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The Ethics and Issues of Hotspotting in Hunting

The Ethics and Issues of Hotspotting in Hunting

A grouse hunter walking to his truck on public lands.

What are the lines that define hotspotting public lands in the bird hunting community?

It’s pretty hard to go a day on social media without either seeing someone accuse someone of hotspotting (sometimes referred to as “spot burning”) or hear someone complaining about it. This is when an area is identified as a good hunting spot in a public forum such as social media. It can happen on a scale as large as an entire state or as precise as GPS coordinates.

This is a highly controversial subject with strong arguments on both sides of the issue. On one hand, great hunting areas are highly guarded secrets because we don’t want to see our favorite spots overrun by other hunters. It takes a lot of work to scout for and find birds; it does not take a lot of work to go wherever your favorite Instagram influencer says to go. On the other hand, one of the single biggest hurdles for new hunters to overcome is finding places to go hunting. New hunters must be equipped with some useful knowledge to help them find success if we want to see them return to hunting for season after season.

Project Upland is no stranger to walking this fine line between adequately equipping new hunters and giving away the farm, so to speak. For example, the article Scaled Quail Hunting the Cimarron National Grassland generated a fair share of emails, messages, and comments that we were hotspotting and people were not happy. But seriously—is scaled quail hunting so easy that citing a National Grassland where they live can mean the end of all the birds? Not from what I have heard. We must stop and carefully weigh the issues and ethics that surround this question and consider where it goes to far.

The Decline of Hunting

Upland hunting, like all hunting, has faced a drastic decline since the early 1980s. Poor public perception of our pastime fueled by a combination of factors including the trophy craze, people in the industry asleep at the wheel, and a lack of hunting accessibility and knowledge being passed on have had devastating results. More than ever, this should motivate us to mentor people—and that ultimately means sharing the places we hunt.

Mentoring is a huge part of growing the ranks of bird hunters. There certainly has been a measurable influx of interest in wingshooting over the past few years. Converting this interest into actual participation will require lowering some of the barriers to entry. The reality is that there are some double-edged swords when it comes to mentoring in bird hunting.

For instance, as we proved in our most recent study with Hunt Rising, access to bird dogs is a major means by which people get hooked on bird hunting. The results showed that 75 percent of people who follow Project Upland say that “dogs played a critical role in becoming a hunter.” Twenty-eight percent stated, “I got a bird dog then became a bird hunter.” That astonishing number increased to 34 percent when only looking at ages 18 to 44. But getting a bird dog is a huge leap. It’s expensive, time consuming, and requires a commitment of 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for a decade or more. Trail cameras are lower maintenance.

READ: Can Bird Dogs Help Save the Future of Hunting?

The second challenge in sharing hunting spots is that upland game habitat tends to be very limited in comparison to more popular game animals, particularly for birds like the bobwhite quail or the ruffed grouse. Unlike whitetail deer, most upland birds have evolved in very specific habitat, which happens to be declining at alarming rates. That often translates to people feeling like they are competing for shrinking spaces and are therefore less likely to willingly share their sacred covers through mentoring. The reality is, if our generation does not successfully pass this on, the world of upland hunting will die with us.

Why People Get Angry about Hotspotting

Many of us, myself included, feel as if our hunting access is limited. The area in which you live can really swing that feeling to different extremes. If you live in an area with poor bird habitat, then the few good spots you have become crown jewels. If you live in an area with great habitat and tons of public land, then bird hunting tends to be more popular. . . which means more hunters in every spot.

We work hard for our covers. As a ruffed grouse hunter, I know that a lot of leg work goes into finding every good spot. Understanding habitat is something that can take years to develop. It is something that is even unique to where we live. Finding ruffed grouse in the upper Midwest is far different from finding ruffed grouse in my native New England. Sure, some of the rules are the same, but different plant species, logging practices, and terrain have a big impact.

Imagine that I have spent years hunting my area, watched timber harvests over a decade ago, and made mental notes to wait for them to come into their prime. Then I wake up one morning and someone drops the GPS coordinates of my favorite cover on the Project Upland Community page. Not cool.

When Hotspotting Truly becomes Hotspotting

It would be hard to debate that publicly sharing GPS coordinates is not over the line. I highly recommend using the new OnX Hunt feature that shares waypoints only with those whom you trust. There is a reason that OnX Hunt designed the feature so that you could revoke those shared spots.

But is mentioning a town hotspotting? If so, someone better tell Park Falls, Wisconsin to take the “Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World” sign down. Maybe South Dakota should stop claiming to be the pheasant capital of the United States. And the audacity of those bars with signs that say, “Welcome Hunters!”

There is an economy that exists around hunting, whether any of us like it or not. I wonder sometimes when I see messages of people demanding that mentions of public lands in comments be removed from posts. Where does that level of entitlement come from? No reason to quote the definition of “public” here; we are all, in fact, public land owners.

Stories that Make Hotspotting Less Scary

I once said out loud that I thought Maine was the sleeper state for ruffed grouse hunting. I was told to keep that to myself. Now I’ve said it in an article which, by all accounts, could make me guilty of hotspotting the state of Maine. Maine tourism could benefit from that, but people who live in Maine (without businesses) and hunt ruffed grouse may not take kindly to those words.

But Maine is a great example. I met some folks from another part of the country once who were grouse hunters. We talked about New England and I suggested at one point to “get up into the northern reaches of New Hampshire and Maine and hunting can be just as good and sometimes better than the upper Midwest; you just need to get used to the terrain.”  They both went on to tell me how they went to Maine, but they never left the logging roads and thought the covers looked too daunting, so they stuck to road birds.

Similarly, last year I was at a Ruffed Grouse Society chapter meeting and I overheard a gentleman talking about how far he needed to drive to get into grouse cover. There was a spot I knew of not 15 minutes from where he lived that had grouse in it, so I chimed in and told him where to go. One of my fellow grouse hunting buddies looked horrified at the interaction and afterwards asked me, “Why would you do that?”

There is a similar pattern here. Plenty of hunters are going to stick to main roads or, in some cases, tote roads. Maybe they’re not willing to climb mountains to not find chukar, or walk endless miles of sagebrush to not see a sharptail. That’s just fine, and to each his own. For some diehards, they are going to grid a cover like they are playing Battleship on a high-stakes bet. That behavior represents a minority and is something that, in some cases, takes people time to get comfortable with and understand a spot. It takes knowledge, which takes time, which is okay. It’s great to work towards something and learn. Quite frankly, if you are that willing and that aggressive in your approach, you earned the cover and the birds that you take out of it. Mentioning towns is not going to affect that level of drive and prevent people from finding that “hot spot.”

My point is that sharing locations is not a sure bet that a cover will get over-hunted. Knowing general areas where birds live is a very small piece to what can be a complicated puzzle that takes a lot of boot leather to figure out. My very own covers can daunt me on some days and reward me on others. Weather, time of year, food sources, water. . . all play into the moving target that is the ability to actually take advantage of a hunting location.

The Cost of Sharing Hunting Spots

My mother once told me that if you loan a friend money and expect to get it back, that relationship is doomed. That is also true about sharing hunting locations. That is the cost of mentoring. On a recent phone call, a friend from out west confessed that they’d shared a quail cover that a friend had specifically asked them not to share with another mutual acquaintance. To his relief, those folks got skunked that day for what he had deemed an ideal spot. Even GPS coordinates are not a sure bet for what awaits there.

Common Sense Advice for Sharing Information

  1. Do not post GPS coordinates online, even if it is “your cover.” I’m willing to bet it’s plenty of other people’s cover as well and you have no idea how many people will end up seeing that information.
  2. If someone from out of state asks for tips, encourage them to do the leg work by informing them of the parameters you use to scout new territory, i.e. look for county, state, national or private parcels that meet criteria a, b and c… As a general rule, anything more specific than the mention of a state or large national property (i.e. county, town, etc…) should be kept to small group or one-on-one conversations. If you do not wish to share specific information, stick to education and no one should judge you for that.
  3. If you mentor someone, go into it knowing you that will most likely catch them there at some point. Discuss with them the etiquette around sharing covers and the value in learning to find your own.
  4. If you are a mentee, your mentor worked hard for the knowledge base he or she is sharing with you. Respect that work by finding your own covers and repaying the debt.
  5. Sharing is caring. No, but seriously.

A Bigger Threat than Hotspotting

The real threat to losing your covers to others isn’t hotspotting, it is teaching people how to properly identify habitat, understand food sources, know where water is in a cover, and how to time things during the day and throughout the year. Things change constantly and by no means can we stop those who are educated on these details from finding our honey holes. No hotspotting needed.

My favorite area of New Hampshire is full of some of the best covers I have ever hunted in. While recently using Scout-n-Hunt to identify new spots, I found out quickly that my secret spots were not really that special after all. If you have the app, you know my favorite covers; there are still plenty of birds there. On the other hand, my favorite cover from last year is like a desert this year. No birds to be had. I have chalked it up to time of year and availability of water. But hey, if I gave you the GPS coordinates, it’s only fair that we put in the leg work to check the actual conditions at any given time.

I already have a new favorite cover this year and no, I will not drop you a pin.

