Too much technology can sometimes get in the way of a good day hunting. The battery in your laser range-finder goes out—too bad you didn’t practice estimating distances without it. Or that fresh bottle of cow-in-heat pee just soaked your day pack. With all the new gadgets to play with during hunting season, there is one you can play with all winter: satellites. Like it or not, Big Brother has a slew of satellites and airplanes, and he’s taking daily photos of not just backyards, but elk havens as well. So use it to your advantage.
A New Kind of Map
The best free resource out there is Google Earth (earth.google.com), which compiles satellite images and aerial photography to give you a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Topo maps will indicate seeps and springs (wallows), but many maps are 20-30 years old. A good satellite image can show you hidden meadows, burns, new roads … all in realistic 3D topography. A simple download of Google Earth and a decent Internet connection will solve any off-season boredom.
Familiarize yourself with the program by locating your own house, then try searching out the places you hunt. Either dig out your old hunting maps or enter the latitude/longitude coordinates from your GPS. Once you’ve found your spot, press shift, hold the left mouse button, and tilt the view (very important!), giving you a view almost identical to what you’d get from a plane. Now, find some new places.
The map above shows a potential elk spot. Knowing that elk need food, water and security, locating possible honey holes using Google Earth isn’t tough. The water is a good distance from an open road. There is plenty of open canopy for grass, and there is also some thick timber. You can mark locations with pushpins or symbols by using the toolbar. Creating a “path” from the truck to the wallow tells you how far the hike will be. Your next move: get out there and ground-truth it.
Your GPS and You
Once you’ve driven to the trailhead, it’s time to whip out yet another piece of technology. GPS units these days allow you to upload maps (or an onX chip) to the palm of your hand, which can take you straight to the spots you locate on Google Earth. Other map software, such as mytopo.com is an inexpensive way to create custom maps (or print them out on tearproof, waterproof paper) complete with ownership boundaries into your GPS—very handy if you’ll be hunting close to posted private land. The government also provides free downloads at www.store.usgs.gov. It’s super quick and easy to use.
Let’s say you locate the spring marked on your topo map and it happens to be a well-used wallow. Score! Game trails criss-cross the area and you want to follow some of them and keep exploring. Simply mark the wallow as a “waypoint” on the GPS and keep walking. When you’re ready to turn around and go back to the wallow, select the “go to” option, which lets you choose the waypoint destination, and follow the arrows back. I’ve used the “go to” option a number of times to find the truck after the sun sets and nothing really looks the same in the dark.
You can get as many bells and whistles on your GPS as your wallet can stand, but you need at least four basic functions to get started. Location: you have to know where you are. Waypoints: because you need to mark where you are. Routes: because you need to connect all the waypoints. And Tracks: because you need to know where you’ve been. People are always upgrading and selling their old units on places like Ebay. You can pick up a basic model for under $100.
As with any piece of technology, it will break. It will run out of batteries. You will drop it on a rock. They’re fun, but not foolproof. A waterproof topo map and compass may be antiquated, but they are indispensable. Always pack them—and know how to use them—alongside your GPS and a spare set of batteries. Then get out there and bring a whole new meaning to the term, satellite bull.