Scouting Whitetails With Your GPS
September 22, 2010
The more sophisticated models feature a color monitor, a digital compass, the ability to display topographic maps and satellite photos, and much more. Add to that 1,000 or more waypoints, and you hold an amazing amount of deer hunting information in the palm of your hand.
I've owned a Garmin GPSMAP 60C for several years, but I failed to take full advantage of it until after I tagged an 8-point buck in early November 2008 with a longbow. Since then, I've spent many afternoons scouting new hunting grounds in preparation for Ohio's 2009 bow season.
The GPSMAP60C was my constant companion on these outings. Its color display shows topographic maps of my hunting region that I downloaded from a CD. I leave the unit on constantly while scouting, because it runs for 18 hours on two AA batteries. The batteries usually last for five or more scouting sessions.
The little GPS prevents me from getting turned around more often than I care to admit. It has surely saved me many wasted miles of hiking in circles. And it occasionally helps me find my way back to my truck when I'm scouting large tracts of wooded hill country that I've never seen before.
This alone is worth the cost of the GPS. What makes it indispensable are the waypoints that record any buck sign I find. I mainly mark big rubs, scrapes, trails, large tracks and beds. I also punch in waypoints for thickets, funnels and feeding areas like stands of white oaks.
You can use numbers for waypoints and then jot what each number corresponds to on a notepad. I prefer to use abbreviations for waypoints, such as rb for rub, sp for scrape, fn for funnel, and so on. Since you can't enter two waypoints in a GPS that have the same name, I add a number to my abbreviations. For example, if I find a rub and a scrape in a funnel, my waypoint reads: rbspfn, plus a number that differentiates it from other funnels where I find a rub and a scrape.
My handheld GPS has a far better memory than I have. I've scouted more than 7,000 acres of land since last winter, and I've entered several hundred waypoints in my GPS. I could never remember all those places, let alone how to return to them. However, the waypoints on my GPS are a permanent record, and they will take me back precisely to any spot I wish to return to.
A TOPO MAP HELPS
Given the small size of the 60C's display (1.5 x 2.2 inches), it doesn't give me a good overview of my larger hunting areas. That's why I also bring along a paper topographic map with me. You might think a GPS plus a map is overkill, but I've found otherwise.
Say you bring only a topo map, and you come across a string of big rubs. You mark the location of each rub on the map and figure you're good to go. However, you might not be exactly where you think you are, which means you've marked the wrong places on the map. If that happens, good luck finding that rub line again, and the buck that made it!
When I return home from scouting, I use my GPS to mark whatever I've found exactly where it should be on my topo map. This is where things really get interesting.
I often learn that scrapes, rubs and other deer sign that appear isolated and disconnected while scouting are actually part of a travel pattern. This overview provides the clues needed to determine where a buck beds, where it feeds, and the routes it travels between these places.
It can also tell you which funnels a rutting buck passes through while searching for does.This priceless information helps you figure where to set your stands to intercept a buck that carries heavy antlers. After I've chosen a stand site, I hike in with a hang-on tree stand, climbing sticks, my pruning tools, a compass, a notebook, and, of course, my handheld GPS. When I pick a tree for my stand, I mark it with my GPS. Then I consult my compass to determine the best wind direction for that stand. Although my 60C does not have an electronic compass, Garmin and other companies offer handheld GPS units that do have this feature.
I note the favorable wind direction for the stand on my notepad, plus how many climbing sticks are needed. My stand height varies from 15 to 25 feet, depending on the variables at each location. After I clear shooting lanes, the final phase is to mark a travel route on my GPS that will get me to my tree stand undetected.
This can be quite challenging. I don't want deer to cross my path when they move, and I don't want them to catch my scent as I trek to my stand. I often wind up taking a long, arduous, roundabout route up steep hills and narrow washes. The GPS lets me forgo marking the trail with bright ribbons. Since I frequently hunt public lands, the ribbons would attract other hunters, who could spoil my setup with their intrusion.
However, I do mark my trails with Limb Lights from Hunter's Specialties to help me find stands that I plan to hunt in the morning. These reflective twist ties attach to branches and go unnoticed during the day, but they glow brightly when you shine a flashlight on them before daylight.
DECIPHERING BUCK PATTERNS
Haley Heath, host of "Family Traditions" on Sportsman Channel, relies on Bushnell's ONIX400 handheld GPS for hunting whitetails and other big game. This GPS features a generous 3.5-inch color LCD, mapping capabilities, a d
igital compass, satellite photographs of your location, XM NavWeather, XM Satellite Radio programming and more.
Prior to the 2008 bow season, Haley used the ONIX400 while scouting a 500-acre family farm she has been hunting all her life. Although she knows the property intimately, the mapping and satellite photos on the handheld GPS gave her a new perspective.
"The layout of the land looks so different when you view it from above on a GPS," Haley says. "It suddenly becomes clear where the deer are traveling and why."
The overview provided by the ONIX400 helped Haley unlock the travel pattern of dandy 10-point buck in Georgia. The buck's first stop in the evening was a puddle near its bedding area. To reach the puddle, it traveled along the edge of a pine thicket that bordered an oak grove. Haley set a stand on the edge of the pines and arrowed the buck on the second day of Georgia's bow season. It scored 148 P&Y points.
By scouting with the handheld GPS later in the hunting season, Haley learned that the bucks changed their patterns when they began searching for does. Their range expanded considerably during the rut, and then contracted after the rut back to their summer bedding and feeding patterns.
"The GPS has taught me a lot about hunting whitetails," Haley says. "I used to go to the same stands every year and hope for deer. Now I know I'm setting up where the deer are moving."
Haley travels across the U.S. and overseas on hunting adventures for her TV show. She always brings two or more handheld GPS units with her. Before hunting, she and her companions try to spend at least one day scouting the area and marking what they find as waypoints. Then they get together with the guide or outfitter in the evening and everyone pools their information.
This familiarizes Haley with the hunting area and provides up-to-the-minute information on game movements. The handheld GPS units often mean the difference between bagging a trophy and going home empty-handed!
RECOVER YOUR BUCK
Arkansas outdoorsman Brad Smith claims that a handheld GPS is indispensable for recovering whitetails after you shoot them. He dotes on Lowance's iFinder Hunt C, which displays topographic maps on a 2.8-inch color monitor and has an electronic compass, 2,000 waypoints and many other features, including a built-in microphone for recording voice notes.
"How many guys have shot a deer, looked for it until dark and come back the next day with all their buddies to find it," Brad says. "Problem is, it rains overnight and washes away the blood trail.
"If you have a handheld GPS, you can punch in a waypoint every time you find a drop of blood," explains Brad. If it rains overnight, the GPS takes your right back where you left off. It also shows the direction in which the deer was traveling. This gives you a strong indication of where to expand the search.
Also, since the GPS leaves a path where you walk, it helps you search in a grid. You can completely saturate the area instead of repeatedly traveling over the same ground.
"A deer usually follows the path of least resistance after it's been shot," Brad says. "That means it often travels downhill and dies in a creek bottom. You can overlay your waypoints on the topo map and find where the terrain funnels into a low area. That's often where you'll find your deer."