Tracking And Stalking Deer by TR Michels
I first picked up the deer tracks on the south side of a 120 acre wood lot. I was fairly sure the tracks were made by a buck because they were on a rub route, not on the more heavily traveled trail the does used. The rub route paralleled the doe trail but wound through heavier cover and kept to lower ground. After it had begun snowing late last night I decided to wait until just after daylight before hunting the next morning. The light covering of fresh snow on the ground was just what I needed. By the crisp outline of the tracks I guessed the tracks were not more than two hours old. I went back to the Suburban, pulled a Scent Lok suit over my polypropylene underwear, took my Total Snow camouflage out of the protective charcoal impregnated bag where I kept all my hunting apparel, slipped it and my LaCrosse pack boots on, grabbed my Mossberg 500 12 gauge and slipped quietly into the woods.
As I followed the tracks they continued down the rub route. About seventy yards into the woods the tracks left the trail. Ten feet off the trail the snow was littered with tracks around a nine inch maple which had just been rubbed. The tracks showed that the buck had wandered through the brush for about twenty yards before going back to the rub route. I continued to follow the tracks down the rub route for another two hundred yards before they left the trail and began to wander through a brushy area, where the buck appeared to have stood. I was sure the buck was looking for a bedding site. I stopped near a tree for cover, then looked ahead.
Knowing the buck might be close I carefully scanned the woods, looking for anything that might be deer. First I checked the area in the direction of the tracks, examining every large gray spot I saw. Then I slowly checked the rest of the area. When I was satisfied that the buck wasn’t near I checked again, looking for an ear, an eye, the twitch of a tail, a horizontal line where everything was vertical. It was fifteen minutes before I quit looking and listening. Slowly, quietly, I began to follow the tracks again. They led out of the thicket, over a small rise and continued through the woods. Seeing the tracks lead into a thicket of plums fifty yards away I stopped near another tree and scanned the thicket for fifteen minutes before following the trail again.
Once into the thicket I found that the tracks began to meander again. And again, I was sure the buck was looking for a place to bed. Following the tracks I could see where the buck had stood for a while before walking and stopping again. Then I saw what I didn’t want to see, the tracks of a bounding deer. It looked like the buck had seen or heard me following it and fled. Not willing to give up I continued to follow, carefully checking the wood for the buck, or any other deer that might be nearby. The bounding tracks continued for fifty yards before the buck began to walk in a fairly straight line. The buck obviously wanted to get out of the area and had someplace in mind.
A nother hundred yards and the tracks began to meander slightly. I stopped near another tree for cover and looked ahead. Fifty yards ahead stood a deer. The buck was standing still and looking straight ahead. I absent mindedly wondered i t had seen another deer. I was just getting ready to shoulder my gun when another gray form trotted into view. I looked to see what it was, and as I did the buck bolted, with another gray form right behind it. As I watched in frustration the two coyotes ran after the buck. Obviously the hunt was over, but there would be another day.
Tracking is a just one more hunting technique for those of us who are addicted to hunting big game. I’m not referring to trailing a wounded animal, but to following fresh tracks that can lead you right to the animal. To track game you either need to be like those legendary trackers that could follow a snake across rock, or have conditions in your favor. Those of us who live where it rains or snows frequently encounter these conditions.
Tracking is easiest when there is a light snow that will not obscure the tracks as you follow them, or after it quits snowing. I prefer to track game late in the morning, after I have spent a couple hours on stand, because I know most game animals are usually bedded during the day, and following their tracks can lead me right to them. So, whenever there is new snow I grab my hunting equipment and head out the door, because even if I don’t see anything, I know that I will learn something about the deer. Because I know the area I hunt, and the animals in the area so well, I have a good idea of where to find them most of the time. But, if I am in a new area I look for tracks in areas where the animals might have fed while it was raining or snowing, and areas close to bedding areas.
When you are looking for winter bedding and feeding areas take into account the temperature and wind direction for that day if it rains or snows the animals often seek cover in heavy timber. If it is cold and windy the animals will try to stay out of the wind on the downwind side of a hill. I often find beds near the edge of the first or second bench from the top of a hill or ridge, where the animals can see below and hear or smell from behind. When the wind is out of the north or west they bed on the east or south side of hills and ridges out of the wind. If there is a clear sky, the wind is minimal and it’s not too cold the animals often bed where they can take advantage of the warming sun, on the south side of ridges.
