Analyzing terrain when e-scouting to find better mule deer hunting areas

Brady Miller with a late season mule deer

Photo credit: Chris Neville

When looking at a map, which parts are most important and how do I determine where mule deer will be? That is the first step toward success. Luckily I don't have to go into a hunt blind and can use certain tools on GOHUNT Maps to point me in the right direction.

Alright… what I’m about to talk about is a super in-depth method on how I use one of my single favorite features we have ever launched to GOHUNT Maps. As you saw in the announcement article the other week, our new Terrain Analysis Tool changes the game in e-scouting! Luckily I've been using this tool for a while now, and now I want to share one of my methods.

What I’m going to showcase in this article is how I’ve been using this tool for some “data analysis” for mule deer. This use case might not seem obvious at first. But hopefully, by the time you finish this article, you’ll have some ideas on how you can use a similar tactic for not only mule deer, but other species as well.

For starters, what is the Terrain Analysis tool?

In its simple form, the Terrain Analysis Tool allows you to see more details on a map. Currently, the Terrain Analysis Tool is only available on the web version of GOHUNT Maps. Now you can hone in on areas where animals typically spend their day. You can do that by using Aspect, Slope, and Elevation.

Aspect

Aspect is basically what direction the mountain, ridge, hill, etc. is facing in a North, South, East, West fashion. Again, this is very powerful when you are looking for certain locations in a unit you’re e-scouting. Animals use different aspects at different times of the year. For example, you might want to key in on south-facing slopes for shed hunting or spring bear hunting. If you’re an elk hunter, the north-facing aspect is going to be your best friend when trying to find benches and bedding areas when you're bowhunting rutting bulls.

Aspect is broken up into:

  • North, Northeast, East, Southeast, South, Southwest, West, Northwest

Plus we have an additional flats layer that is perfect for identifying benches in terrain or potential spots to pitch a tent.

Note: Multiple aspects (or all) can be selected at the same time.

Slope

Slope will showcase areas on the map in a range of degrees of steepness in the terrain.

We broke slope into the following groups:

  • 0-5°
  • 5-15°
  • 15-25°
  • 25-35°
  • 35+°

Elevation

Allows users to define a range between 100 feet, and up to 14,400 feet. I personally use this feature a lot based on the seasonality of where I have seen animals or expect to see animals depending on the time of year.

Explore the Terrain Analysis here

Using data to hone in on mule deer hunting spots

One of the biggest features of the Terrain Analysis Tool in my opinion is being able to use data you’ve collected on previous hunts or scouting trips, to hone in on different areas in that same unit that have similar terrain features. This opens the door to finding backup spots or even spots that could hold more mature bucks. Basically what I’m accomplishing is extrapolating my findings, and taking my results and applying them to other places in a unit and possibly even expanding my findings to other states. Maybe there is certain vegetation, cover, or water in those areas where I'm seeing bucks and that is why they are holding there. With this data approach, I'm able to get a solid research base to why I'm seeing bucks in certain places and not in other areas.

With that data, I’ve even been able to apply the knowledge I learned in one unit and transfer that information to a different unit and even a different state. Yes not everything you see in one spot, means there will be animals in another part of the unit with the same terrain. But this gives me a phenomenal starting point when honing in on areas I want to hunt mature mule deer based on areas I’ve found bucks in the past. You never know, this research could even lead you to a better spot in the place you have been hunting for years.

What I’m trying to hone in on is the why. Why is that particular mule deer on that slope and at that elevation during that particular time of year? Are there patterns to the mule deer I’m hunting in certain units?

Here’s my main approach when using this data

When I’m hunting or on scouting trips, I enter a ton of waypoints on my mobile app! If I’m in the field, I always feel like my time is best spent learning the unit and collecting data on what I’m seeing. And the easiest way to do that is by marking a ton of waypoints. After all, that is data that I can use later on a hunt, or when I’m back at my computer researching and analyzing my data to find trends… hence the data analysis part we are talking about.

For example, when I'm hunting or in the field scouting, I mark a waypoint for every buck I see. Then in the notes section of the GOHUNT Maps mobile app, I write down what time I see that deer and even what time that deer might head into the timber.

Again, what I'm trying to do here is use data from previous hunts to help hone in on new areas. Or find better spots in the unit I routinely hunt that could hold big deer.

Take a look at where you've killed bucks before

One of the easiest ways to get a handle on this “data” approach using the Terrain Analysis Tool is to take a look at places you’ve killed bucks before. To do this, you need the exact kill spot marked as a waypoint. I do this already in the field for every animal I take (I even mark where I take the shot) and I color all my animal kill waypoints black. That waypoint color is just easy to see to me. If you haven’t done this before, now is the time to go back and try to mark all your harvest locations.

Once I’ve done that, I can use the Terrain Analysis Tool to note the Aspect, Slope, and Elevation where I took that animal. One way to make this easier is by turning off and on some of the Terrain Analysis Tool features, until you narrow down the elevation zone, slope and aspect like in the screenshot above.


