By Mark Kenyon
1,539 miles. That’s how far a drive it is from my Michigan home to the area of public land in Montana I’m hunting whitetails on this September.
When I originally decided to chase whitetails this far from home, in an area I’d never set eyes on before, I knew I was in for a challenge. But I get a perverse sense of enjoyment out of new challenges and I’m a fan of wide open, wild places – so it seemed like my kind of adventure.
Over the past few months I’ve been working to find and scout an area to hunt, and what I’ve done – and learned – can likely be applied to any kind of long-distance whitetail scouting project. Here’s how I’ve gone about that process and a few pieces of advice that might help you embark on a similar adventure of your own.
Deciding On A Region
The first step when planning an out-of-state DIY whitetail trip is simply deciding on a state and/or region that you’re interested in hunting. This decision is going to depend on a lot of variables of varying importance to different people; cost of license and availability, travel distance, deer density, quality of deer, interest in the area, etc. I chose to hunt in Montana because of my affinity for the state, the buzz I’ve heard about the quality deer hunting, and the fact that I’d be spending a month there in July (a luxury that isn’t often available).
Narrowing Down The Options
Once I chose Montana, and the part of the state I was planning on staying in during July, I got to work scouting from my computer – months before I ever got out here. Step one was finding the best whitetail habitat in the region.
In wide open country like you’ll find in some western states, whitetails are often congregated around river bottoms – so that’s the terrain I started looking for on aerial maps. In other states, the whitetail hot-spots will probably be different, and that’s a question you’ve got to answer wherever you’re hunting – what kind of habitat will hold quality whitetails?
I was looking for river-bottoms, but I also was looking for public land. Like I mentioned, I like a challenge, so I decided this year that I wanted to try and kill my Montana buck with a bow on public land. So the next step in my scouting process was trying to identify areas of public land that intersected with these river bottom habitats. Most states, Montana included, has helpful maps that identify public lands open to hunting – national forest, BLM, state lands, wildlife refuges, block management, etc. So if you’re looking for public access, you’ll want to get ahold of these maps or other online options that identify all your different options. If you’d rather hunt private land, get ahold of plat book or use online GIS maps to identify property owners and to find their addresses/contact info to ask for permission.
By comparing different maps and property line details, along with a few tips from locals, I was able to identify a handful of different public land parcels that seemed to have potential for whitetails. The next step was verifying that.
When you’re thousands of miles away from home, it’s hard to get your eyes on a piece of ground you’re hoping to hunt. But, if it’s possible, it can be a huge help.
In my case, I was able to schedule a “family vacation” in an area near my prospective hunting location, and if you can do something similar – or plan one long-distance scouting trip in the spring/summer – it would be a worthwhile investment of time. In addition to co-opting a family vacation, you might try a spring shed hunting/scouting trip or tacking this kind of trip onto a turkey hunt. Computer scouting can be a great first step, but there are some things you can only learn when you’re actually there, and if you’re not able to visit the area until your hunt, you’re forced to fit a lot of basic scouting into the same time period you’re supposed to be hunting, which of course isn’t ideal. If you can’t get there though, consider the following process to be something you might want to do on the first few days of your eventual hunting trip.
So, let’s assume you can somehow finangle a way to get out for a short trip to visit the region before your hunt, as I did. In this case, what I began doing was simply driving by these potential public land areas during the evening hours, glassing open areas and ag fields in the surrounding region. My goal on the first drive-by night was just to ascertain if there were deer in the area and if there were the quality of deer I was after. In my case, I’m interested in trying to kill a 3 year old buck or older.
On my first couple nights out in my first region of interest, I wasn’t seeing a ton of deer of that caliber. I saw a few, but none particularly close to the public land and not in high enough numbers that I was confident that these were my spots. So I continued my search. And after a few more nights and a recent suggestion to explore another nearby region, I finally came across the type of deer numbers and quality, near public parcels, that I’ve been looking for. I was seeing lots of 3+ year olds in the area and even on properties adjacent to public.
Once I found this spot, I planned a second night of road-side scouting during which I could narrow down my focus and just glass the specific properties that I would be hunting on or near, with the goal of identifying where deer were moving to and from, and at what time they were doing that. In my case, with an early September hunt planned, I knew that summer patterns observed now would likely still be continued when I got out here hunting. If your hypothetical hunt were taking place later in the season, you’d want to take any summer scouting with a grain of salt, realizing that their fall patterns will be different. Still though, any and all observations can be helpful pieces to the puzzle.
Dialing It In
Finally, once you’ve observed a region and verified that it holds deer, you’re going to want to dial in your scouting, looking for specific areas for stands, entry, access, etc. If you were able to get to your area in person, getting out on the ground can, of course, help with this process and I was able to get out one night and walk around a bit on one of the public parcels I’m hoping to hunt. But you can do a lot of this work from home too. Aerial imagery can show areas of food, cover, water and even trails in grassy areas. Topo maps can show terrain features that might influence where deer move, bed or feed as well.
Based on my in-field observations and map work, I’ve gotten a decent idea of where the deer are likely bedded on my main public property of interest, and I’ve watched where a large number of them are feeding too. On top of that, I’ve got an idea of where I might want to start my hunt, with a few observation stand options for morning and evening. But I’m going to be doing a lot more studying of maps in the weeks to come, now that I’m heading home and won’t be able to physically get on the ground til my hunt. And when I’m back in September, it’s going to be all about using this scouting (physical and digital) to get me started, and then observing and adjusting over the course of my seven day hunt from there.
This whole idea of scouting by way of aerial imagery and topo maps is a big topic, and more than I can cover in detail here – but we’ve discussed this plenty of times in the past. Here are three resources you should check out if you’d like to learn more on this:
In the coming weeks, I’ll be documenting more on the planned strategy for the hunt, and then starting September 3rd, the adventure will begin.
If you’ve ever dreamed of leaving the comforts of home and trying a DIY whitetail hunt in a new area, I’d urge you to make that dream a reality. There is something truly special abut exploring a new area on your own, and the challenge of hunting a new piece of ground will undoubtedly make you a better hunter as well.
Plus, it’s just a lot of fun.