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High-tech scouting

Garmin GPS
© Brady Miller,

Hunter scouting technology has come a long way from a quiet walk in the woods. Seasoned hunters know that a successful hunt begins weeks, if not months, before heading into the field; those preparations look very different than they did five, ten years ago. How will these advances in technology affect fair chase and hunting ethics for the future?

1. Mapping the terrain
GPS has come light-years since early, clunky, low-resolution units. Today’s smartphones and streamlined stand-alone GPS units offer incredible detail, making them excellent for hunters to use in the field. Google Earth allows for detailed scouting with incredible imagery no matter if you’re two miles or two states away. Using detailed satellite pictures, hunters can get a feel for the actual lay of the land without needing boots on the ground. 

Combine Google Earth with topographic maps from the USGS and a whole wealth of information is at your digital fingertips. Hunters can look for prime game habitat, identifying feeding and watering areas from the convenience of a home computer. Transfer key waypoints to your GPS, then hike to that promising stream or game trail.

Looking at a map
Maps are a simple, yet effective tool for carrying in the backcountry.
© Brady Miller,

Hunter-specific maps detailing units and landownership are another excellent mapping advance for tech-savvy hunters. HUNT by onXmaps (formerly Hunting GPS maps) remains a favorite, clearly identifying public and private lands as well as a wealth of hunter-specific features on GPS, smartphones and computers. No matter what method hunters choose, doing scouting homework from the comfort of home has never been so easy.

2. Playing paparazzi  
Trail cameras have come a long way from the 35-mm film models, where a hunter would hope and pray the wind and birds didn’t trigger 36 images of nothing. Remember those? Today digital trail cameras can scout 24/7 for hunters, resulting in unparalleled detail about animal habits and size. Large memory cards can hold hundreds of images and even video; wireless and mobile connections let hunters review pictures without needing to physically revisit the camera’s location.

Scouting cameras are an excellent way to get to know the lay of the land before your hunt.  Most mount inconspicuously to a tree; some models are motion-activated, while others can record on a timer, allowing a hunter to see activity at specific times of the day. Now it’s even easier to pattern that buck you’ve been tracking for the past few seasons.

Trail camera setup
Setting up post season trail cameras is another great tactic for keeping track of bucks that made it through the seaon.
© Brady Miller,

When weighing their options, hunters should strike a balance between megapixel resolution and storage capabilities. High-resolution images are rich with detail, but can quickly fill a card with blurry photos; lower resolution allows for more shots, but also makes that elk harder to identify. Sensitivity and shutter speeds are also key for a scouting camera; faster speeds will better capture animals, though these cameras usually come with a higher price tag. Trigger and recover time, detection zones, battery usage and flash types (infrared, incandescent or LED) are also important factors for camera selection. Check out reviews like those by Trailcampro for what fits your hunting needs best.

In terms of camera placement, water sources are a good choice for getting stills of animals, but if overpopulated with cameras using white flashes, animals are likely to look elsewhere for water. And of course, scouting cameras all come with the same risk: getting stolen. 

Keep in mind that in some states there are rules and regulations on trail camera use. Always consult with your state wildlife agency before you place trail cameras for scouting. 

3. Smartphone skills
Besides allowing hunters to access GPS and other maps when in the field, smartphone apps geared towards hunters are ever growing. From planning apps, to those that record the successes of the day,  smartphones remain a way for hunters to prepare, connect, and learn on the fly. Some apps to check out include:

Smartphones also have changed digiscoping practices, allowing hunters to capture images of potential bucks for future hunts. Many hunters combine their spotting scope and the high-quality camera now standard on their smartphone instead of attaching the scope to a separate digital camera. Phonescoping allows for both videos and still shots during a day’s scouting. Glassing up bucks no longer has to depend on fickle memories of where, what, or when; recorded images definitely serve for better recall.

Hunters’ smartphones also have a positively old-fashioned use: making a call or two.

4. Engage the experts
Surprisingly low-tech, a simple phone call can greatly impact your pre-hunt research. Call up the game biologist for the unit to find out up-to-date information on the health of the herd, head counts and favored spots for your quarry this season. It’s a simple step that can save you hours trying to track down the best spots to find that flock of turkeys or herd of deer.

If you plan to hunt far away from where you live, a scouting service can save time and lead to a more productive time out in the field. Hunting scouts have come a long way from simply sending a you a map with some circles around known hotspots. Look for local experience and up-to-date information; it’s unlikely that game will be exactly where it was last year, or even last month if there’s been a major weather event.
5. Digging into data
Several of the above scouting technology advances rely on perhaps the biggest game-changer in the hunting community in the past 15 years: the Internet. Smart hunters do their homework and cyber scout in the pre-season, looking at maps and records of previous years’ harvests to map out the best plan for the upcoming season. Detailed examination of harvest records can help hunters see patterns and trends to select the highest quality hunting grounds in their unit, reports Daily Inter Lake

Hunter success data
Photo Credit: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Information about land ownership, maps and aerial photos can be found at a state’s Natural Resources Information System website, as this list of GIS data for the U.S. shows. The internet also allows hunters to check up on hunting regulations before arrival, so they can focus on the task at hand.

Chat forums can be another way to connect with others who are hunting where you are. Just remember the old adage — you get what you pay for. Beware of exaggeration: it’s unlikely there were hundreds of mule deer right at that creek just last week.

6. Take a walk
It’s not new scouting technology, yet we often overlook the most basic equipment at your command: your feet. Go look at habitat outside of season to get the lay of the land. You’ll find not just signs of game but also other hunters’ stand sites or walk-in trails — which is likely to lead you to good idea of historic deer activity in the area. Boots-on-the-ground also can reveal good places to hang a trail camera and food sources.

Glassing for bucks
Boots on the ground combined with high quality optics will greatly improve your success come the fall.
© Brady Miller,

Brief information on aerial views
Not all technology has been welcomed with open arms. Take drones and powered parachutes. These can allow a hunter to easily fly over any kind of terrain, leaving animals nowhere to hide. These advancements in scouting technology are much more controversial, particularly when it comes to the concept of fair chase. 

Drones (a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles) have already been outlawed in Alaska, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico. Though the federal Airborne Hunting Act prohibits the use of aircraft to shoot or track animals, currently there is no federal law covering drones.

Drones’ presence in the hunting community continues to spark debates. Already there are reports of drones stressing out wildlife in places like Zion National Park, scattering bighorn sheep and tourists alike. Within national parks, the penalty for drone use can be up to six months of imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. 

Both drones and powered parachutes call into question the ethics of fair chase, especially the potential ramifications if animals no longer feel safe hiding in thick terrain. Conversely, aerial technology of this type has been used with great success by researchers monitoring animal populations.


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