For best results, never bull your way into big buck territory
Most hunters already know how tempting it is to intrude deeper and deeper into the core area of a big buck's bedroom, especially after finding rubs larger than a fence post. I can certainly relate to this because I myself have often gone one step too far while scouting. However, imagine how great it would be to get a bird's eye view of the terrain in which a mature whitetail lives without ever leaving home! Aerial photos and topographical maps make it possible to scout new areas silently. Using this approach, you're able to make the covert plans and strategies needed for hunting mature whitetails on a level playing field.
For a number of years, my hunting companions and I have utilized aerial photos for locating potential big buck corridors and travel routes. At times we've mapped out an entire area without ever setting foot on the ground and have taken some good deer this way too.
A BETTER VIEW
The aerial photo has a wealth of information. Everything you could possibly want to know about a piece of ground is detailed in black and white. I believe the aerial photo is by far the most useful tool available, not only to the all-season scout but also to the weekend warrior who doesn't have the free time to scout before the season opener.
Many bowhunters already employ the use of aerial photography for finding buck escape routes, but not every viewer knows what to look for. Take, for example, travel routes. Deer choose certain travel routes year after year based on the innate ability to seek the path of least resistance. These routine travel routes take them around difficult terrain such as deep ravines or sheer embankments. Knowing this, we're able to determine the most likely points of crossing. Therefore, selecting stand sites based on knowing the entrance and exit routes and wind condition is made easier.
Photocopied aerial views of any parcel of land can be purchased for about $2 each at the county Farm Service Agency (FSA), usually listed in the government pages of the telephone directory. If there isn't an FSA office nearby, you can get copies by mail; but you'll need to have the land owner's name, approximate location and township in which his property is located. Most of this information can be obtained from a county platt book, which all FSA offices have. Aerial photos can also be purchased from both the County Planning and Zoning Commission or the County Assessor's offices, which are located in the County Courthouse.
Higher-quality aerial photographs can be ordered by mail from the Aerial Photography Field Office (APFO) in Salt Lake City, Utah. In most cases, one trip to the FSA office will get you all the information you need including the order form. Prints from the original negatives will cost $22.00 for a 24"x24", which includes shipping.
LOOK AT CONTOURS
Topo maps are useful tools that give more specific detail of the contour of the land. I like to think of the topo map as a blueprint, but they're more difficult to read without experience. The first-time look at a topo map can boggle the mind, but within a few hours you can become experienced enough to find your way around. Having both the aerial photo and topographical map in front of you will help considerably. A visual means of locating points of interest and a map that gives specific detail takes much of the guesswork out of scouting from home.
The author with his trophy drop-tine taken from a crossover point the buck used to slip from one woodlot to another. By using a topo map of his hunting area, the author was able to pinpoint this buck's unique travel pattern.
Topographical maps can be obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Information Services Office, Dept. PB, P.O. Box 26286, Denver, Colorado 80225. Other maps are also available through the office such as the state map catalog and an index map of the state you're interested in hunting.
MAPPING OUT YOUR AREA
Once you obtain aerial photos and topo maps for your hunting area, you can become the ferret that seeks out all the natural funnels, waterways, ridges, crossover points (shortest distances between points A and B), saddle crossings, cash crop fields, CRP ground and anything else that strikes your fancy. From the topo map, cross-reference all points you can't identify from the aerial photo such as elevation changes, saddles, wetlands or benches; and check these out when you start ground scouting later.
Whether you're hunting a breakline, ridge saddle or any other terrain feature, wind consideration is a must. Planned strategy should always include knowing what stand site is best situated for the wind conditions of the day. If you can't get to a stand without getting picked off, then it's probably best to save it for another day when conditions are right.
When planning a weekend hunt or even just a day hunt, I always know what stand I'll be hunting even though several may be hanging in the area. One key advantage of using aerial photos for scouting is having a visual means of locating the best entrance and exit routes for various wind conditions. Interestingly, I rely heavily on the weather channel for an update on the current wind direction and approaching fronts that might affect it. Each morning, I first tune into the weather channel for an update and then cross-reference that information to the aerial photo for selecting the best stand sites for those conditions.
Breaklines come in many different forms. Simply put, they divide or break up the various terrain features of the land. These include waterways, thick mature timbered ridges or possibly a thick new growth draw that was logged or put in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) some years ago. The CRP ground has done wonders for the trophy deer population in many of the mid-western states. Thick new growth has become the security cover big bucks need for reaching maturity. Setting up on the outside edges of a breakline near the entrance and exit routes can be about as exciting as it gets. Hunters that already know this are reaping the benefits.
Take, for example, Iowa bowhunter Ken Reistroffer, who found a niche for hunting trophy whitetails shortly after sunrise on ridge breaklines when the deer return from twilight feeding and looking to bed.
After two days of hunting this stand for a big ten-point he spotted a week prior, Ken moved the stand closer to the breakline where a thick, gnarly bedding area separated a thin block of timber. The following morning, he slipped in from the topside cutting across an open cow pasture for a quiet entrance.
In Ken's words, "Just after I reached the platform of my stand, I looked down the ridge and spotted the same buck browsing my way. Fortunately, the acorns falling from the white oak
trees kept him busy while I pulled my bow up. As the buck passed behind a tree at 10 yards, I drew and settled the pin on the buck's shoulder crease. When he emerged from the other side, a twang followed by a thump sent the buck on a death run down the ridge." In the foreground you can see that pulling deer up nasty ridges can be tough work. If you're going to hunt steep ridges, keep in mind "what goes up must come down," and vice versa!
There are many different forms of saddles, but ridge saddles are of special interest here. Converging ridge points at the high end can be most productive when we learn how to hunt them effectively. Low saddles found in creek bottoms where ridges and gullies converge can be a nightmare of swirling wind currents. It's not that lower elevation saddles are non-productive, but they are just very tough to hunt effectively.
Stands placed near inside/outside corners can make hunting just about as exciting as it gets. A network of intersecting trails are most often found in these locations when crop fields are close by.
Just last season I took a nice buck hunting a point saddle. While hunting on the far end of a 500-acre section of land where I'd passed up several decent bucks and one I'll probably forever regret, I spotted a nice buck running across a clearcut and heading for what appeared to be thick cover. My attention was further drawn toward the drop tine on the left main beam. I couldn't help but wonder if this wasn't the same buck many of the locals had talked about.
The following week the peak of the rut was quickly approaching and my wife, Pamela, and I planned a week of hard hunting. Pam hunted a stand in a point saddle where she spotted a decent buck crossing on two different occasions and had a real heart-thumping experience. A big eight-point came cruising in from behind at warp speed chasing a hot doe. The doe played hard to get and eventually ended up in front of the stand while the buck sculled in closer from behind. When Pam came to full draw, the doe decided it was time to put some distance between her and the buck. Although Pamela wasn't able to get the shot off, the excitement in her voice was well worth the price of admission.
From the observatory stand, other bucks tested Pam's patience trotting from a crossover point to a ridge saddle all week. I'd been hunting not too far away where a defined rubline converged at an inside corner bordering a bean field. Over the course of two days, I passed on a couple of dinks and one decent ten-point. Interestingly, all the bucks were either coming from or heading in the same direction. Another look at the aerial photo didn't reveal anything special or out of the ordinary. However, the topo map indicated a double funnel consisting of two converging ridge saddles that formed a point. It was the same location Pam had seen the bucks crossing days before. It's quite possible the gentle swail of the saddle concealed the movement of many bucks in past years.
Moving in with a stand that evening, I set up in the crossover point rather than the saddles because of a two-day northwesterly wind. That evening, only a small spike sauntered through. The following morning took me slipping along the opposite side of the ridge just before daybreak.
Shortly after daylight, a nice eight-point meandered through the shooting lane. Although he was decent, it certainly wasn't what I expected this hot stand to produce considering the number of big rubs. The sun was well up by now, and the first golden hour had passed. Grabbing the rattling antlers I slammed them together, while at the same time grunting on my call in an effort to make something happen!
Ken Reistroffer with his 140-inch trophy-class buck taken from a ridge breakline where two big ridges converged. Ken finds slipping into breaklines to be easiest shortly after daylight, when it is also the best hunting.
Within five minutes a deer jumped the fence from behind. I turned to look and knew at that moment the approaching buck was a shooter. One small problem, though. The buck was approaching downwind. Although I had confidence in the Scent-Lok suit I was wearing, the annoying wind would no doubt carry any uncaptured scent toward him. As the buck continued, I drew the Golden Eagle Revolution and waited for him to step out from behind a deadfall; but instead, he stopped. While holding at full draw, my breathing became irregular. The buck, in the meantime, nervously tested the wind as steam vapor puffed from his flared nostrils. He stood for the longest time and didn't appear to like the situation, but as he slowly turned to sneak away, his ribcage was exposed long enough for the 125-grain Thunderhead to hit home. A cross-sectional cut of the teeth revealed the buck's age at being over 7 1/2 years. He no doubt had seen better days!
Corners, whether they're inside or outside, are nearly always sure bets for finding a hub of intersecting trails. All too often our first scouting endeavors begin at inside/outside corners near crop fields. In most cases where fences or treelines form corners, deer funnel around these natural or man-made obstacles when traveling from bed to feed. When you find a freebie like this, take advantage of it. I'm sure we've all read about or possibly know someone that claims to have a "hot" stand that produces every year. It's been my personal experience that many inside/outside corners become these annual producers.
The advantages of using aerial photography and topographical maps for scouting are many. Silent scouting helps us to maintain the most important part of our strategy; the element of surprise! Aimlessly blundering into new areas after the season opens will hurt more than help and, in most cases, will destroy your chances of taking "the big buck" in that area. Today might be a good time to make the transition to silent scout.