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Eye in the Sky: Tech Tactics to Find Hidden Public-Land Deer

With technology tools like map-based mobile apps, your chances increase for tagging a whitetail this fall.

Eye in the Sky: Tech Tactics to Find Hidden Public-Land Deer

When you're making a play on an animal, often it's beneficial to pause and reference a mapping app to determine the best approach and setup. (Photo by Outback Outdoors)

  • This article was published in the 2020 issue of Public Land Hunter magazine. The 2021 edition of Public Land Hunter goes on sale July 20 on a newsstand near the you.

The moment he appeared, I knew exactly why I had waited four years to draw my tag. It was only my second morning of bowhunting in Iowa, and this public-land whitetail, which had just finished fighting with another respectable buck, was the type of deer that hunters like me lose sleep over—all of 170 inches and likely more.

I watched helplessly from across a creek as the brute marched the younger buck away from his turf on my downwind side. I was on the ground and normally would have pursued, but the Halloween snow was far too crunchy for such a play. The monster of my dreams faded into the timbered abyss.

The location where that encounter unfolded was one I’d marked on my OnX Hunt app prior to the hunt. That morning hunt was purely for observation since I hadn’t yet hung a stand. I determined how deer were using that creek bottom, then hung a stand following the morning hunt based on my observations.

Unfortunately, I was able to hunt it only once due to mostly poor wind directions.

During 10 fruitless days of hunting from treestands, I dropped countless waypoints all over the map on my OnX app. Some of the most promising were in areas I’d have to hunt from the ground due to lack of trees. So, my wife and I went ground bound and started trying these spots.

A couple of days into our ground strategy, I called a nice public-land buck to within 15 yards in a thicket. With my bride knelt beside me and with the buck oblivious, I deflated his lungs with a well-placed arrow. The strategy involved lots of mapwork (or appwork, as I fondly call it), before making cold-call visits to various waypoints.

My map-based app helped me identify unconventional hunting areas and ultimately put down a pretty darn good public-land whitetail.

The World in the Palm of Your Hand

More than 12 years ago, I was planning an out-of-state Kansas hunt, studying aerial maps online, then matching them up to a DeLorme Gazetteer, which denoted the state wildlife area I’d be hunting. Then, I printed the low-quality black-and-white aerial maps and marked the spots I wanted to scout and potentially hunt when I arrived in the Sunflower State to hunt.

Ugh! Shuffling hard-copy papers, especially in the field, is highly inefficient.

Intimate knowledge of the land you’re planning to hunt can directly impact your odds of success. The less intrusion and human scent you disperse, the greater those odds become. (Photo by Outback Outdoors)/figcaption>

Today’s map-based apps such as OnX Hunt and HuntStand eliminate those floating papers, tough-to-decipher notes and overall inconveniences. You can utilize them from your computer, but then everything reciprocates to the app on your smartphone, which puts the virtual world in your palm.

I use OnX Hunt extensively and don’t plan a single hunt without it, but for this article, I obtained information direct from the source. Zach Sandau of OnX was thrilled to discuss the app and how it translates into more efficient and effective hunting.

"Our main goal with OnX Hunt is to give users the ability to highlight specific areas and see them visually on a map," Sandau affirmed. "The main value is in the denotation of public- and private-land ownership. You can key in on each specific parcel you want to hunt and then view the satellite imagery and topographical layers. You get to see what types of land you’ll be hunting before you walk on it. For hunters specifically hunting on public lands, OnX simplifies your search for huntable lands, be they state lands, federal lands or even state-specific private lands open for public hunting such as Access Yes lands or Walk-In Hunting Areas.

"The app can be used on a computer, but when you also have it on your smartphone, your phone essentially doubles as a GPS," Sandau continued. "You have all of the valuable information such as the map and your waypoints, but it also tracks your current location. You can use it with or without cellular service, but be sure to download specific areas into your offline feature prior to hunting areas with insufficient cell service. It’ll give you a high-resolution map to view even in offline mode."

Pre-Hunt App Scouting

The more time you spend dissecting your hunting area on maps, the more information you’ll have the opportunity to compile without physically walking on the land. And when you’re planning an out-of-state hunt, you’ll learn so much about the properties you intend to hunt without making an expensive pre-hunt scouting trip or winging it when it’s time to hunt. Basically, using OnX Hunt as much as possible throughout the offseason can bolster your strategies come fall.

Your best chances for success on public land come by doing what 90 percent of the other hunters aren’t, whether that’s hiking 2 miles from a road or hunting places that folks overlook. Mobile apps can help plan both strategies. (Photo by Outback Outdoors)/figcaption>

"From a scouting standpoint, you can use OnX Hunt on your computer from home or wherever you have an Internet connection," Sandau explained. "You can quickly identify topography features, land ownership and other important things. Then, you can drop waypoints like access points, stand locations or just potential areas to scout and hunt. You can do all of this from your computer, but then access all of it from your phone in the field, as I mentioned earlier. The information syncs back and forth between devices when you’re logged into your account, which is incredibly convenient. It’s a holistic solution so that you can see your hunting area and then organize all of your information related to it.

"Traditionally, hunters used hard-copy paper maps and made handwritten notes in order to compile all of their information for a specific property," Sandau commented. "With OnX Hunt, you can keep it all in one place and access it anytime, anywhere and on any compatible device."


