Explore new hunting grounds before you even leave home

By John Hayes

You either know your way around or you don't. The deer know every landmark, every scent in their home range, and everything that hasn't been there before.

Hunters who own land or are able to return to the same private properties each year have an advantage. Those who don't will have a better chance at locating and dropping deer this fall if they take one thing with them into the woods: knowledge.

With rifle deer season opening Nov. 27, hunters have a couple of months to learn the landscapes of new areas they intend to hunt. Archers planning to take advantage of the early special regulation hunt in Allegheny County have some homework to do if they want to familiarize themselves with new hunting grounds by the season's start on Sept. 18.

No one completely understands white-tailed deer biology and instinctive behaviors. But hunters who combine practical experience with scientific research can make informed choices about where the deer may be and where they can best intercept them. If you don't know the landscape and have no field camera views, it's difficult to anticipate where the deer are likely to go when the sun rises or sets, the wind shifts, the weather changes or they are spooked.

With no time to waste, Lesson 1 starts at home with a computer or topographic map, Google Maps can give you a scalable view of the areas you intend to hunt. DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, available at large bookstores and truck stops, provides a non-scalable topographical overview. A crash course in reading topo maps would explain that when the lines are far apart the land is flat and when they are close together it's steep. REI.com offers a video on how to read a topographical map.

If you don't know who owns the land and its borders, you might start with a search of county real estate and property assessments or another land records website. Another option on private lands is to knock on the doors of nearby homes. Don't assume that you're welcome just because a property is not posted. Pennsylvania landowners are not required to advertise their intention if trespassing is not permitted. If you don't check and they don't want you there, owners, property managers or police can legally kick you out. If that happens, play nice, apologize and don't go back, You probably won't be cited for hunting trespass, a new crime with higher penalties than traditional trespass laws.

Using the map key, estimate the 150-yard firearms safety zone around schools and protected areas or the 50-yard archery safety zone surrounding homes, camps, industrial or commercial buildings, farm houses or farm buildings.

Deer know every natural and unnatural feature of their range: hills, valleys, cliffs, water sources, highways, back roads, buildings, etc. Your map can give you much of that information.

Without great geographical awareness, look for landscape bottlenecks — tight valleys or similar openings that funnel people and large wildlife into relatively narrow gaps. Abandoned logging roads cut into hillsides frequently serve as deer trails. So do flat spaces between or adjacent to industrial dirt and rock piles, cliff side basins and narrow riparian land along rivers and streams. Bottlenecks between dense undergrowth create landscape openings. During the rut, don't be surprised if the best deer are crawling through the heaviest brush.

Google Map satellite views, Google Earth and similar websites allow users to zoom in close enough to recognize features of the land and foliage. It's a great resource for learning about areas where you intend to hunt but haven't fully explored.

With the exceptions of farm lands and structured orchards, it can be hard to identify food sources from an aerial map. Some water sources are easier to find. At the start of deer seasons, when the animals are still relaxed and undisturbed, they may return from night feeding areas at dawn or occasionally leave daylight bedding areas to eat and get a drink throughout the day. Combine your landscape overviews with knowledge of deer behaviors to select hunting spots.

With a virtual bird's-eye view of huntable private or public lands, you'll notice prime spots where you might see the deer before they see you. Now search for second and third options. Other hunters who might have a better understanding of the land may be in the best spots before you get there. Use that to your advantage.

After the first arrow-shot deer crashes through the woods followed by a blood-tracking hunter, after the first firearm blast of the morning, all routine deer behaviors stop, at least for a while. Using your computer overview, where might the deer hide when they're disturbed? If the best spots are taken, position yourself between those vantage points and the nearest hiding places or posted land where the deer know they'll be safe.

Here's something else to consider as you map potential hunting spots. Do you really want to drag that 150-pound deer up those tightly spaced topographic lines? Be honest, at least with yourself: How's your health? Hunting is fun, but it's not worth dying for.


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