A fresh coating of white stuff can be like a road map to a big whitetail.
I didn’t grow up in snow country, so the fine art of tracking deer didn’t interest me until later in life.
A spot-and-stalk hunter, my first real interest in tracking game didn’t come until my first African safari. There, I watched a pair of bushmen track a lion through tall grass and over bare rocky ground for eight hours until they finally led the hunters to the sleeping cat. I remember thinking, “How on earth did they do that?”
I had heard of North American big game hunters who were able to track bucks, sometimes over dry ground, but most often with the aid of a fresh snow. I was in my mid-30s when I first saw snow tracking used successfully.
It was on a whitetail hunt in northwestern Montana. The weather near Kalispell in November can rival anything the northeast has to offer.
Whitetails live in the timbered mountains surrounding the valley, where lots of alfalfa is grown. The deer invade the fields late in the day and through the night before returning to their mountain beds during the day.
After a fresh snow, my friends Chris and Cody looked for tracks on the roads leading up out of the fields. When they found a promising track, one would get on the trail while the other left with the truck. They used radios to keep in touch, and the tracker would call when he was worn out, had lost the track or when he had killed the deer.
I was always amazed at their success. The first few times I tried tracking, I was so clueless I never had a chance. Instead of patience and persistence, I used the bullheaded strength and the impatience of youth. It wasn’t until much later that I began to realize tracking is more of a mental game. Much, much more.
Don’t expect to be a successful snow tracker immediately. Especially when starting out, the more remote the location, the better. The less hunting pressure the deer have endured, the less wary they will be. Also, the last thing you need when trying to follow a track is to be interrupted by a snow-mobile, cross country skier, snowshoer or another hunter.
The best season for tracking is during the rut. Chris and Cody say best time to begin is as soon as you can see.
The less time that has transpired since the last snowfall, the better. If you get a fresh inch or two that doesn’t immediately turn into a crunchy crust, you’re all set. If the snow is too deep, it makes walking difficult.
All you need or want is enough snow to cover any old tracks. If it’s snowing at first light, it’s okay to begin tracking as long as the snow isn’t falling quickly enough to cover fresh tracks.
Open and semi-open woods are best. You need to be able to see ahead and to the sides but still have enough cover to break up your outline.
Woods that allow you to shoot a deer before it has a chance to see, hear or smell you are ideal, but expect to have the most tracking success in thick patches of brush or trees. Whitetails almost always head for cover in daylight, so when it gets thick, look for deer parts instead of the whole deer.
Farms can be ideal, too. Those interspersed with stands of timber and brush, along with some hills to hide your approach, are perfect.
The two worst types of terrain for tracking are extremely flat or thick woodlots. Flat and thick? Forget it.
Finally, areas where deer densities are relatively low yet have good buck-to-doe ratios offer the best chance for success. If there are lots of deer, staying on a single track is tough. You also stand a good chance of spooking other deer, which can cause the one you’re tracking to flee.
Some places known for hunters having success snow-tracking bucks include most of New England, New York, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and northern Minnesota, to name a few.
A fresh track has sharp edges, and the snow on the bottom of the track is packed but not frozen into ice. Compare a deer track with one made by your boots to help learn to recognize fresh characteristics.
If you’re hunting for a mature buck, look for a big track relative to others in the area. Such a buck will have a heavier body than other deer, and his tracks will sink deeper into the snow. Generally speaking, tracks measuring about 3 1/2 to 4 inches long by 3 to 3 1/2 inches wide are made by an older buck.
WHEN YOU GO
Look for tracks along country roads, the edges of fields, near known bedding areas, along traditional deer trails or on groomed snowmobile trails. Once you’ve found a promising track, try to determine what the deer was doing when he made them. Was he running, perhaps chasing a doe? Feeding slowly? Walking steadily, perhaps to a scrape or a bedding area?
When you decide to follow a track, mark your starting position. Use a topographic map or aerial photo, along with a compass. If you’re good with electronics, mark the spot with a GPS. Your buck isn’t going to walk in a straight line. It’s easy to get turned around or lost after hours concentrating on the trail.
Carry some basic survival items like a space blanket and parachute cord to make a shelter. Have at least two items to start a fire, a multi-tool, a small saw for cutting firewood, a pair of dry socks, some water and energy bars.
Move as quickly as you can without moving too quickly. There are times you’ll be able to cover lots of ground and others when you’ll be forced to move at a snail’s pace, doing more looking and listening than walking. It all depends on what’s happening at the time. While you have less than eight hours to make the stalk happen, don’t rush.
If the buck is alone and moving in a straight line, and you can see a fair distance, pick up the pace. Sooner or later, his tracks will start to meander. When they do, slow down. Do a lot more looking and a lot less walking. The buck might be browsing, smelling the path of a doe or checking his back trail. When a buck begins to meander or you see signs he’s walking with a doe, get ready. In both cases, the deer likely will bed shortly.
Circle downwind of the track. Old bucks whose only concern outside the breeding season is to stay alive often turn on their own trail and backtrack before bedding. Scan both sides of the trail in case he’s backtracked and bedded down.
When you approach thick cover, stop and look carefully. Use your binoculars and search for a piece of a deer. If you’ve hunted long enough, you know what to look for: a horizontal back line or belly line in a vertical sea of tree trunks, a white throat patch, the soft brown of deer hair among dark green cedar limbs, or legs protruding down behind conifer limbs. Also watch for movement: an ear flick, a tail wag or the shifting of a leg.
If you get a shot opportunity, don’t expect to have much time. You have better odds of winning the lottery than getting an easy, broadside shot while snow tracking a buck. When a shot presents itself, one of two things usually occur. Either you’ll spot the buck (or part of him) standing behind a screen of limbs and brush, or you’ll bump him and he’ll take off for parts unknown.
If he’s standing in cover, look for body parts forward of the diaphragm, including ribs, a shoulder or the neck. If you see any these, get the crosshairs on it and shoot.
If you’re creeping along, rifle at port arms, and bust the buck, look for an opening ahead of the deer and prepare for a quick shot. Pull the trigger only if you feel confident you can make a clean harvest. If you have any doubts, don’t shoot.
In either case, there won’t be time to evaluate the antlers. Once you’ve chosen a track, you’re just about committed to taking that deer if you get the chance.
The hunter is his own worst enemy when it comes to tracking a buck in the snow. You must remain focused on the task at hand. As you get physically tired, it becomes much easier to move too quickly, look a little less and make more noise. That’s understandable when you have gone hours without seeing anything.
As you tire, remind yourself this game is not for the impatient. You are trying to shoot a mature buck using a method as difficult as any there is. If you’re successful, you have accomplished something few other whitetail hunters can brag about. Read Recent Articles:
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• Profile of a Poacher: Whether thrill-seekers, egomaniacs, they steal from you and me. This article was published in the November 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.