Tips and Tactics for E Scouting Whitetail Deer

Why Cyber Scouting / E Scouting?

“I can’t believe that just happened!” That’s the thought that raced through my mind immediately after arrowing my first Pope & Young whitetail buck in November of 2015.  Two days earlier, I had never seen nor set foot on this Southern Ohio property. Thanks to cyber scouting, I had selected a stand location that put me in the right position to arrow what was my best buck to date.

The author with his first P&Y Buck, thanks to cyber scouting

E scouting for whitetail deer allows me to investigate potential hunting areas inexpensively by utilizing mostly free resources such as Google maps, Google Earth, Caltopo, and State Wildlife Agency mapping applications. With cyber scouting and online research alone, I can identify deer rich areas through harvest reports, trophy rich areas by researching various trophy databases, and key terrain and vegetation features before ever stepping foot on a new property. Once I have identified an area with deer, key terrain, and key vegetation features, I can plot these key features on my smartphone or handheld GPS to optimize my scouting path and my time spent in the field. In this article, I will cover the following cyber scouting for whitetail deer tips:

  • How to select an area to cyber scout
  • The best free cyber scouting resources
  • Researching the primary wind direction for a given area during the hunting season
  • Identifying key terrain and vegetation features using online maps
  • Finding primary access points used by other hunters
  • Utilizing other resources to gauge an areas trophy potential and my opportunity for success

Step 1: Start Up the Computer—Not the Cell Phone

I find it difficult to identify the small areas of interest on a smartphone screen, so I complete the overwhelming majority of my cyber scouting on a computer. I’m using a Lenovo Y540 laptop, which also doubles as my video editing computer. My favorite two websites for cyber scouting are Caltopo.com (free) and OnX Maps (annual subscription service).

Disclaimer: This article contains Amazon Affiliate Links (I earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you place an order through the links in the article below):

When I begin cyber scouting a new area, I begin with Caltopo in a new web browser window. Next, I setup my map options in Caltopo (detailed below). During my initial cyber scouting, I focus on terrain and vegetation features that I believe are critical to my deer hunting success.

Step 2: Pick a Piece of Ground to Cyber Scout

My main goal during this initial phase of cyber scouting is to identify properties with as many key terrain and/or vegetation features as possible before committing to “boots on the ground” scouting and investing significant time and expense to thoroughly scout an area on foot.

Not all areas are created equal. I purposely avoid homogeneous terrain. Let me repeat that, I purposely avoid homogenous terrain while cyber scouting. While homogenous terrain may hold deer, homogenous terrain, by comparison to heterogenous terrain, makes identifying key terrain features, vegetation features, and high percentage stand locations much more difficult via online resources.

In the examples below, the homogeneous terrain has almost no elevation diversity, and very little vegetation diversity. By contrast, the heterogeneous terrain contains considerable diversity of both terrain and vegetation.

When cyber scouting, I am specifically looking for heterogeneous properties or areas containing several individual heterogeneous properties that contain abundant key terrain and vegetation features. To highlight and enhance these terrain and vegetation features in Caltopo, I use the following settings on my Caltopo maps.

Terrain

The best tool for scouting terrain is the topographical (topo) map. When topo scouting for whitetails on Caltopo, I use the following map options. First, from the main base layer option, I select the Scanned 7.5’ topographical map. Second, under the “map overlays” option, I enable “contours” and select “10-foot”. Selecting the 10-foot contours provides a more detailed and nuanced topographical view of the area, which is critical when looking for subtle changes in terrain that might tip me off when e scouting deer bedding areas, travel corridors, etc.

Finally, under “map overlays”, I enable “slope angle shading”, and I prefer the “gradient” option rather than “fixed”. Slope angle shading provides a visual reference, in the form of different colors, of the steepness of a slope. Slope steepness is a variable I consider when cyber scouting, and it is discussed later in this article.

Vegetation

For the next step in my map setup, I used the “+stack an additional layer” option in Caltopo. For this layer, I like to add satellite aerial imagery. I generally select the NAIP 2013-2016 (or similar) aerial imagery. Below the stacked layer, there is an “opacity control”. I generally set the opacity to a value of “50”, so the topographical base map, and the satellite aerial imagery are equally visible. However, depending on the aerial map, I may adjust the opacity to achieve a good balance of aerial imagery and topo lines.

