In today’s western hunting world, it is becoming hard to find a consistent place to hunt big game year after year. When I first started hunting in the West — over a decade ago — you could drive into states like Montana and Idaho during the elk archery season and purchase a general tag from a sporting goods store and hunt the very next day. However, the popularity of western hunting — specifically elk hunting — has changed and, today, it is not as accessible. In fact, one of the few remaining states that you can drive to and purchase an over-the-counter (OTC) elk tag is in Colorado. If you want to go elk or deer hunting, you will find that, in most states, you are required to apply for a lottery or a preference point system. For you, this means that there is a lot more planning that has to go into your hunting adventure than in prior years. This also means that you cannot count on being able to hunt the same units and spots year after year like you used to be able to do. This is why becoming a skilled e-scouter has become such a popular and beneficial approach to locating elk and deer hunting spots. It can make the difference between you finding success or going home with a tag in your pocket.
If you have ever attempted to hunt a new spot, you would understand how overwhelming it can be to figure out everything about the location when you first get there. Even with a great tool like GOHUNT's Filtering 2.0, it is hard enough to make a decision on what state to hunt and what unit to hunt within that state, let alone picking exact spots that you feel could provide you with the optimal opportunities. What is even harder and could impact your hunting adventure in a negative way is to not e-scout at all prior to arriving at your desired hunting spot. E-scouting will give you a jumpstart on the area. It can help you find where the animals will be and start to understand the landscape of that destination. E-scouting can help you jumpstart your hunt and find animals on day one. Using aerial mapping and planning out places to go will help you find success more consistently.
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One of the most frustrating things I have encountered out West when hunting new spots for the first time is road access. You need to understand that having knowledge about the road access in a certain hunting area is a critical piece of information, especially if you do not want to waste your hunting days driving to gates. The first thing you need to determine is what vehicles are legal to drive on the roads you are looking at. States have different restrictions on road access. Some roads are ATV-only, some are closed down and only a trail. E-scouting and making some appropriate calls beforehand can help you understand this before you leave your house. Several states have roads open for the summer, but gate them during the hunting season. This information is often found and obtained during your e-scouting. If you study maps, make a plan and then call a local forest service official or fish and game office, you can understand if that road is accessible before you waste multiple hours driving down a county road only to find a BLM road gated or so rough that only an ATV can make it.
The single biggest reason it pays to put in time for e-scouting beforehand is that most of us have limited time to actually hunt. For some, it’s due to limited vacation days or kids at home and, for others, it may be a short hunting season or inclement weather. Because you have a limited window to hunt, you want to be as prepared as you can before the actual hunting period is there. You wouldn’t take a test without studying and expect to get a perfect score, so why would you go hunting without e-scouting and expect to harvest your optimum trophy.
When e-scouting, you can pour over a map for hours and really gain little comprehension into an area, which is why having a process can really help maximize your time. In my e-scouting process, I start by identifying any major trailheads and I mark them with a similar symbol. I do this for my entire hunting area in hopes to understand access and also familiarize myself with where hunting pressure might come from. I then go through to locate and mark any visible water sources within my intended hunting spot. All animals need water and this is a make-or-break moment for the hunting location. If a spot is lacking water for the animals, I intentionally move on to the next area. After I have identified water, I then look for hard to reach drainages that are more than two miles off the road. The key to this is the drainages being hard to reach. I then use GOHUNT Maps 3D to tilt and get a better view of the topography to mark glassing locations, prime timber patches and benches. Your process can be very different from mine; however, understanding your goal is important.
Understanding what a unit is like prior to arriving is a huge advantage to any hunter. This knowledge does not come without some hours on the phone, tablet or computer. Any time you can identify a good drainage or a bad one, an accessible road or an inaccessible road or an extremely difficult to access drainage, you will be better off. Not only will it benefit you to sound more knowledgeable and, then, in turn, get better information when you call a local forest service agent, it will also save you countless hours in attempting to hunt in a location that will not produce the outcome you desire. Nothing is worse than hunting for days and not having any luck. I am not going to sit here and say that e-scouting is as valuable as boots-on-the-ground experience; however, for the typical western hunter with limited time, it is the next best thing. In today’s western hunting environment, you might find yourself hunting a different state or unit every year, so get good at e-scouting. It will transform your game and impact your success rates.
Randy Newberg's method for e-scouting elk on public land