It's that time of year again. The effort you put into the next few months will help determine how successful you will be this upcoming archery season. Many of us are planning to hunt areas we've never explored before. Below are some tips to give yourself the best chance in unfamiliar territory.
Plan from Afar
This should go without saying, but you should expect to put in many hours planning your hunt. Even if you are unable to visit your hunting area prior to the season, you should take advantage of all of the web-based tools available to hunters. As the old adage goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Personally I begin my research online using Google Earth, the resources available through your local Wildlife agency, and a variety of other online mapping programs from third parties. Before I set foot in a new hunting area, I try to get a solid understanding of the terrain and habitat online. I find images such as dark timber, funnels, water sources, pinch points, saddles and other landmarks that "appear" to be good starting points to explore.
Talk to the Experts
Once I have a better understanding of the topography and lay of the land, I will call the local wildlife office and get contact information for local offices, field agents, and game wardens in the area I plan to hunt. I talk to as many people as possible about my planned starting points, I ask their opinions and observations, and discover their recommendations based on their experience in the area. Keep in mind the information they share with you is the same information they have shared with others planning to hunt that area too. Use the information they provide you, combined with your online research, to determine your best plan of attack.
Put Boots on the Ground
Once you have your starting points, you should visit the area you plan to hunt prior to season. Even though animals won't necessarily be in the same spots in July as they will be in September, you can still learn a lot about how to hunt your area by visiting it. Spend a few days with your binoculars and spotting scope. Hike all around the areas you determined should be good areas. Take lots of notes, pin everything you see on your GPS device, and determine where the animals are during the summer months.
At this time you can also place a few trail cameras in the area. On public land you run the risk of someone stealing your camera, but most decent cameras can be bought for under $100. The reward of patterning animals definitely outweighs the risk of having a unit stolen.
Re-configure Your Starting Points
Now that you've seen the area, you can adjust as necessary the starting points you determined prior to visiting the area. Even though you saw animals as you explored the unit, they likely won't be in the same area during archery season.
Plot all of your points on a map and come up with a new game plan. I select half a dozen starting points on a map and draw a circle around each point of 1-2 miles. Then I look at all of the terrain, topography, landmarks, and aerial views on Google earth in order to determine the best spots within the circumference of those circles. Again you'll be looking for funnels, water sources, pinch points, saddles and other landmarks in the newly identified areas.
Head Back in for Another Hike
Now that you have your revised starting points, visit the hunting area again and explore those areas you feel the animals will be during hunting season. When scouting, look for sign where the animals were last year. Rubs on trees, bones from animals that were harvested in previous years, dried scat, wallows, and game trails. Pay attention to the easiest routes to your determined hunting areas, camping sites, trails, and other landmarks that will help you find your way in the dark on opening morning.
You now have a plan that will give you your best opportunity for success. One last point about hunting a new area, is that your first year hunting there offers the least likelihood of success. Once you hunt a unit a few years, you learn a lot about the animals in the area, where they are during season, their patterns and habits, and you'll increase your likelihood of success in subsequent years. If you fail to fill your tag the first season you hunt in your unit, don't immediately think you need to hunt somewhere else. Your chances for success increase every year you hunt the same area. So be patient and try to stick with one area for at least a few years.