Mapping Out Deer Hunting Success
(Originally published in Western Sportsman)

© By Othmar Vohringer

While sitting in a treestand, overlooking a narrow trail that connected two small woodlots, I was just about to open the flask and pour myself a cup of hot coffee when I heard a shuffling noise in the dry leaves. Taking the bow off the hook and putting an arrow on the string I saw a large buck walking along the trail in my direction with his nose to the ground. He had evidently picked up the doe-in-heat scent trail that I had laid down when I walked to the stand. Slowly I got up to get ready to make a shot the moment the buck walked in front of me. The buck stopped for a brief moment at the scent-wick that I placed exactly 20 yards from my stand. I came to full draw. The buck jerked his head up and looked directly at me. Busted! The buck must have seen me pull the string back on the bow. The last I saw of that buck was his white tail waving “Goodbye” to me.

The lesson about that hunt wasn’t that I missed the buck but how I found that place. I found that buck’s travel corridor without ever leaving my office. Instead of spending countless hours walking around my hunting area and by doing so alerting every deer to my presence, I spend that time studying a topographic map and aerial photo of the area to find buck travel hotspots. Anyone with a little ambition can do the same. It’s a time saving method, especially if you’re going on a short hunting trip in an unfamiliar area.

Many hunters are often intimidated by mapping technology so they don’t bother learning and therefore never realize the benefits that can be gained from studying maps and aerial photographs. Maps and mapping software are readily available. Unfortunately information about how to use these tools is not that readily available. With this article I would like to fill this void by explaining how to use these scouting resources and maximize your hunting success.

Deer Travel Patterns:

To know what to look for on maps we first have to understand deer travel patterns. Deer never travel at will anywhere they want. Instead, they use the (topographic) layout of the land and the features contained within the land to provide them with energy saving routes and safe means of getting from one point to the next. For example, rather than walking up a steep hillside deer will find an easier access route to get to the top. One example of an easy access routes would be an old overgrown logging road or a bench. Deer are paranoid about safety and always choose a travel a path that (a) saves energy and (b) provides them with some measure of cover to stay hidden from the view of predators. To achieve that deer are quite prepared to make considerable detours; they will walk around a hill rather than over it, or they will travel along the edge of a field where the vegetation along the perimeter is higher instead of walking directly across it. From knowing how deer use the topography and the features contained within it we can turn our attention to the topographical map and find these preferred deer travel features.

Topographical Maps:

Reading and understanding topographical maps is not complicated at all. Learning to read maps will help you to find deer hotspots that you might have overlooked before or simply never knew even existed. Try as we might there never seems to be enough time to get out before the season and scout every inch of land. As a result, when the season opens, most hunters go back to the same old and familiar places they have visited for years only to wonder, “Where have the deer all gone?”

Obtaining topographical (topo) maps is not difficult. The government of Canada as well as the provincial governments and many companies produce and sell topos. Most maps are produced at a scale of 1:24,000 (meaning one inch represents 2,000 feet). These maps are commonly referred to as 7.5-minute quadrangle maps because each one covers a four-sided area of 7.5-minutes of latitude and 7.5-minutes of longitude. One mile equals 2.640 inches on the map with each map displaying about 25 square miles. There are other map configurations but I found that 1:24,000 scale maps represent just the right amount of detailed information for scouting purposes.

The name of the map is in the top and bottom right corner and the names of the adjacent quads are found in the parentheses at the top, bottom, sides and corners. You need to know these names to purchase the right map for a specific area. Another bit of important information located on the map is the date when it was produced. Obviously, the more recent the date the more accurate the information is on it. Each of the maps contains a multitude of designations, like political boundaries, towns, villages, churches, and schools as well as features like forests, parks, lakes, rivers, ponds, roads, hills and mountains. Like all maps, topos show direction. When looking at the map the correct way north is always up, south is to the bottom of the map, the right side of the map is east and the opposite side is west. It’s therefore important to lay the map out in front of you so that the direction corresponds to the location of the actual hunting area.

Geographic features on the map are colour coded. Blue designates water; large blue shapes are lakes, and blue lines indicate rivers and streams. Marshes and swamps are marked with blue water vegetation. By the way, marshes and swamps are great big buck hiding places once the hunting pressure begins. Solid green shapes indicate forests, randomly green dotted areas designate shrub and brush areas, whereas straight green dotted areas indicate planted vegetation like orchards and such. White represents open spaces, like pastures, fields and cropland. New features that have been added since the last time the map has been updated appear in red, like new lakes, ponds, and streets and such.

Topo maps show many other man-made features that are very useful for hunters. Roads are shown as black lines. ATV and hiking trails are marked as a single dashed line. Power lines and gas line right of ways are marked with single or multiple dotted or dashed lines. There are a lot more markings on a topographical map but I mention the previous map features because they are important for hunters to recognize. However, the most useful information on the topographical map and the reason why every hunter who is serious about hunting success should own one is the counter lines.

Contour lines represents points in the landscape that are at equal elevation above sea level. Usually the lines are in 10 or 20 foot intervals, meaning each line represents a 1 or 20 foot change in elevation. There are thick and thin contour lines. The thick lines are index lines because along these lines you will find a number indicating the elevation above sea level. Thin contour lines show how quickly or gradually the elevation changes. The further the contour lines are spaced apart the more gradual the elevation changes. Conversely, the closer the lines are together the steeper the elevation is. It is these contour lines that are of great interest to the serious hunter because they reveal possible travel corridors for deer. For example, several contour lines spaced close together with contour lines below spaced further apart and below that closer together again means that the hill is very steep at the top and levels more out before it becomes steep again. The middle section where the hill levels off is called a “bench” and those can be great deer travel corridors. Deer always find the way of least effort to get from one place to another, provided that route provides sufficient cover for them. Another feature that promotes deer travel though a small area is called a “saddle”. A saddle is a low point in a hillside or mountain. On the topo map this feature shows as two contour line rings beside each other, with the innermost rings being the highest point and the wider spaced lines between the rings are the “saddle”. A ridgeline is another deer travel hotspot and is indicated by contour lines that double back to near parallel. A ridgeline that levels off at the tip and leads into an open area indicates a hot buck travel corridor for the rut as bucks often travel along these ridge tops during that time because they can see and scent-check the does below in the open fields without exposing themselves.

With a little practice you will quickly get the hang of reading topographical maps and learn to look for features and structures that identify likely buck travel routes and spots to set up an ambush. To do this, focus your attention on funnels. Funnels are not merely narrow rows and strips of cover connecting two larger pieces of cover; funnels can be comprised of a variety of features such as the above-mentioned saddles, ridge lines and benches but also fencerows and hedgerows, timber strips and tall grass growing along streams and railway tracks. Even beaver dams and narrow elevated lanes in swamps constitute funnels that are often used by bucks.

Aerial Photos:

Aerial photos are very useful tools either by themselves or to compliment the information found on a topographical map. Aerial photos don’t show land elevations but they show great habitat details. For example, topographical maps show wooded areas as green but they don’t show what these areas are comprised of. A good aerial photo will show if the area is made up of brush, immature trees, dense forest or lightly timbered forest, young or old growth. These photos also display field edges, overgrown fence lines, hedgerows and brush along streams among many other structural features deer often use as travel corridors. Regardless of how familiar you are with a hunting area an aerial map will help you hunt smarter. You’ll be able to see obvious buck travel features that at eye level don’t look that obvious or could be missed altogether.

When you look for possible stand sites look for inside corners where wooded areas meet with open fields, forming an “L” shape or transition areas where two types of vegetations meet like thick undergrowth inside a woodlot or a pine forest that turns into a leaf tree forest. Other key places to consider are small woodlots with a brush line connecting to a larger woodlot. Over the years I have grown very fond of Google Earth; no matter where I hunt I can always scout that area with the click of a button. The great detail provided by the satellite views of their maps gives me the chance to look at any potential area no matter how many hundreds of miles away from my home without having to travel there in person. The day I actually go to that area I am already familiar with it and can concentrate on fine-tuning the scouting of deer hot spots I began at home rather than spending many hours or even days familiarizing myself with the land. This means I have a lot more time to hunt and with that alone my chances of success increase dramatically.

Once you become familiar with using topographic maps and aerial/satellite photos and know what to look for to find likely buck travel routes and deer holding areas, you’ll be amazed by what they can do to improve your hunting success. In fact I’m sure that you’ll be wondering how you did without maps and photos for so long.

I welcome assignments from hunting related media. Send for queries and requests by email.

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