Whether you are a resident of your chosen hunting grounds or not, learning to fully utilize your remote scouting tools will help open your eyes to all of the possibilities of your hunting area. I’ve frequently encountered hunters during the middle of the season who claimed to have hunted an area all of his life, then when asked about what’s over the next ridge, he’ll just shrug his shoulders and say he’s never been there. Familiarizing yourself with an area through aerial photos and maps is an excellent way to scout and draw up plans when you can’t be on the ground.
Let’s start with our basic maps. I have all of the National Forest maps for Colorado and most of what I need for the neighboring states. These are essential for helping you get started. If you haven’t done so yet, go back and read my post on summer scouting tips where I talk about road scouting and road classifications. Beyond knowing where to anticipate other hunters, you need to know the rules of the trails and offroad travel in your prospective area. A forest service map will detail which trails are open to ATVs and which trails are for foot and horse traffic only. Those same maps should also show where offroad travel is permitted on unmarked, established trails. This is important because you can often see cow trails and foot trails from aerial photos, and you’ll want to know what kind of traffic is allowed on them. These maps will also show you gates, some of which may be seasonal, others may be permanently locked. Just because you can see a road, it doesn’t mean you or anyone else can legally travel on it with a motorized vehicle. Logged country will frequently have many closed roads that may otherwise confuse you when looking at aerial photos.
There are some dangers in relying solely on remote imagery and maps, but it’s amazing how well you can feel like you know an area once you arrive for the first time after some extensive map and photo study. One of the big problems most people have is getting a feel for the scale of an area. This is extremely difficult to get a feel for if you’ve never been out west. While the area may look familiar, a climb that seemed doable on Google Earth or a topo map can be incredibly daunting when viewed in person. If it looks steep when viewed remotely, and you’re even a little bit unsure of whether you can handle it, just assume you can’t. I try to avoiding tackling more 1,000 feet of elevation gain in a mile. That’s an extremely tough hike and equivalent to about a 20% grade. Doing one day of that is no big deal for me, but it’s hard to stay motivated and upbeat when I face such a grade on days two and three.
When trying to figure out the amount of time you have to allot yourself to get from Point A to Point B, a good rule of thumb is to allow for just 1 mile per hour in any kind of rough terrain. People scoff at me when I tell them that, but I’ve never hunted with anyone who can do much better than 1.5 miles per hour when tackling significant mountains, and that’s usually with the benefit of a trail. Under a mile per hour in the dark off trail, and closer to a half a mile per hour in the dark in blowdowns, burns or dark timber if you’re trying to be quiet are other decent rules of thumb.
Another problem that some people have is trying to interpret the habitat types they see on remote imagery. It’s usually easy to tell meadows from woods, but aspens, scrub oaks and pinyon/juniper country can be difficult. There are several ways to handle this; one is to make a point of looking at embedded pictures in Google Earth in order to “remotely ground truth”, another option is to look for photos that were taken during different times of the year. Clicking on the little clock in the tool bar on Google Earth will bring up a slider bar that will allow you to view different images of the same area. If trees or turn to fuzzy dots or sticks, then you’re probably looking at aspens or scrub oaks.
But how do you tell the difference between aspens and srub oaks? That’s a real tough one, and difficult to do. In Colorado, if you’re looking at country above 9,000 feet, it’s probably aspen, between 8,000 and 9,000 it could be either and below 8,000 it’s probably scrub oaks or other brush species. If the photo is taken when there is any sort of shadows or if it is taken from a low angle, you can sometimes determine aspens from brush because the aspens will be considerably taller. Paying attention to your altitude will also help you if you think you’re looking at heavy timber below 8,000 feet in the Central Rockies. The reality is it’s probably Pinyon/juniper or Ponderosa Pine woodlands, neither of which tend to grow in the densities that Lodgepole Pines, spruces or firs will. Other areas will have their habitats stratified differently, so talking with a biologist may help you figure some of this out.
I have a habit of giving some of my favorite feature types a name, and I’ll go over how to indentify my Hole Up Areas, The Long Ridge, the Obvious Meadow, Hidden Shelf, the Vague Boundary, Corner Pocket, etc. I also will give individual features a name if it doesn’t already have one. It becomes difficult to get on the same page with your hunting partners when referring to the pond behind the meadow at the base of that unnamed mountain on the east side Road 607 with that one pine tree in the middle of it. Instead, it becomes Old Pine Park, or something like that, and I’ll mark it on Google Earth and send it him a photo or coordinates so we are speaking the same language.
