By Steve Bartylla
The contour map revealed a long ridge slicing through the big timber, eventually splitting into a “Y.” Fifty yards before the split, a dip in the ridge formed a saddle. As a bonus, a deep erosion cut ran from the valley all the way up to just short of the saddle.
The combination of features formed a great location for intercepting roaming bucks. All those running the ridge, crossing at the saddle and skirting just above the cut would pass within shooting distance.
With the map revealing the lowest impact route in, I loaded up a stand and headed in two hours before first light. As quietly as possibly, I hung the stand between the tip of the erosion cut and the base of the saddle. From this spot, I would have shots less than 20 yards at the bucks using any of these terrain features.
I’d just settled into the stand when I heard the crunching of a steady gait. Even in the darkness, the huge frame of this monstrous buck’s rack was clear. Fortunately for him, with a half hour of darkness left, all I could do was watch as he calmly trotted through the area.
That was just the beginning of things to come. Before the day was done, 13 more bucks passed within bow range, two of which, if it weren’t for busted tines, I would have been thrilled to take. The combination of the busted-up racks and my hopes of the monster returning kept my bow from being drawn. Still, not a bad day for going into new land cold.
The Power of Topo Maps
As was the case with that hunt, contour maps can be very valuable. Tom Indrebo, owner of Bluff Country Outfitters, knows it well. “I rely a lot on maps and photos,” Tom said. “Here in Buffalo County (Wisconsin), the terrain has lots of relief changes. Maps can tell me a lot about how deer are using the habitat and show me many good stand locations. When I’m forced to set stands on new ground during the season, that information lets me minimize disturbances. My hunters have been able to take a lot of great bucks from stands I’ve found on maps.”
As Tom indicated, topo maps can reveal a bird’s eye view of your hunting grounds. They illustrate cultural features, such as roads, railroad tracks, buildings and major transmission lines. This information alone can show how to gain access to areas and routes to stand sites. The wooded areas are shaded in green. With that you can look for narrowed down necks of green that show potential funnels.
The water features that maps illustrate, such as swamps, rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds, can also reveal low-impact access routes and funnels. The narrow piece of dry land between those bodies of water can be a dynamite setup. Swamps serve as potential bedding areas. Furthermore, waterways are often used as travel corridors by deer.
Finally, any water feature can create barriers that many hunters avoid. Most hunters are unwilling to put on a pair of waders or jump in a canoe to go deer hunting. Water corridors section off areas of land, often resulting in mini sanctuaries that exist within places that are otherwise heavily hunted.
Sometimes maps will reveal potential food sources. When a wood line is shown as a distinct, straight edge, it’s a good bet that it’s butting against a farm field. Granted, there’s no guarantee that it’s still active and provides no clue as to what is planted, but it is a good indication of a possible food source.
Hidden meadows can also be found on maps. At first glance, fall meadows might seem to be a wasteland of dead grasses. However, closer inspection reveals the tender, fresh growth of cool- season grasses and weeds. With these greeneries typically being highly digestible and yielding 20 percent protein content, meadows can be buck magnets in big woods settings. Lucky for us, they are easily identified on maps as openings within the woods.
Even better is the contours provide the ability to visualize relief. Studying contour maps allows the viewer to see a cross section of the land and any significant dip or rise. With the capability of seeing terrain in 3-D comes the power of visualizing the flow of topography. In turn, it’s possible to scrutinize the most likely ways that whitetails will travel a property.
In order to read a topo correctly, you must understand how to read contours. The first step is to know that each contour line on a map indicates a line of constant elevation. The distance in elevation between lines is commonly 20 feet. In that case, the contours divisible by 100 – every fifth contour going up or down in elevation – are called index contours. They are represented by darker lines and are labeled with an elevation.
So, if the 1,300-foot index contour is running along the side of a hill, the next contour going up the hill will be the 1,320-foot line. The one on the downhill side of the index contour would be the 1,280.
The advantage this gives hunters lies in showing changes in elevation. Because contour lines are lines of a constant elevation at set intervals, we can see how flat or steep the terrain is. When contours are spaced relatively far apart, the terrain is fairly flat. Conversely, the closer they are together the steeper the terrain.
With this understanding you can begin to see topographical features emerge. For example, a series of contours forming concentric circles indicates either a bowl or a hill. If the elevations are dropping, it’s a bowl, with the reverse indicating a hill. Just that easily, you can begin to read terrain features.
The more you study contour maps, the more hunting information you’ll be able to glean. One of the best ways to hone your skill is to take a contour map out to the field. By tracking your position when you run across interesting terrain features, you can look at the map to see how it’s represented.
From there, you can begin to look for subtle differences in individual features. For example, after comparing several dry washes, it becomes much easier to use contours to tell whether it possesses sharp banks that impede deer crossing.
While even the best map reader should validate potential stand sites by foot scouting, maps provide a powerful head start. They enable a hunter to analyze deer habitat and generate a checklist of potential stand sites before stepping foot in the woods.
Not enough hunters pay attention to access routes to their stands, and maps can shot the best low-impact routes to and from these locations. And studying maps can uncover great stands that were overlooked while foot scouting.
This article was published in the August 2006 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.