Scouting begins long before you ever set foot in your chosen hunting area, but I thought this would be a good time to talk about some things to do when you actually arrive in your prospective area. When selecting a hunting unit, I will generally narrow down my selections by first going over the stats, picking out a few units of interest based on whatever my main criteria are. Then I’ll whip out the maps ( I have an atlas for every one of the Western States, plus most of the others with significant public lands, and I don’t live too far away from the USGS map center) to see whether the terrain and landowndership pattern are something I can work with. I’ll use a little Google Earth and other remote scouting tools to then get an idea of the habitat types that we might be looking at.
Once I’ve settled on a unit based on stats, photos and other research from afar, I still have to see it in person. But what am I looking for? Well, that depends on the intent of my scouting. I consider deer, elk and antelope scouting to be very different. I also consider meat hunt and trophy hunt scouting to be different. It also depends on what time of year I’m doing my scouting. Since it’s July, and the mountains, back roads and trails are now clear enough for serious scouting, I’ll focus on my summer routines. I have different game plans when winter and spring/application season scouting and day-or-two prior to the opener scouting. Most of what I’ll talk about here applies to deer and elk scouting, less so for antelope.
As a Front Range hunter who primarily hunts on the Western Slope (read: 3.5 to 7 hour drives), I do not have the luxury of making once or twice a week scouting trips. When I lived on a State Wildlife Area in Nebraska and could scout nearly every evening and was able to follow individual bucks. Identifying and targeting an individual buck or bull is beyond what I am capable of during one or two scouting trips a month during the summer (though I can get in about 6 scouting trips each summer, I hunt so many different units for various seasons and reasons that I just can’t find one great animal and stay with him). Due to space issues, I’ll focus on road scouting in this article, and if you like it, I can expand upon other aspects in future articles.
The first thing I try to do is get to know the major roads in the area. Every map marks roads differently than the other, or one’s idea of a maintained gravel road may be different then mine. I prefer to hunt off of poorly maintained dead-end roads to minimize the hunter traffic. In general, a paved road will have more hunters near it than an unpaved road, a through road (a dirt road that connects two paved roads) will have more traffic on it than a dead end road, or a major destination dead end road will have more traffic than a minor destination dead end road, and well maintained dead end road will have more traffic on it than a neglected road.
When driving these roads, I will note major camping areas that are not marked on the maps. You can be sure there will be plenty of hunters near any place with campgrounds and cabins for rent, but I have a difficult time discerning dispersed camping areas on public land from afar. Usually the flattest areas and trailheads alongside a road will be your main concentration of hunter camps, but sometimes there can be huge shoulders and pull-offs on winding roads that attract a lot of hunters. By identifying the hunter concentrations, I’m often able to figure out escape areas, or less molested country. I’ll also kick around some of the hunter camps, looking for old signs of success and trying to identify which, if any camps I’d like to be able to use during hunting season.
Other things I look for when cruising the roads are major trails in the road cuts. Most dirt and paved roads in hilly country have their roads cut into the side of a hill, creating a disturbed area alongside the road that often has soft dirt and very noticeable trails coming down into the road. If I’m meat hunting, I’ll simply take note of the species using them and where they are going. If trophy hunting, I’ll take a closer look for buck and bull tracks that might be unusually large. I’ll also follow those trails, as they can be obvious places for bucks and bulls to leave rubs or sheds in the vegetation. The deepest of the those trails are often left by cattle, but I will follow those too as you can still see game tracks in cattle trails, and those trails frequently lead to unmarked water, bedding areas and very small meadows.
But, the most important thing to look for is GAME! When planning a scouting trip, I always try to budget my time to be cruising during the most productive hours. You can follow trails and identify hunter camps at midday, but I prefer to cover ground as quickly and quietly as possible at dusk and dawn. It was painful for my girlfriend to get up before dawn for three straight days this past weekend, but we saw a ton of wildlife by doing so. If you want to get really fancy, you can note concentrations on the maps or make note of what habitats they are most frequently using. I will keep a running count in each area of bucks and does, then stratify the bucks into mature and immature. A gut feel is nice, but when two areas feel similar to you or they all begin to blur together, it helps to have good notes to fall back on.
This past weekend, one of my goals was to get a feel for what kind of bucks would be present in our hunting area. I noticed that the sex ratio had dropped pretty heavily in the stats, so I wanted to know if holding out for three and four year old or possibly even older bucks would even be a possibility. Asking Katie whether or not she’d shoot the deer we were looking at also gave me a better idea of what she would really take, and what her idea of “big” was. Talking B&C scores is pointless with many people, instead it helps to show them big, medium and little. Knowing that “big” or “medium” (we did see a two year old after several 3 and 4 year olds that she got excited about) bucks are out there, and that she has seen them where we plan to hunt helps her have a little more discipline with the trigger rather than take my word for it.
It was an extraordinarily hot weekend and of the dozens of deer and elk we saw in-unit last weekend, all but one was seen at dusk or dawn, so I can’t stress the importance of taking your scouting as seriously as your hunting if you truly want to verify the presence of game. Get up before dawn, drive around without your headlights (once it’s light enough to see), and go slowly if you think you’re in game country.
I can get into further depth on some of the other aspects of scouting in the near future, but I figure I’ll leave you with just these basic road scouting ideas for now as you’re hopefully out getting to know or relearn your hunting areas over the summer.