It’s better to know where a deer has been rather than where he’s going.
By Jeff Murray
Old Man Winter was conspiring with Mother Nature to ruin my day. It had been snowing sideways for several hours. Worse yet, it was so cold my eyelids were beginning to freeze shut. I mean, I had to bite off my mitt and literally pry my eyes open to see. Surely any buck worth his headgear would be curled up in a thicket conserving precious calories.
Just like that, I talked myself into an early exit. As I lowered my bow from my treestand, however, I realized the wind had died down and it was barely snowing. I resisted the temptation to change my mind, and on my way back to the truck I cut a fresh deer track.
My toes were feeling much better, so why not follow the trail? Well, one thing led to another, and somehow I found myself dogging the tracks in the wrong direction as the western sky was turning red. What an Elmer Fud move, I thought. I’d just wasted two hours of precious hunting light.
Undaunted, I trudged on and stooped to inspect a large, fresh bed. That’s when it finally hit me. By “backtracking” fresh deer tracks in the snow, I’d just put a buck to bed.
It was the final piece of the puzzle, since I knew most of the deer in this neck of the woods were pawing an oak knoll for the last remains of fallen acorns. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?
WHAT IS BACKTRACKING?
The strategy of tracking deer is as old as flintlock rifles. When I used to gun hunt, I knew that when a straight-line track started meandering, I was about to land in the lap of a bedded deer. My thumb would grip the safety and my trigger finger was ready for action.
Nowadays, almost all of my tracking is done “backwards.” It’s a slick ploy for spying on the habits of elusive whitetails. I call it backtracking, and there are a few tricks to it. You have to locate the right set of tracks made at the right time of day and follow them the immediately. It’s quite a contrast to today’s on-the-go hunter who only relies on deer tracks to find where a deer is going, not where it’s been.
Think of the doors this clever strategy opens: By backtracking a buck, you can tell where he spends his nights and where he spends his time during legal hunting hours. You can tell exactly what he’s feeding on after dark and what he’s eating in daylight. You can learn where he likes to cross creeks, rivers, roads and trails; how he makes his loop; and you can tell the size and shape of his home territory. Give me clues like these, and that buck’s in trouble!
Backtracking is both an art and a science. It’s the intentional backwards-tracking of a fresh trail to learn specific details about a particular animal’s behavior in a huntable section of woods. Done right and taken seriously, it can be a tremendous scouting tool.
Backtracking is essentially a three-step process. First, you must accurately age a track. Next, you must be on the tracks of an animal that were made no more than a few hours ago. Third, you must be able to properly determine the sex of the deer by its track. If you’re interested in bucks, don’t waste time scouting a large doe. Finally, it’s vital that you identify a track that was made at the end of the day. A morning track will lead you backwards into the night, whereas an afternoon track will lead you backwards into the day. Here’s a breakdown of each step.
A good starting point is aging tracks. Simply put, letter-perfect tracks with crisp outlines are always freshest. A nearly foolproof tip-off to a truly fresh track is a sharp outline between the two pads of the track. That’s always the first thing I look for. It doesn’t matter if it was made in snow, sand or clay, this part of the track tells all.
Conversely, an older track has been subject to the passage of more time, which disintegrates the track. This gradual breakdown gives it a feathered look. Older tracks made in snow have tiny ice particles in their depression. The more ice particles, the older the track. Furthermore, the more rounded the ice particles, the older the track.
What about tracks made on bare ground? A few years ago, I spent a lot of time chasing whitetails in northern Wisconsin where soils were either sandy or heavy clay. There was nothing in between. Turns out I got the lesson of a lifetime trying to age tracks in those two soil types.
Tracks cut in sandy soils are the most difficult to age, especially once they age past the 4- to 6-hour mark. Still, sand particles, like ice particles, are gravity-sensitive, meaning they begin filling up the track with the passage of time. The tricky part with sand is that its consistency is inherently loose and slippery (the opposite of clay, which is dense and sticky). To the untrained eye, a relatively fresh track made in sand looks old while a day-old track made in clay looks new. The reason is that the outer edge of a clay-made track stays intact much longer than a sand-made track. But if you study them up close, you will see a difference.
The best method for flattening the tracking learning curve is a magnifying glass. That’s right, bend over and carefully examine the particles that form the outline of the print as well as those that have fallen into the track. Do this under warm and cold conditions and under dry and warm conditions. It won’t take long for you to distinguish tracks that are hours old from those that were made the day before. That’s the whole key – hours-old tracks vs. day-old tracks.
MAKE SURE IT’S A BUCK
“Sexing” a track has been a favorite pastime of mine for three decades. While some hunters believe there isn’t a surefire method for telling buck tracks from doe tracks, I strongly disagree. When I’m hot on the trail of a big buck, I’m looking for large tracks with rounded tips. My friend Noble Carlson, a North Woods tracker with many monster whitetails to his credit, taught me this many years ago. I’ve never seen him get fooled.
“Bucks are clod-hoppers,” he explained. “They’re bigger animals. They drag their feet. And as the rut drags on, they saunter and occasionally stumble as they wander about looking for does. Bucks walk [like they’re] wearing water-logged boots. Does, on the other hand, are lighter on their feet. They prance, they dance. It’s [almost as if] they’re wearing high heels.”
This translates into some other helpful hints for knowing a track’s maker. For example, as alluded to above, bucks drag their feet. In snow, pronounced drag marks could mean a buck, especially if the snow depth is too deep to get a good look at the imprint. Bucks also have distinctive dew claws that often pockmark the ground (aided by the fact that they’re heavier and their hooves sink in deeper).
The body conformation of a mature buck produces a unique gait. It’s different than a mature doe’s. Since bucks are longer animals, their back tracks don’t necessarily overlap their front tracks. Instead, a buck’s back tracks usually fall short – the longer the buck, the greater the distance – of its two front print marks. Conversely, the front and back tracks of does almost always overlap as the animal literally steps in its own tracks.
A buck’s body shape differs from a doe in another way, affecting the tracks it leaves behind. Basically, like humans, male deer are barrel-chested and thin-hipped, while female deer are just the opposite – wide at the butt, narrow at the chest. Translation? A buck’s rear tracks land slightly inside his front tracks, and a doe’s rear tracks land slightly outside of her front tracks.
RIGHT TRACK, RIGHT TIME
The final ingredient to a successful backtracking session is finding the right track made at the right time of day. Remember, you’re backtracking. Your mission is to find out where a buck has been spending time during shooting hours. His after-dark activity is largely irrelevant. Therefore, you must wait toward the end of the day before you try to cut a fresh track. When you do, follow it until you run out of daylight. If your schedule permits, keep following it with a flashlight. This is top-secret information! If using a flashlight isn’t practical, however, mark the trail and return the following morning.
Backtracking is especially helpful during pre- and post-season outings. In the spring, combine it with snooping around for scrapes, rubs, beds, trails and, of course, shed antlers. In the summer, use it to pattern bucks that tend to spend the vast majority of time on their bellies.
During the hunting season you can certainly employ backtracking, but you must avoid pressuring the deer you ultimately want to hunt. However, if you’ve whittled down your tactics to a specific animal, that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, you’ll be heading in the opposite direction he is. And if you’ve done your homework right, here’s betting your paths will cross.
Editor’s note: Dedicated bowhunter and outstanding outdoor writer Jeff Murray passed away in January of 2010. We miss him badly.
This article was published in the November 2006 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.