Updated: Jan 23
Scouting for big game hunts in Arizona
This will be a multi part series on pre-season scouting tips and advice
This post will cover some basics for scouting big game in the State of Arizona. We will be covering some basics that apply to most of the big game species available here; Mule Deer, Coues Deer, Elk, Bear and Javelina.
We will be touching on the Who, Why, Where and How of looking for and patterning game animals to give you an edge during your upcoming hunting seasons here in Arizona.
Let’s face it, time is scarce for a lot of people (quarantine, notwithstanding). Work, family, church, other activities, etc all take a large portion of everyone’s lives in some sort of way. Scouting takes a lot of commitment and time not only out in the field but pre-planning also. Where do I start? Can my partner go when I have free time, how much will it cost in fuel, wear and tear on my vehicle and TIME! What if I don’t see anything? That’s a waste of all the above, right? Well, if you are serious or even semi-serious about having a successful hunt you need to start planning and scouting ahead of the season.
Public land hunting is difficult. Animals are often pressured and skittish. Sometimes they go nocturnal from human pressure, predators, weather. Competition from other hunters is always a concern also. Some people scout for a BIG buck or bull, some want to find concentrations of animals, regardless of trophy potential. Some want to just find a remote area that might offer some relief from hunting pressure. No matter the reason, getting out into the field and mountains prior to your hunt will be directly proportional to your potential success.
One thing we see quite often is that people get disappointed when they go out and spend time and money scouting an area they like and come back saying there are no animals there or there is a lot of sign of human pressure. This is a successful scouting trip!
The reality is, you’ve just eliminated an area and can now move on to a different location. Now, we would advise that you not give up after ONE trip. Give it some thought. Was it a full moon the night before and you could only scout in the morning? A lot of animals feed at night during a full moon and bed right before daylight. Was the weather windy and / or hot? Was it a holiday or busy weekend with a lot of people in the woods and mountains? Is your hunt for bulls in September and you were scouting in July? Bulls move, sometimes a LONG way, right before they rut. You could have been in a rutting area and the bulls were not there yet?
Well, where the animals live...duh. Seems obvious but a lot of people make the mistake of scouting where they WANT the animals to be (easy access, easy to glass, easy to pack into and out of, etc). Most of the time, the animals are NOT where you want them to be and for a good reason. Other people have been thinking the same thing for years and years and the animals have moved to more rugged or hard to access areas.
All wild animals have basics needs – Food, water, cover(shelter) and security.
Food – learn the preferred food sources of the animal you are scouting. Learn what they like to eat in the season you will be hunting them, which for most deer and elk will be fall and winter. Early seasons in August and September will have different food sources available than the later seasons that occur in December and January.
Look at the photo above for some examples of different areas to look at when scouting and hunting.
The blue outlined areas are typical of late morning and afternoon bedding locations. shady and dark and usually thinker vegetation.
The green outlined areas are where you would look when you expect to see game animals up and feeding. Most likely early morning and late afternoon. More open and south or east facing.
The red outlined spots are possible water locations. You can see that the trees are orange/brown indicating that they are possibly cottonwood trees which like to grow where there are springs or pools of water in deep canyons.
Besides different seasons, there are different weather patterns that can affect the type of forage available. Years with good moisture levels will produce more of the PREFERED foods the animals like. During dry years, they might have to settle for less desirable foods. For example, is wet years elk will always prefer grasses, but when its dry and the grass is not available, they will browse on brush like a deer and even eat pine needles if it is really dry. In good years, bears will prefer acorns in the fall but when the acorn crop is small, they venture lower to eat juniper berries, cactus and cactus fruit and even all the way down into the lower deserts to eat mesquite beans.
Get a good book with illustrations and preferably actual photographs of the different vegetation that grows in the area(s) you like to hunt. Learn to identify the different plants and trees that can provide food for the animal you are hunting. Some examples for the low desert where you might be hunting desert mule deer are mesquite, barrel cactus, Palo Verde and buck brush. Deer will mostly browse on the fresh green tender ends of the Palo Verde tree, mesquite trees and jojoba plants and also young, freshly sprouted grasses.
Coues will like to feed on Gamble’s Oak acorns, buck brush, succulents that sprout up after monsoon rains, etc.
Elk love grass and do not browse on leaves and buds as much as deer do, but they will when grass is not growing well.
Learning to identify areas where good food sources are located will be a huge step forward in your scouting efforts.
This brings us to the NUMBER ONE area to find abundant food sources of all kinds......BURNS!
Recent years have seen a lot of wild fires in the southwest. Both big and small. While most people do not like to hear that the forest is burning, and for good reasons, these fires can and do produce the best and most nutritious foods for deer, elk and bears.
A burn can start producing immediately if it gets some rain. Most will be best the year after the fire and for the next several years until it is over grown and chocked with plants like manzanita and oak brush.
