By Johnny Mack
Finding animals to hunt is difficult. I used to believe that if you simply walked into the woods, you would find them. Turns out, that is not the case. Over all my years of backpacking and hiking, I can count on one hand the amount of times I have come across deer, bear or any other game animals while in the wild. Hunting is difficult as proven by harvest statistics every year. In the state of Washington approximately 20% of hunters successfully harvest a buck yearly. To find animals you need to understand the three basic things needed for survival: food, water and shelter. Just like humans, animals would prefer not to travel miles and miles to get each one. If you can narrow it down to all three within a close distance, you are on the right track.
If you are new to reading this series, we had the pleasure of taking a new hunter (Shawn) out for opening weekend of modern firearm deer in Washington. Shawn had experience hunting birds, but was always unsuccessful when seeking after four legged critters. His main questions when we met with him were, “How do you find land to hunt and how do you find the animals you are after?” We addressed how to find land to hunt in part 1 of this series. Shawn’s next question about how to find animals was one that hit home with me.
When I first started hunting, people would tell me to look at Google Earth to figure out how to find animals. No one took the time to explain how and what it takes to find the animals on a map or when out in the field. This was something that frustrated me. If you are like Shawn, and feel like you lacked in mentorship or an explanation of how to actually find animals to hunt, this article should help. Once we explained the basics of finding animals along with the general area of where we were going to hunt, Shawn was able to find on his own our exact hunting location prior to the trip.
Where to start
Once you have your hunting location finalized, the next step is to take a look at the topography of the land. If the land that you are wanting to hunt is flat, you are going to look for depressions in the terrain (i.e. creek bottoms), water sources and or breaks in landscape features (areas that switch from trees to small shrubs and or grasses). If the terrain has elevation change, you will want to focus your attention towards south facing slopes. In the northern hemisphere, south facing slopes receive more sunlight which in turn provides more food. This does not mean that you will only find animals on south facing slopes, rather it can be a starting point to focus your efforts.
Herbivores or ungulates (i.e. deer & elk) prefer to eat fresh growth off of plants and grasses. Bears are meat eaters, however they love berries in the fall and grasses in the spring to kick start their digestion after hibernating. Fresh growth occurs where the sunlight hits the forest floor. Too thick of trees or cover equals great shelter for animals but not food. A great thing to remember for this is, if the vegetation is taller than the animals you are hunting then chances are you will not find consistent food there.
Using your knowledge of finding land to hunt, your next step is to look for openings in the canopy of the land you are hunting. If you are hunting a wooded area, look for breaks in terrain such as small meadows or clear cuts. These breaks provide opportunity for shorter shrubs and grasses to grow. A freshly logged area will be a great location in two to three years. That is when a healthy amount of lower level vegetation will grow and provide phenomenal feed.
Deer and elk love to feed in the early morning and late in the evening. You can find animals eating as they move from bedding locations, but more than likely your feeding areas are going to hold animals. In desert and arid climates where tall trees are few and far between, you will want to focus more on changes in terrain, topography and water sources.
A water source does not need to be a large body of water in order for animals to survive. Some animals do not need water daily in order to survive and can sometimes receive enough water content through the food they eat.
More often than not, a water source for animals is going to be a natural spring in the ground or drainage where a creek would start to flow. Hunting over water holes are typically more successful in dry and arid climates but can also be looked down upon as unethical or non-sporting in different parts of the world.
When finding a water source, it is good to make note of the location. If there is mud around the edge, check it for animal tracks. If there is little to no sign of animals, then it is not being used currently but that can change with the seasons and temperatures.
Humans use shelter as a means to feel safe and to regulate our body temperature by protecting us from the elements. Animals are no different. Shelter for animals can simply be a single low hanging tree branch, a bush, an alder thicket, or a brier patch. Just like humans, animals want to be protected from wind, precipitation and too much heat or sun.
Animals such as black-tail deer love thick hard to traverse cover. The thicker the better. The noise caused by maneuvering in thick cover is used as an alert against predators. In hot weather animals will retreat to the shade to stay cool. When it comes to glassing (using binoculars or spotting scope) for animals, start at areas that provide cover.
