Improvising on the Ancient

Posted on January 24, 2017




Big tracks don’t lie!


It has long been known that tracking something, regardless of species, meant following the sign being left in the hounded beasts wake. The key component that is heavily relied upon by the deer tracker of North America is the snow that blankets the forest floor, for without its presence, the method truly does become a lost art.

For years now I have maintained that anyone could follow a set of deer prints in the snow. However, tracking a deer should never be misconstrued as just the mere act of following a set of slots in the snow. Where the artistry comes into play is in the pursuer’s ability to read, interpret, and outguess the hounded animal simply using information left by the track.

There are several ways to play the game, and a million variations and combinations of each, all of which may leave you sucking wind. The first is the simplest to explain and the most difficult to execute, so difficult in fact, that a few who have mastered it have become legends in their own time.



When writing about mountain whitetails, Lionel Atwill aptly describes,

The tactic is this: Find a fresh track and stay on it until the gap between deer and hunter is decreased sufficiently to be spanned by a well-placed bullet. It works, but not without effort. Obviously, it works only in snow and only for a hunter in good shape. It works rarely in the first hour, sometimes in the first four, preferably, but not always in the first day.




When opining about tracking deer Larry Kollor wrote, “Many a fervent prayer has been offered by the deer-hunting fraternity that the all-revealing blanket of white may cover the ground next morning.” Yet, despite the pleading, hope and anticipation for a world of white, many autumns have yielded few, if any, days where the forest becomes bedecked in snow.

As snowless November’s became the norm rather than the exception, I came to the realization that either my preferred method of chasing whitetails had to be revamped or there would be very few opportunities to ply my craft.



Because 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 T.S. 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.

I needed to figure out how to use tracks to my advantage without the all revealing blanket of white.





Regardless of ground conditions, it is still all about tracks. Imprints reveal and validate that whitetails are living in a geographical area. And as I have learned, where there are deer, there will be big, male deer. As I drive logging roads my primary focus is two-fold: to look over the country and locate over-sized buck tracks. Sometimes this search can last for days or even weeks, but it becomes vital to locate the imprints of the size animal you wish to hunt, otherwise you are merely hoping and spending what might amount to wasted effort in the wrong location. After all, big tracks don’t lie!





One of my best friends and a hunting partner routinely tells his clients, “Always pre-qualify the woods.” It must be understood that there are certain geographical features and characteristics of the terrain that deer will gravitate to. They are living on that piece of ground for good reason. Water, elevation, adequate food and cover. How they navigate the terrain is based upon the land structure, using the wind and cover density. Once I have found a set of slots made by a buck I would shoot, I then begin assessing the features of the surrounding land through observation (driving all available roads) and topographical maps. So, you might ask, with millions of acres of forest and no snow, how do you determine where to spend your time to catch this, now marked, animal? I’m glad you asked.


Knowing your Subject


Many criminals have been caught by diligent detectives who focus efforts upon understanding human behavior. Counterfeit money is easily spotted as a result of perfectly knowing real cash. Studying whitetails through observation will lead to insight, behavioral traits, and a thorough understanding of the animal’s nature. Forget the gadgets, self-help books and anyone promising success if it costs little in time and effort.

I’ve been fortunate in my career path, which has facilitated being able to spend countless years, months, days and hours observing and photographing whitetails under every conceivable condition throughout the year. Top that off with being a tracker for my entire adult life, and it has all provided me with a resume of many insights into the animal’s world.



By knowing how the buck is going to behave in all facets of the autumn rut; by knowing when that annual cycle will begin; by knowing how the four stages work; and by knowing where on the topographical map a buck prefers to be, and why, places me in an excellent spot to capitalize without the aid of snow.

I routinely share with my audiences all across the country this sage bit of advice:

“Success does not routinely come in a bottle, product, weapon, garment or even methodology. Consistent success comes as a result of knowing and understanding white-tailed deer behavior.”




Ask any baseball manager and he will concede that one of the most valuable players on his team is the guy that can perform well in several positions; the utility player. That individual generally must work longer and harder than most due to having to be versatile. The flip side of this would be the specialty player, the individual that really excels at one aspect of the game, such as a relief pitcher, or closer. This is the pitcher that is summoned for the ninth inning to save the game. The point here is, what type of deer hunter do want to be, and is that based solely on what is or isn’t on the ground?



If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard complaints from would be trackers of no snow to track upon I’d be financially set for retirement. Please understand, snow is definitely an aid, however, it is not necessarily a game changer. And if it is, there is usually a good portion of an autumn deer season that becomes obsolete if you are that specialty player.

Thankfully, I learned early on, if I wanted frequent success as a deer hunter I’d better be honed on all methodologies in capturing this elusive creature. The weather, the conditions, the animal itself cannot be controlled or manipulated. But I can take proactive steps while engaged in the act of hunting under a variety of differing circumstances.





Do I enjoy a fresh blanket of snow to track down a buck? Yes, please, on any day of an open season! However, I’m not the least bit bothered if it doesn’t happen. The lack of snow on any given day only means my tactics become different to meet the demands of current conditions, however slight. Interestingly, although I’ve found tremendous success and enjoyment walking down bucks on a tapestry of white, some of my heaviest bucks have come to bag while hunting upon drab, leaf-littered landscapes. Embrace each hunting day as an adventure and don’t be shy to – Improvise the Ancient.


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