At the time of this posting, I have exactly ONE MONTH before opening day of early archery mule deer season here in Arizona. I’ve spent every free weekend this summer up north in one of my favorite elk hunting spots trying to nail down the patterns of the mule deer in that area. Every time I’m out there hunting archery elk in the early season, I keep running into great velvet bucks. So, this year I planned to get in there in late August to try and track down one of those elusive deer with my bow. I’ve hung trail cameras, hiked around dropping waypoints of deer I’ve spotted or fresh sign, and have poured all my scouting efforts into roughly a couple square miles of National Forest.
And then it happened…lightning struck…literally! A fire broke out in that area, and the powers-that-be decided to let it do its thing as a controlled burn. Now, that’s a great call for the long-term health of the area, and I’m sure in a year or two I will be right by the edges of those burns as they should attract deer and elk like moths to…well…to a flame. However, it left me panicking (not just because my game cams are still in there, hopefully not getting burnt to crisps), but I realized that if the whole area goes up in flames or isn’t re-opened in a month, I have absolutely ZERO other spots scouted for deer season.
Now, that’s on me! I have always preached having plans A, B, and C as a bare minimum before hunting season. But, because I knew this area so well, I let myself get complacent. Nothing like a forest fire to break you out of that one! So, I took a weekend up there with my family and spent two mornings hiking big loops through some nearby spots, and I immediately wondered why I wasn’t doing this to begin with. There are tons of benefits to being out there exploring new territory that go way beyond just figuring out where to hunt on opening day…
New Territory is Exciting
In the words of Steven Rinella: “The allure of seeing what’s ahead, just for its own sake, cannot be overstated in any discussion about hunting.” Hunters are explorers by nature! Yes, we are pursuing game and ultimately trying to find where they are hanging out so we can fill our freezers, but we all love to explore. Even on a scouting trip where I haven’t turned up much sign or sightings of the animals I’m looking for, I always come back in a great mood. Just getting out in the wilderness, conquering a mountain just because it’s there, and seeing a section of the planet you’ve never seen before…this is all food for my soul.
In this case, I hiked 1,300 vertical feet up a mountain that I have hunted in the shadow of for years. In fact, when I’m out hunting the flatlands, this mountain looms in the distance and provides a quick visual to help me navigate around the woods. Somehow, in all the years I’ve spent near this mountain, I’ve never ventured more than a couple-hundred feet up its face. Now I’ll look up to that mountain to get my bearings in the flatlands, and have the satisfaction of knowing I was up there at the peak. I also cruised through a nearby canyon that I have slept within a half-mile of for years, and had never ventured into. Once I got away from the road, it became exactly what I’m always looking for: quiet woods, it had good sign for deer and elk, and I ran into a few animals. All said and done, I hiked a total of eight miles over two days and loaded my OnX Maps with waypoints that are going to payoff for years to come.
Finding Spots for Other Species
The great thing about scouting is that you never really know what you’re going to find until you get there. You can look all you want at satellite imagery and pick places that look like where you’d find deer or elk or whatever you’re chasing, but you just can’t be sure until your boots hit the ground. And the only thing better than finding the animals you’re looking to hunt next is finding animals you want to hunt later.
Case in point: I finally found bears! If you’re a long-time follower of this site, you know that AZ black bears have been my white-whale of game animals. I’ve tried three different hunts in three different areas to turn these things up, and I never so much as laid eyes on one. And yet, they have gotten deep under my skin and I can’t bring myself to quit. (If you want the full story, check the video below)
Well, while heading back towards the truck after one of my scouting hikes, I caught a glimpse of movement through the trees. I saw it for only a second, and then my memory kept replaying it while my brain was analyzing the footage. That was too dark to be a deer, wasn’t brown/tan like an elk, and it was walking kind of weird…more like a giant dog…holy apex predator, Batman…that was a bear!!! I was downwind, so I quietly crept closer to get a better look. I closed in probably another 10-15 yards, before I made a bit too much noise and suddenly saw what I had hoped for…two gorgeous black bears running off through the forest. I couldn’t get my camera ready in time to capture any footage, but I was so jacked to have finally located a couple bears in the wild! I had seen some sign earlier on my hike that I had marked, and obviously I marked where I spotted these guys. Upon looking at the whole picture on the map, I can totally see the most likely path that they’ll travel throughout the day. (The problem I now face is that I will have a deer and a bear tag in my pocket that BOTH open on the same day in August…what’s a man to do?)
The real point is that if I wasn’t out scouting a new spot for deer, I never would have found those bears. Part of being a well-rounded hunter is knowing your hunting areas, and having good places to go when in pursuit of any game. Don’t get me wrong, a well-rounded hunter should also be able to do a bunch of research, hit the ground for the first time, and get into the animals he’s seeking. But, I believe if you are going to have a few favorite hunting spots (as most of us do), knowing where the elk are, where the deer are, where the bears go to hide…these are all pieces of the puzzle to the greater ecosystem you are becoming a part of. So, even if you don’t think you need a backup spot, go explore one anyway. You never know what you’ll turn up!
You Build a Library of Backups for Future Seasons
On a related note: you’ll never be sad that you have backup hunting spots, even if you don’t need them in the immediate future. As of right now, the fire in my Plan-A spot is 77% contained and isn’t supposed to move any further south (the direction of the places I was initially scouting). So, unless something goes horribly wrong in the next couple weeks, the forest should be wide open again by opening day. And, if the fire did anything to the game, it would only have chased MORE deer into the spots I was planning to hunt. So, I’m sitting here with fingers crossed planning to go check my cams one last time in a couple weeks (they should be in the unburned section, according to the maps), and hopefully hitting my original spots on opening day.
However, if something changes with the fire, I have a solid backup where I saw plenty of deer sign and spent a while staring at one little fork-horned buck (he’s not a trophy, but this is a “help, my freezer is empty” kind of hunt). Even if I get in there for a couple days and find that ALL the deer have suddenly disappeared, I can head up the road a few minutes and charge into this new area reasonably confident that I’ll turn up some deer. And if none of that happens this year, I now have a couple of solid spots to head to in any future year if the hunting in my favorite area is – for whatever reason – not going the way I want it to.
Get Out There and Explore
So, even if you’ve spent the whole off-season dialing in your favorite spot, don’t get complacent. Maybe you’ve hung tree stands, you’ve built a few brush blinds, or you’ve spent every night falling asleep visualizing exactly how it’s gonna go down on opening morning (is that just me?)…you will not be sorry if you dedicate your next scouting trip to checking out some new territory. Who knows, you may stumble upon a new Plan-A when you walk right up on the biggest bull or buck you’ve ever seen in your life. Then, all the work you’ve done so far this year only serves to give you a really solid Plan-B…you can’t lose!