All of the tactics I will talk about apply to most softwares, this is just the one I prefer.
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A few years back I drew a limited entry archery mule deer tag in eastern Nevada. I had never stepped foot in the area and due to my schedule, I was unable to make it out to do any pre-season scouting. I saved up my time to spend in the field during the season and arrived the night prior to the hunt. With such a great tag I put in a lot of e-scouting from home pouring over topo maps, satellite imagery and 3d mapping software.
I used my standard process of looking at the topography on a map to highlight two main areas that I felt would hold big deer, some great glassing vantages, and a plan to check them both out opening day. My e-scouting had paid off as I quickly keyed in on two giant bucks including one over 200 inches. I also learned that there were other people who knew about these deer after running dozens of trail cams and scouting all summer. This was not the first time I had found giant bucks with out setting foot in the area. Many of my hunts and hunting success have been from finding big buck spots while e-scouting.
My goal is to make you just as efficient when it comes to e-scouting! By helping you understand how to read topography. How to use layer features to match up with animal behavior and your preferred hunt style, how to efficiently build a hunt plan based on your e-scouting, and how to maximize continued e-scouting while you are in the field so lets dive in!
Step 1 : Behavior- Understanding the animal
Bedding preference is a big factor in a lot of the hunt strategy I employ. While bedding may seem not that important. It is a large portion of a deer’s day and plays a big role in where deer are and where they will move too.
Mule deer like to trust their nose ears and eyes. They use the trifecta. When they are bedded, they are the most vulnerable and often the most alert. When it comes to bedding, they are looking for shade and safety. This can change in the winter to sun and safety. A mule deer when bedded has a harder time seeing up hill. They prefer to bed with the wind at their backs and allow their nose to protect the side they can’t see. They will often position where they can look down and see an approach, then they use their ears to guard the rest.
Deer may travel a good distance from food or water to obtain these optimal conditions where they feel safe and have what they need.
Vantages Pockets, Faces, and Basins:
Some of my favorite types of topography to concentrate on are what I refer to as vantages, Pockets, Faces, & Basins. They are a good mix of ideal habitat and give you a great starting point when e-scouting.
Vantage spots are integral to successful mule deer hunting. I also call these glassing spots. Mule deer hunting is a spot and stalk game and finding places to look from is as important as finding places to look too. I would go as far as to say that vantages can be the single most important feature to identify in a new area. They are the places that allow you to effectively hunt. If you were to only key in on one feature. Finding good glassing vantages would be that feature.
These can be found by looking at both a topo map or 3d mapping. It might be a prominent point or spot on a ridge, or it could even be a valley floor. I will make note of good glassing spots in my scouting and if I find good pockets or faces, I will make sure to identify potential vantages.
In order to try these vantages, I will go into the 3d map and place myself there then toggle around to see my potential view.
What is a pocket? It is a habitat that has what the deer needs but also provides ample safety and bedding. It can provide food and water, good bedding cover, multiple bedding options for the wind direction, and good escape routes where they can quickly evade predators by bounding up or down the mountain, over a ridge and out of sight.
Mule deer love pockets. I would go so far as to say that mule deer are pocket animals. There is a lot of mule deer country but most of the deer will be in a few smaller areas. Often these pockets are literally a pocket in shape on a topo map, that is why I tend to rely heavily on topo maps for scouting is because it makes these pocket features easy to quickly identify.
These pockets might also be referred to as bowls, or head basins and are features you should key in on when looking at a map.
There are a lot of practical reasons for this, but one of the main reasons is due to bedding and safety. On a topographical map a bowl is where the topo lines make a general horseshoe shape over a large area. Key in on bowls that have multiple potential bedding areas on either side. The reason for this is it allows deer to choose bedding areas based on the wind. After feeding deer will generally walk into the wind to where they will bed. An area with multiple options helps you find a smaller localized area to hunt. One of the first things I do when looking at a map is to key in on these features first.
A knob is kind of the same feature just reversed but provides bedding and security no matter the wind direction. One thing to remember is that these features are not always on the top of the mountain. You may find them in foothills, on ridges that lead up the mountain or in fact at the head of a canyon.
They may be small only a hundred yards across, or they may be an entire canyon. It depends on the type of terrain you are hunting. You may also find multiple pockets in close-proximity or in multiple draws on a single face.
I refer to a face as the slope part of a mountain or elevated landscape often named for the direction it is looking if you were standing on it, looking downhill. A south face is often the drier sunnier slope while the north face is the colder wetter side. Many north faces are often easily distinguished by being the more timbered side in more open country.
When it comes to mule deer, I like to look for long running faces. That might mean if the mountains run north & south, I would look at that longer west or east face. The reason for this is glassing. It allows me to cover more potential country and even possibly cover multiple pockets from a distance with the right vantage.
