A Story Etched in Snow

Posted on April 14, 2015

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“I gaze into the sullen sky as I step on newborn snow,

Longing to discover the biggest track a hunter could be graced to know.”

                                                                                                                Hart L. Daley

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Time had now become my enemy as light was quickly fading on a day that initially began with great promise. The providential blanket of snow that greeted me at dawn revealed with great detail each move this buck had made through the course of the day. His well-inscribed slots, tracks of immense proportions, which led me to the place where I now stood, appeared to be only moments old. “This buck is close”, I thought, but there were other variables to consider as to my next move. I was a long way from where my vehicle was parked, darkness would be upon me in less than an hour. Based upon the duration that I had been on this buck, could I indeed catch him in the final minutes of the contest? Despite weighing out all of my options, I knew deep down where my resolve would lead me. Moments later, immersed in a tightly knit grove of snow-laden firs, the silence was broken as fire scorched the end of my carbine. It would be a long, yet satisfying evening as I dragged my hard-won prize out of this isolated primeval forest. . .

 

 The Narrative

 

So, what’s the story? Just exactly what does a track dotting an unsullied landscape of white actually communicate to us? Lots. Especially if you’re willing to read the narrative before you. And to do so with any degree of certainty will require practice. You also must attain the necessary skills to silently stalk behind the imprints of a whitetail and get close enough for a shot at an unsuspecting target, which is crucial for this style of hunting. I do not believe one can become a good tracker without having solid still-hunting techniques; the two go hand-in-glove. The most significant difference between these two methods is when tracking you are following a definitive trail being left by the animal at the end of those prints; a deer you are purposely pursuing.

In order to succeed at tracking down a particular deer – to close the deal at some point along the trail – there are a few basic yet, essential elements that all trackers must master. And, “When you have mastered it,” according to Van Dyke, “you will say it’s the deepest and most enduring of all the charms the land beyond the pavement has to offer.” What are we waiting for? Let’s get to tracking; we’re burning daylight.

 

Time

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It would not make much sense to track a buck for endless miles without any real expectation of ever catching up with him. If we are to have a reasonable chance of getting a shot before daytime turns to night, it becomes imperative that we follow a fresh set of imprints. Based on the texture of the snow, (wet, granular, powder) what the temperature has been prior to locating the track, how the track has been effected by the elements and when it stopped snowing will provide clues as to how old the spoor is. I’m primarily looking for a cookie-cutter imprint and routinely compare my own boot print with the outline of the deer track I’m studying.

 

Gender

 

 If you only have a buck tag in your pocket, or are persuaded to only pursue a buck, it would be incredibly disheartening to follow a set of tracks for miles only to find your sights fixed on a doe. There are clear indications that help differentiate between the tracks of bucks and does (See Side Bar 1). Also, at least for me, there is a specific size animal that I am after. In order to ensure that this is indeed a buck meeting this criterion I must know something about the characteristics of his track (See Side Bar 2).

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Side Bar 1 – Contrary to popular belief and written opinions on the subject of differentiating doe and buck tracks, this author believes wholeheartedly one can indeed determine the gender of the deer that made the tracks without ever laying eyes on the animal.

  1. Rather than looking at one single imprint, the trackers eyes must focus on the series of tracks the deer made as it walked. Much like the difference in the manner of how men and women walk, a whitetail exhibits that same distinction as they stride along.
  2. A buck, regardless of his age or physical size will always toe out as he walks. The heavier the animal, the more pronounced this trait would become.
  3. A doe, as she walks will always exhibit in the tracks she leaves an even toe or a slight toe in. It only stands to reason this would be and has to be the case based on the simple fact that bucks and does are built differently. A buck carries the bulk of his girth and weight up front where as the doe has a markedly larger rear frame.
  4. As snow depths increase, all deer will drag their feet as they plod along. What is often misinterpreted is that bucks will always leave drag marks. Due to that inaccuracy, those tracks devoid of that characteristic are dismissed as belonging to female deer, which is certainly not the case. The main reason bucks drag their feet more frequently is really quite simple: it’s from fatigue. When a buck has had the opportunity to rest, and rises from his bed fresh, there is little evidence of him “dragging his heels”.
  5. A buck follows a doe or group of does for one reason: he wants to breed. A mature buck will use other males, particularly subordinates, to his selfish advantage, and will preserve his hide to their detriment, but cannot ensure the coast is clear. Whitetails just don’t posses that kind of intellect.
  6. If after all of the above criteria have been deciphered and you still cannot                     conclusively tell the gender that made the imprints, follow the tracks a distance. There is one foolproof sign left on a blanket of snow that will clearly define its maker. A buck, after he urinates will dribble as he continues on his course. This can be readily seen in the yellow marks dotting the snow between his tracks. Female deer do not dribble. This male behavior becomes even more pronounced as the rut intensifies.

 

 

Age

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If you want to shoot only mature bucks, there are certain characteristics in their behavior that will reveal maturity. And yes, it is possible to know approximately how old the buck is by simply peering into his track.

A buck becomes fully grown (mature) once he reaches the age of 4. From that point forward bulk can and will be added to his frame without contributing to growth. As he ages and adds weight, far more pressure is transferred to the rear of his hooves rather than the tips. While I may not know his exact birthday, I can, with a degree of certainty, know how many years he has been alive.

 

Size

 

Don’t let anyone kid you. Size does matter! When it comes to whitetail bucks, I want the most bang in my buck. That means I am looking for a buck I know will field-dress at or above 200 pounds. Here’s how I go about determining that.

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Side Bar – 2

  1. I first look at the width of the track. If it measures 3” or more across it was made by a buck that will dress at 200 lbs or better.
  2. Second, I determine how deep the animal is sinking into the snow or soil.
  3. Third, I view the distance between his tracks. The wider this becomes, the greater the chest girth, which demonstrates more weight.
  4. Fourth, the length of stride from back-to-front prints. The longer the stride, the greater the body-mass and again, a heavier buck.
  5. Lastly, length of the track, with or without dew claws, is least critical as there are a number of big-footed bucks walking the planet that have not grown into their hoofs as of yet.

 

Memorize

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 Just as soon as you find a big, fresh track, your first impulse will be to bust out of the gate like a horse competing at the Kentucky Derby. Whitetails are gregarious and will intermingle with other deer. Once the animal you are following does this, his track can quickly get lost in a maze of other tracks. Find something about one of his impressions that stands out, a cracked hoof, one cleft broken, etc. The most effective means that I have found to maintaining the right track is by breaking off a stick at the widest point of the animals track. Like Cinderella’s glass slipper, that stick will only fit into that particular deer’s track.

 

Read & Comprehend

 

I don’t know of anyone that starts reading a book from back – to – front, they begin where the book starts. Where you locate the track becomes your starting point, and from there is where you begin reading how the animal is behaving. By understanding deer behavior and being able to decipher what the animal is doing, you will obtain the necessary insight to anticipate the deer’s next possible move.

 

The Final Chapter

Like all learning endeavors, the student, if he/she is to excel, must forever seek an edge, while at the same time, build upon previous experience and insight. For as long as there are whitetails to follow and snow to reveal their story, the track indeed becomes endless and the content wonderfully fascinating, as HLD’s poetic prose proclaims,

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This hunt has come full circle now, but it is a hunt that has no end,

For this time worn circle, as you can see, continues on my friend.

With tenacity we’ll continue this arduous pursuit,

From days gone by and back,

As we all take our place in the eternal hunt

On the trail of the endless track.

 

 All images and text on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier

© 2015 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer