What is Desktop Scouting and How Can You Use It
Sometimes when you’re staring at a huge chunk of public hunting land on a map, it can seem overwhelming about where you should actually hunt. You’d think it would be easy with all the possible choices, but it’s not.
Like a kid at a candy store or a nerd at Comic-Con, you know what I’m talking about. There’s too much to look at, making rational decisions tough.
If you’ve ever found yourself studying a map trying to figure out where you should hang a tree stand for deer hunting or where you should walk for small game, this is the hunting guide for you.
These desktop scouting tips are divided into two sections. One is for small game (mostly upland game birds and small mammals). The other is for big game (mostly whitetail deer).
But first, let’s back up a little…
Finding Hunting Land with Desktop Scouting
Before we get too far along, what if you don’t have a place to hunt at all? Don’t worry – you don’t need to be a landowner to hunt. There are millions of acres of public hunting land in this country. If you’ve never looked before or you’ve struggled to find public land, don’t be discouraged. I recommend you read this article about how to find hunting land, for beginners or seasoned hunters alike.
Once you’ve found a property, what should you do? Traditional deer scouting or scouting for other animals would require you to physically walk each property to see what it looks like. While that’s therapeutic and makes for good exercise, it’s not always the most time-efficient.
So what else can you do?
I’m a huge advocate of desktop scouting for hunting. I love opening up Google Earth® or similar satellite imagery tools to help guide my hunting efforts. You can learn what habitats are present, what the terrain looks like, and even whether it is hard to access or not. When you’re done desktop scouting a few properties, you can go into the field to confirm they have the right animal sign to hunt it.
I go into much more detail about this in the post linked above, so check it out. Now let’s focus on how you can use desktop scouting to help you for small game and big game hunting.
Small Game Hunting
The best strategy for hunting small game animals will be different depending on which animals you actually hunt. I’ll define “small game” as ruffed grouse, pheasant, cottontail rabbits, or squirrel, since they are most common across the majority of the country. It might also include quail, jack rabbits, snowshoe hares, American woodcock, dove, or other grouse species, depending on where you live. You’ll also see the terms “upland hunting” or “upland species” associated with the animals above. Waterfowl hunting has several differences, and wouldn’t typically be included in small game hunting.
Luckily, many of these species occur in the same general types of habitat. As an example, upland forest birds like ruffed grouse and woodcock mostly need young forests and early successional growth (a term for regenerating plants responding to a disturbance, such as a fire or timber harvest). This habitat is usually dominated by sun-loving herbs, grasses, and shrubs. It will also include densely-growing young tree species (e.g., maple, birch, and aspen respond quickly after disturbances). If there are brush piles and raspberry canes/briars present, you can bet that rabbits will also be there. Generally, areas adjacent to these timber harvests may still have mature trees standing, which is great habitat for squirrels.
So you could theoretically hunt several animals all within a single area. That’s what I love about small game hunting!
Choosing a Small Game Location
Small game hunting is all about keeping on the move. It’s not like hunting deer from a tree stand. You will be walking (a lot) looking for birds to flush, rabbits to run, and squirrels to climb. So you really don’t need to pick a specific location to hunt – more just the general areas you’ll wander through. Trail networks are a good place to start, but make sure to branch off into the woods more often than not.
The first thing you’ll need to know is what habitat your intended game animal needs. The second thing is where you can find that habitat. Glance through your aerial map while desktop scouting and see what it looks like (e.g., lots of open meadows, dense conifer forests, etc.). Again, look at my other article for some example satellite imagery. The purpose is to get a feel for the property before you step foot on it.
When you have marked out some potential hunting areas in desktop scouting, the next step is really fun. Get into the field and start exploring your spots! Don’t feel bound to your specific hunting areas either. If you get there and it doesn’t look like what you were envisioning, just improvise and wander where it does look good. Be sure to carry a compass and your map so you can get back to your vehicle! That’s one of the benefits of hunting public land – you have lots of ground to cover.
Big Game Hunting
This term is also subjective depending on where you live. In most of North America, the most popular and accessible big game animal to hunt is a white-tailed deer. I will mostly focus on them for this section; however, the same principles can be applied to other big game species, such as mule deer, black-tailed deer, elk, moose, black bear, or even wild hogs.
