Lessons From the Tracking Tactician (Part II)

Posted on July 30, 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

(We now continue our tutorial on tracking down Big Whitetail Bucks)



A Pressured Buck

After several failed attempts by the buck to outdistance a persistent tracker, he will implement another line of defense. This could entail a variety of subtle moves to rid himself of the constant harassment. In this situation, as long as time is on your side, it’s best to stop for a bit and let him wonder where you are. He will become curious to your where abouts. His tracks will indicate where he has stopped, more than likely paced, exhibiting multiple prints as he watches for you. Far too often, we fail to use the buck’s weakness against him; instead, we fall into the trap of run and gun. Don’t feel guilty if this has been your plight. We have all fallen victim, including yours truly. “I can outdistance this animal. All I need to do is dog him. My will to overtake him is greater than his to live,” becomes a common misguided thought.



As the tracker’s inactive approach begins to unfold, the buck’s curiosity takes over. He is now scrutinizing his back trail, inquisitive as to where you might be. He has been keeping tabs on your whereabouts all the livelong day, and by pausing, you’ve thrown a monkey wrench into his rationale. I’m no deer, but if I was in his hooves I’d be thinking, where is he? How come I don’t see him? Has he given up and taken the back track to camp? Am I now safe again? As a tracker, that is exactly what you want him to think. Ideally, I want that buck to be walking back on his track, hunting for me. About the time the realization that my bead is centered on his chest enters the space between his antlers, those ivory tips will be mine.



Confusion is your best ally. The buck simply cannot handle it. Put yourself in that same situation: Your life is on the line, the predator has done something different than what you’ve previously seen or expected, you stand quietly listening; every little noise now causes you alarm; your eyes pick up anything that moves; your head jerks anxiously at the slightest disturbance; your mind is racing; your thought process becomes blurred; and panic has set in much like the flushed flight of a ring-necked pheasant.


A Buck on Snowless Terrain

Much to my dismay, there are a number of hunting days each autumn where the ability to track whitetails on a blanket of snow is non-existent. The sign a buck leaves is still evident on bare ground but without the aid of snow, the job of a tracker is intensified immensely when attempting to decipher it.



Usually, unless a buck is of immense proportions or the leaves are wet from a recent rainstorm, it will be difficult at best to track and ultimately kill a pursued buck. On snowless days that offer less than desirable conditions we will opt to still-hunt in locals where buck sign has been located or skulk around doe groups, particularly if breeding is about to commence. However, on those “magical days,” a day when the leaf litter is moist enough to soften your footfall, a buck’s path is revealed as he rolls the leaves forward with each step taken. The heavier the buck, the deeper he sinks in. When attempting to track a buck on leaves of brown, visually follow his line of travel from a distance rather than staring straight down at the tracks. The sign seems to get lost when looking directly down at it.



Hunting on spotty snow can be equally impeding. It almost seems that the buck is purposely finding ground void of snow to hinder the pursuer. In open hardwood where sufficient snow depth is preserved, trailing is simple, but when the buck encroaches dense tree cover where snow hasn’t accumulated, it will take a discerning eye and much circling to maintain his trail.



Ernest Thompson Seton in 1912 provided these very prudent words, “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.” I very humbly admit to having accomplished that feat twice, but it was and remains still, an exercise of immense concentration.




These are but a few of the many tactics employed by the deer tracker to bring a wary whitetail buck safely to bag. For as long as there are whitetail bucks to follow and huntsmen to take up their track, surely new twists and variations in this aged old game will be added.


Side Bar
Dispelling myths about deer tracks
Contrary to popular belief and written documentation when it comes to 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 whereas 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 to preserve his hide to their detriment but, not to ensure the coast is clear. Whitetails just don’t posses that kind of intellect.
6. Here are the Bernier criteria for assessing whether or not a buck is large enough for us to track:
A. We first look at the width of the track. If it measures 3 ¼” or more across it was made by a buck that will dress at 200 lbs. or better.
B. The depth of the track. How deep is he sinking into the earth and what portion of the track is more pronounced – the heavier a buck becomes the more his weight will press on the rear of his hoof rather than the tips.
C. Length of the track. Dew claws are least critical as there are a number of big footed bucks walking the planet that have not grown into their hoofs as of yet.
7. If after all of the above criteria is 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.


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer