As soon as the draw results are posted for limited big game licenses, it’s time to begin planning a hunt. If you drew a limited license, you can begin planning your hunt in that specific area. Otherwise, you may be looking toward over-the-counter (OTC) options. In either case, this is where the scouting gets serious.
Fortunately, scouting from home has never been easier. With resources like those from our friends at GoHunt, OnX Hunt maps and Google Earth, we can find new areas to hunt and learn a lot about those spots before ever leaving home.
Of course, nothing replaces boots on the ground experience. Inevitably, there are things you’ll learn when you arrive in an area that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. However, a good e-scouting plan can get you most of the way there – and way ahead of the curve.
If you’re traveling from out of state, a solid scouting plan is essential. Even when we’re planning a hunt here in our home state of Colorado, busy work and family schedules could mean limited (if any) in-person scouting trips.
When scouting for a new area – whether it’s a limited unit that I’ve never hunted, or when looking for a decent OTC option – I use the following five steps. Most of these ideas are tips that I’ve collected from others along the way. Hopefully, you can take away a few ideas and add them to your own scouting process. Have your own tips? Add them in the comments below! We’d love to know how you approach e-scouting.
Of course there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. There are many different ways to skin this cat and everyone will develop their own system for e-scouting.
When scouting for big game hunts, these are five basic steps I like to follow:
- Identify a Specific Unit
- Locate Hunting Spots Within that Unit
- Prioritize that List of Potential Spots
- Ask For Advice from Local Experts
- Make a Game Plan
1. IDENTIFY A UNIT
This first step is useful when narrowing down a long list of over-the-counter units. But I’ll also use this step during application season, when trying to decide which limited unit to apply for. Either way, when trying to decide on a unit, here are a few questions you may want to ask.
Questions to Ask:
- What are the seasonal needs of the species at the time of year I’ll be hunting?
- Is there habitat on public land that meets those needs?
For example’s sake, let’s say we're planning an OTC elk hunt in Colorado. Here in Colorado alone, we have more than 23 million acres of public land. That’s your land - 23 million acres of wildlife habitat and wild places for you to explore. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) together account for more than 95% of Colorado’s public land.
But in addition to federally managed public lands, there are also opportunities to hunt on some state managed properties. We’ll get into that and how that plays into your scouting below.
When scouting for a hunt, I rely on a handful of mapping tools, including:
- GoHunt Insider Filtering 2.0
- Colorado Parks & Wildlife Hunting Atlas
- OnX Hunt Maps
- Gaia GPS
- Google Earth
These are some of my favorite mapping resources. Other hunters will have their own favorites. Each has its own unique strengths. And by using multiple resources, you can begin to form an accurate picture of any hunting unit before you ever set foot there.
The first place I turn when researching any hunt is the Insider Filtering tools from our friends at GoHunt. Whether you’re deciding where to apply for a limited license or sorting through OTC options, there’s simply no faster and more effective way to filter through those options. This requires a GoHunt insider subscription. And in my experience, it is well worth the cost.
Before the days of GoHunt, I kept my own spreadsheets and files with draw odds, harvest statistics and other details on many hunting units. But now, GoHunt gives me all that information for all western states and every hunting unit right at my fingertips. I can say definitively that in the last several years since joining GoHunt, I’ve drawn more quality tags and had more memorable hunts that I would have otherwise.
The next place I turn when specifically scouting here in Colorado is the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Hunting Atlas. It’s a free resource and you can find the link on the CPW website here. Using this Atlas, you can quickly identify public land in any big game hunting unit. This is great for getting a feel for how a unit shapes up in terms of public access.
Next, I like using OnX Hunt maps. Like GoHunt, this is a subscription-based software. But again, I’ve found it to be well worth the cost. OnX is great for seeing public and private land boundaries in extremely clear detail. You can save pins and routes that will automatically sync between the browser version and the mobile version. This means I can scout on my large desktop monitor at home, but have all that information with me when I take my phone into the field. Simply download the maps for the area before you leave home, and you’ll have everything you need without cell service. This turns your smartphone into a fully functioning GPS – only much better.
OnX is an essential tool for all of my e-scouting. It has up-to-date information on land boundaries, motor vehicle use maps and more. Before you ever visit a unit, you can get a pretty clear picture of the public access, roads and most trails.
The third tool I enjoy having in my toolkit is Gaia GPS. Similar to OnX this is a subscription-based software. And like OnX, your notes, routes pins and other information are synced between your desktop browser at home and the mobile version.
Whereas the strength of OnX is navigating those public/private boundaries, I think the strength of Gaia is researching and navigating in Wilderness Areas and other mountain environments. Gaia allows me to overlay a wider variety of maps, including USGS topo maps, NatGeo Trails Illustrated maps, satellite images and so many more. Each of these layers is on a slider, allowing me to fade each layer in an out to see how they compare to each other. This is very useful when getting to know an area. In many cases, trails appear on USGS or Trails Illustrated maps that don’t appear on others.
Last but certainly not least is Google Earth Pro. This is hands-down, one of the most powerful digital scouting tools available. Not only is it extremely helpful, it’s also free.
There are many useful overlays that you can add to Google earth. For example, I’ve added overlays show game management units in multiple states. You can also upload your pins, areas and routes back and forth between Google earth, OnX and Gaia.
But the real strength of Google Earth is the ability to drill down and see your hunting unit in remarkable detail. You can fly over an area and then zoom in on a specific drainage to see stands of timber, grassy meadows and water sources. You can even find water tanks, wallows, game trails and all sorts of other details.
Identifying Public Land
When talking about big game hunting in the west, most of those opportunities are going to be on National Forest or BLM Land. Fortunately, these Federal public lands are the easiest to identify because the color shading used across different maps is fairly standard. On most maps, Forest Service land is shaded green. And BLM land is shaded yellow. While you’re free to hunt and camp on most of these federal lands, be sure to check for any localized closures or exceptions.
State lands are usually shaded blue or purple. Each state has different regulations for using state lands and those regulations can change from one property to another. So be sure and check property-specific regulations before assuming you can hunt or camp.
Here in Colorado for example, CPW manages more than 300 state wildlife areas. Many of those state wildlife areas have big game hunting opportunities. They can also provide access to surrounding Forest Service or BLM land. Regulations do vary from one property to another. So it’s important to check on those property-specific regulations.
Regulations for accessing State Trust Lands also vary from state to state and even from one property to another. In most western states, these are managed by State Land Boards to earn money for Public Schools. Here in Colorado not all State Trust Lands are open for recreation. Always take the time to find this information when scouting for a hunt. This information is usually available on state fish and game websites. In Colorado, you can use the CPW Hunting Atlas or the Colorado State Recreation Lands brochure.
One more caveat is worth mentioning - just because you see public land on a map, doesn’t necessarily mean you can legally access it. There are places where federal lands can be “landlocked” by private land – meaning there’s no road to get to it. This is a common occurrence in most western states.
Anywhere a publicly maintained road like a county road or forest service road touches a piece of public land, you have access to that land. If there’s no publicly maintained road going to it, unfortunately that means it’s landlocked. OnX is typically reliable showing up-to-date county roads, as well as Forest Service and BLM Motor Vehicle Use Maps. (MVUMs). But keep in mind this information is not perfect – there are easements that don’t yet exist in digital formats. Always have a backup plan in case you arrive at a location and the access is different than you expected.
Lastly, it’s worth briefly mentioning local county and city lands. In most cases, county open spaces and other locally managed lands are not open to hunting. However, there are some exceptions. The best way to find out is to visit the county or city website. For example, here on Colorado’s Front Range, Boulder County and Jefferson County offer some hunting opportunities. However, these are usually very limited. In some cases, hunters must apply for a special permit.
If you see local lands on the map in your hunting unit, I’d recommend checking to see if they provide access to adjacent federal lands. For example, I once hunted mule deer in an area that had large blocks of locally managed land. It took some digging on the website, plus some phone calls and emails for confirmation. But I eventually discovered that while I wasn’t allowed to hunt on that land, I was allowed to hike across it to access the National Forest behind it. That gave me access to public land that would have been impossible to access otherwise. And in that particular scenario, it led to a good mule deer buck.
Whenever scouting public and legal access points, it’s always important to cross reference multiple mapping sources. As you scout your hunting unit or units, use all the scouting tools available. Then, you can form a complete picture of your unit that includes the available public land, the roads and access points, the wildlife habitat and where animals are likely to be at different times of the year.
2. LOCATE HUNTING SPOTS
Once a specific unit is identified, it’s time to begin locating potential hunting spots within that unit. I like to begin this step the same way I began selecting a unit, asking myself the following questions.
Questions to ask:
- What are the seasonal needs of the species at the time of year I’ll be hunting?
- What parts of my unit meet those needs?
- Where does accessible public land overlap with that habitat?
When working to pinpoint specific, quality hunting spots within a given unit, I’ll refer back to some of the same tools that I used for selecting a unit. I’ll primarily use Google Earth and OnX Hunt maps to make a list of areas that look like good potential hunting spots.
Using a combination of Google Earth’s detailed three-dimensional imagery and the public/private land boundaries in OnX, I filter everything through the three questions above.
First Decide What You’re Looking For
Where is the quality habitat for the species I’m hunting at the time of year I’ll be hunting them? For example, if that’s early season elk, I’m probably looking for cool, shady timber, plenty of grass since elk are grazers, and nearby water and wallows…or if I’m hunting November mule deer, I might be looking for brushy areas since deer are primarily browsers, and on south facing slopes to find that late season food, and so on.
In other words, start by deciding what you’re looking for. Then, go find it…
Make A List of Potential Spots
If you find a spot that meets the right habitat requirements, and there’s accessible public land in that area, add it to your list.
I’ll often start at a high level and then drill my way down into the details. Looking at a broad overview of your unit, find elevations, north or south exposures, slopes and other geographical factors that are likely to hold those habitat elements you’re looking for.
I’ll offer one caveat however – don’t get hung up on elevation alone. There are lots of other factors that make great habitat. I think too often, hunters get hung up on the need to hunt high early in the season and low late in the season. While that’s often true – it’s not always true. I’ve had great archery hunting around 6,500 feet in September and great late season hunting above 9,000 feet in November and even December. Elevation might be a contributing factor – but it’s not the only one. Use all the available info you have to find good habitat.
Once I’ve taken a broad inventory of the area, then I’ll start to drill down into the most likely areas. Google Earth is a great tool for this. It’s amazing what you can find on Google Earth when you start poking around. You might notice a wallow with game trails all around it. When you find little gems like that, don’t call it good and assume it’s your best spot. There is much more to consider.
Keep combing through your unit – anytime you find something that looks promising, add it to your list of potential spots!
3. PRIORITIZE SPOTS
When I feel like I have a pretty thorough list of the potential hunting spots in a unit, it’s time to prioritize that list. This is the next step to being able to form a game plan. In this part of the process, I will cross-reference each of these spots with all the other digital resources at my disposal, asking myself the following questions.
Questions to ask:
- Where are the access points for each spot?
- What areas might receive heavy use?
- What are my limits (distance and difficulty)?
In this step of the process, my primary resources are mapping applications like OnX Hunt Maps and Gaia GPS. I’ll use these to locate any roads open to motor vehicles, trails, trailheads, campgrounds, parking lots or other features.
Cross-referencing with multiple resources here is important and can give you a more complete picture. For example, sometimes a Trails Illustrated map will show a trail that doesn’t appear on other maps. If you were considering hunting in that basin, this might change your mind. Take that into account as you prioritize your list…
Which part of the area do you think might get hammered with pressure? You might want to move that down the priority list. Or if you’re hunting solo, you might determine that one area on your list is too far to pack out an elk by yourself. Again, that might help determine its place on the priority list. Designated trailheads, roads and campgrounds are all things to consider. Even where there are no designated trailheads, where are places you can use for access?
Again, use all your resources and cross-referencing abilities to help paint an accurate picture. Note which roads are public (county roads and maintained Forest or BLM roads) and which ones are just private ranch roads.
In the end, try and decide which of your spots look awesome, which ones look pretty good, and which ones give you some concern. With your prioritized list of spots, now you can go ask for some local advice.
4. ASK FOR ADVICE
Now that you have a list of good-looking hunting spots and you’ve prioritized that list based on your research, it’s time to test your research and assumptions. This is a great time to talk to biologists and wildlife managers or federal land managers. I prefer to contact these folks later in the research process because now, I know enough to ask intelligent questions.
Questions to ask:
- Are my assumptions accurate so far?
- Confirm the condition of roads or the locations of open/closed gates.
- Confirm the vegetation or habitat you think you see on Google Earth.
- What information am I missing?
- State Fish and Game Biologists
- Game Wardens
- Forest Service or BLM Field Office Staff
- Local Business Owners
Remember what you’ve already learned through your scouting so far. I never like to ask where I should hunt. If they told everyone, then it wouldn’t be a good spot anyway. You already know some good-looking spots. Ask vague questions and you’ll get vague answers. Instead, ask questions that get answers to some of the assumptions you’ve made. For example, “It looks like this area is mostly piñon and juniper. Is that true?” Or, “It looks like this road will give me access. Am I correct in thinking I can drive that road with my stock SUV?”
Make a list of questions you’d most like answered and then start making some calls.
5. MAKE A GAME PLAN
Finally, with the information you’ve gathered, plus the advice of some friendly wildlife managers and others, you can begin making a game plan for your hunt.
Questions to Ask:
- How can I maximize my time when I arrive?
- What’s my Plan A for opening day?
- What are My Plans B, C, D, etc.?
One of the keys to a solid game plan is to maximize your limited time on the ground when you arrive in the unit. For example, if the top two spots on your priority list are several hours apart, it’s probably not realistic to make those your plan A and B. You’d kill an entire day of your hunt pulling camp, driving over to the other side of the unit and setting camp again.
However, let’s say for example that the first and third spot on your priority list are in pretty close proximity. That could make a great Plan A and Plan B combo. This can be the most difficult part of the entire process. But be realistic with yourself in making a plan that you’re able to execute effectively.
Finally, remember it’s highly likely that none of your plans go exactly as you imagined. And that’s ok! There will inevitably be surprises along the way. Be ready to roll with the punches and keep moving down to your plans B, C and so on. You’ll learn and grow. You’ll have fun. And you’ll get better at it for next time! As long as you’re out there enjoying our spectacular public lands and the company of friends or family – then the trip is automatically a great success.
Next Up: Tips for Navigating Wilderness Rivers
Stay tuned - in an upcoming article, we will cover tips on how to set way points and scout for a wilderness float trip in Alaska. Caribou Gear founder, Ted Ramirez, has been planning DIY hunts in Alaska for many years. Scouting and executing an Alaska moose hunt takes careful planning. We'll share Ted's strategy for planning an unforgettable wilderness river float trip.
Hunting Gear for the Adventure
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By Ryan McSparran
Ryan is an outdoor writer based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Caribou Gear.