All Photo credits: Jordan Budd
Draw results are in and you’ve successfully pulled that mule deer tag you’ve been dreaming about all winter. Congratulations! Now it’s time to start planning for your hunt—all the way from figuring out the logistics of travel to narrowing down that spot on the map to gear and which game bag you want to use when you pack out your trophy this fall. As exciting as it all can be, it’s also overwhelming at times and can feel like your tackling a monster, especially if you’ve never stepped foot in the area. A quick scouting trip during the summer can be a gamechanger for your outcome this the fall. In this article, I will explain how I dive into a new spot and why everyone needs to take a scouting trip.
Topography maps are the first thing I order when I draw a unit. There are a number of good maps available for hunters. I’m a fan of the National Geographic ones that are water and tear proof. Once I sit down with the map I can quickly look at access points, wilderness areas, hiking trails, major roads, some lakes and other basic land topography. From that information, I then like to focus on the topography to find basins, benches, and saddles; for mule deer, I’m looking in some of the highest places I can in the unit. I usually tend to look in areas away from trails and roads, hoping to ditch the crowds, but that isn’t always the best option. Sometimes trying to find hidden spots closer to the road that gets overlooked and often hiked right by can be a better use of your time. It’s not always easy, but thinking outside of the box and hunting smarter will be a key to success. I’ll do this in a few different areas within the unit before moving onto Google Earth.
Google Earth is probably the easiest method of getting a decent idea of how the land lays without leaving your living room. I usually bounce back and forth between Google Earth and my topography maps when narrowing down the areas I want to focus on. With the 3D tilt feature, you can really get a feel for the terrain and how your area will look once you’re there. Using satellite imagery, you can find unmarked streams, game trails and even wallows that are key for elk hunters. Through Google Earth, I will set pins marking possible camping spots, water sources, travel corridors and specific spots where I’m expecting deer to be.
This is one of the absolute most important things I think a hunter can do to help themselves before the season. As real and detailed as Google Earth seems, there is nothing like getting boots on the ground and getting a feel for what you will be facing during the hunting season. One year I was checking out a new area and drove by it three times because it looked so much different on the ground than on my computer. The first and probably most important reason to scout for me is to physically get in the area and get comfortable. I’m not necessarily looking for my “hit list” as much as I’m finding good camp spots, glassing points, water sources, hiking routes and just familiarizing myself with the country. It’s tough to realize how big a piece of country is from maps until you walk over the ridge and think, ”Whoa, what did I get myself into?”It can be an overwhelming feeling. Realizing these things before the season will give you ample time at home to reassess the situation and make adjustments to your game plan without using up your hunting days. After spending a short time in a new area, I know it heightens my confidence and strengthens my plans for when I can finally hunt in the fall.
When I’m scouting an area in the summer, I like to stay mobile and check out as many basins and drainages as I can per trip. An effective way I’ve found for me to do this is plan out the routes at home and stick to them. Use either your paper map or digital maps to plan out your routes for the day and be sure to measure distances. I highly recommend using the measurement tool on Google Earth as it lets you really plan out your days so you don’t unknowingly have an extremely long route planned that you can’t finish. As you start getting more familiar with the country, hopefully, you will also be finding deer or at least some sign. I typically use mid-day to do the majority of my traveling in different areas, but the mornings and evenings are dedicated to sitting on a glassing point looking into a promising basin or drainage with my optics. I try to find a ridge that lets me see a long way in a few different directions and then rely on my binoculars to pick apart the country and, hopefully, find bachelor groups of velvet bucks.
At first, I’m looking at as much country as I can to locate groups of bucks, validating that the country holds deer. Try not to focus on one specific spot when you are looking—no matter how good it looks. Keep your binoculars scanning and look into every crevice. Remember that the deer are where they are, not where you want them to be, so look even where you wouldn’t think a deer would be. This time of year, the bucks are much more relaxed and vulnerable, making them visible from further away since they have red summer coats. Use the distance to your advantage so you can scan a lot of country at once.
Every situation is different and you will need to decide for yourself when the time comes, but if you haven’t found any bucks in an area you’ve thoroughly looked through, there’s a good chance that they just aren’t there. If that’s the case, it’s time to move areas within your unit and start over again. Once you have a group of bucks located, it’s time to get more strategic and move in closer to their core area, deciding if there is a buck you deem a shooter. Once you have a group located, utilizing trail cameras, where permitted, is another great way to take inventory of bucks throughout the summer.
Testing gear is a favorite of mine and an important thing to do before hitting the high country with a tag in hand. This is where we get to try out new additions and figure out if they are going to function properly for us during the fall. During a scouting trip couldn’t be a better time to pack exactly how you would during the fall and get a system going. Getting comfortable with how your tent pitches, how you’re going to run your water system, how you will pack things in your backpack and even what food you are going to bring are good things to iron out any kinks to make things run smoother during the season. This is an important thing to do—especially for a first time backcountry hunter—because it familiarizes you with the gear you will be relying on when you are miles away from anyone. Gear failing in the backcountry eats up precious time you could be hunting—if it doesn’t ruin your whole hunt. Making changes early on will be one less thing to worry about and yet another step towards being successful during the fall.
I would like to encourage everyone to get into their units during the summer. Drive all night, buy a plane ticket, rent a car or take the family. Even if it’s for short weekend I promise you that the information you will acquire from physically being in an area will change your fall strategy for the better. The knowledge gained could very well be the difference between eating a tag and eating backstrap.