E-Scouting for Whitetail Deer: You’ve Never Seen This Before!

e-scouting for deer
A High-Resolution LiDAR Generated Topographic Map

I am a huge fan of e-scouting to help me dissect new hunting areas. Lately, I have added LiDAR imagery as a primary component in my e-scouting process. What is LiDAR imagery and how can it increase the effectiveness of whitetail e-scouting? Keep reading to find out as I share some of my favorite e-scouting tips using LiDAR imagery!

What is LiDAR?

First, what is LiDAR? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), LiDAR is an acronym for:

Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. These light pulses—combined with other data recorded by the airborne system — generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and its surface characteristics. A lidar instrument principally consists of a laser, a scanner, and a specialized GPS receiver. Airplanes and helicopters are the most commonly used platforms for acquiring lidar data over broad areas.”

Put in layman’s terms, LiDAR is a laser based system for scanning the topography on a landscape, even beneath a forest canopy! LiDAR is effectively x-ray vision! LiDAR provides extremely high-resolution ground scans with fidelity that blows away traditional topographic maps. The high-resolution imagery provided by LiDAR scans is what make it invaluable for e-scouting!

If you are new to e-scouting, check out my previous e-scouting article Tips and Tactics for E Scouting Whitetail Deer – Going 4 Broke Outdoors, where I discuss some of my favorite terrain and vegetation features that I look for while e-scouting and why those terrain and vegetation features are likely to hold deer or facilitate deer movement.

See it to Believe it!

Below, are two images of the same area. In the traditional topo map, it is impossible to clearly identify any benches–a great terrain feature to catch cruising bucks. However, in the LiDAR image, there are two very obvious benches (circled in red). Finding these types of terrain features while e-scouting can drastically reduce time wasted in the field, while simultaneously increasing ones odds of success. With high odds terrain features identified before venturing into the field, I can walk directly to these locations and maximize my productive time spent in the field. Remember, it is always best to follow up e-scouting with boots on the ground scouting to verify that the terrain feature is actually being utilized by deer in the area.

Here’s another example of where the traditional topo map fails to identify a bench, but two benches are clearly visible on the LiDAR map. The red line indicates likely deer movement across the drainages utilizing the benches.

Pinpoint Saddle Crossings

LiDAR imagery is also incredibly helpful when narrowing down almost exactly where deer trails will cross through saddles. The pictures below show the same saddle. It would be very difficult to identify exactly where deer trails crossed the saddle from the topo map. However, on the LiDAR map, the likely saddle crossing is much more evident (red line). Once I know the likely saddle crossing, I am able to go into the field and verify if the saddle crossing is being used or not. If the saddle is being used, I am able to more accurately select a tree or trees to setup my treestand. Precise treestand placement increases my odds of getting a shot the first time in an area, rather than watching deer pass by out of bow range.

Locate Otherwise Hidden Bedding Points

I made an important observation while reviewing LiDAR imagery. The high-resolution images allowed me locate otherwise hidden bedding points. Bucks often utilize points in hilly terrain for bedding locations. Generally, a buck will bed below the highest elevation of the point, with the wind at his back. This allows the buck to smell danger behind him, and use his eyes to scan for danger below him. Points make for very secure bedding areas, and tough conditions for hunters. Traditionally, finding these bedding points proved to be a difficult exercise that involved lots of legwork. It is my opinion that most points that appear on a traditional topo map are large and seem to attract doe groups, rather than individual bucks. I have found small points, also known as knobs or spurs, are more regularly big buck hideouts. LiDAR imagery is the only image source that I have found that has the resolution to identify these smaller knobs and spurs. The images below illustrate this point (pardon the pun). While some points are visible on the traditional topographic map, the LiDAR image makes identifying smaller points, much easier.

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How Do I Find LiDAR Imagery?

I drew an Iowa archery tag for the 2021 season. I searched for LiDAR imagery as one of the first steps in my e-scouting process. A Google search lead me to the Iowa Hunting Atlas, an interactive mapping application provided by the State of Iowa. The image below depicts the main screen of the Iowa Hunting Atlas.

e scouting tips

The Iowa Hunting Atlas contains a “Layer List” feature. Select the layer list icon, which looks like 3 sheets of stacked paper, and scroll to the very bottom of the layer options. Select the checkbox next to the “LiDAR Color Hillshade”. Enabling this checkbox will populate the LiDAR layer in the Iowa Hunting Atlas mapping application (shown below).

The LiDAR shading layer will populate once the LiDAR Color Hillshade box is enabled (shown below).

Topo Map Scouting for Deer

Results

Using LiDAR imagery from the Iowa Hunting Atlas allowed me to focus my boots on the ground scouting in mid-October on very specific and high odds terrain features (saddles, points, benches) not visible on traditional topographic or aerial maps. Roughly 50% of these areas contained fresh deer sign that gave me confidence to return and hunt those areas. On November 3rd, 2021, a few days into my hunt, a public land area that I specifically located using LiDAR imagery and confirmed with boots on the ground scouting, produced a morning hunt where I saw 5 bucks and 10 does. I arrowed the 5th buck at 11 a.m. in the morning over a scrape at 18 yards in a subtle pinch point that I only found due to LiDAR imagery.

Iowa Public Land Hunting

Where to Find Data for Other States

Caltopo.com is probably the best source for aggregated LiDAR imagery. The image below reflects Caltopo’s current LiDAR coverage area. Covered areas are shaded blue in the image below.

e-scouting for deer
Caltopo has LiDAR imagery for the areas shaded blue in the map above.

Enable LiDAR Imagery in Caltopo

To enable LiDAR imagery in Caltopo, select “Shaded Relief” from the “Base Layers” drop down menu. To make the imagery a little more user friendly, I also enable “Slope Angle Shading” under the “Map Overlays” options. I then select the “Gradient” option from the Slope Angle Shading sub-menu. The image below illustrates these settings.

Other Sources

LiDAR mapping is a relatively new mapping technology. Many states have LiDAR mapping applications in various stages of completion. However, states with completed LiDAR imagery host it in a variety of locations and platforms. The best way to locate the imagery is a Google search (e.g. “Michigan Lidar Map”) or by contacting the cognizant agency in charge of each state’s GIS Mapping.

Want to Learn More?

Check out my 1-on-1 E-Scouting Course HERE for a deep dive on an area of your choice!

Or check out my other scouting articles below:

Post-Season Deer Scouting: 10 Prove Tips from Top DIY Veterans

Tips and Tactics for E-Scouting Whitetail Deer

Leave a comment below and tell me your favorite e-scouting resources!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jeff Tropf

    Great e scouting knowledge and assistance. Question:
    Your LiDAR Images in your article are dark brown on the top of the contours. On my CalTopo images the entire image is shades of green-white. How can I produce dark brown LiDAR images? Outstanding article and thanks!

    1. Going4BrokeOutdoors

      Hi Jeff,

      The dark brown areas are steep slopes. If you aren’t seeing dark brown areas on the map areas you are looking at, my guess is that the slopes in those areas aren’t steep enough to trigger the darker shading. I’d suggest looking at an area you know has very steep slopes (perhaps even another state) to confirm, but I believe that’s why you are only seeing green/white and not brown. Thanks for checking out the blog and good luck with your e-scouting!

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