Identify Connecting Cover with Digital Scouting for Better Hunting on Public Land

How to pick apart a piece of whitetail ground before you ever hunt it

While working on another story, I got a chance to interview Matt Hough, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. It’s no secret that deer harvest numbers in the state have been way down since the “good old days” of the early 2000s. But, what struck me during our conversation was Hough’s point that there might be fewer deer in the state now, yet there are also more hunting opportunities than ever before. Pennsylvania has longer seasons and more available tags than in past years. Some hunters are thriving in this situation. Hough hinted that the hunters who are willing to work a little harder, scout more, and spend more days afield will be happiest in the new whitetail hunting era where deer densities are generally lower.

Hough had me convinced at “scout more,” and since we talked, I’ve been using Google Earth to pick apart a new region I plan to hunt in the Midwest. It’s all public land near a fairly large metropolitan area, so hunting pressure will be an issue. Because of that, I’m focusing on public areas with substantial cover that connect to larger stretches of timber. For example, check out the photo above: Land A (left) vs. Land B (right). Land B is all about connecting cover. And, even though the timber on Land B isn’t all public, the area I would be able to hunt connects to a lot of nice cover on private ground. This is a good thing.

Conversely, Land A is basically a timber island surrounded by ag fields. If one other guy tromps through here during bow season, he could easily blow out deer and screw up the spot for weeks.

Land B should be able to handle considerably more pressure since spooked deer can move to safety in a different section, without totally leaving the area (I learned this lesson while bowhunting in Illinois). The other thing I like about Land B is that it only has two access points. With any luck, the other folks hunting this spot won’t be willing to walk as far as I will.

The last big benefit of connecting cover is that it promotes better buck movement during the rut. Bucks can cruise the timber and cover ground without feeling exposed, hopefully during daylight hours. This increases the odds of new bucks filtering into the area once they start seeking does.

Who knows what you’ll find when you actually hit the ground on a piece of public land, but using Google Earth to identify stronger potential spots will give you an early advantage. And, if deer hunting is getting tougher in your area, that’s an advantage you’ll be glad to have come fall.