When it is cold, windy and has rained or snowed look for animals in or near heavy timber on the downwind side of hills, or in low-lying areas out of the wind. Because evergreens provide protection from precipitation, extreme temperatures and the wind they are one of the first places I look. I also look for nearby food sources and travel routes where I can expect to find tracks. I use a topographical map to locate these areas. Then I begin looking for tracks on trails and near feeding and resting areas.
If I am hunting for meat I follow the first fresh tracks I see, until I see a fresher set of tracks, or yes, until I see buck, or bull elk tracks. I have to admit it’s hard for me to stay on the trail of a doe or a cow elk when I have a chance at a buck or a bull. But, if you are meat hunting stick with the does or cows, they are usually much easier to get. Once I start tracking my pace depends on how close I think I am to the animal. If the tracks look like they are an hour or more old I move along at a pretty good pace, being careful to stop every once in awhile to see if I can spot the animal, or any other game in the area. When the tracks begin to look fresh I slow my pace, and I stop and look around more frequently, because the animal may be watching its back trail, feeding, looking for a bed or be bedded nearby.
While you’re tracking be careful where you step and don’t make too much noise. When you think you are close slow way down, and don’t take more than two to three steps at a time. If I have learned one thing over the years it is that animals that hear an unnatural sound while being tracked don’t stick around long. Twigs breaking under foot, snow or rocks grating, and branches breaking will ruin a good hunt. No matter how close you think you are take time to stop and look around, especially in heavy cover, because there may be other animals nearby.
Always be aware of where the wind or thermals are coming from when you are tracking or stalking, you don’t want your scent to give you away. If you think you know where the animal is bedded be careful to approach the site from downwind. You can us a strong wind to your advantage by moving only when it blows or rustles the vegetation.
Be aware of how the animal is acting while you follow it. If the tracks are moving in a fairly straight line the animal probably has a destination in mind; a food source, security area or a female to check out. Wandering tracks in wooded areas indicates the animal may be looking for food, a bedding site or other animals. In any case it may have quit moving and be nearby, and you need to be ready. If the tracks stop or turn around the animal may be aware you are following, you need to move carefully and look for it. Tracks that begin to circle in a fairly small area indicate the animal is looking for a bed, it may already be bedded, or it may have already spotted you and slunk off or bounded away. Be ready. If the tracks show that the animal is bounding it has become alarmed (probably by you), but that doesn’t mean you have to give up. Just keep following the tracks and be more careful. Be ready for the unexpected.
Depending on what your weapon is and the openness of the terrain you may or may not have to start the next phase of the hunt. If you are rifle or muzzleloader hunting and everything goes right you may have an opportunity at a long shot and the hunt is over. But, if you are shotgun, handgun, crossbow or archery hunting, you need to get close and your hunting technique should change from tracking to stalking.
Stalking an animal you can’t see is almost the same as still hunting. Move silently, slowly, from one piece of cover to the next. Take a few steps, then stop and look around before moving again. I try to stop near a tree, bush or rock to use as cover or to help break up my outline. When you stop take several minutes to look for the animal you are following, and any other game in the area. Don’t expect to see the whole animal, just a part of it. Look for the horizontal line of a back, a color that is out of place, or a large blob of color that catches your eye. Look for a patch of white, or the black of an eye or nose. Look for the twitch of an ear, the flick of a tail or sign of a rack. In thick cover it may be all you see. If you are hunting in the snow animals can be easy to see. They can also look like a large rock. I once walked up on a four point buck lying in a meadow and didn’t realize what it was until I was thirty yards away. Luckily I was wearing white camouflage and was downwind.
The secret to getting close to an animal is by being a good still hunter. Teaching someone how to be a good still hunter is hard but I know a Native American who explained it best. The secret of successful still hunting is not to invade the area around the animal, but to let the animal invade the area around you. That’s excellent advice. While you are stalking or still-hunting move with stealth, quietly and unobtrusively, so that you go unnoticed as you get near the animal. In most cases the animal probably won’t be coming to you, but if you hunt as if it might be it will help slow you down and be a better stalker and still hunter. If you want to get close to the animal, your success as a tracker often depends on how good a stalker and still hunter you are.