E Scouting Whitetail Deer Tips
My Preferred Map Options Enabled on Caltopo

Step 3: Identify the Prevailing Wind(s) During Hunting Season

Often, deer bedding areas are located on the downwind side of obstacles or hillsides. This allows the deer to smell danger from behind and see danger ahead. Knowing the dominant wind direction in an area allows me to focus on the downwind side of terrain and vegetation features while cyber scouting. There are several resources to aid in the identification of prevailing winds during the hunting season.

Wunderground – I like to use Wunderground’s historical weather feature if I am interested in historical weather for a single day, for example, weather conditions for a previous kill or an observation of a target buck during daylight. Retrieving historical weather data for a single day is especially useful when reviewing trail camera pictures to correlate daylight photos to wind directions on a given date and time.

To retrieve historical data, visit www.wunderground.com, select the “more” option, then “historical weather”. Enter location and date information and click “view”. Scroll down the page to view the “Daily Observations”, which shows weather conditions, including wind conditions, every 60 minutes for the entire day.

Windfinder – If I want to research the dominant wind direction in a new area for a given month, I prefer www.windfinder.com. The pictures below illustrate how to retrieve wind data on Windfinder. Click one of the red weather station buttons. Then select “measurements”, then click the “statistics” tab. Windfinder then displays the dominant wind direction for each month.

NOAA – If I want to perform detailed analysis on wind and weather conditions, I will import Historical Weather Data from NOAA and perform my own analysis. NOAA records weather observations 24 times per day (once an hour), and most NOAA weather stations have historical data going back 50 years or more. Retrieving weather data from NOAA takes a few steps, which can be seen in the video below.

Step 4: Identify Areas of Interest

After my maps are setup (step 2), I start to identify areas of interest. I mark each area of interest with a marker (waypoint) on Caltopo. I will also keep in mind the dominant wind direction (step 3) for the property, and focus on areas on the downwind side of the dominant wind direction. To add a new marker in Caltopo, right click on the map, hover over the “New >” option, and then select “marker”. For terrain, here is a brief list of terrain features I look for when cyber scouting, commonly accepted definitions of these terrain features, and why I like to key in on them.

deer hunting using topo maps

Terrain Features of Interest

  • Funnels/Pinch Points – Any terrain or vegetation feature that concentrates movement into a smaller area than what would occur without the existence of that terrain or vegetation feature. The areas in red below represent classic funnels.
  • Saddles – Contour lines will narrow and there will be rising contour lines flanking the narrowed area. The contour lines of a saddle often resemble the shape of an hourglass.

A saddle represents the travel path of least resistance through or across a hillside or ridgeline. A saddle is a type of funnel/pinch point. A saddle is an area of lower terrain flanked by areas of higher elevation terrain on each side. The lower elevation of the saddle provides an easier path of travel, an important consideration for bucks expending tremendous amounts of energy cruising for does during the rut. While saddles may be used by deer all year long, they shine during the cruising phases of the rut. In the pictures below, bucks will travel through the narrow part of the hourglass, represented by the red lines which meet at the center of the saddles (red lines indicate likely deer trails).

  • Benches – Contour lines on a slope will have a wider spacing than adjacent contour lines, indicating less (or no) slope within a slope.

The best benches for the whitetail hunter provide a flat or relatively flat path of travel parallel to (but below) a ridgeline, generally along the side of a hill. Due to wind dynamics, specifically, thermal currents rising from lower elevations to higher elevations throughout the warming period of a day, and thermals falling during the cool portion of the day, benches along elevation lines approximately 1/3 below the top of a ridge line provide preferred travel paths for bucks. As a result, I focus my cyber scouting for benches in areas near the 1/3 below the top elevation line. For example, if I am scouting an area where the lower elevations average 700 feet, and the ridgelines average 1000 feet, there is a 300-foot difference in elevation. If I am focusing on areas 1/3 below the ridge line, then I would focus on areas around the 900-foot contour line (300*1/3=100 and 1000 (max elevation) minus 100 (1/3 of the elevation change in the area) = 900 feet). In areas where adequate cover exists, benches may also provide opportunities for buck and doe bedding areas. Abandoned logging roads provide excellent benches, but may not always be visible on topographical or aerial maps. However, boots on the ground scouting near the 1/3 contour line will often reveal old logging roads when they are present.

  • Points – Contour lines will look like a “V” shape and will point downhill. Points may provide secure bedding areas for deer in hill country.

What features make a point a more or less attractive bedding area?

  • Points with steep drop offs below them are generally favored when compared to points with less steep elevations, because the steeper drop offs provide a better vantage point and more difficult uphill access for predators.
  • Points with an obstacle (downed log, thick vegetation, rock outcropping, etc) near or slightly above the 1/3 from the top elevation are generally preferred to points with no obstacles or vegetation.
  • Points with adequate, but not excessive, canopy are preferred to points with no canopy or a fully mature canopy.
  • Draws (Especially steep Draws) – Contour lines will look like a “V” shape and will point uphill.

Draws provide two useful features for deer hunters. First, when a draw is very steep, it will generally funnel deer traffic to the higher elevation side of the draw, where the draw ends or provides an easier crossing point. When evaluating draws while cyber scouting, the steeper and narrower the draw, the better. Often, steep, narrow draws will have additional obstacles, such as downed trees or steep cut banks to further discourage deer traffic through the middle or lower portions of the draw. Second, draws act in much the same way as benches. Deer will often travel on trails parallel to draws as a path of least resistance and to conceal their movements. Note, deer will rarely travel in the very bottom of a draw, rather, they will travel parallel to the draw where the draw begins to moderate into the surrounding hillside.

  • Crow’s Feet / Thermal Hubs – An area where at least 3 draws (or more) converge at a common bottom.

While these areas can be nearly impossible to hunt due to challenging wind dynamics, they provide an excellent concentration of deer sign. Crow’s feet/thermal hubs will often contain scrape areas, sign posts rubs, and tracks. These are excellent areas to place trail cameras to monitor bucks in the area without compromising treestand locations in adjacent areas.

  • Converging Hubs An area where 3 or more ridges converge at a common point.

To identify converging hubs, think of a bicycle wheel. Where all the spokes (ridgelines) on the wheel converge, that location is the converging hub. Converging hubs put a hunter in the center of several travel routes, thereby increasing the odds of encountering a cruising buck.

To Learn More About Hill Country Terrain Features, Check Out Mapping Trophy Bucks by Brad Herndon

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Vegetation Features of Interest

Transition lines – A line formed along the convergence of two types of vegetation.

Transition lines provide deer many benefits, including diverse browse/food sources, security cover immediately adjacent to relatively easier travel routes, bedding locations, etc. During cyber scouting, I try and identify major transition lines. Examples of transition lines include:

Mature Hardwoods to Clear Cuts (Red Line)

Deer Hunting Transition Lines

Hardwoods to Pines (Red Line)

Deer Hunting Transition Areas

Powerline Clearings (Red Line)

Field Edges (Red Line)

Cattails to Hardwoods/Dry Ground (Red Line) 

Deer Hunting Transition Zones

Marshes/Swamps – Wetlands provide excellent habitat and security for whitetails. During my cyber scouting, I focus on the following features when cyber scouting wetlands:

Points – An area of higher ground that forms a point that projects into a lower wetter area such as cattails, redbrush, willows, or tag alders.

Islands – An area of higher ground completely surrounded by an area of lower ground, preferably too wet to offer many bedding opportunities. When cyber scouting, islands with a few (but not too many) dry areas in the vicinity should be given preference. Islands with hardwoods trees should also be given preference and investigated for mast trees during boots on the ground scouting.

Transition Lines – See definition above

Oxbows – A “U”-shaped bend in the course of a river. An oxbow creates a peninsula of land and provides preferred bedding areas for deer, due to their security. The outside bend of an oxbow may also create a pinch point for deer travel. These funnels in close proximity to likely bedding areas make great stand locations during the cruising phase of the rut.

Deer Hunting Oxbows

Farm Land – During my cyber scouting, I focus on the following features when cyber scouting farmlands:

Fence lines – Fence lines may provide cover for traveling whitetail bucks during the rut. Significantly overgrown fence lines may contain overlooked buck bedding areas. In several areas I hunted in Michigan, overgrown fence rows contained apple and oak trees, which made them preferred food sources.

Deer Hunting Fence Lines

Swales – Defined as a “low or hollow place, especially a marshy depression between ridges” or described as “pothole swamps”, swales can provide areas of cover in farmland. Swales in standing cornfields can provide excellent big buck bedding areas, such as the swale pictured in the center of the field below.

Deer Hunting Swales

Step 5: Identify Primary Access Points

After I have identified all the possible terrain and vegetation features of interest on the property, the next step in my process is to identify the primary access points for humans, for example, parking lots, trailheads, roads, and trail systems. The overwhelming majority of hunting pressure will originate from these areas. If I am hunting an area where I don’t have exclusive hunting rights, which is 100% of the time, then these are areas I will generally want to avoid. Often, these areas will be visible via high quality satellite aerial imagery. When I have difficulty determining the primary access via satellite imagery, I often resort to other information sources. On private land, that usually means a conversation with the landowner. On public land, there are a variety of resources from various state wildlife management agencies. Nearly all state agencies will have .pdf maps or Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping applications available indicate parking areas and established trail systems.

When determining how far away to hunt from access points, I almost always default to difficulty of access. There are a lot of hunters who will walk 2-3 miles on a trail system. However, the number of hunters willing to traverse steep hills or knee deep or deeper water dwindles, significantly. If I see a terrain or vegetation feature near (1/2 mile or less) a primary human access point, I will generally avoid it if access is easy. However, if the same point is separated from the access point by extremely hilly terrain, knee deep or deeper water, or some other obstacle that severely restricts access, then I am more likely to investigate it during “boots on the ground” scouting.

Step 6: Other Resources

State Wildlife Agency GIS/Mapping Applications

Many State Wildlife Agencies have excellent resources for hunters. For example, The State of Kentucky has an excellent mapping application for public land hunters. The mapping application provides the following information:

  • Name of the Wildlife Management Area (WMA)
  • WMA Latitude and Longitude coordinates
  • WMA Size in Acres
  • The “More Info” provides a plethora of additional information, include season dates and weapon restrictions

Michigan Interactive Map (MI-Hunt)

  • Identify public lands
  • Contains information on tree species in an areas
  • Identify Hunter Access Program (HAP) lands, which are private lands open to public. Also displays any restrictions for each HAP land.

Michigan Forestry Reports – Forestry reports are an overlooked resource, in my opinion. Forestry reports can provide valuable insight on the location of mast bearing trees, clearcuts, and areas of recent or planned logging activity. As a specific example, the Michigan Forestry reports include “Compartment Reviews“, which contain detailed maps of forest sections. They contain notes from the reviewing forester, who often describes deer browse pressure in areas of regenerating growth.

OnX Maps

Features

  • Landowner information, which may be critical to gain access to land locked private lands or possibly gain hunting permission on private lands
  • Mobile App and a Desktop website, which aids in cyberscouting
  • Aerial Map, Topographical map, Hydrid (Aerial/Topo) Map
  • Map layers that show public and private lands, including private lands open to the public (Examples, PLOTS in North Dakota, Block Management Areas in Montana, Hunter Access Program in Michigan)
  • Roadless areas
  • Restricted areas (no hunting or bow only)
  • Offline maps, which enable full use of the application in areas without cell service
  • Many other useful features

Resources for Cyber Scouting for Trophy Bucks

Pope and Young Club Database – Allows search of all Pope and Young Club entries ($35 annual fee). Can filter search by: Species, Species Subcategory (e.g. Typical or Non-Typical), harvest year or range of harvest years, Country, State/Province, Area (county), Hunter First Name, Hunter Last name.

Once an entry is retrieved, the database provides details on harvest date and score measurements.

State Wildlife Agency Harvest Statistics and Drawing Odds

Here is an example of wildlife harvest statistics from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Website.

Drawing Odds

Visit https://www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting/Nonresident-Hunting then click on the 2019 Non-Resident Deer Draw Statistics .pdf file.

State Record Books

For example, Commemorative Bucks of Michigan, which provides detailed information on animals that qualify by meeting the minimum entry criteria.

Social Media Groups

Hunters love to share their pictures and stories of their trophies. Playing detective with the details of social media posts can often yield surprising results.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the following topics:

  • How to select an area to cyber scout
  • The best free cyber scouting resources
  • Researching the primary wind direction for a given area during the hunting season
  • Identifying key terrain and vegetation features using online maps
  • Finding primary access points used by other hunters
  • Utilizing other resources to gauge an areas trophy potential and my opportunity for success
Leave a comment with your favorite cyber scouting tips and tricks!

E Scouting Tools

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Commenting for the Trail Camera Giveaway. My YouTube ID is JW (jpwren77@gmail.com). I’m enjoying reading your blog content!

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