The Ultimate Tracker’s

Posted on August 16, 2016


“We confer the degree of hunter on those individuals who can track a deer

              for a mile and secure it without the aid of snow.” – Ernest Thompson Seton

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Indeed, it does require a special blend of character and resolute determination to become a proficient tracker. Those that practice this form of hunting effectively today as a means of procuring their venison are either born into a family of die-hard woodsmen that regularly take to the track and have passed down this knowledge, or they learned it at the hand of a gracious practitioner adept at following animal spoor. The key element heavily relied upon by the deer tracker of North America is a snow blanket upon the forest floor; for without its presence, this method of hunting truly does become a lost art. There is a far greater degree of difficulty when attempting to track down your quarry on barren soil as opposed to having the advantage of snow, as Van Dyke describes,


In tracking deer upon bare ground a difficulty meets us which is practically unknown in tracking upon snow; namely, recognizing the footprints. On snow one can generally watch the trail with an occasional side glance of the most careless kind, keeping all his attention directed toward catching first sight of the game. But on bare ground not only is keener sight necessary to detect the game, but a large part of the attention so necessary for that purpose has to be diverted toward finding and recognizing the footprints of the trail. Tracking on bare ground is very often difficult, and is never any too easy.



With that said, why then do you suppose that the deer trackers of today, who when tracking, do so almost exclusively on snow, have gained the reputation of being an elite minority and have been elevated in the sporting press as “possibly the best deer hunters”? I know several incredible deer hunters who have had tremendous success and do all of their hunting perched aloft in a tree. Are they then to be excluded from such accolades because it is currently more common to hunt from tree stands? Could it be then that the methodology of tracking has vanished to such an extent that those few who practice the technique today are viewed as supermen? Perhaps it is because of the woodsmanship that coincides with ones ability to effectively track a deer for many miles in unfamiliar grounds that holds the mystique. Maybe it could even be the sheer physical and mental endurance required to see the task through that engenders such a reverence for the art. Regardless of any of these theories, when one takes the initiative to glance back at those that have trodden before us, and did so in an untamed wilderness, it becomes readily clear that the skills used by the back-woodsmen were nothing short of incredible. Even given how inefficiently their weapons performed and how inadequately they were dressed, their deer-kill statistics far out shine any of the modern era’s top guns’ harvest records; and may I add, by a significant margin.



How do you gauge or judge when it comes to making such bold assessments about who is the best in a sport that pits an individual against a wild animal, particularly a sport that has now become a recreation usually performed in utter solitude? Sporting events that keep comparative records have an audience to witness great and record setting feats. But deer hunting? Although I am included as part of this assemblage, being a tracker myself, I certainly hope that no one would ever think about bestowing such an arguable tag-line when writing about me; not while I’m still breathing anyway. Maybe, just maybe, the writers have allowed their admiration for such feats, of which they find almost inconceivable to perform, to run away with their pens. Or, perhaps the publishers are the culprits for pedaling such tripe by embellishing facts in the hope to sell more copies. Either way, should any of these media stars begin to believe the press that has been articulated about them, they may be in for a big surprise as I introduce a group of trackers that are so far superior in their expertise at tracking that they have no equals when it comes to plying their craft. This group of indigenous people is an obscure group that performs day-in and day-out with no fanfare, and do so under the most extreme conditions. In fact, you won’t find any snow where these pros go.

We are called San, or Bushmen. We are the little people of the sand veld that call ourselves Ncoakhoe, ‘the red people.’



The Bushmen are among the last remnants of the world’s primordial hunter-gatherer society, a people that I set out to locate in order to document their lifestyle, embrace their techniques and validate their tracking prowess. This adventure took me from my home in Southern Maine to the country of Botswana, located in South Central Africa. After traveling thousands of miles, my journey brought me to the heart of what is known as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a vast, dry, wilderness thirstland that stretches featureless for miles in all directions. This desolate region is among the world’s wildest and most remote locations, and is documented as being the second largest conservancy in the world. Here is where the Gwi and Nharo, or the Kalahari Bushmen, as they are commonly called, reside in small isolated hunting bands. Rather than making attempts at conquering this harsh, taxing environment, they have chosen instead to adapt to its unchanging annual cycles. Their simplistic way of living, one that is unfettered by all of the trappings associated with modern civilization uniquely harmonizes the limits of their environment in such a unique way that they find no reason for an alternative lifestyle. They are a gentle and harmless people whose social order is not based upon authority, but rather on agreement and subtle communal sanctions. Other than their hunting accouterments, eating utensils and pipes, they have no real possessions to fret over, and thus their concerns are only those of the present. In the mind of a Bushmen, “possessions don’t make the man, so why encumber oneself with surpluses?” They have no aspirations beyond the day-to-day existence, nor does it matter to them whom might be ‘the best hunter’ within the band, as all successfully harvested game is shared among them. As far as they are concerned, when an animal hits the desert floor everyone gets to eat, regardless of who made the lethal shot.