View Comments (8)
  • I guess it depends on the State. For instance in a State like SD, just giving a county is hot spotting because there is so little public land to hunt. Same with Wi. grouse hunting. Give a county name, and the next weekend there will be a zillion vehicles there. I am absolutely death on hot spotting.

    • Ken,
      I’m not sure where in Wisconsin you hunt but that is not even remotely how I see it. I have no problem identifying a National Forest or County Forest in a social media post or if asked directly. Those areas are huge and pressure is minimal, plus everyone knows northern Wisconsin has the Grouse so I suspect with the exception of Park Falls and a few others that actively promote the area pressure is distributed. If your talking about a specific cover in central or SW Wisconsin then maybe. I’ve never seen a zillion vehicles grouse hunting in Wisconsin- we need more hunters and not less. There are by far fewer hunting today than a few decades ago, giving a few tips to those looking to start isn’t going to ruin our experience in the woods.

  • If we don’t get more hunters in the field, hunting as we know it now will be lost. Nothing encourages a new hunter more than a little success. As I have gotten older I see passing the torch to the next generation as more important than my personal hunts. Several of my hunts last year involved new folks hunting over my dogs with me along sans gun. We are blessed in AZ with thousands of square miles of good public hunting land and great birds to chase. I also hunt SD every year and find private land to hunt at a reasonable price.

  • A thoughtful article. I started upland hunting on my own with with precious little guidance on how and where. A mentor would have accelerated the learning process, but there was a definite satisfaction in figuring things out on my own.

    In Idaho, a great place to start upland hunting is our system of Wildlife Management Areas. They are easy to find, relatively close to town and setup for hunting. IDFG is expanding the release of farm-raised pheasants this year in WMAs throughout Idaho. The one I hunted recently has valley quail and snipe as well. The designated parking areas accessible to any type of car. There are usually other hunters in the field, but it has yet to be a problem (unlike opening day of dove season in some places). One can bring a new hunter to a WMA without worrying about burning a hard-won secret spot.

  • I started upland hunting a few years ago and didn’t have any mentors. I also hunt with my two rescue mutts who are better companions than bird dogs – but very much the reason I started hunting. Like Christian mentioned I started, and mostly still do, hunting state WMA’s in Massachusetts. They are easy to locate and have a good mix (for me being a new hunter) of the predictability of stocked pheasant but also the challenge of researching and scouting for wild birds. In addition to taking pheasant I’ve been successful in bagging snipe and woodcock and it’s been cool to watch all the pieces come together with my misfit bird dogs and extremely rewarding for me to find and take the birds I had researched and scouted for. I was excited to find that there are grouse in the woods around my wife’s grandparents cabin in Maine that I look forward to pursuing but would otherwise admit that not having a mentor has been an obstacle to making the trip to the far northern parts of New England for good grouse covers.

  • Thanks for the read. That was a thoughtful consideration of a controversial issue. I think it’s all about granularity. If you’re a new hunter, I’ll give you a county and (maybe) the major drainage. Then you have to figure out the rest by yourself. Learning to find the birds by scouting and decoding habitat is a major element of the sport. With all the modern satellite and mapping tools available, it has never been easier to research hunting areas. If you just wanna shoot at things, go to a skeet field. The very best story about hotpsotting is still the one told by Burton Spiller in “Grouse Feathers”.

  • I think you hit it on the head when you talk about education. I started hunting 5 years ago with no mentor and the biggest thing that would have helped me and I still struggle with today is understanding habitat. What makes a good sharptail or pheasant spot is far more important to me than being given an exact location. I guess what I’m saying is we need to teach people how to hunt and let them find the spots on their own. It’s really not that difficult if you’re willing to go look.

  • got into wing shooting to train my bird dogs – we only hunt to train – had no idea where to go, so for a couple years went only to the conveniently located 1/2-hour-drive release site, where I’ve actually been chastised for not shooting wild flushes and where I’ve also had guys shoot over my head and where others practically chased us off the field when my Brittany bumped a bird 200 yards in front of their triple-buddy team with a couple labs pottering around their boots – now spend 1/2 days driving to public wild-chukar canyon lands (all found on my own) where we rarely see anyone, and (in my 70s) my InReach is always ‘in reach’

    I’ll share, but only with bird-dog friends who agree to join us on our terms: only shoot what the dogs handle perfectly – never shoot wild flushes, only load when dogs are steady on point and honor, or moving up to look for stay behinds – views are breathtaking, solitude is rejuvenating and the joy of watching the dogs (mine a Brittan and English Pointer) stretch out on the rugged buttes and canyon walls is indescribable – why would I want more wing shooters to join this sport ?

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