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Know where you stand

by Warren Illi
| October 26, 2023 12:00 AM

The phrase “know where you stand” is the ad line for the Missoula based cell phone app used by millions of hunters to assist them in hunting. It is called OnX Hunt. I don’t know for sure, but I think at least 80-90% of all Montana hunters use this cell phone app that provides hunters with unbelievable field data. 

This low-cost app provides the hunter with satellite maps of the place where the hunter is standing and the surrounding area. These digital satellite maps, on your cell phone, are similar to standing hundreds of feet above the ground and looking down at your hunting location. These satellite maps can be enlarged to show every single tree or bush on the mountain or prairie. These photos can show great details of your specific location or expand to show your neighborhood. Your position on the satellite map is generally shown as a blue dot. 

The satellite photo map can be overlain with topographical contour lines. So not only can you see the ridges and valleys, but you can see elevation changes and slope. It also can help lay out your intended route of travel and will show you where you have just walked. One of the most impressive features of this app is that it shows land ownership. Not only whether the land is public or private, but usually the name of the landowner. Let me assure you that I am not a high-tech guy, but this app is an absolute must have for any serious hunter or outdoor person. Last summer, I used this app to help me locate a metal property corner post on my farm.  

It wasn’t always this easy to get this valuable topographic and vegetation information for hunting. Let me give an example of the old way of knowing the lay of the land where you are hunting. My example goes back almost 60 years. It was the opening day of deer season experience in Minnesota. I was a young fella that took my deer hunting very seriously. I was freshly discharged from the Marine Corps in 1964 and living in my home state of Minnesota. At that time, Northern Minnesota had millions of acres of dirt-cheap second growth forest land for sale. The original old growth pine forests were cut around 1900. No reforestation was done. Land companies hoodwinked immigrants into thinking they could farm this land. Those farmers worked themselves to death thinking they could convert these forest lands into productive farms. They failed. The forest soils were poor and the cold climate was not conducive to farming. So, these old farm lands were abandoned and became tax delinquent. Ownership went to the state and county.

Counties were anxious to get these lands back on the tax rolls. So, they sold these lands dirt cheap.  My friend, Russ Johnson, and I bought 80 acres of forest land for the princely sum of $480. We then built a 12’x 20’ frame cabin for hunting. Neither one of us had built anything prior to that cabin, so that cabin construction was a series of interesting learning experiences.

Since this was a new hunting area for us, I purchased an aerial photo of the neighborhood. As a forester, I knew how to find and buy aerial photos. That aerial photo showed that just north of our land, on public land, two large swamps almost touched each other, with only a narrow band of upland forested land between the swamps. Sort of like an hour-glass shape. My knowledge of deer habits indicated that any deer that wanted to cross from one side of the swamps to the other, would likely cross at this narrow strip of forest land. Whitetail deer love forest cover.       

Before hunting season, I checked out this situation on the ground. The aerial photo was correct. A large white pine tree was strategically located on this narrow strip of upland. So, I climbed this pine tree, cut branches, and built a nice deer stand out of scrap lumber. I could see the length of both swamps and I was situated on the probable crossing point for any deer. On opening day, I was in my stand a half hour before daylight. After about an hour, I saw a nice buck deer sneaking his way up one side of one of the swamps, heading my way. About the same time, I heard an old pickup truck rattling up an old road a half mile to the west. As I found out later, this was a group of local farmers who were going to hunt east of my deer stand. They had no idea I was around.

As both the deer and farmers were converging on the same crossing spot as my stand, I knew that something exciting was about to happen. Suddenly the buck had enough of the noisy farmers, and it bolted across a narrow spot in the swamp. But I was ready. My gun on my shoulder, hammer back, ready to fire. I was shooting an old .348 Winchester lever action, iron sighted rifle. Bang, my shot flew true as my bullet plowed through the deer’s heart. He collapsed on the edge of the swamp. I could see lots of antlers. Wow! The farmers were about as shocked as the deer, thinking they had the woods to themselves, then hearing my nearby shot.

The farmers arrived at my dead deer before I could climb down. After admiring my deer, we began to discuss the deer woods around us. They had been hunting this area for over 20 years. It soon became clear that my understanding of the terrain and vegetation was different than theirs. Then, I said, let me show you. I reached into my pack and hauled out my aerial photo.  I don’t think they had ever seen an aerial photo. They were amazed. They must have spent 20 minutes looking at that photo and commenting on where they had shot deer, had deer stands and other features that showed something much different from what they imagined after hunting the area for 20 years. 

Then they resumed their hunt and I field dressed my buck and I took it back to our cabin. Our cabin was located at the end of an old single lane, muddy woods road. That night, two hours after dark, a vehicle drove into our yard. A knock on the door revealed two of the farmers. They apologized for bothering us, but they were so excited about the aerial photo that they wondered if they could buy my aerial photo. I could always buy a new photo, so I said yes. 

That successful opening morning hunt was due to my use of an aerial photo, the OnX app of that era.

Today’s modern hunter has a great big advantage using the OnX app. I hope your opening day hunt last Saturday was as successful as this opening day success story from 60 years ago. Remember that hunting is about having fun in the mountains and on our prairies. Bringing home some good wild meat is just an added bonus.