Lessons From the Tracking Tactician (Part I)

Posted on July 16, 2019



“For every buck killed there will be a dozen failures. This type of hunting demands the utmost in perseverance and patience.” Larry Kollor – Shots at Whitetails 1948



Ask any deer hunter who has experienced some level of success at harvesting whitetails and quickly that individual will extol the values of their tactics, strategies and innovative techniques. With each new generation of hunters, the deer are quick to adapt in order to elude the latest tactics set in motion to hunt him. The whitetail hasn’t gotten any smarter, just better educated. The question that begs to be asked is, how routinely will those devices work and to what degree of consistency have they aided in filling the meat pole?

Does R.G. Bernier have all the answers? Certainly not, nor would I want to leave you with that impression. But, through my experiences while on the track, there is one thing that I have come to expect: a whitetail buck will do the unexpected. George Mattis said, “Old-time teachers tell you there are about as many quirks in a tracked buck’s behavior as there are bucks.” If you prepare yourself along that vein, no preconceived ideas will cloud your judgment. Each and every buck has a mind of his own and can be relied on to do pretty much as he darn-well pleases.


Sure, there are a number of characteristic traits they all have in common, but once they are put to the test with a good tracker on their tail, all bets are off. Each buck reacts differently. Speed and endurance are not the attributes yielding success at this game of tracking. Finesse, skill, patience, and experience lend themselves much better when stacking your wits against a clever buck. Kill him before he knows you are behind him or come prepared, for now school really begins, quickly separating the men from the boys. With a persistent hunter behind him, he now has to reach way down deep into his bag of tricks to escape capture. The following are a few different encounters that will lend themselves to lessons for us all.

A Bedded Buck

I have long since come to the realization that most bucks encountered during my tracking forays will be securely tucked away into their resting spots. This really should come as no surprise to the reader as 70 percent of the animal’s life is spent on his belly. As a buck matures, he becomes less inclined to flee with each disturbance. Initially, he will lie in his bed watching and listening before deciding to bolt. He has learned from experience that concealment is his greatest ally. For this reason alone, it becomes imperative that my eyes remain focused close to the ground.



That act alone requires mental discipline. As a hunter moves through wooded terrain, his focal point quite naturally is head high. If you do not force yourself to lower your line of vision, invariably you will be looking over, or missing completely, a good deal of resting bucks.

A veritable wealth of information can be added to the huntsman’s logbook by knowing where a particular buck’s bedroom is located. Gaining this knowledge will serve to assist you in formulating a game plan even in the absence of snow. Here is but one example of how beneficial this becomes. Pop had dropped me off at the end of a two-mile log road that ran its course beneath a towering ridgeline. Before Pop’s departure, we talked briefly. All the while the truck’s engine continued to generate noise. I chose my entrance so as to angle my way up the first incline that eventually flattened out into a series of benches. From there, the ridge expanded even higher to the heavens and became steeper until the top was reached. The mountainside consisted of beech, maple, a few birch and an occasional hemlock until it peaked, awash in softwood.



As I climbed, my goal was to locate a set of deep-sinking, slovenly tracks that up till now had averted my sight. Reaching the first plateau, the ground flattened, providing for much easier walking and breathing. Following this lay of the land that ran parallel with the road led me to the slots I was looking for. The buck had come down off the top and was traveling along the simpler route as well. The five inches of snow contributed not only to quiet walking, but the medium for finding his sign. I instinctively knew he was still up here somewhere based on the lack of evidence in the road below we had just driven.

What I was unaware of and unexpectedly found was his bed, melted right down to the leaves indicating the duration he had lain there. Disappointedly, I also realized that I’d been scrutinized from a long way off indicative of those long bounding imprints that a startled buck makes heading straight up to the top. This old veteran had laid up here with a clear view to the road below and had literally watched me as I left the vehicle.



I’d like to tell you I overtook him, but unfortunately, after many miles of up and down dogging, daylight gave out. Don’t assume for a minute that this resting spot was randomly chosen. That buck knew very well how secure a setup he had, but one thing he could never consider was that now I, too, knew of his hideaway. Due to the habitual nature of a buck, he will return to utilize this same location again as will I, only this time, from a direction that will favor me.

A Jumped Buck



As the result of any number of unforeseen circumstances, the buck whose trail you’ve diligently been following becomes alerted to your presence. His reaction to this intrusion will all depend on how panicked he becomes. When an otherwise content buck is disturbed, he has no other choice but to react. In those fleeting moments of uncertainty, the buck is reading his book, much like we have literally done on his track. He’s taken the time, very little I might add, to weigh out all the possibilities. The first escape mechanism the buck will attempt is to outdistance you. Getting as far away from peril is his first line of defense. Two options can be exercised at this point: Take a break and let him settle down or run on his track until you see that he has slowed his gait to a walk. I have practiced both methods with equal results. The time of day, conditions and how spooked I perceive the buck to be, dictates which maneuver I select. Whichever approach you choose, don’t become disheartened because you’ve jumped your buck. All is not lost. He will not vacate the country.



One other tactic I’ve used on occasion when the misfortune of putting a bedded buck to flight occurs, is to run as hard as I can for 100 yards or so to the downwind side of the disappearing buck, stop, and visually search for him. The advantage of this is to capitalizes on the buck’s inability to hear me running while he is doing the same. When he halts, his focus will be drawn to his back trail without the least bit of suspicion of my presence in front or to his side. This may sound like a simple task that would be a cinch to enact, but generally, when a huntsman jumps a buck, his first thought is to shoulder his weapon and attempt a shot. When that doesn’t materialize, the frazzled brain then kicks in with self-accusations of inadequacies, and by then, it’s much too late to start running. He’ll hear you coming. This scheme has to be an impulsive move, done immediately in order to confuse the deer, much like a surprise attack.

(Join us in two weeks for Part II of The Tracking Tactician)

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer