Some hunters claim to be interested in deer tracks only if a big whitetail buck is still standing in them. That old joke may be good for a laugh, but it also demeans the art of tracking, an ancient hunting tactic that has hung more than one heavy rack over the barn door.
African bushmen are said to be incredible trackers, able to follow a mouse over a grassy savannah in the pouring rain. By contrast, some North American deer hunters are lucky if they can backtrack well enough to find their parked trucks. Fortunately for us, it often snows in the north during deer season, creating conditions that make it easier to locate deer-and our vehicles.
A fresh snow is like a road map guiding you to a buck. Follow those big tracks doggedly and you'll eventually catch up to their maker. But you must be in good physical shape and know how to read deer sign like a book. You also need to be persistent; after tracking a buck all afternoon, only to run out of daylight, you may be forced to pick up the trail at dawn the next day.
The best season for tracking is during the rut, and the best time to start is at dawn. Hunting during the rut means that your quarry will be on his feet much of the day looking for a doe, rather than lying in bed watching for trouble. And starting at dawn gives you all day to find a fresh track and follow it to the buck.
Snow-tracking is best after a fresh, 1- to 2-inch snowfall that has just ended. Under these conditions, old tracks will be covered, fresh tracks will show clearly and you can move at a good pace.
Falling snow can be good, too, if it isn't coming down so fast that it obliterates tracks before you catch up with their maker. Tracking in deep snow, however, can be an exhausting ordeal.
The best habitat for snow-tracking is open woods, where you have cover in which to hide but can still see far enough to spot and shoot your quarry at long range before it hears, smells or sees you. Farm country interspersed with woods and brush is also good, especially if it has hills you can use to hide your approach. Avoid flat terrain, which provides too many opportunities for an alert buck to spot you, and dense cover, where it's almost impossible to track a buck without him hearing you and hightailing it.
Snow-tracking works best in an area with low deer density, but good buck-to-doe ratios. In heavily populated areas, it's nearly impossible to track a single animal, because the ground usually is covered with a confusion of tracks.
Finally, you'll need elbow room. Try to get deep enough into public lands to have the place and its bucks to yourself. Nothing is so frustrating as following a hot buck track to a "No Trespassing" sign or to another hunter's fresh tracks.
How to Identify Fresh Deer Tracks
Fresh tracks (top) in snow have sharp edges; the snow on the bottom of the tracks is packed, but not frozen. Older tracks (bottom) tend to enlarge and crumble along the edges as they melt; the bottom of the tracks may be glazed with ice.
How to Snow-Track
Search for fresh tracks at the edges of feeding fields, along traditional trails or near known bedding areas. In country with many roads and few deer, you can scout by slowly driving through the countryside looking for tracks crossing the road.
Large tracks with drag marks usually indicate a buck (right). In snow deeper than 2 inches, however, any deer may leave drag marks. Urine spots dribbled between tracks are evidence of a buck on the move. This sign is usually found during the rut, when a buck searching for a doe may not stop to urinate.
When you identify big, fresh buck tracks, follow quickly but silently. Be alert, and try to imagine what the buck is doing and where he's going.
If his tracks run straight, he's walking steadily, perhaps to a scrape, a popular doe feed field or a bedding area. Hurry along the trail to catch up. If you think you know exactly where he's going, circle ahead to intercept him.
If the buck's tracks begin to meander, he may be browsing on limbs, sniffing doe tracks or poking his nose in the snow to find acorns. If there's no sign of feeding, a meandering trail suggests the buck is going to bed. In either case, now's the time to shift into low gear. If you suspect your buck is just ahead, check the breeze and circle to the downwind side of the trail. A buck that suspects he's being followed often loops around to check his back trail, and you may be able to ambush him if you've moved off his path.
Be persistent. If you work a big track all day and run out of light, return the next day to pick up the trail. If your efforts to snow-track a particular buck don't succeed, consider other strategies. By this time, you've learned enough about the buck's travel routes, feeding sites, scraping areas and bedding locations to still-hunt or ambush him from a stand.
When conditions are perfect, snow-tracking can be an unbeatable method for finding a whitetail buck. The right conditions may occur no more than one or two days each hunting season, however, so keep your skills honed and make the most of these chances. The most elusive trophy buck on the planet can't hide when the ground is blanketed with 2 inches of fresh white.
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Two hunters can cooperate in tracking a buck. While one hunter stays on the trail, the other flanks him, staying slightly ahead and watching alertly. A buck focused on watching its back trail may give the flanking hunter an open shot.
MATURE BUCK TRACKS (top) have an average stride distance of 20 inches, with about 6 inches between tracks. A doe (bottom) has an average stride of 14 inches, with only about 2 inches between tracks.
HOOVES of mature bucks usually measure about 21Ú4 inches wide and have rounded tips. Doe and yearling buck hooves are narrower and have more sharply pointed tips. In rocky terrain, however, any older deer can have worn hooves with rounded tips.
TRACKS of a big, heavy buck often have splayed toes and sink so far into the snow that the dewclaws are visible. Because females and fawns weigh much less than a mature buck, their tracks show splayed toes and dewclaws only if they were running.
DAYPACK contents for a long day of snow-tracking should include: (1) down vest, (2) first-aid kit, (3) rope, (4) toilet paper, (5) headlamp light, (6) map and compass, (7) whistle, (8) hand warmers, (9) candle, (10) waterproof matches, (11) folding saw, (12) knife, (13) candy bars, (14) sandwich, (15) water and (16) extra wool socks.