By Steve Bartylla
Comparing terrain features to a contour map is a quick and effective way of honing map-reading skills.
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, deep rut ran from the valley all the way up to just short of the saddle.
The combination of features made it a buck-hunting hotspot. Any deer running the ridge, crossing at the saddle and skirting just above the cut would pass within shooting distance.
With the map revealing the quietest route in, I loaded up a stand and headed in two hours before first light. As quietly as possible, I hung the stand between the tip of the erosion cut and the base of the saddle. From this spot, I would have shots under 20 yards at any deer walking this route.
I’d just settled into the stand when I heard the crunching of a steady gait. Even in the pre-dawn darkness, I could see the outline of a huge rack. This buck was a monster! But with not enough light to shoot, all I could do was watch him slip 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.
A map reveals in detail how deer use property.
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 recently divulged. “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 our 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, we can look for narrowed-down necks of green that show potential funnels.
The hydrological features that maps illustrate — swamps, rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds — can also reveal low-impact access routes and funnels. The narrow section of dry land between those bodies of water can be a dynamite setup. Then, we have the swamps that serve as potential bedding areas. Furthermore, waterways are often used as travel corridors by deer.
Finally, any waterway 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,” which exist within places that are otherwise heavily hunted.
Maps can also reveal potential food sources. When a wood line is shown as a distinct, straight edge, it’s a good bet that it abuts 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 are also revealed by 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. Luckily for us, they are easily identified on maps as openings within the woods.
Even better yet is that the contours provide the ability to visualize relief. Studying contour maps allows the viewer the ability to see a cross section of the land and any significant dip or rise. Seeing terrain in 3-D lets you visualize the flow of topography. In turn, it’s now possible to scrutinize the most likely ways that whitetails will travel a property.
In order to posses this ability, one must understand how to read contours. Acquiring this skill begins by under-standing 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 we can begin to see topographical features emerge. For example, a series of contours forming concentric circles indicates either a pothole or a hill. If the elevations are dropping, it’s a pothole, with the reverse indicating a hill. Just that easily, we can begin to read terrain features.
The more hunters study contour maps, the more their ability to “read” topography increases. One of the best ways to hone this skill is to simply bring contour maps out to the field. By tracking our position, when we run across interesting terrain features, all we have to do is look at the map to see how it’s represented.
From there, we can begin looking 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. You’re now on your way to becoming a map-reading expert.
As you can see, contour maps are extremely powerful tools in the hunter’s arsenal. Though it’s always a good idea to validate potential stand sites found on a map by scouting, maps provide hunters with 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. As a result, the hunter can select low-impact routes to and from these locations, effectively keeping disturbances from in-season scouting to a minimum. And studying maps can uncover great stands that were overlooked while scouting. They truly have the ability to take your scouting to another level.
-- Reprinted from the August 2006 issue of Buckmasters Magazine
For hunters, maps and photos are a marriage made in heaven. When paired, they provide an enhanced view of a property and how the deer most likely use it.
Using the pair to identify bedding areas is a good example of this. Topo maps show the fingers and knobs sprouting off ridges that are likely bedding areas. Photos reveal the thickets and better illustrate the types of swamps sought out as bedrooms.
This also applies to food sources. With a little practice and a detailed photo, stands of oaks and apple trees can be seen. You know for sure whether that wood line abuts a field or if the opening holds a meadow. Though not every potential food source may be revealed, the pair does show many of them.
Furthermore, they make it easier to determine travel routes. Ridges, old vehicle trails, waterways and hidden edges are all preferred travel corridors for deer. Each can be found by studying maps or photos.
The best of all is how maps and photos show nearly every funnel. These areas that force deer through narrow travel corridors can be great stand locations. Whereas contour maps do a good job of showing topographic funnels, aerial photos do a better job of showing habitat funnels. Good photos clearly reveal strips of woods cutting through swamps, brushy fence lines connecting wood lots and the overgrown creek bottoms that bucks use for cover while traveling.
When we combine bedding areas, food sources, travel corridors and funnels, we now have a good idea how deer are using the property. Best of all, it can be done without the risk of spooking a single deer.
Further, overlaying photos with clear film provides a medium suitable for plotting the deer sign found while scouting. With this, we can now truly see the big picture and have an ultimately powerful scouting tool.