The Art of Tracking Whitetail Deer – Foundry Outdoors
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The Art of Tracking Whitetail Deer

     Judging by the number of books and the number of articles written on the subject, I believe that it is safe to say that Whitetail Deer is the favorite game species among North American big game hunters. However, whitetail habitat differs drastically from region to region and thus, while avid deer hunters in most regions of the U.S. prefer to ambush their quarry by setting up tree stands or ground blind adjacent to bedding areas, food sources or, the trails that connect them, not all hunters have the patience to sit still hour after hour while waiting for the game to come to them. But, because whitetail deer are extremely wary animals with excellent hearing and a superior sense of smell, using the spot-and-stalk method in many regions is often not a practical method of hunting them. However, in northern regions of the U.S. where snowfall is a regular winter occurrence, hunters who lack the patience to occupy a tree stand or ground blind often choose to track deer instead because this method of hunting whitetail deer not only enables the hunter to actively pursue his quarry, it also provides a significant amount of excitement when a hunter finally gets to take a shot.

      But, successfully tracking a Whitetail Deer does require a level of skill, patience, and perseverance that most hunters lack. Therefore, this method of hunting deer is most popular in the Northeastern part of the U.S. where a small cadre of dedicated disciples of this obscure hunting method have elevated it to an art form that enables them to bag monster sized bucks. However, unless a hunter possesses a sense of smell equivalent to a canine or, a lifetime of experience, successfully tracking whitetail deer requires a layer of snow on the ground in order to make the deer’s trail visible. But, while having a layer of snow on the ground is a prerequisite for most deer hunters who like to track, older snow layers are often rather noisy to walk on and thus, most experienced deer trackers prefer a fresh layer instead. Consequently, the ideal condition for tracking whitetail deer is a light, overnight, snowfall that ends at dawn so that the snow does not have time to freeze and thus become excessively noisy to walk on. Therefore, a fresh layer six to eight inches deep is ideal since it will reveal the deer’s tracks to the pursuing hunter but, not make walking through it too difficult. In addition, an ongoing light snowfall is even better because falling snow not only quietens a hunter’s footsteps, it also drives their scent to the ground and thus, it prevents the deer from using their sense of smell to detect a hunter’s presence.

     On the other hand, you should not be discouraged if the condition of the snow is less than ideal for tracking deer because deer will often bed down during the day to ruminate the food that they have consumed and thus, a hunter can sometimes surprise them in their beds. In addition, whitetail deer are very curious animals and thus, sometimes they will decide to double back and investigate when they hear a hunter following their trail and thus, hunters who tack whitetail deer must be very vigilant and ready to take a shot at a moment’s notice. In addition, deer trackers should be aware that because humans have two legs instead of four, the sound of a human walking through the snow is very distinctive to a four legged animal and thus, hunters should endeavor to sound more like a deer when tracking by walking with an irregular cadence and pausing frequently after an odd number of steps to observe their surroundings.

     In addition, learning to read a deer’s tracks is another essential skill for hunters who prefer to track deer. For instance, the ability to differentiate the difference between an old track and a fresh tack is extremely important. Thus, hunters should look for tracks with sharply defined edges because the edges of older tracks will often appear rounded due to melting snow or wind erosion. In addition, fresh tracks in falling snow will only have a shallow layer of fresh snow in them whereas, older tracks will be either partially or fully filled. Furthermore, trackers should be aware that big bucks walk flat-footed and thus, the indentations of their dewclaws are more likely to be visible in their tracks. Also, the tracks of large bucks are often widely spaced and staggered and, they display outward pointing toes whereas, does leave a much more narrow trail that points in the direction that they are headed. Furthermore, the longer you follow a deer’s trail, the more likely you are to see snow knocked from overhanging limbs by a buck’s rack or, spots where he has dribbled a little urine over his tarsal glands as he passed.

     Last, hunters who are new to tacking whitetail deer should be aware that the number one mistake that inexperienced trackers make is not following a buck closely enough. Therefore, trackers should be aware that a deer leaves tracks about 18 inches apart when walking and, about 36 to 48 inches apart when running. Therefore, hunters should match their pace to the pace of the deer that they are pursuing. Also, the second mistake that trackers often make is paying more attention to the tracks they are following than to their surroundings. Thus, hunters should only briefly glance at the tracks long enough to note their direction and instead concentrate on scanning the surrounding foliage with their rifle at the ready. In addition, trackers should avoid treading on the tracks and should instead walk beside them in case they need to go back and examine them more closely because experienced bucks will sometimes jump to the side of previous their trail in effort to confuse predators that hunt by scent.

     So, while tracking whitetail deer may not be the most popular method of hunting them, for those hunters who have the skill, patience, and perseverance to pursue them, tracking deer can be one of the most exciting methods of hunting them because it enables a hunter to actively pursue their quarry and, when the opportunity for a shot does arise, a hunter must be ready to shoulder their rifle, acquire their target, and shoot on a moment’s notice. Thus, for those hunters who are experienced at using this method to hunt whitetail deer, all other methods pale in comparison!


Written by,

Bill Bernhardt

Outdoor Professional

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