Once a burn gets some moisture from rain or snow, the new growth will flourish from the influx of new nutrients releases into the soil from the ash and burnt leaves, sticks, etc.
Water – Arizona is a mixture of several different types of habits. Sonoran Desert, High deserts, Pine forest, Sky Islands, Oak Brush/Manzanita, etc. But one thing that all have in common is that water can be scarce. A lot of water sources here are man-made or man improved for the cattle industry. Animals needs water. Some more than others. Elk will water every day, especially in the summer and early fall but even in the winter if it is dry and they are not getting any moisture from the foods they are eating.
Coues deer and Mule deer do not seem to be as reliant on water but will certainly drink daily or every 2-3 days if given the opportunity, especially in the hot summer months when desert temperatures are in the 100’s every day. May and June are the months that deer need water the most because rain that period is the driest. Winter and spring rains are drying up and the monsoon rains are still weeks away.
This is also the time that does are entering their final weeks of pregnancy and they need water to be able to nurse and also to survive the birthing process.
Google Earth and Topographical Maps are a great way to find water sources but they are available to everyone so finding that secret spring or seep can be very difficult.
Look for the ones that take some real effort to get to. Most want do it, especially in the summer when it's hot. Water also can pool up in the bottom of steep canyons. Look for deep drainages that run from near the top of the mountain to the bottom and get steeper and deeper as the drain down. Pools can form where there are large boulders and / or logs, etc that pile up and form mini-dams. These pools can be quite deep sometimes and hold winter run off water for months after the last snow/rain of the winter season. Often times these areas have large cottonwood trees growing around them.
Cottonwoods are easy to spot in the fall and winter because while most of the mountain will be green or brown, the cottonwood trees have bright gold leaves that can been seen from miles away and even on Google earth if the area was photographed in the fall or winter.
Another great water source are the Game and Fish “trick tanks”. These are usually large metal aprons that are sloped to a central point where a pipe will then collect the water from the apron and feed it into a large underground storage tank. The tank then gravity feeds to a small cement “drinker” with a float valve that dispenses the water over many weeks or months. There are usually roads leading to the drinkers so most are well known but these devises attract and hold a lot of game and non-game animals.
So, while you might not want to sit on the water to actually hunt, the areas around the tanks will usually be productive. Look for the bedding areas (north facing shady slopes) nearby. By nearby, I don’t necessarily mean within 300-400 yards either. Deer and elk will travel a long way to fill up on water then return their bedding and feeding areas. Anything that looks like prime bedding areas within 2 miles of the water tank should be looked at closely.
Dirt tanks are also great for keeping and attracting all game animals. Most have roads leading to them or nearby so, once again, they can and do get a lot of hunter pressure. Look for the ones that might be in a deep canyon or require an uphill climb to get to. Some of the ancient dirt tanks that were dug many years ago have faint and mostly undrivable roads so those can be good bets too.
Springs are another good water source but many are hit and miss. Most were mapped many, many years ago and have long dried up. You can look on a good topographical map and see a lot of springs named. Most will be dry or only flowing on wet years but you cannot tell which ones are still flowing unless you just strap up the boots and go check them out. There are some that were capped and piped into cement drinkers and these, in my opinion, are the best water sources to hunt.... if you can find them and if they are still being maintained and running / storing water. Sometimes you can find one that is old and not maintained but there is still water in the spring. A little work with some pipe and a float valve can restore its functionality and be a great spot. These spots take a lot of time and effort but can a gold mine year after year.
Most game animals lie down in the middle of the day and they prefer to do it in the shade, unless it is really cold. Even in the winter, when temperatures are cool or even cold to humans, the animals will lie in the shade.
When looking for likely bedding areas, generally you will be looking for a north facing slope that will be shaded throughout the day. But not just any north facing slope. Look for one that is on the opposite side of a south or south east facing slope that is open and has a lot of the types of vegetation that the animals will like to feed on. For deer, as described earlier, you will want to see oaks, mesquites, barrel cactus, buck brush, etc. For elk, look for green grass or during the late season hunts, look for slopes that get morning sun and the snow has melted off, making it easier for the elk to feed and the best of all...burns! For spring bears, look for grass also as well as oaks, manzanita berries, burns, etc.
There should also be a source of water somewhat close by. Animals, especially deer and elk, will travel a long way to get water. Bears like to have water close.
o, when you have your likely bedding area picked out, what ‘s next? Well, there are several ways to tell if it is actually being used by animals to bed.
The best way is to the feeding area that is close to your prospective bedding slope early in the morning after a night of little of no moon and glass the feeding areas until you find a buck, bull, etc and just watch what he does. Watch where he beds and how he travels from the feeding area to the bedding areas. Pay attention to how fast he moves from feeding to bedding. Some will head right to the shady side of the ridge as soon as the sun starts to rise. Other will kind of walk and feed and take their time to get there. Sometimes the animals will feed up the slope and go over the top to the shade. Others will feed down and then walk up the opposite side of the canyon to bed. This will be more likely if there is water in the bottom of the canyon. They can get a long drink before heading to their daytime beds.
Another way to check out bedding areas is with trail cameras. I like to find trails heading into and out of the bedding areas and set the cameras there instead of bumping around in the bedding spots and scaring deer or leaving a lot scent. You can usually find trails in saddles along the ridgeline, along drainages that might cut through the shady slopes and along the bottom of steep, rocky cliffs.
If you are hunting more flat areas like desert mule deer might use, the bedding areas are harder to determine. Deer will like to bed in the thick vegetation that lines big washes, down in canyons along the north facing walls or sometimes they will just crawl under a big mesquite, juniper or palo verde tree and stay there all day until the sun starts to fade. Glassing from a high spot is your best bet or walking the washes after a rain to cut tracks.
One thing to keep in mind is that animals like to get up and move around, even during the middle of the day when they are hiding in their bedding areas.
As the sun moves across the sky, the shade moves too. A buck or bull bed on the shady side of a tree, bush or boulder at 10:00 AM, will most likely be in the sun at 1:00 PM. When the sun hits the animals in the afternoon, they will almost always get up and move. They often will feed a little bit before laying back down in a different bed. This is a GREAT time to be glassing into the bedding areas from across the canyon. A good tripod and the best binoculars you can afford will make it much easier to spot bedded game or animals that are up and moving to a new bed in the afternoon. You have to be patient, looking on the shady side of each tree, bush etc and go slow. Most of the time, you will just see a hear, ear, antler etc and not the whole animal. You want to look for movement like a tail or ear flicker or when a buck or bull is being bothered by bugs, they like to shake their head a lot. This is much easier with your glass mounted on a sturdy tripod.
For Pre-scouting or as most people call it, E scouting, we like to use a variety of tools.
CalTOPO.com and GAIA apps and web-based maps are free/cheap depending on how much detail and how many options you want. GAIA is also a phone based GPS APP.
OnX is also very popular and has some really cool and useful features.
Google Earth gets most of the work load though. The quality and clarity of the satellite views is getting better and better all the time and there are some resources that will let you import and view things like unit boundaries, fire data, forest service roads, water sources, private land and State, BLM and Forest Service boundaries.
We prefer to do most of our in field scouting by glassing likely feeding and bedding areas from a distance. This allows us to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time. Finding a premium glassing point that you can see both bedding and feeding areas from is the most efficient way to spend a morning, especially when looking at new and unfamiliar country.
The best glassing spots will allow you to be above where you think the animals will be. Its much easier to see an animal that is feeding or bedding in thicker cover if you are above them because you can see more of the actual animal that would otherwise be hidden by brush, trees, boulders, topography, etc. if you are on the same level or below.
Getting to your spot before daylight is very important when scouting, just like it is when you are hunting. Getting their late is a huge mistake. If you are going to spend the time and gas money to go scout, make sure you are taking advantage of the best time to actually see an animal.
If you cannot get there before daylight, the next best option is waiting until around 10:00 o’clock and hopefully staying until dark. There is a lot of animal movement between noon and 2:00 as the sun moves for east to west and the shade in the bedding areas moves with it. Take advantage of that and be glassing thick, north slopes at these times.
Other methods we use are fairly obvious...checking water holes / tanks, looking for fresh tracks and scat, and trail cameras. We have stopped putting trail cameras on any water source that has all but the most difficult access. Sadly, other hunters just cannot resist the temptation of stealing. We will put a camera on a remote spring or seep of rock pool in the bottom of canyons that are not generally visible from Google Earth or named on a map.
If you are serious about this, then the ONE tool that we recommend above and beyond everything else is quality glass MOUNTED ON A TRIPOD.
There has been a lot written about this in the last ten years and most of you have probably read a large portion of it, so I won’t go into great detail here but do what you can to get the best glass you can afford and get a sturdy and durable tripod.
We will be ding into this important subject in greater detail, but the basics are as follows: A sturdy tripod, a smooth and steady tripod head, the best bnoculars you can afford, and a device to connect your binoculars to the tripod head.
Our next post in this series will go over some of the tools we like to use. Including Optics
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We offer one and two day scouting packages in unit 22 (and all other units too) for Coues Deer, Mule Deer, Elk, Javelina and Bear. Go here for more info on these affordable options for DIY hunters.
Each scouting package will include the following:
1 or 2 days of scouting (appx 10-12 days before opening day)
Link to the same video on Youtube (set to private so only you can see it)
Maps marked with each location
Google earth KML File with markers for each location
GPX file for uploading the GPS coordinates to your GPS or GPS APP
Written description with pictures of each location
Unit Data - downloadable
We also have data that can be instantly downloaded. It an accumulation of data we have complied over the years on unit 22. It includes GPS waypoints, Photos, Google Earth Links and a written description of each location.