By Bob Humphrey
-- Pre-season scouting can be the single most important factor to consistent hunting success. Unfortunately, it takes time; and in today's busy world, many hunters find it difficult to find enough time to hunt, to say nothing of scouting. If you find yourself among this frustrated group, take heart. Once again technology has come to the rescue. There's no real substitute for time in the field. But by using some of the equipment and tools available, you can become considerably more efficient and effective at maximizing your time out-of-doors. Here's how.
Next to a compass, the second most important item in my day pack is a topo map (U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute series 1:25,000 scale topographical map). Whether hunting or scouting, I seldom go anywhere without one. But topo maps do have their drawbacks. For starters, finding out which one you need, then getting it can be a major ordeal. Once you've figured out which map you need, you need to fill out a form and mail it into USGS with a check, and wait two weeks for it to come only to discover the area you're interested in actually lies on the corner of four maps. Then, you find a new area to hunt and start the process all over again.
Thanks to MapTech's Terrain Navigator and DeLorme's Topo USA, obtaining, using, and modifying topo maps just got a whole lot easier - at least for computer users. With Terrain Navigator, you can purchase a single CD-ROM disk or set of disks that contain topo maps for an entire state. Topo USA disks cover larger regions of the country. There are some other major differences between the two products, the most significant being Terrain Navigator shows you actual USGS quads, while DeLorme shows the same topographic and orthographic information in a slightly different manner.
With both, search features allow you to use keywords such as the name of a town, body of water or topographical feature to quickly locate your area on the map. Then, you can reduce or enlarge the scale until you find the right combination of detail and coverage. What's more, with a color printer, you can print a copy of just the area you're interested in, no more folding and re-folding bulky maps. Put it inside a zipper-type plastic bag and you're ready for your outing.
But before you go, let's take a closer look at those topo maps. This is what I call pre-scouting or remote scouting. In their daily travels, a deer's routine consists largely of feeding and resting, and unless disturbed, they will generally take the path of least resistance. Thus, on the maps, we're looking for topographic features such as steep terrain or water bodies that will funnel deer movement.
Those familiar with topo maps know that green suggests vegetation while white indicates open areas like fields and pastures. Knowing this, you can look for narrow vegetated strips between open fields, acting as funnels. You can also look for other features like an orchard, which might indicate a feeding area. Of course, finding potential hotspots on the map and then actually getting there are two different things. With a map and compass, a good hunter should be able to get pretty close, depending how far off the road it is.
Another nice feature of these map programs is when you place the cursor directly on a specific location, the program will tell you exactly where on the face of the earth that point is. Its exact location, in latitude and longitude will appear in a box. This is where your next techno gadget comes into use.
You can program these coordinates directly into a hand-held GPS unit, then use the unit to bring you to that exact location. Some units can even interface with the mapping programs, allowing you to download specific locations instead of manually entering them digit by digit. Now, before you've even left your house, you have specific locations to scout, and an efficient means to find your way to them. Incidentally, the maps may show you that a straight line is not the easiest way there. The map view will show you obstacles such as rivers, and for those not as familiar with reading topo maps, a profile or side-view feature will also show you steep slopes or ridges too dangerous or difficult to cross.
The two systems work together, in reverse as well. As you travel through an area you (hopefully) will encounter signs in the form of rubs, scrapes, trails, bedding or feeding areas. In the past, you would have to approximate, as close as possible, where you were, then make some sort of mark on you topo map, that hopefully you would remember the meaning at a later day. With your own, computer-generated maps, you can still do this and not have to worry about the map being cluttered with stuff over time. You can simply use a fresh copy for each scouting trip.
But the GPS allows you to go one better. Now you can simply program in the exact location of whatever feature you've found, even labeling it appropriately, e.g., "Scrape 1." You can even plot a continuous course such as a deer trail or rub line as you walk it. Back at home, you can download all this information into your mapping program. You can even sort and save by layers, one for scrapes, another for rubs for instance. GPS is also a great way to find your way to and from deer stands without cluttering up the woods with ribbons or reflective thumbtacks.
The magic really takes place when you load information from several visits. Suddenly patterns start appearing on the map. Those scrapes that you thought were just randomly scattered through the woodlot are actually on a more or less straight line between bedding and feeding areas. Or, they form a wagon wheel pattern with one big primary scrape at the hub.
So now you know where deer are traveling; next you need to know when.
I've always wished there were more of me so I could watch several of my best deer stands at once. As a poor substitute, I would tie thread across deer trails and check them periodically to see if anything came by. Then along came trail timers, and at least I knew what time something came by, once. These simple, single-event timers were soon upstaged with multi-event timers triggered by motion sensors. This provided more information about the when, but you still couldn't tell what.
That problem was solved with the introduction of trail cameras. You can place a trail camera in the woods and leave it there to be your eyes when you're not there. Many cameras also record the date, time, the moon phase, and more on the photo.
The applications are obvious. Not only can you tell something passed in the vicinity, but the developed images will show you what it was, when it passed, what direction it came from, and whether or not it was alone. If the photos are all does and you're after a buck, or if you're after a trophy and all your pictures are of smaller deer, you'll know you're on the wrong trail without having wasted an evening hunt. If all the deer are approaching from downwind, you can move your stand before you spook the deer. Many users are pleasantly surprised to find out there's a trophy cruising their woodlot that nobody knew existed.
Of course, the results can sometimes be frustrating. I placed a camera near one of my hottest stands last year. I knew there was a nice buck in the area but wanted to learn more about him. I did. The mature 8-pointer visited my stand two afternoons in a row, while I was out of state. Still, in addition to being useful, these cameras can also be just plain fun. Developing your film or checking your digital images is like opening a Christmas present. Furthermore, you could end up with some nice photos.
These are but a few of the many ways technology can be used to aid the deer hunter, and for the clever computer user, the potential is virtually unlimited. It's important to keep in mind that none of these will make you a better hunter. There's no substitute for first-hand knowledge. What they will do is make you a more efficient hunter, so you can concentrate time and energy on the more important task of finding and interpreting signs.
For more information:
(Topo USA) DeLorme Mapping Company, Two DeLorme Drive, P.O. Box 298, Yarmouth, Maine 04096 (207) 846-7050 www.delorme.com
(Terrain Navigator) MapTech, 655 Portsmouth Avenue, Greenland, NH 03840 (800) 627-7236 www.maptech.com