A combination of maps and aerial photos are also helpful when trying to determine escape routes. A feature I like to look for is what I call the Obvious Meadow. Look for absolute no-brainer, easy to get to areas that are too close to the roads. Not necessarily right on the road, but look for big meadows with a strip of trees separating it and a road where less capable hunters will think they’ve actually gone somewhere. Now, let’s find an escape route out of there. An downwind saddle with a little bit of an opening or a smaller alternative meadow deeper in the timber that would funnel escaping game through while offering you a shot is ideal. These are even better if another hunter’s approach to the Obvious Meadow will place him upwind of that meadow, alerting game long before he knew they were there. Remember, the prevailing winds blow west to east. In mesa country, where roads are often on the larger flats, look for gentler paths into the canyons. Elk or deer aren’t going to want to have to scale nearly vertical walls if they can avoid it, so find a nice escape route into a canyon to hunt off of the Obvious Meadow.
For mid season hunts, after the elk rut, I also like to look for what I call “Hole Up Areas”. These are small little openings that a bull can hang out on in peace and quiet, surrounded by dark timber, while he licks his wounds and tries to recover before winter really sets in. Mid to late October can be hot and dry, so I prefer to look for these on north and east facing slopes. They may be too small for a topo map to indicate them, so this is where aerial photos are particularly useful.
Another feature I will look for, but only in mountainous country is the Long Ridge. Essentially, this is the easiest path for deer or elk to travel between their summer and winter ranges. Finding an appropriate midpoint can be difficult if there’s a 10 or 20 mile long ridge that dumps game off into their wintering grounds. But, the whole point is to be in the path of least resistance. If you’re too low, hopefully you’ll be catching early arrivers or residents, if you’re too high, you might be able to catch a straggler.
Print off a copy of a Google Earth image, then laminate it and store it in your pack. You’ll never know when your wanderings will leave you wondering what’s over the next ridge, or whether there is an interesting habitat feature to head towards within this large stand of timber. The Hidden Shelf is another feature that I frequently kick myself for not investigating when I’m on a scouting trip. These shelves, especially in canyon country are sometimes tucked just below a cliff, and are very difficult to see from a road. If you didn’t know they were there and are just road scouting, it’s easy to drive right by a perfect little honey hole. I make a habit of looking back at the maps and Google Earth photos when I get back from a scouting trip in order to keep perspective of the area “true” in my mind. When doing so, I’ll often find these shelves, or other interesting features, but it’ll be too late to go look at what kind of sign is on it.
One aspect of hunter psychology to take advantage of is the Corner Pocket, the Vague Boundary and the Off Limits Approach. It’s common for hunters to not have a complete grasp of their unit boundary, so in order to avoid getting into trouble they will stay well within the boundaries of their designated hunting area. With a good topo map, mark the boundaries of your unit and look for places that are easier to approach from a unit where your tag is not valid. That’s what I call the Off Limits Approach; hunters don’t want to walk through an area that they can’t hunt. The Vague Boundary is usually a divide between two drainages, rather than a road or creek that hunters can readily identify on a map. If the area is at all difficult to get to (thereby avoiding people who don’t care whether or not they are hunting the right area) it can have a lot less pressure than a better defined boundary. A Corner Pocket is a place where the boundary does something screwy, creating a small pocket or bend, especially one that would make other hunters pause before attempting to hunt it. Not all boundaries are biologically meaningful, so there are occasional areas where you can take advantage of a simplified boundary when hunting near a trophy unit or higher demand area.
Lastly, I try to identify vantage points when remote scouting. I like to know what the vantage will show me, and which areas that I’d like to look at will be out of view of myself or other hunters. If an obvious series of meadows or brushy hillsides are within view of an easy to get to vantage point (like a switchback in a road), you can often count on someone bothering to hike over there to hunt them. It also helps to know whether or not you are able to get to a place that you can see game. It does no good to set up to view openings 3 or 4 miles away that you can’t or won’t hike to. Conversely, hidden openings or hillsides that you don’t have to hike several miles to get to can often be very productive. Along those same lines, if you have to hike to your vantage point to view an area that can’t be seen from a road, it’s likely a good spot. People who hunt an area routinely don’t make a point of re-scouting or looking at aerial photos and many of them don’t even own maps. So a feature that is out of sight, but has just enough timber or elevation gain and loss to make it uncomfortable to get there randomly can often be productive, similar to the Hidden Shelf.
While I love getting my boots dusty, I can’t always be out there. As you can see, there are many things you can look for while killing time this summer. Additionally, there are things that are easy to miss by simply tromping around without a plan. This kind of obsessive, thorough preparation by out of area hunters is one reason why some tend to do a lot better than you’d expect when showing up in unknown or first time hunted country. Since Google Earth is free, and a couple maps costs a lot less than a tank of gas, there’s really no excuse to not be intimately familiar with your chosen hunting area before you ever actually set foot in it.