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Mapping Your Way to Success

PhotoBy Bob Humphrey 

-- How to use topo maps to increase bowhunting opportunities.

I watched intently as a slender doe casually fed on acorns a mere 15 feet from the base of my tree. She was grabbing the last bites of her afternoon meal before dessert; an abandoned apple orchard lay just 100 yards ahead on the trail. I thought about how fortunate I was to watch such a wary creature relaxed and totally unaware of my presence; this is why I love bowhunting so much.
It was a perfect set-up. I had placed my climbing stand in an oak atop a narrow, flat bench. Thirty yards to my left, the terrain dropped off sharply into a steep ravine. Twenty-five yards to my right, it dropped off more gradually into another depression. Heavy deer trails funneled through the bench and toward the apples. Anything that wanted to pass through the area had to come within bow range.

Suddenly, I was distracted by movement in my peripheral vision. I looked up from the doe. Although I couldn't see its head, I could tell by the size and confident walk it was a buck. Now the doe would be my ally, provided she didn't look up. Seeing the doe relaxed and feeding, the buck headed straight in. The doe obligingly turned to face its suitor, giving me an opportunity to draw. Two more steps and the buck was in my shooting lane. Instinct took over and the arrow was on its way. The three-bladed Razorbak did its job, and I found the big 8-pointer less than 100 yards away.

I had been in my stand less than two hours, and I had my buck. I had never been to this spot before, yet I knew exactly where to place my stand when I got there. I knew the topography would funnel deer movement right through this narrow bench and toward the orchard. 

How was I able to pull off this trick - luck, magic, the advice of a friend? The answer is none of the above. I pulled off this piece of prognostication entirely on my own. With a little knowledge about deer behavior and a U.S.G.S. topo map, I was able to identify a potential hotspot. Then, with the map and a compass, I easily made my way to it. All I had to do was check the wind, find the right tree to hang my stand, and wait.

Topo maps are among the most useful and valuable pieces of hunting equipment you can own, as well as the least expensive. Knowing how to read them can save a lot of time and leg work in locating areas that hold game, accessing more remote areas, and finding your way in and out of the woods. By adding this weapon to your arsenal, you can greatly improve your chances for an enjoyable and successful hunt. Furthermore, it could save your life. But before you can use them, you need to know how to read them.

The term topo map generally refers to a map comprised of 7.5-degree U.S.G.S. topographical quadrangles. These "quads" contain a wealth of information for hunters. While some of the information may be a bit superfluous to the average person, familiarizing yourself with some of the basic terms and features can be of great advantage to you. In order to be able to read the important information on a topo map, you need to know the five "Ds" - designations, directions, distances, descriptions, and details.

Among the most obvious features on a topo map are designations. These include political boundaries such as town and county lines; borders of public land; and names of towns, villages, churches, schools, and cemeteries. They also consist of features such as islands, points, mountains, rivers, ponds, and lakes, as well as and public works or other descriptive notes including road names, golf courses, and radio towers. Many of these features should be familiar to you at first glance. But how do you find them in the field?

One of the fundamental things a topo map can show you is direction. Looking at the map, north is up. Thus, south is down, the right side of the map is east, and the left side west. To properly orient your map, lay a compass on the map so that the compass edge is parallel to east or west sides of the map.  Holding the map and compass together, turn them so that the red north compass arrow is pointing to the top of the map.  Your map is now nearly properly oriented and the direction to an actual location is the same as the direction to its corresponding location on the map.

However, if you plan to use your map and a compass to navigate, you will need to know the declination (the difference between true north and magnetic north), which varies according to your location. In the eastern U.S., a compass needle will point west of the true north line. The opposite is true if you are west of a line running approximately north from the east coast of Florida through Lake Michigan to the Magnetic North Pole.  The local declination appears as a small angle diagram at the bottom of the map. 

A little tip I learned can save you a lot of time and confusion worrying about declination. Start at the declination diagram. Lay a ruler or other straight edge on the magnetic north line. With a pencil (never use ink), continue the magnetic north line in the declination angle all the way up through the map. Then draw parallel lines one inch apart on the map. Your map will now be covered with magnetic north grid lines at 2,000-foot intervals. Now, no matter where you are, all you have to do is repeat the orientation procedures, using your pencil lines instead of the side of the map, and your map will be properly oriented.

When using a topo map, it's important to know what the actual distance illustrated on the map is. The scale on a 7.5-degree map - located at the bottom center of the margin - is 1:24000 or 1 inch = 2,000 feet. This translates to 1 mile = 2.640 inches on the map. With a ruler, or a reasonably good guess, you can tell at a glance how far it is to your destination.

Descriptive information is, for the most part, in the margins of the map. The name of the individual map or quadrangle lies in the top and bottom right corners of the margin and is usually derived from a prominent designation feature in the area such as a town, lake or mountain. The names of adjacent quads are found in parentheses, at the top, bottom, sides, and corners.  These names will be important when buying or ordering maps.

The margin also contains evenly spaced numbers, and corresponding lines, which run across the map. Horizontal lines or numbers represent lines of latitude. Numbers at the top and bottom, and lines perpendicular to latitude lines represent lines of longitude or meridian lines. While these are seldom used by the average sportsman, they can be extremely useful to those equipped with recent innovations like electronic navigation devices (GPS). With a hand-held GPS, you can accurately place yourself on the map at any time or plot a course to your destination.