Several of the species above are hunted with the spot and stalk approach, which includes more of a small game hunting technique of wandering until you find animals or glassing from a high vantage point. However, whitetails and a few others are typically hunted from a tree stand, a far less mobile hunting tactic. You can use portable tree stands to move around a little, but it mostly involves ambushing deer as they walk by. So to effectively hunt them, you need to be in the right spots. And that’s where desktop scouting is priceless.
Google Earth® is basically a free deer scouting software in my book. I’ve used it for years for scouting whitetails, and then started using it for other game animals. Here are the things I look for on a property when deciding where to hunt for whitetails. But again, these can be applied to spot and stalk hunts on the other species above too.
Topography and Land Cover
The very first thing I look for on a new hunting property is the general lay of the land and the existing land cover. Really flat properties can be harder to hunt well than hilly ones simply because there are fewer variations and micro-sites for deer to use. When not being chased or pressured, deer will take the easy route from point A to point B. So instead of going straight up a steep hillside, they will likely cross over hills using the lowest point, which is called a “saddle” of a ridge. You can also use topography to hide your entry or exit to a tree stand simply by staying below the top of a hill or walking in a ditch. For relatively flat properties, even small elevation changes can have the same (although smaller) effect.
You also need the right habitat if you’re going to find many animals. For example, deer are creatures of the edge, meaning they like areas with lots of intersecting habitats. Think about it like a patchwork quilt or chessboard. The more squares you have, the more “edge habitat” you have for deer to use. They will often use these edges to travel between feeding and bedding areas. When you get outdoors for actual scouting, look for deer sign (e.g., trails, tracks, scat, etc.) along these edges.
Funnels or Pinch Points
Similar to the edge discussion above, topography and land cover can form what we call “funnels” or “pinch points” – basically, these features bottle the deer traffic into a narrower location. Deer prefer to stay concealed when they move, which makes it easier to predict their movement. Good tree stand locations will often overlap these areas. One of my favorite aerial deer scouting techniques is to find as many funnels as I can since they can be so productive.
Think about a 2-liter bottle. Inside the bottle, there is a lot of room for the soda (or “pop” if you’re from Minnesota) to move. As it exits the top though, it is all funneled into a much smaller location. Weird analogy maybe, but you get the point…
Essentially, we’re making a bet when we set up a tree stand or ground blind that we will be in the right location. To maximize your hunting success, find some of these funnels while desktop scouting. The best ones will combine habitat and topography and will stand out on an aerial map. Some examples include:
- Wooded peninsula of high ground extending across a deep cattail swamp
- Narrow strip of hardwood trees between two spruce swamps
- Dense shrub line/wind break extending through open grassy field
Another thing you should look for when desktop scouting is how you will approach a tree stand site. Even if you have the perfect tree stand location, it is useless if you spook every deer on your way to it. For that reason, you need a good place to hunt that you can also sneak into without alerting animals.
To accomplish this, you need to know more about your prey. Deer typically feed heavily during the night and bed down to rest during the day. So it would be pointless to approach your tree stand in a feeding area in the morning when all the deer are still feeding. Instead, try to sneak into bedding areas during the early morning so you will be waiting for them to return.
You can and should use topography, thick cover, wind, rain, stealth, and luck while entering or exiting your hunting area for deer. Sneak through a ditch, stay behind conifer trees, travel with the wind in your favor, walk in the rain when the woods are loud, walk carefully to avoid breaking branches, and carry a good luck charm to avoid being caught. Ideally, they will never know you were even there.
As mentioned above, you need to be mindful of the wind when deer hunting. Their noses are very good at detecting predators. How can you possibly predict that when you’re desktop scouting? Look up the average wind direction for your area (here’s a good map). Topography, seasons, and weather events will change the wind direction constantly, but you can use the average direction to help you.
For example, let’s say the average wind direction comes from the northwest. You wouldn’t want your access route or tree stand site to be northwest of where you predict deer to move. That would place you directly upwind of them. Keep this in mind when planning out your hunting spots.
Desktop Scouting: Pulling it Together
If you can combine all the elements above from your desktop scouting session, you will have a much easier time in the woods. You’ll already have an idea where the animals feed and rest, which areas would be good to ambush them from, and how to approach them. That alone will save you days of effort in the woods.
The last step is to check them out in-person to confirm your hunches. If you find wildlife sign or spook animals, you’ll know you focused on the right spots. Lace up your boots and grab your shotgun if you’re small game hunting. Strap your tree stand onto your back if you’re deer hunting. Good luck!