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Scout Like a Hawk
By Mike Lamade
Mar 17, 2008 – 8:55:13 AM
One Hour in the Air Can Save Days on the Ground.
Little escaped the searching eye of the red-tail as he sailed on soundless wings, surveying his hunting ground below. From his vantage point, he could easily decipher any movement in the valley or along the ridge. Banking to his left, he curved his wings into steep dive flaps and swept low to investigate a corner of the woodlot where he had killed a grouse on yesterday’s hunt. Seeing nothing, he caught a thermal and soared over the adjoining ridge to survey the cornfield between the confluence of the river branches.
In 15 minutes he covered more ground, saw more detail, and gained more knowledge about his hunting area than you or I could hope to do in a week or two of ground-level investigation. His ability to fly made him a more skillful and efficient hunter. It can do the same for you and me. With a little investment in time and money, we can scout our hunting area just like that hawk, discovering feeding and bedding areas, locating land contours and obstacles that affect game movement, thereby gaining a more intimate understanding of our hunting ground. Here’s how.
Our country has many small airports, used only by private pilots, small fixed-based operators, and perhaps a local cropduster. No control towers, no commercial service; just a grass or blacktop strip, a gas pump, and a hangar or two. Look on any state highway map. The airfield symbol can be found close to almost any town with a population of 10,000 or more-in some cases a lot less. I’m sure there’s a small airport within a short drive from where you live.
I suggest that you drop by your local airstrip on a Saturday or Sunday morning and get to know some of the pilots. Guys and gals who fly are a friendly bunch and usually more than willing to talk about flying and show off their planes. Tell the pilot that you want a flight over your hunting area for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. Be ready to show him on a map where it’s located (he’ll have charts in the plane that will enable him to locate the area easily). Offer to buy his gas and lunch. Most small planes burn six to nine gallons of fuel an hour so you’re only talking about a $20 bill if the area you hunt is close by. Another way to go, but more expensive, would be to hire an instructor or fixed-base operator. This will cost you $30 to $50 per hour, depending on where you live. The first method is better.
Here’s a tip: don’t look for a fancy low-wing plane to proposition. Approach the oldest, lightest, high-wing ship on the field. A ride in a bird like this will enable you to fly “low and slow” over the target area, giving you more time for decoding the terrain and understanding the details. The high-wing will be better suited for taking pictures. I once owned a 1940 Piper J-3, the famous yellow Cub. I logged a lot of hours at treetop level scouting for deer with that plane. With its hand-propped 65-horsepower engine, I could fly so slow that the deer could almost outdistance me when I had a headwind! Careful preparation is essential to get the most out of your flight. The best time to go is not two or three weeks before the season opens in the fall. It’s two or three weeks after the season ends, when topography features are plainly visible: swamps, thick stands of conifers, saddles in ridges, breaks in rock walls, river and stream crossings, isolated orchards, and all the other terrain factors that will help you better understand the feeding, bedding, and escape patterns of the game you’re seeking. Snow on the ground isn’t necessary, but it does make some details easier to see.
Be sure to have a topographic map of the area with you to make notes of your discoveries. Take a clipboard to provide a solid writing surface. A camera is essential to record what you will see. Later, these photos can be enlarged and covered with plastic; then notes came be made directly on them with a felt marker. A telephoto or zoom lens will also provide more details in your photos.
Gene Wensel, in his excellent book, One Man’s Whitetail, says he always tries to hold the camera so that the top of the lens points north. The top of each picture will then be to the north, making locating the area you want much easier. Shoot with black and white film if doing this in winter.
There’s no color then anyway. Try for a clear, windless day. Small planes can be pretty “sporty” in a wind and it’s tough to take pictures and make notes if you have to hang on. If you can, shoot from an open window. Remember to dress warmly. Scouting from the air can also be useful on out-of-state hunts where a brief flight over national forest or grassland would provide valuable information that would never be available from ground level in a short period of time. Once you’ve had your pleasure ride, the work begins. Using your photos and notes, explore your hunting area on the ground in the off-season, noting further details that weren’t discernible from the air. You’ll now begin to understand why that big buck didn’t go up the mountain, cross the river or enter the swamp where you thought he would. You’ll better understand where he’ll head when hunting pressure gets heavy, when he’s alarmed or wounded, and where his food sources are at different times of the year.
Because of your brief adventure in the air, you’ll be a little more like that red-tailed hawk–a more knowledgeable, skillful and efficient hunter. Happy Landings!