I then add that information to the notes in my Hunt Folder that I have set up for hunting that particular unit or even state (see above screenshot for an example). 

It will be a little difficult to call this data exact with a sample size of one, but at least it’s a starting point. And if you’re able to hunt this unit or state more often, you will eventually have more data points to go off of. You could now use this information, and narrow down the layers on the Terrain Analysis Tool to only show you the elevation, slope and aspect of those kill spots. It’s best to also take note of what the satellite imagery looks like. 

From here, just start scanning around the unit and check out all the ridgelines, pockets, slopes, hillsides, that meet these exact criteria and have similar-looking terrain and vegetation. Then you can drop additional waypoints in those zones that you might want to explore on a scouting trip or when you head out on a hunt. If you don’t like adding a ton of extra waypoints, you could also draw a polygon around certain zones and color code it a certain way so you know these are areas to look at.

Note: these examples would be way easier to showcase by zooming out on GOHUNT Maps and showing how I use my data with the Terrain Analysis Tool. But to protect areas, I'm going to keep my GOHUNT Maps screen zoomed in or some information turned off.

Back to some data analysis

I've recently analyzed all my mule deer kills during the month of October and November and I saw a trend on what elevation, slope degree and aspect those bucks were killed on. With that data, I’ve now noticed other places in units I hunt regularly or even places I’m considering hunting that I now want to put my eyes on it in the field. And based on this data analysis approach, I can assume it might also hold bucks.

This data analysis gives me a solid idea and pattern of where bucks might be during a certain time of year based on looking at trends on where I’m routinely killing bucks.

Secondary approach

Another way to utilize the Terrain Analysis Tool is to put all my buck kills (or even bucks I've helped other people take) into one "Hunt" folder on GOHUNT Maps for every Western state. I’ve done this exact method on all the states I hunt (again the screenshots are just an example for how you would go about doing this).

The screenshot above shows the following:

  • Organizing my data; each state I hunt, I like to create a Hunt folder for
  • I named each Hunt folder in a way I can easily tell what I'm looking at (I have a lot of Hunt folders)
  • Then I can turn off and on each folder depending on what state I want to look at buck kill locations for

What this does is it makes a cleaner view as I can turn off all the other waypoints on the web mapping version and just see my kill locations for one state at a time.

Then I follow the same steps I described above to figure out any trends I’m seeing.

A third approach

Even if you're just starting out hunting and don't have a lot of kill locations marked, another way I use data on previous hunts or scouting trips is I mark a waypoint for all the bucks and even the does I see. I color those waypoints as a light blue color and then select the correct waypoint icon.

For example, if I have a November rut hunt, and over the years I keep seeing doe groups at a certain elevation, slope and aspect. I might be able to use that information to gauge if bucks will pull into that types of areas during the rut. And again, I could extrapolate that data I've collected in a certain state or unit, and possibly be able to use that information for a unit with similar terrain features. For me, this is all about trying to crack the puzzle and find patterns.

The same approach could be used to find areas where summer bachelor groups of bucks like to frequent.

In some of my previous scouting articles, I talked about various types of mule deer zones. It takes a few years to figure out where and what terrain types bucks tend to prefer during a specific time of the year across the West. But you can cut your learning curve down if you mark down waypoints (and take photos of the terrain your hunting) while you're in the field so you can use that data to help you on future hunts.

I like to break down mule deer zones in the following way:

  • Summer alpine zone - 10,000 to 13,000 feet
  • Subalpine zone - 9,000 to 11,000 feet
  • Dark timber, pine and aspen zone - 7,000 - 11,500 feet
  • Transitional zone - 6,000 to 9,000 feet
  • Sagebrush winter range zone 4,000 to 7,000 feet

Note: The above zones are just a basic summary. Keep in mind that where you are in the West, these elevation zones will greatly vary.

Using the Terrain Analysis Tool when applying for hunts

If you’re not using maps when you apply for tags, you’re missing out in my opinion. When using maps, I can get a true feel for the terrain features, even without stepping foot in the unit. Does this unit have the terrain I’m looking for? Does it have the cover and feed I believe will hold deer? Where am I expecting pressure from other hunters to be located? And so I’ll also use the Terrain Analysis Tool and other layers with some of this data I talked about earlier to see if it is a unit that is worth burning my points on.

Using the Terrain Tool once you’ve drawn a tag

The fun doesn’t stop once you draw a tag! Once you pull a tag, I will start to run through this entire process to give myself a solid plan and a starting point.

In summary

Again, I hope this article helps you think outside the box when you are e-scouting on GOHUNT Maps. As I always say, mule deer hunting is an art, not a science. So keep in mind that weather patterns, drought, pressure, and a plethora of other factors could change where animals are year to year. And the beauty of GOHUNT Maps, you can use the Terrain Analysis Tool with a combination of all our other layers! This method described in this article helps me find patterns in mule deer behavior that can put me in the right place to locate a mature mule deer buck. So what are you waiting for? Turn on the terrain analysis tool and play around with the new features and have your best season ever!

Learn more about GOHUNT Maps here

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