of your hunt just like someone who lives there or has hunted it for years.
Elk and deer need certain staples to be able to live in a basin and one of these necessities that sometimes is a scarcity in the West is water. Typically, when panning over a map — especially at alpine level — you will see certain lakes and water sources labeled. Of course, I pay attention to these, too, especially when they are multiple miles from the road; however, I have had more luck and run into fewer hunters when I look for more subtle clues. For example, instead of looking for a lake or a pond, I look for water runoff in a drainage. If you zoom in closely, you should be able to tell if there is a small water source by examining the image for clues. Sometimes these indications are exposed rocks in the bottom of a basin or even water flowing down, which can be seen in the imagery. Often, I do not see water in an area, but the aerial imagery will show you the vegetation in the area changes from dark green to a lime green, which usually is a good indication of water being present. If these are areas that flow into or are near dark timber, they make the perfect hideaway spot for an elk wallow. The presence of water in most western states is a good indication that the area has everything elk or deer would need to live there and is something I try to find in any area I wish to hunt.
The second item I pay attention to is cover type or lack thereof. Places where elk and deer live in the West range from heavily timbered pine slopes that hold their cover all year long to aspens that drop their leaves to oakbrush that always seems to provide a hiding place and everything in between. Elk and deer love to live in areas with cover because it is cooler and provides safety for them. Using aerial imagery, you can get a really good idea what type of cover is present. Understanding that some slopes are thick pine timber and will provide good and safe habitat for the animals is important for you to understand prior to arriving. Determining if you are going to be able to glass or if it's a unit that you will have to call or still hunt through is also something I consider. How dense is the timber? Does it have meadows? Can you see water pockets? Will the animals have to come out into the open to feed or can they graze through the high grass under aspen trees? Can you see a downfall that looks good for bedding or old burns that will provide a lot of food? Where does it look like they will go when the hunting pressure is turned up? All of these are questions that are important when analyzing cover from aerial maps. Your goal is to think like an animal and try to predict where they will be and when. Of course, you’ll be wrong a lot, but you only need to be right once to make it happen.
With the intricate details that are included in high elevation basin imagery these days, you can now see something that normally required you to put your boots on the ground. I am talking about being able to find and directionally track game trails from your computer. Over the past few years, I have been able to look at meadows and basins, especially in areas with more moisture or extreme lack of moisture and spot game trails. From aerial maps, you can actually find and markdown where a lot of animals travel, then roughly pinpoint bedding and feeding areas. Now, it is impossible to determine which type of animals are using these trails; however, typically deer, elk and predators all share these high elevation trails on a daily basis. Using aerial imagery to find these game trails will cut days off your scouting and give you a good idea what animals are doing on a daily unpressured basis. Pay particular attention to low spots and sidehills. In low spots, water often congregates and creates an area that is wetter than the surrounding ground. Often, these low spots will show game trails crossing and the direction they are going. Looking at steep sidehills can show you where a path has been carved out between two areas as animals “side hill” across on a daily basis. These games trails are almost always worth checking out because if the animals have a daily travel pattern then they feel comfortable there.
Note: Be aware of areas with high cattle presence as game trails aren’t as reliable.
Out West there are back roads and then there are “back roads.”What I mean is that there are some back roads you can take a Honda Civic down, but there are others that you shouldn’t take your lifted truck down. It is hard to determine which roads are what without either being there or talking to someone who has been there. Using aerial imagery will give you an excellent idea of if the road is maintained and passable with a vehicle or only ATV-worthy. It will show you hidden two-track roads that may or may not be driveable, but also could serve as a good hiking trail that is not overused. Aerial imagery gives you a better picture of the accessibility of certain roads and shows places always worth checking out. When in doubt, crosscheck information with a road accessibility map or by calling the U.S. Forest Service, BLM or DOT — whatever entity manages the land the road is crossing over.
One of the biggest things I have used aerial mapping for is to determine glassing points to understand what you can see from them. For me, by using GOHUNT's 3D maps, I can actually tilt the map to see — within reason — what I could see from a prospective glassing point. Now, this does not always work exactly as planned; however, a lot of the time it’s a pretty darn close representation of what I can see from there. Finding open knobs is just one part of the glassing search; the second is understanding what I can see and aerial mapping helps me with both.
With the advancing details and capabilities of aerial imagery in the Rocky Mountains, there is so much you can do. Using all the tools you have to your advantage is just part of doing your homework before you get out there. This will allow you to be the best hunter you can be and have the best opportunity in your limited time in the mountains. Once you get out there and put boots on the ground, you will have some disappointments with your research. Some of the water you find might be dried up, some of the trails might be cattle trails and some of the roads might be shut down to motor vehicles. Understanding that your research might not be perfect comes with the territory of hunting new terrain; however, your research might point you to a secret wallow, an elk highway or a secret entrance to a mule deer filled basin, which makes it all worth it. I promise if you study aerial imagery in-depth, not only will you be a better hunter, you will know the area better than you would have ever known it — even if some of your speculations are wrong.