How to Break Down the Big Woods and Find Deer

July 5, 2023 By: Torin Miller
big woods

“Big Woods” means different things to different hunters. In the densely populated eastern United States, a “big woods” tract could be a couple hundred acres. In rural Appalachia and the northeastern U.S., big woods could be tens of thousands of acres. And in the mountain west, big woods could be millions of acres. But in all these places, “big woods” means a large expanse of solid mature timber, whether hardwoods, conifers or a mix of both.

While the scale of big woods may change depending on where you hunt, breaking down any large tract of huntable timber can be a daunting task, especially if you’re setting out to hunt it for the first time. Most big woods tracts tend to have lower deer densities than areas with more forest openings and edges. Mature forests just can’t produce the same quantity or quality of forage and cover. When you combine that with the consistency of the forested cover, getting any deer within reasonable range of a firearm or bow is a huge success. Harvesting any big woods deer is a serious accomplishment, and harvesting a mature buck in the big woods is as good as it gets, in my opinion. 

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The author killed this Big Woods buck on public land in northern Pennsylvania by finding a slight habitat change from open hardwoods to an open, swampy area. This was the sixth buck Torin saw that morning.

I consider 2017 the first year I began focusing on hunting – almost exclusively – the big woods of northern Pennsylvania. I live in the smack-dab middle of the state, right at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains. The Alleghenies are Pennsylvania’s chunk of the Appalachian chain that runs from northern Georgia all the way to Maine. Terrain is comprised of steep mountains and narrow valleys covered by mature hardwoods, old-growth conifers and a mixture of fresh timber cuts. Agriculture is virtually non-existent. Pennsylvania’s whole northern tier is mostly wooded and sparsely populated. It’s also made up of huge chunks of public land, including State Forests, Game Lands, private timber lands open to public hunting, and the state’s only National Forest.

While I still consider myself relatively new to the big woods game, I have managed to stumble into some success. And I’ve definitely developed a scouting plan that makes breaking down large chunks of ground less intimidating and time-consuming, at least in my area. It’s a straight-forward three-step process: map it, truth it, do it. 

Like most serious deer hunters today, I spend unreasonable amounts of time looking at digital maps, or e-scouting, on my computer or cellphone. I mark locations of interest (based on factors I’ll describe below), and then it’s time to do some old fashioned hiking. I need to verify that what I see on the map exists in reality. Mapping technology has come a very long way, but some things just can’t be fully deciphered until you’ve seen the real place with your own eyes. 

Finally, I do it – meaning I spend time actively hunting the location I’ve deemed worthy of my time. Based on sightings and fresh sign, this could be for a couple weeks, an entire season, or a few years. Some spots will be duds, and you can move on to greener pastures quickly. Others will show promise, but will require more effort and experience before success can be had.

Map the Big Woods

Many articles exist that explain some of the most effective and efficient ways to use digital maps to e-scout an area before ever placing a foot on the tract. I won’t rehash all of those techniques here, but they include things like obvious terrain funnels and edges where two or more cover types come together. But there are two digital mapping tools I use regularly that seem to be less talked about. First is onX Hunt’s plethora of layers. While there are dozens of layers nationwide and for individual states, layers that I find really useful are the Roadless Areas, and the state-based timber cuts, tree type and distribution layers. 

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Recent timber cuts produce cover and forage that draw whitetails in otherwise unbroken mature forest. OnX Hunt’s state-based timber cuts, tree type and tree distribution layers help you find recent cuts and mast-producing oaks to speed your scouting work.

The Roadless Areas layer provides a heat map of areas that don’t have road access. This layer darkens the map and provides a gradient from black to purple to white, with white areas being those locations that are furthest from road access. The areas I focus on are those that are whiter in the gradient than surrounding areas. For instance, the location doesn’t have to be burning white, it just needs to be lighter on the roadless gradient than surrounding acreage. In heavily-pressured states with high-hunter densities like Pennsylvania, getting away from the crowds is beneficial – often for seeing deer, but also for the enjoyment of spending some reflective, uninterrupted time in a deer stand. 

The state-based timber cuts, tree type and tree distribution layers are also fantastic. In monotonous big woods landscapes, it can be very difficult to decipher what you’re looking at in a sea of trees. Breaking down a bed-to-feed pattern isn’t as simple as it is in ag country – especially when big woods deer seem to feed their way constantly across the landscape. But mast-producing trees can provide an ag-like draw for big woods deer. Timber cuts do the same, and the fact they may not be common (especially on public land) makes those few even more attractive. These layers will get you started on the best places to look. Cuts provide incredible volumes of forage deer love, and they also provide edge habitat that deer are perfectly adapted to. The onX layer provides the boundaries and date of the cut, which should give you a good idea of what to expect for stand age and browse quality. The tree type and distribution layers provide an excellent starting point to find mast-producing oaks or species that provide thermal cover, such as pines or hemlocks. 

I use these layers as starting points, but I like to double-check aerial imagery from multiple sources – the second mapping tool I’ve found incredibly useful. Google Earth, USGS Earth Explorer and county-based GIS maps often provide excellent historical imagery, taken on various dates across decades and seasons. Imagery across years or decades has helped me identify timing of timber harvest, changes in access and other minute details that could be overlooked if relying on a single imagery source. 

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Aerial images taken in winter or early spring, when deciduous trees are bare, give you a better view of landscape features and what the understory is like.

Imagery across seasons has proven to be even more important, though. When possible, I like to look at aerial photos from the winter or early spring when the trees are bare. This gives me a really good perspective on what the understory is like. The big woods I hunt can be wide open and park-like, or the understory can be covered in mountain laurel, rhododendron or greenbriar. It’s thick understories that provide deer cover and food, and I like to hunt in or on the edge of the thick stuff. Leafless imagery also makes two-tracks, logging roads and other access or funnels and terrain features stand out more. 

Having a better sense of what lies beneath the canopy can be a huge time-saver when it comes to step two: truth it.

Truth the Big Woods

The second step in the process – ground-truthing what you think you know from maps – is where the boot rubber meets the road. This is the time to start methodically scouting via boots on the ground all those pins you dropped on your digital map. I’m looking for a bunch of clues that will tell me if the spot is worth spending my limited hunting time on or not. Primarily, these clues are: deer sign, hunter sign, food, cover and terrain. 

While the mapping tools discussed above can reveal so much about a potential honey hole before you ever step foot on it, there are some things you just can’t verify through a screen. Deer sign and hunter sign are perfect examples. On multiple occasions, I’ve dropped a pin on what I expect to be an absolute deer paradise. But when I journey in to verify with physical scouting, deer sign is non-existent or there’s more evidence of other hunters than I’m willing to tolerate. 

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Ground-truthing your aerial scouting is step three. Confirm your promising areas with hard evidence like rubs, trails and other deer sign.

The same goes for food, cover and terrain. You never know what food and cover is available, or how the land truly lays, until you hike through it. I’ve been severely disappointed to find that certain areas have been void of food or cover for deer, even though the terrain or remoteness of the location held promise. 

A perfect example of reality differing from virtual renderings happened to me this spring. I had nailed down a location on the map last winter that offered a small, secluded timber cut, a terrain funnel, and it was a far hike from any good access. I went in this spring to truth it with high expectations. However, I was met with a recent clearcut, state-planted wildlife plot and access road. This activity has yet to show up on aerial imagery, but it’s there, nonetheless. While not a deal breaker, this location will quickly turn into a magnet for hunters. It’s easy to access and easy to hunt. But daylight deer activity will undoubtedly decrease as hunter pressure increases. So, a spot that I thought would be spectacular based on mapping turned out to be mostly a bust when I ground-truthed it. 

On the other hand, however, I’ve been pleasantly surprised when heading into an area that I’ve had less faith in based on maps. No matter how good aerial imagery and mapping technology become, some vegetation and terrain features can only really be discovered on foot – hidden soft mast trees or highly-favored browse and small terrain features such as ditches, draws or slight finger ridges. I’ve found plenty of these items, and the deer sign has been fantastic. 

The moral of theses examples? The “truth it” step is incredibly important no matter what you’re seeing in step one. 

Do It

Finally, the last and most fun step: do it! This is the part where you actually hunt the locations you’ve digitally scouted and ground-truthed. These should be the spots that provided the most promising combination of sign, vegetation and terrain. Big woods are just that – big. Deer can and do roam, and just because you know deer are using a certain area, you don’t always know how they’re using it. You can be off the mark by 50 yards and totally out of the game or hunting at the wrong times.

big woods
Trail-cameras can help confirm a promising spot is actually worth hunting, but it may take monitoring in fall to determine a good hunting spot for the following fall.

Trail-cameras can certainly help break down movement patterns, but they still don’t provide the full picture. The absolute best way to fully learn a hunting location is to, well, hunt it. How long you need to hunt an area will vary based on a number of factors, including deer density, acreage, and hunting pressure. Generally, I’ve found about three years to be the sweet spot. In that time frame, I can run trail cameras for multiple seasons and have a few sits on stand throughout each fall to get a good glimpse of how deer interact with that particular landscape throughout the fall. After that time, I should either be dialed in for that location, or I may decide it’s time to move on. Of course, these decisions could come much sooner, but with the unpredictability of big woods deer, getting dialed often takes time. And as always, things can change quickly, be it a new timber cutting or increased hunting pressure, so be ready to adapt and move on when necessary.

Get After It

Hunting any new tract of ground, but especially those that are much larger than you’re used to, is a daunting task. I was overwhelmed when I started my big woods journey, but I quickly learned it’s the journey I love so much. The big woods have required me to become a more thoughtful hunter – careful analysis of food, cover and terrain have never been more important. While my three-step process for breaking down big woods tracts may not be one-size-fits-all, I do believe it’s a great starting point. And other successful big woods hunters who have been doing this much longer than me use a very similar framework. As you go through your own journey, adapt the process to fit your location and hunting style. The only component that is necessary for everyone – have fun! I know I do.

About Torin Miller:

Torin Miller is a licensed attorney and NDA’s Senior Director of Policy. He works at the intersection of conservation and natural resources law, policy, advocacy and education. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University and a J.D. from Penn State Law. Torin came to NDA via the National Deer Alliance, where he served as the Policy and Outreach Coordinator.