E-scouting, the act of using apps to scan satellite images for hunting hotspots, is a skill that needs honing. You can learn the basics of e-scouting by reading or watching video tutorials, but that’s purely academic. To really level up your game of digital exploration, you need to take it from the comfort of your living room into the woods.
This is where you will substantiate your findings and confirm or dispel your suspicions about a specific area. Texas bowhunter KC Smith spends weeks each fall hunting public lands in multiple states for his hunting brand, The Element. He relies heavily on electronic scanning, but he has learned that individual plots and the interesting places in them require on-the-ground confirmation.
“We always try to identify multiple locations before heading to a specific state so we have backup options,” Smith told MeatEater. “Inevitably, some of those places, especially the backups, are going to look a lot better in person than onX. This happens all the time with native terrain.”
When Smith says “native land,” he means prairie grass, CRP, cattails, and just about anything else that isn’t grown on the landscape. When it comes to this type of cover, which is all crucial whitetail habitat, the appearance in a scouting app will be a drab nothing. This is an easy habitat to overlook and write off entirely, but when you set foot in it, the history of deer use often becomes much clearer, and often much more compelling.
E-scouting mistakes we all make
Understanding how to accurately read the cover, from patches of swampy sierra grass to deciduous and coniferous forests, will help you tremendously with your e-scouting efforts. Intentionally going back and forth between e-scouting and time in the woods exposes holes in his game.
These holes often come from scaling realities with satellite imagery.
This could include cover that appears to be small bushes or shrubs, but is actually 10-foot tall willows or larches, which is something a big woods hunter might find. Or, a southern whitetail addict might explore an area with a pine forest. Evergreens, planted in neat rows, can look like an amazing bedding cover on your phone or tablet screen. In person, they could be 75 feet tall with absolute pine desert below them, which is the kind of open habitat no self-respecting deer would call home.
Smith has learned this the hard way through his travels, but he also recognizes that it is a fact of life for nomadic deer hunters. “You have to prepare to do things wrong,” he said. “You have to understand that some of your best prospects will be duds in person, while some of your least attractive finds will actually prove to be the best when you’re there in person.”
E-scouting is not always about doing things wrong. It’s possible to identify a likely river crossing, a pinch point in the hills, or some soft edge in the great woods, and then walk only to realize you’ve made it. Sometimes, you launch a perfect game of e-scouting. The first time this happened to me, I picked out a tree on public land in Oklahoma, went in, set it up, and killed a deer from that same tree. It was eye-opening and has happened a handful of times since.
Spot e-scouting is a rarity, but it does happen. More commonly, your digital efforts help you zero in on the right neighborhood. Then it’s a matter of scouting or spotting during the season, which will put you right on top of the deer action.
The key to these more favorable results is practice. Whether you’re heading out for a shed hunt or maybe a little winter exploration right now, take some time before you leave to look at the aerial footage of the property. Plan a route with him, and then pay attention to what you see when you’re in the woods. Ask yourself how well your e-scouting hunches match up with your actual surroundings when you walk through the woods.
Remember, too, that it’s possible to reverse-engineer your exploration on the ground to see what some points look like on satellite images. I do this a lot, especially when I find a terrain feature that shows a lot of current deer use. When I’m standing on a newly discovered pinch point or deer road, I pick up my onX to drop a pin. But I also want to see what it looks like on satellite imagery so I can archive that for future e-scouting efforts.
I did exactly this on a recent barn hunt in southwestern Wisconsin. What struck me most was how the funnels I found in the rocky terrain along the river didn’t look all that special when viewed solely on satellite imagery. Once I overlaid the survey lines at each location, they became much easier to read and understand.
This lesson is important. The latest exploration apps give you many options for viewing the land, taking notes, and continuing to develop a better understanding of these valuable tools. The more you know how to use layers and the information available through your chosen app, the more you’ll be able to put it to use before you hit the woods, no matter where your white glue addiction takes you.
Featured image via Captured Creative.