When it comes to deer hunting, the term "tracking" is actually quite a broad term. Tracking deer can include the identification of deer tracks. It can include interpreting tracks and other deer sign in order to accurately predict deer travel patterns. It can even include the practice of following and locating a deer that has been wounded by an arrow or firearm.
But, in this article, we'll focus on tracking as a deer hunting tactic in which you locate the tracks of a particular buck and then trail that animal until you overtake it. We'll cover the best places and the best times to use tracking, how to identify and age buck tracks, and how to trail and spot a buck without alerting him to your presence. While challenging to master, tracking can be a very effective tactic for hunting deer.
Tracking deer works much better in certain areas and under certain conditions. In thick hardwoods, moss-covered rainforest, or rocky, mountainous terrain, tracking is difficult at best and probably next to impossible for all but the most highly skilled and experienced hunters. But it can work well in lower-elevation, deserty areas where deer leave more distinct prints in the sandy soil. And anywhere there has been a fresh snowfall, tracking can suddenly become a viable tactic.
By far the best time to snow-track a deer is directly after a fresh snowfall, and the first snowfall of the season is even better. The deer will be abnormally active at this time, particularly if it's during the rut. And determining the age of tracks becomes much easier, especially if there is still some light, falling snow.
When you find a track, the first step is to determine if it was made by a buck. While it is often not easy to determine this with absolute certainty, you can be pretty confident if you find certain clues.
In general, bucks have larger tracks than does. If you come across a set of tracks that are significantly larger than the other tracks in the area, this could indicate a buck track. In mud or soft soils, a buck's tracks may show more noticeable dew claws. A buck may also drag its hooves between tracks, and this may produce visible drag marks, especially in snow. A lone set of tracks, as opposed to the tracks of multiple deer, can often suggest you're looking at buck tracks because bucks prefer to travel solo.
Once you believe the tracks you're looking at are from a buck, the next step in tracking deer is to determine the age of the tracks so you can decide if they're worth following. This can be quite a challenge, but it can be learned with practice.
Tracks break down over time due to weather conditions and soil properties. When a track is first made, its edges are sharp and defined. As the track ages, the sharp angles become smoothed over and they lose their definition. The time it takes for this transformation to occur depends entirely on how much rain, wind, sun, high temperatures, frost, or snow the track is exposed to.
A good trick is to make your own boot track next to the deer track and compare the two. If your fresh track's edges have a sharpness similar to the deer's track, then the deer track may be fresh as well.
If you've determined the tracks were made by a buck and they're fresh, then the hunt is on. But before you head off to pursue your buck, take a few minutes to study his tracks intently. Take a quick measurement of the track with a small measuring tape. Get down on your hands and knees, with your eyes as close to the track as possible. Sometimes you'll be able to identify some distinguishing mark in the track, such as a chipped or deformed hoof, and use it later to make sure you're following the same animal.
Once you're hot on the trail and following a buck's fresh tracks, there are some things you'll want to keep in mind as you begin the chase. In general, it's a good idea to match your pace to that of the buck's. If the tracks run in a relatively straight line, that usually means he's moving at a good clip, in which case you can also move along swiftly. But, if the tracks start to snake around in a more rambling fashion, you should probably slow down because this could mean the buck is searching for a place to bed.
Don't walk directly on the buck's trail; instead, stay off to the side. You may need to backtrack if you lose his trail, and if you've walked all over his tracks, this could end up being harder than it should be. Besides, bucks have a habit of keeping a close eye on their backtrail, so they're much more likely to spot you if you're walking right in their tracks.
When tracking deer, try to stay in the shadows as much as possible and stay close to heavy vegetation that will break up your human outline. If you have to cross an open area, always throroughly scan the opposite side with your binoculars before walking out in the open. There could be a buck on the other side waiting to bust you.
Don't get too focused on the tracks as you move. The vast majority of your attention should be directed toward spotting the buck. Take quick glances at the tracks to orient yourself, then return to scanning the brush ahead for the smallest visible pieces of deer. Always carry a pair of high-quality binoculars on a chest harness, and use them constantly to help you see into and through the cover.
If you spook a buck, you have two basic options. If the area is heavily wooded, your best bet is probably to sit tight, wait maybe a half hour, and then resume trailing him in hopes that he may have calmed down by then. If you're in an area with open spaces, you could opt for the bum rush approach. Run full speed straight into the cover where you last saw the deer. At the first open area you find, immediately stop, listen, look, and hope you catch a line of sight on the escaping buck. It's an all or nothing tactic, but it can sometimes work wonders.
Tracking deer is certainly not for every hunter. As far as the amount of physical energy it takes, it's far less efficient than other tactics. But it's an incredibly exciting challenge. And, in the right spot, under the right conditions, it just might be your best bet to fill your tag.