Aggressive Western Scouting: Part 1

Looking through my binoculars, gray light began to crack. I could barely make out several ghostly figures in the sage flat below, where several bucks were slowly pulling west toward the safety of the thick juniper covered ridges. Beneath the sage brush, the flat was covered in new growth forbs that are a nutritious source of food the bucks need to grow massive antlers. Huge shadows loomed above one deer’s head. It was him and he was right where I expected him to be.

As an Arizona guide and outfitter, I have been fortunate to be able to spend the bulk of every year in the woods either scouting for, or hunting deer. I routinely show up in entirely new country and immediately go about trying to find the best bucks that reside there.

Arriving in big, new country can be very intimidating. After all, you have taken the plunge, spent the money to get there, and in turn you apply the pressure to yourself to produce what you have been dreaming about. Most folks are on limited scouting time and that in itself adds to the pressure. What you need is a well devised plan of attack. This starts weeks before.

Scouting strategy starts with topo maps. Locate water and nearby vantage points from home.

First Find Water
How do you find that once-in-a-lifetime critter in a million or two acres? It all starts with topographical maps. Topo maps are the key to formulating your preseason plan from home. This is old news to most, yet must be stressed. Desert country in the Southwest, where most of my time is spent, the wildlife must answer to the same God … water. Whether there is water in every drainage or it only occurs every 10 miles, this will dictate how you must go about your scouting strategy.

I will scour my topos looking at every waterhole, seep, and spring, and start to plot my time. The giant expanses of the desert are dotted with man-made water —  cattleman that is. Be it a dirt dam, a developed spring, or maybe a windmill and pipeline that feed troughs. I often hear sportsmen voicing their opinion against cattle on public land, claiming that it destroys precious habitat for wildlife, yet they never stop to think that without the water systems that the cowman has developed, there would be no wildlife, period!

There are also several small wildlife catchments made of tin or cement that simply act as a surface to collect and run precipitation into small storage tanks so wildlife can access it. All desert life is tied to these water sources and locating all the water on your maps is the first priority.

The western landscape is dotted with man-made water sources that all wildlife is dependent upon.

Establish Vantage Points
After the water is located on your maps, what do you do now? After all, anybody can find a waterhole on a map. Next, you need to look at the topographic features of your map. Determine where the best vantage points are in order to observe the animals that are using the water sources. I don’t mean observing them at the actual waters’ edge, but how they use the available feed and cover in the area of the water source.

In most places across the West, the forage quality gets better the farther you get from water. Habitat close to water is often over-browsed by both cattle and wildlife due to the fact that they are concentrated and traveling through regularly. This means the resident critters must travel to and from water to best utilize their home range. By placing yourself on select vantage points over these travel corridors, you are in perfect position to get a glimpse of what lives there.

Why not just watch the waterhole? I wish it were that easy. The fact is the animals, especially the oldest ones, seldom drink in daylight hours. Intense predation by large carnivores is the biggest reason for this. Be it a lion or a bowhunter, game has learned to be reclusive, and hitting water in broad daylight is a surefire way to get killed. By being in place on vantage points at morning and evening primetime, you can hopefully catch the deer on their way to and from their "home."

Choose vantage points that offer the largest view surrounding water sources.

Find Travel Corridors
I should explain that these travel corridors are often measured in miles instead of yards. It is common for desert game to travel extreme distances from feed to water, up to several miles. Deer do not need to water everyday, even in 100-plus-degree summer heat! Some will only make the walk to water every third or fourth night and then return to the security of their core living area. Therefore, you must choose the vantage points that overlook the largest portions of the countryside to increase your chances of getting a visual on the resident critters.

Study your topo maps at home to find these observation points. Figure out parking spots, shortest hiking routes, and tentatively plan your morning and evening glassing sessions based on this info.

Please read more Western scouting tips in Part 2.

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