I’m not going to lie to you. Scouting isn’t high on the list of what inspires folks to hunt.
Scouting can be time-consuming and laborious, and it often ends with nothing concrete to show for it until much later on. However, scouting is a massive part of a responsible and fulfilling hunting experience. It is often what makes or breaks a successful hunt, even if it goes relatively unmentioned when someone recalls their more dramatic and cathartic hunting events. So, let’s dive into the topic of scouting.
Before I head out to any hunting area, I take the time to have a quick look at it on Google Maps. This is a quick-to-use, handy tool that can determine directions to the area, access points, and other important features. I feel more comfortable when I’m generally oriented before exploring a new area, so Google Maps can be a very helpful first step.
Then, there’s good old-fashioned rubber-on-the-road and boots-on-the-ground scouting. Many times, there’s no better way to get the feel of an area and the game within it than just by exploring. This may not be something you need to do continually, but a good, initial look around (either on foot, bike, UTV or other mode) can help you establish hot spots to revisit later. It can also reveal the general topography and access points, as well as safe shooting zones. When scouting, keep an eye out for active wildlife and sign like tracks and trails, fur, feathers and scat. And make sure you take special note of buildings, roads and livestock.
Cameras are a modern tactic and sometimes a contentious subject. They have evolved from basic cameras into cellular devices capable of providing real-time notifications. For this reason, they are regulated in many areas where they are thought to affect “fair chase.” However, even the basic models can be advantageous when scouting an area. While they obviously can be used to monitor and pattern target individuals, they are also helpful in monitoring the general health of the area. These devices can give you an intimate look at offspring, predators, and even other land users. When used responsibly and sustainably, cameras can be a very valuable tool. If you are using cameras on public land, lock and secure them to avoid theft and vandalism.
One method that often goes unmentioned about scouting is tapping into local knowledge. Forums, articles (Hi!), clubs, and even coffee with a local farmer can offer some of the best information. Just remember to use respect. No one appreciates a stranger asking for their honey hole, but word of mouth and graciously asking for insights to help you scout better can be a powerful tool.
Timing is an important scouting factor. There are many different issues to contemplate. Legalities and seasons are obviously your first considerations. Regarding the time of day, wildlife is most active during dawn and dusk, therefore scouting during these hours will be most productive. If you have a limited schedule (maybe you are only free after work), try to scout around the same times you are planning to hunt.
The time of year when you do this can be a bit more intricate to figure out. Generally, it’s the earlier, the better for scouting. If nothing else, this early work affords you more time to choose and learn about areas.
The main point of scouting is preparation because it maximizes your hunt time and helps avoid hasty, last-minute decisions that can lead to dangerous errors. Therefore, scouting is never a bad idea, whether it’s taking a nature walk with the family to forage and check trail cameras, or selecting a good location for a tree stand before whitetail season. Any time spent outdoors offers a bounty of knowledge. The only exception to this belief is if landowners or stakeholders are engaging in activities that could be affected by your presence (such as seeding or events.)
With landowners in mind, try to have your initial permissions locked down before the first day of the season. If you don’t, I recommend: 1) You could be too late and another hunter may have secured the spot; 2) Waiting until the last minute affords no time to secure backups or other options. Wildlife, weather and other hunters can be unpredictable, so scouting more than one area is to your advantage.
The time of year when you scout will fluctuate per species and per hunt. When considering deer and other ungulates, for example, you should begin scouting a few months before your intended hunt. Scouting efforts should be increased so that you can start to zero in on specific points to hunt, introduce blinds or baits (in areas where that is legal) and start to identify and monitor individuals.
Now, these individuals can be patterned and targeted. However, if you are planning on a spot- and-stalk-type hunt, the scouting pressure is much less demanding. Permission and access, safe shooting lanes and other variables still need to be considered, although specific locations are less of a concern. Alternatively, waterfowl can be scouted much later. Field hunting can require intensive scouting throughout the season because the birds are constantly feeding in different areas as they migrate.
While figuring out what to scout and when may seem complicated, it doesn’t have to be. First, decide what game you want to target, how you want to target it, then let those points dictate where to focus your scouting energy. A location ideal for moose with a rifle in fall is likely not going to be great for spring bear with a bow. So, narrow down the details of your hunt and plan effective scouting around that. If you are lucky, some locations can be multi-purpose. Maybe you find a muley spot that’s also great for sharp-tailed grouse, but this isn’t always the case.
Scouting is the single most useful activity for a novice hunter. Not does it allow you to gain crucial knowledge about tracking and game patterns, scouting also requires no equipment other than transportation and time. That means it can be done without initial investment or knowledge of firearms, blinds and other gear. In many cases, some form of transportation and time are things almost all aspiring hunters have access to, and so comprise a crucial step toward becoming successful as a hunter.
It’s simple: Get out there and learn about the game you are pursuing. It’s a beneficial step to almost every other facet of hunting; calling, tracking, safe shooting and more. It’s also a great offering to other hunters in exchange for their knowledge. Maybe you found a great turkey spot but need someone to show you the ropes. A more experienced hunter may be motivated to help you out because you are willing to contribute and they aren’t sacrificing one of their own hard-earned spots.
Additionally, the benefits of scouting don’t stop with hunting. Why not scout for recently burned timber where you may find morel mushrooms? Or take the boat out with the family and mark good features for ice fishing season?
Some of my most rewarding moments afield have been driving down a gravel road, greasy gas station snack in hand, and watching a group of geese settle off a field as the sun sets behind them. Or that time I walked in to reach a trail camera location, eyelashes frozen and dogs snorting in the snow. While the tactical importance of scouting is undeniable, the knowledge and serenity that comes as a side effect of doing it can be the most impactful part.