Face orientation is also really important during different times of the year as it helps you identify areas where deer may be utilizing based on the weather.
Basins are also a great feature to Identify. For mule deer hunting I refer to a basin as any flatter open area in the topography. This is not necessarily the bottom of the mountain but maybe the more open sage feeding area at the bottom of a pocket. These basins often hold great mule deer browse and are open enough deer feel safe feeding. These can also be benches in the terrain or in the case of desert mule deer may be that actual basin in the flats surrounded by cactus and mesquite. This terrain feature plays a bigger role for deer during the summer months, on winter range, or during the rut. It is identified by those more spaced-out topo lines especially mid to high mountain early or mid to low mountain late.
Step 2: Keying in on the behavior
Everything a deer needs can be identified on a map. There is a large amount of country out there and only a small portion of that holds what we are looking for. The purpose of e-scouting is to narrow down that country to high likelihood spots that are huntable. These spots will be most accurately identified by narrowing down what deer will be doing in the area you are hunting the time you are hunting there.
I like to first key in on the big three- food, water, and cover (or habitat). Now think about what those deer need and what is the rarest in the area. For example, if it is an early season hunt in the mountains of Wyoming, I might look at the map and see that it is a sea of timber country and looks like there is water in nearly every canyon. I will know that water and cover is everywhere, but maybe preferred food sources are the rarest this time of year. I will start to gravitate my search to look for any a joining sage pockets or basins above the timber that are still rich in high nutrient summer browse. Possibly even looking for some more glassable burns to help match the terrain to my preferred hunting style of glassing.
The opposite might be true in a high desert hunt where it is a sea of open sage. Maybe the area has some good mahogany pockets for bedding, but water is scare. I can quickly key in on needed resource.
If it is a late season rut hunt I might want to key in on places I believe does will pocket up. Maybe areas lower in elevation where the snow burns of on the south facing slopes.
I learned map scouting the old school way, on paper topo maps. 3D mapping software is an incredible resource that has changed the way we e-scout but if you want to be truly efficient at understanding my method for e-scouting you need to be able to read the topo. The reason is the topo shows a quick and simplistic way to highlight productive terrain features.
Basics of reading a topo map:
For some, reading a topo map may come as a mystery. I will break it down to the basics for better understanding:
a topo map shows the reader what the land looks like by using contour lines to depict the elevation gains and features of the area.
Contour lines: These lines represent the change in elevations on a map. The key will tell you the interval of the lines, most maps are 40 or 80, but this can often be customized in mapping software. If you don’t have a key, you can also figure it out by the difference in index lines and the number of lines between.
A contour line remains at the same elevation for the entire line and they never intersect with other lines. The closer together a contour line is, the steeper the area. This would indicate a rapid change in elevation over a short distance.
Index line: these are the darker or thicker contour lines that show the numbered elevation. Index lines are 5 contour lines apart. This will help you gauge the steepness of a mountain as well as identify features.
A Circle: a circle indicates a peak or high point. Sometimes a circle can relate a depression as well. They generally are indicated with lines spurring off the contour line. You will also notice elevations decreasing if the circle were not a peak.
A pass would be indicated as a spot between two peaks.
Blue lines: these lines show streams this will help you indicate the bottom of valleys if a stream is present.
Inward and outward contour lines: Inward lines will show the bottom of draws or gullies whereas outward lines help indicate the ridges. Another way to think about ridges or valleys is if the V or U shape of a contour line points to higher elevation it is a valley. If it points to a lower elevation, it is a ridge.
Now lets break all of this down into 8 steps while escouting with GOHUNT Maps using all the tools available combining it with our deer behavior and honing in on topography:
Step 1: Identify the unit and areas your tag is good for
Step 2: Identify land you can hunt
Step 3: Consider the factors of the hunt- the time of year, the behavior of the deer, the type of tag and the potential amount of hunting pressure.
Step 4: Take a 3d preview of the area. Identify the overall the of terrain and potential scarce resources to key on if there are any.
Step 5: Use layers to identify potential opportunities such as burns, slope orientations like north and south facing slopes, or areas away from roads and trails. The ones most important to your particular hunt will change based on the tag.
Step 6: Use the topo map and 3d map to identify pockets, faces, and basins based on topography
Step 7: Identify and mark potential vantages and glassing areas
Step 8: Make notes and create a hunt plan to check out these spots when you enter the field.
Step 3: Apply it in the field
E-scouting is done at home, but it takes a boots on the ground verification to test your hunt plan. One of the greatest in the field tools you can use is to re-look at your maps once you have found deer in your area. Turn on the topo map and look at the terrain where the deer you have spotted are. Now look for other similar topographical areas within your unit. This can help you easily pinpoint other productive areas to check out.