High tech and old school: Tools I’m using to hunt

by Jeff Barnard, AP environmental reporter in SW Oregon for 30+ years (now retired)

When I decided to finally use a rifle I bought as a kid to hunt deer as a retiree, I figured that was my biggest investment. But I am learning that you can spend many times over the value of your rifle on digital hunting tools: GPS units, rangefinders, and trail cameras. You can also spend a fair bit on mapping resources for your GPS or smartphone. Despite my family motto of “Plus Impedimentia” (Latin for `More Gear”), I am holding off on some of these things.

One item I think I need is a handheld GPS to make sure I don’t get lost in the woods, or lose track of my buck, if I manage to kill one. I found out after I bought it that I could have used my iPhone, even when out of cell range, so maybe it will be going to eBay. I am definitely learning on the fly.

GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and plots your position from satellites. Everything I have read says a GPS is no substitute for a map and a compass, which I will also be carrying, but it will tell you where you are, within perhaps 30 feet. It can help you plot a route to your hunting spot in the dark, and help you find your way back to your pickup after tramping around in the woods. It will also tell you whether you have strayed onto private land.

The screen on mine is very small, and you can’t see much on it. But it is enough to let you know where you are, what altitude you are at, and which direction you are going.

The more you spend, the bigger the screen, the heavier the weight, and the more features, such as Bluetooth for sharing routes with other people, internal altimeters, and compasses. Some even have radios in them. The higher end models tend to have touchscreens, like smartphones, and the bargain units still have buttons, which work with your gloves on if it is cold. I don’t think I will need much beyond the basics. Most of them also include a digital camera.

But I think it will be helpful first in scouting, marking spots I find bedding and feeding areas and active trails. And then I can use it to find my way back when hunting season starts.

For $170 I got a Garmin eTrex 20x, which was rated Best Buy by www.outdoorgearlab.com. The Editors’ Choice was the Garmin Oregon 600, which I see for sale on Amazon for $282. You can spend way more than that if you want. The maps are extra.

I am looking forward to getting to know how to use it. There are lots of websites that offer advice on figuring out what you need and do not need in a handheld GPS, so a Google search for “best handheld GPS” should set you up far better than anything I could say.

The maps that come with mine are not suited to the woods, so I am going to invest in some downloads.

One cool free thing is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife online hunting access map, which can be found at www.Oregonhuntingmap.com. It was produced with a grant from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

ODFW’s www.oregonhuntingmap.com with wildlife management unit layers.

“The goal was to show people where they could be out on the landscape,” says David Lane, outreach coordinator for the department. “We know for lots of people one of the biggest barriers to participation is lack of access or lack of knowledge of access.”

You can call it up at home on your laptop, or in the field on your smartphone or tablet. One new feature is a map overlay of wildfires going back to 2010, which earlier blogs have talked about as good potential hunting areas. Other overlays show where you are likely to find a specific species to hunt, from elk to grouse. You can search for special hunting areas by name, see private lands where hunting is allowed, and find travel management areas on federal lands closed to ATVs. Clicking on a specific location, such as Mackenzie Access Area near Ontario, will let you call up a map of the area, and a current hunting report. It also tells you about motor vehicle access and whether camping is allowed.

Google Earth, a free download, can be useful in choosing where you will hunt. You can look for clearcuts and burned areas that hold good sources of browse to eat, as well as flat ground, and northern slope aspects where deer may be looking to cool off on hot days, and south-facing slopes where they may want to warm up on cold days. I have been making notations of what I see on Google Earth on my paper map. Looking over your hunting area in advance might help you avoid stumbling on a pot garden out in the wild, too.

Ryan Niehus, a volunteer hunter education instructor in Oregon, likes online mapping programs available for your smartphone, which work off the GPS even without cell service.

One site he likes is www.huntinggpsmaps.com , which offers downloads for my Garmin GPS as well as smartphones and tablets. The Hunt Oregon map program for Garmin devices runs $99 for a chip and $109.99 for a download. To make it work you have to download Garmin’s free Basecamp program. The map shows landowner boundaries, as well as topographic details. I am getting it.

Ryan also likes Avenza, which has an app for your smartphone, and a mix of maps for free and for pay. Downloading the app also lets you use GeoPDF maps, which show you where you are even when you are offline (which should be much of the time when hunting). You can also mark way points and check boundaries. (Note you can find GeoPDF maps of travel management and A&H areas on ODFW’s website under Maps.)

You can buy great paper topo maps from the U.S. Geological Survey online . The only store I know of selling them anymore is Pittmon’s in Portland. And if you have a good printer, which I don’t, my son-in-law told me about a National Geographic site where you can download USGS topo maps for free, http://www.natgeomaps.com/trail-maps/pdf-quads .

Whether you are shooting a rifle or a bow, a rangefinder will help with accuracy. You can easily spend $100 to $700. One high-end model, the Zeiss Victory, will let you program it with the ballistics of the cartridge you are shooting, such as a .30–06 with 150-grain bullets, and tell you just how much to adjust your aim to compensate for bullet drop. Some of the rangefinders for archers, such as the Nikon Arrow, will take into account the fact you are in a tree stand, and adjust for the angle of your shot.

They can also be used on the golf course to pick your club.

I am about done spending money on this project, so will be estimating distance the old-fashioned way. When I go on my daily walk with my wife, Beth, I pick an object up ahead, estimate the distance, then pace it off as I walk. I have been getting more accurate with practice. I don’t expect to be taking a shot at any more than 150 yards or so, so don’t think I need one of these.

Screenshot of a GeoPDF map which will show you where you are even when you are offline. You need to download an app like Avenza to use these. There are GeoPDF maps of travel management areas at http://www.dfw.state.or.us/maps/index.asp

Digital trail cameras can help you scout an area. Niehus considers them “essential,” because, “if no animals, there is no reason to be in that area.”

A hunter’s trail camera caught Oregon’s famous wandering wolf, OR7, complete with GPS collar, when he was looking for a mate in the Cascades of eastern Jackson County — a story I covered before I retired from the Associated Press.

Hang it in a tree, aim it at a game trail, and come back later to see if anything walked by, triggering the motion-detector shutter. Photos are stored on a chip, which you can load in your computer. You can get color or black-and-white, and infrared for nighttime.

You can get one for less than $100, and many hunters like to put out several. There are security cases to make them harder to steal. If you spend closer to $300, you can get a camera that will transmit pictures to your smartphone.

I am not ready to take this step yet. Maybe next year.