Mule Deer, Elk and Western Big Game Hunting -

Scouting, is it worth it?
By Brian Elling

There are many advantages hunters seek with a tag in their pocket during season. It may be clothing, optics, gun or any number of items. One I feel most important is scouting, a hunter could have the best possible hunting products but the animal still must be found in a limited amount of time. When time is precious; scouting during the season is not the opportune time. Scouting while you hunt is imperative but it is not when you should be learning the area for the first time. Personally, I'd rather have 10 days scouting and two days of hunting over 10 days hunting and two days scouting.

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The vast majority of hunters lives don't allow for much time to be taken away from family and work, but a little bit here and there is a major bonus to your hunting success! With many months between hunting seasons, a person can find a few days to spend in the field throughout the year learning animal behaviors, terrain, trails, bedding and feeding areas.

Being a single dad, time is probably the most valuable item to me. It is rare for me to have so called "free time". So I maximize it, but also supplement it with family time in the woods. My girls enjoy looking for antlers in the spring and summer. Not only is a potential reward just lying in the woods waiting for them to find but the exercise, views, education and especially time with my kids is awesome! To my girls we are aimlessly walking around, I however have areas I want to learn, animals to monitor, game cameras to check etc… It is a fun time for all of us, granted going on days with perfect weather is best at ensuring kids have a good time and are comfortable.

On the days I am kid free, scouting gets kicked up a few notches. Instead of a leisurely stroll for a mile or two, most likely a long hard hike into some remote country is on the list. I use these days to learn new areas, search for hidden honey holes and animals. I am up early and back late just as if I was hunting. On these trips my GPS is a necessity, it is near impossible to remember everything you come across so I am constantly entering points for later evaluation at home. I enter rub lines, bedding areas, wallows, water sources, trails (game & human), meadows not marked on maps, glassing points, and basically anything that will help me understand how, when, where and why the species I am after move throughout the area. I also carry a paper map with me for two reasons; first is if my GPS fails, second it is easier for me to view the "big picture" on terrain in the area when using a map. The GPS screens are so small it is hard to view large areas with any reasonable detail. Arriving home, I place the marks and what they are on a mapping program on my computer. It allows me to visually see all the information and further analyze what areas will likely be used and when by the animals.

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Above I mentioned about learning the behavior of other hunters/hikers in the area I am hunting. This goes hand-n-hand with learning the animals. People affect the areas animals will use and when; understanding trails used by most hunters, spike camp areas or if outfitters have a place they use regularly will increase your chances at being successful. Animals react to these intrusions and adjust accordingly. With this knowledge a hunter can use it to their advantage. For instance, an area I rifle hunt in receives heavy pressure for elk. For the first six years I hunted this specific area, my routine rarely wavered. I was out of camp long before shooting light arriving to my "honey hole" 2 ½ miles in, about 1 hour prior to shooting light. It is a small meadow on the side of a ridge just prior to the ridge taking a severe left turn. In the morning when hunters start their daily trek along this ridge, they cross 3 different feeding areas used by the elk at night, not even realizing it they push the elk to me. I use a different access point from these hunters, thus I can sneak in without alerting the elk of my presence. The location of the small meadow is unique due to it being right at the top of a sharp ravine the elk are forced to navigate above. Upon arriving to the meadow, the elk are required to make a decision; either bail off the side or over a hump and side-hill the next section of ridge. An easy shot of less than 50 yards is presented every time they stop at the meadows edge looking back for their pursuer. I have filled my share of tags from this spot; reason is I understand terrain, animal and hunter behaviors from the scouting I have conducted here.

Hunting a unit for the first time can seem rather daunting at first thought, especially if you have been applying for many years to acquire the tag. I like to take scouting in steps in a situation like this. If you live close by, multiple single day trips can be utilized or mini-vacations will be needed for proper scouting if distance is an issue.

A great example is in 2007 when I drew a Utah LE elk tag, I never stepped foot in the unit until that summer. I spent six, three day weekends leading up to the start of my early rifle season learning the unit. Should have had the #1 bull on my hit list but some confusion during a lighting storm resulted in filling my tag with a nice representative bull of the unit. He is unique in having three separate antlers so he turned out to be a great trophy.

First step is to acquire maps of the area such as BLM paper maps and electronic topographic maps for your GPS. I familiarize myself with the roads, distances to good looking areas from roads, difficulty of accessing general areas from the nearest road and potential water source areas (if drought conditions will be an issue). Second I take a day driving most of the roads learning the layout of the land, access points and camping areas. Noting on my map what areas I will conduct my initial hikes. On initial hikes, I stick to the easiest trail possible; hopefully it follows the highest points. My reason is to cover as much ground as possible in the shortest amount of time taking notes of areas I feel would hold animals during the season I will be hunting. After my initial hikes, I review my notes and pick out a few areas I think have the highest potential and pick routes I would likely use while hunting to access. I treat it as a simulated hunt to evaluate the actual terrain for accessibility, hiking time, and areas to be used by animals during hunting season. After this second set of hikes, determination is made in which areas I need to concentrate my future efforts on for scouting/hunting. Final step to my scouting prior to season is refining my knowledge of the area and to search animals for quality definition. My life situation does not permit me to find and track specific animals, however I want to know what caliber of animal is a shooter when my weapon of choice is in hand. I do this by evaluating the animals I see while scouting.

An added benefit of scouting is the exercise you will receive; granted it won't be enough alone to keep you in shape but it's a nice benchmark to judge your current efforts against in determining if your intensity needs to be increased or maintained.

Simply don't get over whelmed with learning a new unit, take it in little steps and start early, if it is a unit to be hunted multiple times your knowledge will get more refined and precise as the years go by.

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