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The Bushmen are a nomadic group and much like the animals that also inhabit this region they follow the most precious of all the natural resources: water. The Central Kalahari experiences very little rain and can go upwards of ten months without any standing water filling the pans (natural water holes). Thus their houses, or scherms, as they are called, are not built for longevity, but can be quickly and easily constructed and require only sticks and grass for the building materials. With water being at a premium, the Bushmen have had to improvise in order to meet their hydration needs. First of all they are very conservative with the water that they are blessed with. Even when the rainy season finally arrives and water becomes plentiful, they never take it for granted. They have also responded to the demands that this arid thirstland presents by being flexible enough to find other hydration alternatives. These options being wild tsama and gemsbok melons, as well as fibrous tubers that they dig for with pointed wooden sticks. When you stop and try to imagine yourself living under these stringent conditions, especially given how we take most of what we feel are the basic human necessities for granted, these ingenious people aren’t nearly as uncivilized as they first appear. In fact, they quite possibly are better suited to face any of life’s many struggles and hardships than those who have been lured into a life of luxury and slothfulness. The Bushmen know intimately the way things are, but do not understand the reason why that is. They are not fixated on trying to figure everything out or attempting to engineer conveniences that would make their life easier and more comfortable.


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The Bushmen are so connected to the land on which they live that they can easily predict when it is about to rain based solely on observation of how plants and insects divert from what is the norm in their behavior. They have no maps, compass or global positioning systems to guide them, yet due to their incomparable visual memory, they have the wherewithal to navigate in a featureless landscape. This intrinsic ability alone left me speechless and in awe. I’ve hunted and tramped through the wilderness of the Northeast and have now been to the Kalahari Desert and believe me, when making a comparison of which geographic region would be simpler to find your way out of, it’s not the one where you can see for the greatest distance. In the Kalahari there are no visual landmarks. Everything, and I mean everything, looks the same.



The centerpiece of the Bushmen society is the hunter. All men are hunters and are trained to be such from their youth. Every boy aspires to one day be a provider of meat. In fact, the Bushmen place such a high premium on hunting that by their own definition, a male truly steps into manhood when he transforms into a hunter. In order for a Bushmen lad to be permitted to marry, he must first have killed a worthy beast such as a gemsbok, wildebeest, impala or kudu, and provide the meat to his future in-laws as a form of dowry.


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The Bushman huntsman sets out in pursuit of game without any of the advantages available to the modern day woodsman. He has no knapsack filled with sandwiches, trail mix and power bars; he takes on nourishment only if and when he locates something edible. Lugging water is certainly out of the question as it is too precious a commodity and much too cumbersome to carry. He has no ‘4 x 4’ to drop him at his desired destination, and due to the limitations of his weaponry, he must get very close to his quarry in order to be successful. It seems the balance between man and beast is quite equitable and if it were not done solely to vanquish the pangs of hunger, this would indeed be classified as sport of the finest kind.



 Their method of hunting is tracking, and is done in such a light-footed manner that less disturbance is made to the environment by their intrusion than when a lion, leopard or cheetah makes its kill. Bushman say, “The sand reveals everything.” They have the incredible gift of being able to decipher what the animals have been doing simply by reading the written account left by the beast’s spoor in the sand. Their observations are meticulously sharp and the knowledge they possess of the various game animals different behavioral characteristics is uncanny. Even more astounding is the size of the Bushman’s hunting implements. I must admit, when I first looked at the bow, arrows and spear they use I thought that perhaps they belonged to a youth who was merely honing his skills as a marksman in preparation for his initial hunt.


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To learn more about this fascinating group of trackers, the Bushmen, and the art of tracking/still-hunting whitetails you can purchase a copy of my book, The Deer Tracker’s Journey. From now until September 1, 2016 we will offer the book for $20.00, which includes shipping and handling, regularly sells for $30.99.  To obtain an autographed copy send check or money order made payable to: R.G. Bernier, 77 Whites Bridge Road, Standish, Maine, 04084. For those wishing to use credit card, go to Sorry the book cannot be discounted using this method of pay.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer