By Jaden Bales, Hunt West
There is both an art and a science to scouting out an area for your next hunt. Creating a great game plan is not about a honey hole you heard about through the grapevine, but rather creating a good filter to maximize your chance at success. As the founder of Hunt West and a hunting consultant, to me, the most important thing that matters is the combined process of e-scouting, then physical boots on the ground scouting. Here are a few questions that’ll help you make the best of your pre-season scouting strategy for those DIY western hunts.
Where do you start when looking at a new hunt area?
Each hunt area across the west has its own unique features, land ownership patterns, and topography. That said, a vast majority of western hunt areas have a mountain range with timber, transition areas with aspens/brush habitats, and low country sagebrush. When you break up your unit into those three different types of zones, you can start breaking the unit apart piece by piece.
For instance, in an early season mule deer hunt in Wyoming, there is a good possibility that there will be critters you’re chasing on the top of the mountain range. If it’s a late season rut hunt in Colorado, then your focus can be narrowed to those transition and low country areas.
The same can be said for elk as well. Though we used to think of them as a mountain-only species in our recent history, herds in the last few decades have repopulated the transition and low lands year-round. That’s why picking which of the three habitat types to start with is such a strong starting place for a new hunt area.
How do you know what habitat you should be looking for while e-scouting?
One of the most helpful resources available to hunters are wildlife managers whose career it is to monitor hunting and herd health. Contacting a biologist or warden in the area and asking them about the types of habitat you might want to be tackling is a first step before ever stepping foot in the field. Also, since you’ve broken your unit into three segments already, you will have a better idea of what wildlife professionals are talking about when they reference river drainages and main roads with examples of the habitat that exists in each. Search engines are also a great tool to dig up photos of the landscape to get a better understanding of what habitat type looks like via your e-scouting tools and on the ground.
As an example common to September elk hunting, people look for areas away from road systems with good access to food and water that spans across all three habitat types. After you have identified what you are looking for within your three hunt zones, you can get to work mapping out the game plan for your hunt.
"...Timber, transition areas, and low country (habitats). When you break up your unit into those three different types of zones, you can start breaking the unit apart piece by piece."
What kind of shots should I expect on my hunt?
One of the most commonly asked questions when coming to a new unit is a variable hunters themselves can control. When you know the types of habitat you’ll be hunting, you’ll be able to prepare accordingly and situate yourself for the types of shots you’d like.
Ask yourself hunt-specific questions. For rifle mule deer season, will you need to set up cross-canyon mule deer shots because the cedar trees are thick? Are you a person who is comfortable taking quick, close-quarter shots and therefore don’t mind working mule deer bedding areas?
The same process can be done for elk. Is it an archery hunt where you’ll want to be in dark timber with close shot opportunities, or do you want to pursue open country bulls for longer distance opportunities?
These all go into your game plan for dropping waypoints while e-scouting and before launching into any scouting trips you have planned.
How do I get away from people?
“Where are people NOT going” is one question we often ask ourselves. And for good reason - game can become more plentiful and easier to put a tag on in areas with fewer people. However, getting furthest from the road may not be as productive a strategy as it once was given that backpacking equipment has evolved to make for better, more efficient hunters. The answer here is to think outside the box and do what others will not be interested in doing.
As an example, I took a mule deer with my bow that was a half-mile behind a few mountain houses in 2021. It was a long dark hike into the good habitat around private land, but it provided a great hunt that day and meat in the freezer. A consistently good elk hunting spot of ours is not more than a mile from the road, however it’s a 1200 foot climb up a steep slope before it drops off the other side into a great transition elk habitat slope.
Even if the hunting pressure is expected to be high across your hunt area, there are ways you can plan your hunt in advance that puts you at an advantage. Simply getting to your spot long before daylight cracks and being more patient than others can make all the difference.
"When you know the types of habitat you'll be hunting, you'll be able to prepare accordingly and situate yourself for the type of shots you'd like."
Using a framework to answer key common questions, and breaking a given hunt area down into bite-sized pieces gives you freedom to come up with a great plan and the flexibility to take on whatever the hunt throws your direction. Whether it be freak snow storms, hunter pressure, lack of game, or a litany of any other reasons, it pays to create your game plan around good scouting. Though you might not always walk away with a heavy pack, you’ll rest assured knowing that you did your homework.
Jaden is an avid hunter, entrepreneur, and conservationist and born into generations of hunters in rural Eastern Oregon. While he started hunting by driving deer on his family farm and it was not until he moved away for college that he realized how tough it was to start from scratch by hunting out West. He noticed that while there are great 30-hour courses on the market, years worth of educational podcasts, and extremely expensive guide services, there was not much available for custom help for those who have limited time and budget. Too often, poor expectations and a lack of planning mark the highlights of people’s hunt experiences, and Jaden is setting out to change that with Hunt West, your personal hunt consultant. Today, he finds himself in Lander, WY. He’s hunted in seven different western states for pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and black bear with a variety of firearms and archery equipment. He’s passionate about helping people do the same. Learn more at Huntwest.net and follow on Instagram and Facebook.