By Joe Servello
What Is Tracking?
Tracking whitetail deer is just what it says it is, getting on the track of a whitetail and following that track looking for the deer that made them. One thing for sure is that all deer tracks eventually lead to deer. But, a whitetail doesn't make it easy, especially the big bucks that most hunters are looking for. Seeing them before they see you is the secret to succesfully killing mature bucks while tracking.
Track In The Snow
Although it is possible to track deer in mud and wet leaves, the best tracking is done in the snow. The snow enables a hunter to determine the size and sex of the deer as well as how long ago the track might have been made. If there is no snow then I suggest still hunting or using another method to find deer.
Stages of Tracking
1. Finding A Track
Finding a deer track in the snow is not all that hard. Walk long enough in any hunting area and you'll probably eventually come upon a deer track. That's how it is done... just keep walking until you find a track. If you don't like the one you find keep walking until you do.
It is much easier to find a whitetail track in high deer density areas like suburban woods or rural farms. As the wood gets more vast and the deer density drops (like in the Adirondacks) it may take longer for you to come upon a track that you want to follow.
Be patient, if you know there are deer in the area then you will find tracks.
How much snow do you need?
Any amount of snow that allows you to see an impression is just fine. Slightly deeper, new snow is much quieter as it covers and dampens the leaves enough to keep the deer from hearing your footfalls. Tracking in frozen or "crunchy" snow is much harder due to the added noise. When the snow gets really deep, a foot or more, tracks are hard to see and walking gets much more tiring. All these factors should be considered when determing when, where, how and if you want to use the tracking method.
2. Determining If You Want To Follow The Track
Now that you found a track... is it one that you want to follow?
Checking how old a track is can save you from wasting your time on a track that may take forever to catch up to the animal that made it. The fresher the track the better. In the snow you can usually tell how fresh just by checking the bottom of the track. If its frozen or has any ice in it at all the track is most likely older. Fresh tracks will have softer lightly packed snow in the track.
Knowing when it last snowed is important when determining how old a fresher track is. For example, if you know it hasn't snowed in four hours and you see snow in the track you know the track is at least 4 hours old. If it snowed less than ten minutes ago and you come across a track with no snow in it, thats a track you want to get on right away. I track older tracks sometimes because I know that older tracks can get fresher and fresher as you get closer to the buck that made them. I have also gotten on older tracks and only walked a short distance before busting a buck from his bed, where he may have been laying since the night before when he made the track.
I am of the opinion that if I'm going to spend all the time and effort it takes to track and kill a buck, then I'm going to make sure that when I finally get the opportunity to maybe kill him he will be a good mature buck.
It has been my experience that a good mature adult buck will always be bigger than the young bucks, adult does and fawns in that area. Bigger deer, bigger track. That just makes sense. So I'm going to be looking for an exceptionally big track to follow. Big buck tracks are hard to miss, they stick out like a sore thumb when compared to most of the other tracks in the woods. The more tracks you follow, the more experience you'll gain picking out bigger buck tracks.
Another thing I look for is a single track as opposed to many tracks clustered together... yes it is true that bucks will follow does during the rutting season especially when its near the time to breed. But, more often than not a big buck is a loner, taking the path less traveled to avoid being seen.
I'm also looking for how staggered the deers steps are. Big bucks are much wider at the chest than other deer and when they walk there is a distinct "stagger" in there track. The left and right hoof marks will be separated. The wider the stagger the bigger the buck. Doe and young bucks have tracks that are nearly in line with one another, with little stagger between the left and right side.
A solitary, big track with a wide stagger will no doubt be that of a big buck.
3. Following the Track and Reading the Signs
You finally have found your big buck track, now it's time to follow it. As you continue on the track you will begin to notice little things that tell you about the buck you're tracking.
It is important not to walk in the track just in case you get monkeyed up along the way and need to backtrack a bit. Sometimes a buck will take you in circles through places like cattail swamps and beaver dams and may cross his own track many times or get into other deer tracks. If you stomp on his track you may find it hard to back up and regain the track.
Many times when tracking in deeper snow a big buck will stop to feed and leave antler marks in the snow. Sometimes just the tips of the tines, which can give you an idea of spread width. Other times if he turns his head just right, the buck will leave the entire imprint of one side of his rack in the snow, telling you just exactly what size antlers you're dealing with. There is nothing more exciting than having a good idea of what a buck looks like long before you see him.
Examining a track can tell you how fast a deer is moving. A buck track that continues in a straight line for long distances is a buck that is on a mission. He is only concerned with covering as much ground as possible in search of does. This is most evident in areas like the Adirondacks where a buck might have to travel miles to find a doe. This is when you can move on the track rather quickly. Pussyfooting around now will lose you valuable time and you may actually lose ground on the buck.
4. Seeing the Buck Before He Sees You
When a buck track starts to meander it usually means that the buck is about to feed and shortly after will want to lay down. Will you see him before he sees you? This is the critical moment where that question will be answered. If you think you know slow, when you are faced with having to slow down during this point of the tracking you will find that your slow is way too fast. Especially if the buck has already bedded.
A bedded buck is always on guard, especially after feeding. He will be laying and probably chewing his cud to help digest what he has eaten. He will be entirely aware of his surroundings and on high alert. Very seldom will you catch him sleeping and unaware.
For a hunter to see a mature buck first means that he must be slow and methodical. Every step must be calculated and deliberate. One wrong move and you may not even see the buck get up and leave as you come on to a fresh empty deer bed.
As soon as a buck track starts to wander, stop! Take however much time you need to scan the area, looking in the direction where the track leads. Don't be looking for a whole deer. If the buck is hidden, or the area is well treed or bushy, you will probably only see pieces of deer. Maybe and antler tip, a nose, legs, or the flicker of an ear. When you are sure that it is safe to move, take one slow step forward on the track and stop again. Scan the entire area again.
Remember that each step you take must be calculated and deliberate... knowing where you will place that foot as slowly and quietly as possible. Scan with your eyes first, and if you must move your head, do it slowly. In some cases it may take you an hour to go just ten steps, but if you plan on killing the buck you must see him before he sees you. If he sees you first, you can count on it being a while before you catch up to him again.
5. Harvesting the Buck
When it is "crunch time", and you are scanning for your hidden buck, be sure to have your gun at the ready. Having to unsling your gun from you shoulder might be the difference between killing and not killing the buck.
Sometimes there is only a few seconds when you see the buck to get off a good shot, so you want to be ready.
Even if you get the drop on the buck and have a bit of time to get your gun up, you want there to be as little movement as possible. The more ready you are the easier it will be to get the gun to your shoulder with slow limited movement.
It's entirely possible that you'll see the buck first, but won't have a good shot due to trees and brush being in the way. You may have to be patient and wait for the buck to move or stand up from his bed. Keep your gun on him so that when he does offer a shot you will be ready. Squeeeeze the trigger... There, you just shot your first tracked buck!