Another descriptive feature, which may at first seem nonessential, is the date located below the map name in the lower right corner. This date will tell you when the map's cartography was completed. The more recent the date, the more accurate the information portrayed on the map.

However, older maps can also be useful. A case in point is the story I opened with. I had an older topo map of the area, which showed an apple orchard in the vicinity I intended to hunt. A more recent version of the same quad did not show the orchard. This meant it had either been cut down (unlikely), or it was abandoned - a haven for deer and grouse.

Old maps can also be used to uncover other hotspots. Old fields or cutovers reverting back to woodland often make great bedding and feeding areas for whitetails. Abandoned farmsteads often contain small orchards that do not show up on these maps. Abandoned four-wheel-drive trails not only provide easier access to interior woodlands, they often become heavily used as deer trails as undisturbed deer will most often take the easiest route of travel available.
With a basic understanding of how to read a topo, you're now ready to take a closer look at some of the details on the map. Descriptive information about both man-made and natural features appears as various colors and symbols. The most prominent color on most topos is green, which indicates vegetation such as forest or shrubs. White represents open areas such as fields and croplands. The symbol for an orchard is green dots on a white background. The juxtaposition of these details can provide important clues for locating stand sites. For instance, narrow green strips between large white areas often indicate brushy hedgerows or wooded strips. Deer will often travel these corridors rather than crossing open fields. Such areas are especially hot if they connect two or more larger blocks of woods. Often, you'll find these strips occur along the riparian area or floodplain of rivers, streams and brooks - traditionally good spots for stand placement.

Speaking of streams, water appears blue on the map - blue tint for water bodies and large waterways and blue lines for streams. Larger waterways and water bodies often represent a barrier to deer movement; they'll seldom cross these areas unless pushed, preferring to travel the margins. You'll often find heavy trails at the top or bottom end of lakes, where deer will funnel through to get around the obstacle. Deer will cross at narrow points along a wide river, and these are also good places to set up an ambush.

Another feature that savvy deer hunters recognize is wetlands such as swamps, bogs, and marshes. These are indicated by a blue wetland symbol. Wetland symbols on a green tint usually indicate a swamp, while wetland symbols on a white background is typically a marshy area. The biggest, thickest, nastiest swamps are where you'll find the sagacious old bucks hiding out. If you don't care to brave these quagmires, look for nearby feeding areas such as orchards and fields, or wooded strips where you may catch them coming to or from bedding.

Most hunters don't think of marshes as being especially good whitetail habitat. Thus, they are often overlooked.  If you can find a small patch of high ground or woody vegetation in a marsh, you could be on to a real hotspot. 

I experienced this jump-shooting ducks on a large coastal salt marsh. I noticed my map showed a small green dot in the marsh. Sure enough, when I got there I noticed a small brushy island in the marsh.  It couldn't have been more than 25 feet wide by 30 feet long, and was several hundred yards from the nearest wooded area. Curiosity got the better of me, and I had to check it out. Although I was quite startled, I was not surprised when a doe, then a big 10-pointer came bursting out of the cover, nearly at my feet. Who knows how many hunters these deer watched pass by within yards.

Topo maps also contain a number of man-made features, most of which are more useful in finding your way around, than selecting stand sites. They are important nonetheless. Features such as roads appear as black lines. Four-wheel-drive or foot trails are represented by a single, dashed line, unimproved or dirt roads by parallel, dashed lines and light duty hard surface or improved roads by solid, parallel lines. Primary highways have red tint between the solid lines. 

Hunters should also be able to recognize power lines or transmission lines, which appear as single, or multiple dotted and dashed lines. Where permissible, power lines provide an easy access route to backwoods areas, either by foot or vehicle. Some hunters also like to set up on the edges of power lines.  Power line rights-of-way must be maintained. Cutting and other forms of vegetation suppression result in an abundance of grasses, forbs, woody shoots, and other preferred deer foods.

One of the most important details shown on a topo map, and that from which they derive their name, is contour lines. These brown lines represent points of equal elevation.  Parallel contour lines appear at 10-foot intervals, which mean each line represents a 10-foot change in elevation. The distance between adjacent lines is called the contour interval. The closer the lines are together, the steeper the contour or grade. On a steep grade, lines will be very close together, while in relatively flat areas, lines will be some distance apart.

Deer, just like people, usually avoid steep areas. By studying the contour intervals on a topo map, you can begin to visualize what the terrain looks like, and predict deer movement through it. Steep ridges will funnel deer movement into narrow areas. Saddles or low areas between peaks are great spots to place a stand. On bigger ridges or mountains you'll sometimes see wide, flat areas or benches along the sideslope. Whitetails love to travel, and bed on these benches, and I've taken some nice deer while perched just above these flat travel lanes.

Contour lines can also help you find your way around. If you have trouble determining which way is up, you can always determine the direction a stream flows from the map's contour lines. Where contour lines cross a river or stream they are "V"-shaped.  The point of this "V" faces upstream or upslope. 

Once you start using topo maps as a regular part of your hunting paraphernalia, you will find them invaluable. I seldom venture into the woods without them - even on short trips - and always carry them when scouting. Aerial photos and some familiarity with the area you intend to hunt are also helpful supplements. With this information, you can literally plot your way to success before you even step into the woods.

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