Hunting & Heritage  |  10/28/2021

E-Scouting Strategies Part 1: Guide for Public Land Birds

By Ben Brettingen

Where do I go? That question can be overwhelming. You can’t throw a dart on a map, jump in the truck and start hunting. There’s a lot of planning that goes into a successful hunt, and we’ll break down the tools and elements that will lead to finding birds more often.
Not all land is created equal and every time I set out to hunt a new spot, there’s a formula I use to ensure the best odds for success. It all starts with the onX Hunt App! Meet your new best friend, as it will be your key to finding not only publicly-accessible lands but the ones most likely to hold birds.
Not only is onX available on your phone but on the computer, and that’s where we’ll start. I prefer to use the Webapp on the computer as opposed to the phone app for e-scouting as it gives me a larger screen, making finding the good stuff much easier!
The layers I depend on day in and day out are Private Land, Government Land, and Walk-in layers. Depending on the state, the private lands open to public hunting layers will be labeled differently based on the program. For example, Kansas’ walk-in access is called WIHA, Iowa - IHAP, North Dakota - PLOTS, and Montana - Block Management. These layers are invaluable as it opens a variety of habitat you might not traditionally find on government-owned public lands.
The Big Picture
Now, how do we find birds? If I’m hunting a new state, the first order of business will be to consult the Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever annual state forecasts. They do a fantastic job of compiling all the information from state agencies, as well as anecdotes from biologists about bird numbers in different areas of the state. Because it doesn’t matter how good the cover looks, certain areas are just better than others, and this cuts down the learning curve dramatically.
Now it’s time to hit the maps!
The first order of business is finding clusters of public land in the areas you’ve identified from state reports. Identifying those clusters allows for more areas to hunt if you’re not the only hunter out enjoying the property.
Additionally, many of the spots may only take an hour or two to walk, and then again, you’re burning time driving. Lastly, just because it looked good on the map doesn’t necessarily mean it is good, and it’s nice to have the option to look at a property on the ground and say “nope, not worth my time” and drive five minutes to the next one.

Above you will find two examples from South Dakota. The radius around the waypoints is 20 miles in diameter. The top screenshot is on a piece of walk-in land, and within 20 miles there are only four other properties. The second screenshot is centered on a piece of walk-in with too many other public pieces surrounding it to count!
Homing in
Once you’ve found a group of properties that look promising, it’s time to dig in and figure out which pieces are worth the walk. What does a good property look like? Even more importantly, how do you translate what you’re seeing on aerial imagery to what’s on the ground?
Do your research ahead of time and identify what quality habitat looks like. Armed with this knowledge, it’s time to utilize tools such as Google Maps. Find a piece of land that looks “birdy” along a main road or highway. Then you’ll see a little orange man in the bottom right corner of the screen, grab him and drag it onto the road.
Now you can visualize what that habitat looks like on the ground. Here’s an example from a late-season pheasant hunt last year on a friend’s property. Below are two photos. The first is aerial imagery of the marsh from onX Hunt with a red “camera” icon and field of view pointing the direction of the photo, and the second is the Google Street View (little orange man) of the property.

Next, let’s look at how to break down a specific piece of ground. The number one thing I’m looking for is diversity. What exactly is diversity? For me, it’s a mix of agriculture and different heights of natural vegetation, including native grass, cattails, and maybe even trees.
This screenshot is an example of a piece of land that has great habitat diversity and looks super birdy! But, how can you tell what’s what?

At the center of this property is a large marsh, with the water the darkest color and the cattails the darkest green. Generally, the thicker the cover, the darker it will be. On the north side of the property the aerial imagery almost looks “fuzzy.” I haven’t found a better way to describe it, but that fuzziness is what I’m looking for to find good native grass. Throughout the grass, you’ll see it’s different shades of green shifting to almost tan. Generally speaking, the lighter the color, the thinner the grass.
Crops are another consideration, and they aren’t created equal! For pheasants, corn is king. It’s a preferred food source as days start getting colder, and whenever possible I try to hunt fields near cut corn. With onX Hunt you can see what crops were planted where for the previous year. All this information is in your Layer Library under Crop Distribution.
In the areas I hunt, corn and soybeans are the most popular crops, so I’ll turn on those layers. If a field is showing it was planted in corn last year, the odds of it being planted again this year are low, so I assume this year those fields will be planted in soybeans.
Knowing what areas may have corn adjacent to them will change my game plan for the day. For example, I might go to my best-looking area with corn first thing in the morning to beat other hunters. This is especially true in heavily pressured areas.
If you notice the blue waypoints with the pheasant icon, that’s where I had flushed birds on a previous trip. What’s interesting is that every single bird I flushed was on a habitat edge, whether on the edge of crops and native grass, or the edge of cattails and native grass. Finding a property with a mosaic of cover and a lot of edges is going to be a winning strategy.
It’s also helpful to look at a map of what I would consider a less ideal piece of habitat. Look at the photo below.

Yes - This property has crops around it but barring the marshy-looking area on the south side of the road, there’s little diversity, and the lighter coloration of the grass indicates it’s going to be thinner. Other than hunting around the field edges, it’s just a large swath of grass. Can you find birds there, probably? However, there’s likely going to be a lot of ground to cover in between each flush.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of how I use OnX Hunt as a general scouting tool for finding high-percentage hunting areas, stay tuned for part two, where I’ll show you some specific strategies for each stage of the hunting season!

Read Part 2 of the series: Strategies by Season

Download the onX Hunt App at onX Hunt is a proud sponsor of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever and by using the code PHEASANTS or QUAIL during checkout, you’ll get 20 percent off your membership, and onX Hunt will also donate 20 percent of your purchase back to Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever to help fund the mission of creating more habitat for the birds we all love.