Bedding, benches & thermals
This section deserves a post all to itself, however we will briefly touch on it to help you build a foundation. Animals, such as mule deer do not always need to bed down in thick vegetation to feel safe. Sometimes animals will bed down on benches (flat spots between two steep areas similar to a staircase) that provide safety from predators through sight and smell.
Animals use these bedding locations to position themselves so they can see opposite of where the thermals or wind is coming from. This provides them the opportunity to smell what they can’t see and see what they can’t smell. Thus giving a complete 360 degree awareness of what is around them.
Thermals are the term used in hunting for the natural flow of heat from hot to cold. If there is no prevailing wind that causes all scent to travel in a uniform direction, you should rely upon thermals to hide your scent. Thermals go down in the morning because sun hits the tops of hills first as it rises. As sun hits an entire hillside, the thermal will change causing heat to travel to the closest cool spot. This is where thermals will move back uphill or swirl. Not being aware of where your scent is going, is one of the biggest things that will cause you to never see animals.
Use the knowledge of benches and thermals to help find animals bedded down. Pay close attention to skinny ridges extending out from a hill (often referred to as a finger ridge) that drop and flatten out. Animals love these areas.
Now that you have knowledge of the three things that animals need for survival, as well as how animals like to protect themselves based off of sight, smell, and sound; it is time to look for an area within your hunting location that provides all three. I like to refer to this as the triangle. Rarely are all three found on top of each other and requiring animals to travel between each.
Knowing that animals are like humans and would prefer the path of least resistance, if there is an established trail or road in the area, animals will use it. Animals use trails and landscape features to move from each location. These are referred to as transition areas and typically require animals to move through pinch points. Finding pinch points and or transition areas are key for finding animals. Focusing your attention to the fringes can also be helpful. These are areas where tall timber meets a clear cut or vegetation and terrain changes. Animals like to move and feel protected, and causes them to travel where they have the ability to see or smell easily or escape into cover quickly. This is why animals can be found on benches and ridges. When you find game trails that are visibly worn, be sure to glass them for animals.
Combining knowledge of the triangle and transition areas will help you narrow your search. The next step is to find signs of the animals you are after in those locations.
Looking for sign
It took me several years to finally understand that you will not see animals if there is no sign of them (especially fresh sign). It sounds simple, but is often forgotten in the barrage of information presented. No matter what animal you are pursuing, if you do not find fresh tracks, scat (feces), rubs (made from antlers on trees), scrapes (when an animal drags their hoof or paw on the ground), or evidence of feeding by the animal that you are seeking after, then move on until you find it.
A helpful hint is that rubs are made in the direction that animals travel. If a rub is on a downhill side of a tree, then the animal was moving uphill. Also the size of the rub and the tree that was rubbed will often provide a reference in how big of the animal left it. Rubs that still have hair on them or wood that is still moist, are good signs that it was recent. When finding scat, check to see if it is steaming or if it steams when you break it open. The older it is, the drier it will be.
Putting it all together
Having an idea of where you want to hunt, along with the knowledge of what animals need to survive is going to narrow down locations for your search. Your next step would be to go find signs that the animal you are pursuing is present. If you find what you are after, your percentages of success just got higher.
Key points to remember
- Find the triangle of necessity for survival and focus on the transitions.
- Look for sign along the fringes, trails and water sources.
- When looking for sign, move slow and look around. You might be passing it by and never know it.
- If the sign is not fresh, move until it is.
- When hunting, keep the wind/thermals in your face.
- When glassing, look for movement (tail flicks) or shapes that are not natural (shape of ears).
- Move quietly. If animals hear you coming, you will never see them.
Once you have a basic understanding to where to hunt and how to find animals, you are on the path towards success. Every moment out in the field should teach you something new.
In part 3 of our Hunting 101 series, we are going to address how to glass for animals. Having successfully narrowed down your hunting location and found sign. It is time to sit down and pick apart the terrain. We will be addressing the quality of optics and strategies to help you spot your query.
If you have any questions or want to know more, feel free to email us by using the contact link from the menu or direct message us on Instagram @washington_backcountry. Thanks for reading. For more helpful tips and insight on how to hunt be sure to check out our “This is how I hunt” series.