Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Public land accounts for approximately 640 million acres across the United States, with most of it in the western states, and offers a wealth of hunting opportunities. If you put in the work, it's absolutely possible to harvest that bull or buck of a lifetime. However, the likelihood of heading into the woods blindly and harvesting an animal is minimal, so scouting is essential.
Scouting basics to help you have a successful public land hunt.
1) Digital or E-Scouting
Technology has made scouting from a distance easier and more efficient than ever. We no longer have to rely on driving around, looking for no-trespassing signs or painted fence posts.
Mapping apps such as BaseMap can provide a birds-eye view of possible hunting areas and help you get familiar with the area before heading out. Layers for trails, creeks, animal ranges, historic wildfires, and more provide insight into the area and help you determine if it would be a good spot for boots-on-the-ground scouting.
2) Boots on the Ground
After your initial digital scouting, getting there in person is essential. What may appear like the perfect elk or deer habitat on your computer or phone could be completely different due to weather, predators, logging, wildfire, or other factors. In-person scouting can also help you determine if any obstacles might present themselves, such as roads that can wash out, trails that could become inaccessible due to snow or mud, or unexpected gates.
Look for game trails with fresh tracks, scat, and bedding areas. Many times, these will lead to food and water sources. Elk primarily eat grasses, and also feed on wild mushrooms, different forbs, ferns, and legumes. Use BaseMap to identify historic wildfire areas, which tend to be great places for due to the growth of new vegetation. If you're scouting for deer, also look for mast bearing trees.
Water holes are essential, too, since everything has to drink. But keep in mind that they may be present after the snow melts or during spring rains but can dry up throughout the summer and disappear by fall hunting season. Try to determine if it's a natural spring that is continually producing water by locating a source, or check the edges for a lot of dried up surface area which may indicate it's shrinking.
Once you've found some great signs, use BaseMap to add markers, photos, and notes that you can refer back to later. Then, it's time to put out trail cameras.
3) Trail Cameras
Using trail cameras is one of my favorite scouting tactics. It's the gift that keeps on giving! Be sure to check the rules and regulations in your area to ensure there are no requirements or guidelines for using trail cameras. On public land, I like to use security boxes and locks to ensure no other public-land users tamper with them. Additionally, it helps protect the cameras from bears or curious elk or moose.
Using trail cameras is trial and error if you're new to or unfamiliar with the area; once you place it, hope for the best! In a new area, I'll usually wait two weeks before checking the card to allow enough time to capture everything that may be around. If I don't get a lot of pictures within that timeframe, I'll look for a new spot.
My favorite spots for trail cameras are on water holes or wallows, since everything has to drink and stay cool during the summer months; it's almost a guarantee that you'll get pictures. Other great places are high-traffic trails, bedding areas, or mineral/lure sites (if that's legal where you hunt).
4) Lures and Minerals
Using attractants is a great way to kickstart your scouting efforts once you've found signs of animals. Be sure to check the regulations where you plan to hunt to ensure using attractants is legal (in Idaho, it's illegal!) and understand any restrictions that may be in place due to CWD or other factors.
There are countless options for products you can use, from spray scents or liquids you pour over stumps to mineral and grain mixes, mineral blocks, and more. Just like with trail cameras, attractants is trial and error. You may find some work better than others at attracting specific animals, and you may get animals you don't expect. The time of year can impact whether they work or not, since deer and elk may not be as interested if natural food is abundant.
A good set of binoculars (or a spotting scope) is a must-have for public landing hunting. Glassing allows you to look for animals from a distance without disturbing them, spreading your scent, or making noise.
The best times for summertime glassing are dawn and dusk, when animals are usually up feeding when the temperatures are more moderate. Look for areas with fresh grasses such as field edges or grassy openings on mountainsides. You can identify where the animals are coming from or going to before and after eating to identify spots where you'd want to scout in person or place trail cameras.
A few final tips:
Whenever outdoors, be sure to let others know where you are and when you plan to return. BaseMap offers a 'share' feature where you can send your location to others.
Use a hydration pack for water or Gatorade and take nutritious snacks such as jerky, trail mix, or fruits.
Carry bear spray if you're in an area with bears.
Keep a first aid kit in your pack.
Remember that your cell phone may not always work, so use the offline maps function on BaseMap to download maps before your trip.
Pre-season scouting is not only helpful for your hunts, but it is a great way to get exercise, explore new areas and enjoy time in the outdoors.
Sarah Honadel is an avid outdoorswoman from Kentucky, now living in Idaho, who enjoys hunting elk, deer, turkey, pronghorn, and waterfowl. She is a team member at Huntress View, Pro Staff for Browning Trail Cameras, and Brand Ambassador for the GoWild app and BaseMap app. Follow her on Instagram @waddysarah and @arrowridgecreations.