Identifying Public-Land Hot Spots

Each region varies, but Sandau suggested a good starting point for those using OnX to plan their next public-land hunt.

"When I’m scouting public land for those less-pressured honey holes, I look specifically for areas surrounded by private lands that are rich with agriculture," he said. "During my 2019 Missouri hunt, I was hunting primarily on a decent-sized parcel," he said. "I identified key access points that I suspected most other hunters would use. I highlighted those in order to stay away from them, knowing those areas would likely receive the highest pressure. Using both the hybrid and topo layers, I identified fields on adjacent private lands I believed the deer would be on. Then, I identified ridges, saddles and pinch points on the public land that I believed deer would use as part of their bed-to-feed and feed-to-bed routines."

Another way OnX helps you identify potential low-pressure areas is the roadless-area layer.

"The roadless-area layer gives you a heat map," Sandau explained. "It’s a great place to begin if you’re looking to evade hunting pressure, and it’s super beneficial to hunters who’re able and willing to hike extended distances. The layer flies over the top of the satellite map. The shaded areas have the most roads, and the purple and white spots are the farthest points from roads. These are great places to begin, and from them, you can home in on exact habitat or terrain features that will put a buck in shooting range."

Despite the inherent value of hiking deeper and hunting farther from roads, don’t ignore easy-access hotspots that receive very little pressure due to mere oversight.

The author extensively used OnX Hunt to map out hunting locations, including the thicket where he arrowed this nice public-land buck. (Photo by Rebecca McDougal)/figcaption>

"I believe these are some of the best hunting areas right now," Sandau said, "because so many people are stressing the concept of hiking deeper and hunting harder to avoid encounters with other hunters. Look for obscure smaller tracts of public lands away from the larger tracts. These are often overlooked. People drive right by them constantly because they appear too small to hunt, which isn’t true. More often than not, these types of properties are surrounded by private lands, and game travels through them at various times throughout the day."

As Sandau mentioned, small public parcels can be great, and I’ve had my share of successful hunts on them. But, if you’re hunting on a larger tract, be attentive to its overlooked areas. Examples are lanes through thick cover along roadways, fence crossings close to parking areas where deer travel to and from private lands, or even a thicket with zero trees large enough to hold a treestand, such as the one in which I arrowed my 2019 Iowa buck.

Instant Scouting While Hunting

Pre-hunt scouting is invaluable, but there are obvious instances when pulling up your map during a hunt can spell the difference between success and failure. Gathering information on the fly can help you plan an immediate strategy.

One example was a recent turkey hunt. I heard a tom gobbling incessantly more than 600 yards away. I hopped on my QuietKat e-bike and cut the distance to 150 yards. Rather than set up and begin calling, I opened my OnX Hunt app and studied it for half a minute. I instantly determined where the tom was gobbling from: a grassy clearing surrounded by hardwoods. A direct attack would’ve put me beneath the bird, and we all know how difficult it is to call a bird downhill. I instead opted to make a hard right to gain elevation and then loop around to the edge of the clearing 125 yards away from the bird.

I killed that sharp-spurred gobbler at 15 yards without any decoys. I accredit that success in a large part to referencing my app before making my setup. Without it, I probably would’ve taken a direct attack and either would’ve spooked the bird or set up in a poor calling location. Instead, I determined exactly where I believed my best chances were, went there and had the bird on the ground 5 minutes later.

The same technique could prove invaluable when hunting any game from the ground. If a white-tailed buck heads for a thicket, you could reference OnX before approaching it to learn about terrain features that could disguise your approach. You could also use it to identify surrounding cover should you find the thicket empty when you arrive, giving you secondary places to still-hunt into.

For the active ground hunter, OnX Hunt can help you connect the dots during your hunt and put you where you need to be. Of course, the things you learn during a hunt can shape your strategy for the next time. Dropping waypoints on your app and making mental notes while hunting will be useful when planning an approach later, whether that be the next day or the next year.

Worth It

The hunting industry is full of gadgets that promise to simplify your hunting strategy. While some are incredibly beneficial, a good share are only encumberments. However, OnX Hunt can legitimately improve your hunting success without adding needless hassle to your arsenal.

"There are so many different resources out there for scouting and hunting,” Sandau noted. “At OnX, we’re striving to provide hunters with a user-friendly and interactive mapping tool they can use from home or anywhere on a laptop or smartphone to learn about their hunting area and organize information related to it. You can take a brand-new property you’ve never hunted and get nearly 10 years’ worth of information about it before you even step a foot on it. In the past, you had to physically visit the property to know and understand access points, terrain features and possible food sources. Now, you can obtain most of that information remotely.

"Then, when you’re ready to hunt or physically scout the property, you can access all of your notes and information related to the property on your smartphone," Sandau said. "Nothing replaces getting boots on the ground, but using OnX as a central component to your hunting strategy will make you a more effective, more efficient hunter."


Google Earth: All it’s cracked up to be?

Google Earth is a great free mapping tool you can download to your computer or smart device. From street views to 3-D views, it gives you intuitive capabilities vital for mapping out potential hunting locations. However, it isn’t optimized specifically for hunting. You don’t get land-ownership layers, roadless-area overlays or the ability to drop hunting-specific waypoints such as treestand or trail-camera locations. In a nutshell, it’s an incredible tool, but it’s certainly not made for hunters.

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