Tracking Deer With Jim Massett

By Jim Massett

If you are a serious hunter, or even a not so serious hunter, sooner or later you will have to track a deer. Whether it be one you shot at or one your friend may have shot at, someone will have the responsibility of determining if the deer was hit or not. Tracking deer is the best method for finding out that information.

Considering the fact that every hunter may someday have to track a deer, the importance of knowing how to track and what you are tracking can not be over emphasized.The more proficient a hunter is at tracking deer the better the hunter.

Obviously, trackers don't just track deer that have been shot. Doesn't it make sense to track a deer just to learn more about tracking? That way when you need to track a wounded buck you'll know what to expect.

My dad was a very good tracker. Usually when someone in the hunting group wounded a deer, they would try to find dad to help them track. Before I was old enough to hunt I would follow my Pa when he went rabbit hunting. I spent many years with him trying to track down rabbits on fresh snow. Those learning years taught me the most basic and important rules of tracking.

  • Rule #1. Patience
  • Rule #2. Pay attention to detail.
  • Rule #3. Just plain common sense.

Keep in mind, we are talking about tracking deer in the snow. We will talk about tracking without snow a little later on.

During my first two years of deer hunting in the Northern Adirondack woods, my main concern was my fear of getting lost, especially after dark. Using rule #3, using common sense, is important here. For example, if there is snow on the ground you can always backtrack to find your way out of the woods. Although it is still a good idea to always carry two compasses. First, if you lose one you always have a backup. Second, if you don't believe one compass reading the other will verify the first reading.

As for the darkness, the woods are the very same woods as the daylight woods. The trees, mountains, creeks and trails are all the same. The only difference is you have to travel a bit slower at dark to identify them.

Third, how did I know I was tracking a big buck? This reminds me of a friend of mine that said he tracked a buck that seemed to walk only where he knew his rack would fit. When a buck's antlers are growing they are very sensitive. A buck knows within a fraction of an inch what those antlers will go between or under without touching. During a normal season I usually track between 30 to 40 different deer (mostly bucks). Usually within a quarter mile (400 yards) on three or more inches of snow I can tell whether or not the deer I am tracking is a buck. I can even tell if it is one I would shoot without ever seeing the deer.

Remember one of my rules about paying attention to detail? Because they have different physical makeups, buck and does urinate in different positions. In the snow, the urine stain of a doe is more centered and behind the rear hoof print. This is the key to identifying male and female, even if they are fawns. The length of the stride and the stagger (the distance between the left and right side prints) also helps determine the sex of the deer. Big bucks, trophy bucks, are usually 25 to 35 percent larger than their female counterpart. Therefore, their hoof prints are larger, their stride is longer because they have longer legs, and they are much bigger through the chest so their stagger will be wider apart. Good trackers can distinguish between a buck or doe with just a glance.

Let's consider details for a moment. If you are tracking a buck that avoids passing between trees that are 20 inches apart, there is a good chance the buck has a spread greater than 20 inches.

A big buck will sometimes leave antler marks in the snow when he stops to feed on roots of "Fiddle Head" ferns or to smell another deers tracks. A close inspection of the snow can often tell you the length of the beams, outside spread, approximate number of points, and thickness of the beams.

Be honest, would you really have to see this buck before you decided whether or not you would take him? Most of the bucks I track I know long before whether I am going to shoot him or not.

On opening day of the Northern Zone season in New York we had 18" of snow. I tracked three bucks that day. One was a spike buck I never saw, the second a four pointer or six pointer i never saw, and the last an eight point buck. I shot him in his bed at 27 yards. He was looking the other way and never knew what hit him. They are not all that easy. On average, getting a chance at one out of a dozen that I track is a good estimate.

I mentioned earlier about tracking deer without snow. As one might guess it is much harderand takes five times as long, but is not impossible if conditions are right. Having blood trail to follow is the best possible condition.

In 1956 I hit a 6-pointer in the foot at 7:30 am. By following his blood trail I caught up to him at 2:15 in the afternoon. During the 1978 season I had a long shot at a 10-point buck at 11:00 am. I hit him in the back leg and finally tracked him down. Everything was frozen and crunchy that day. I jumped him six or seven times before getting him 5 miles away at 3:45 pm.

Two other buck taken on the leaves come to mind. One 200 pounder in 1967 that scored 121 B&C, and another 10-point in 1985 that scored between 115 and 120. The 1985 buck I hit in the rear leg around 9:30 am and finished him off at 3:45pm, 4 miles away, after he swam across a pond twice.

Remember the old saying, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"? Well, a trophy buck is in the eye and mind of the hunter.

Next Fall when the ground is covered with snow and you are out in the woods hunting, follow the first decent set of deer tracks you see. You might be surprised at what you can learn if you use logic and pay attention to detail. My Dad use to say, "Tracking deer in the snow is like reading the pages of a book. The further you go along, the more the story unfolds."

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