Ask The Deer Tracker

Posted on February 4, 2020


February Column



Editor’s note: Anyone wishing to send a question for future “Ask The Deer Tracker” posts can e-mail it to,


Q. – I have experienced a problem locating deer after the season, late December to January in the area that I hunt. My hunting grounds are in the remote wilderness of the Adirondacks. I know they yard, but how far will these deer travel to get there and what triggers them to move?
J. R. – Potsdam, NY

A. – Whitetails living in the wilderness actually have two homes. During late spring through autumn deer reside on what is known as their summer range. Instinctively, these whitetails return year after year as long as there is adequate food and shelter. This is the same area where you are hunting deer.



Seasonal rhythms in a whitetail’s behavior are influenced by environmental factors, not the least of which is cold temperatures and snow depth. Once snow depths reach 18 inches and the mean temperature hovers at or below 19 degrees for three or more days something triggers deer to begin migrating to their traditional wintering area known as yards. The first deer to start are does and yearlings. Bucks are usually the most reluctant to leave the summer range and they may take several days longer before arriving. Once in the yard, whitetails are adapted to handle roughly 90 days subsiding on less than quality forage. The yard typically consists of a 40-foot canopy of spruce, hemlock, cedar and pine. These specialized wintering grounds are located near a watershed with south facing slopes.

Due to the fact that wintering whitetails subsist solely on natural browse containing little nutrition, they are operating on a negative energy balance. Thus, they conserve energy by remaining inactive for long periods of time and stay on well-packed trails. To reach the deeryard, some whitetails will travel 20 miles or more even if there may be a better suited area closer to the summer range. This behavior, even though it makes little sense, and could during severe winters be costly to the animals, is in fact instinctive. It is the yard they have always used and short of it being leveled they will continue to return, year after year.

My guess is the deer you are hunting during the fall have migrated to their winter yard, which could be located miles away leaving you with no trace of a whitetail having ever lived in that area.

Q. – I’m a fledgling tracker who has much to learn and a willingness to apply whatever insight I can get. My question to you is, how do you go about judging the age of a track, and how old does that track have to be before you dismiss it regardless of how big the animal may be?
B. K. – Sparta, MI

A. – The ability to properly age a deer track, like a good wine, takes time to develop. Practice, practice and more practice along with a good dose of being aware of the atmospheric conditions. From the time a deer or any other living creature leaves its print, it begins to deteriorate. Based on where the track is located will have a direct impact on how quickly the spoor becomes faded. The most important aspect to look for in a track is how sharp the outline appears. This will appear different for each type of snow, but again, we are looking for a cookie-cutter, sharp image.


As far as how old that deer’s track is before I’m disinterested in following it is really predicated on several variables. My general rule is, if a track is over 3-hours old I will not waste my time. One needs to seriously question anyone that tells you differently. Why? Because in the country that I hunt whitetails, a buck must travel great distances to reach doe groups, sometimes his visitations will encompass upward of twenty miles or more in a 24-hour period. I can be 2-minutes behind a buck that doesn’t stop and never catch up to him all day. However, if I encounter a buck that is closely following a doe, and I know that she is ready to breed, I may indeed follow even if the track might be 4-to-6 hours old. The reason for this is simple, a doe covers only a ¼ of the ground a buck will, and he is not going to leave her. Other instances where I will break the three-hour rule is during the recovery phase of the rut, a time when bucks are on their bellies and moving very little.

Q. – I hunt in a working forest that is in several stages of regeneration. Some sections were cut years ago, some just two years ago and other spots are currently being logged. I know that whitetails are drawn to such areas but why and when does a cut become ideal to hunt over?
A.B. – Glover, VT



A. – The logger’s chain saw, or better yet, his harvester is a whitetail’s dinner bell. During late fall and early winter, fresh cuts are a huge attractant to resident deer. They come to dine on the treetops left in the feller’s wake. However, that is only an immediate and temporary attraction. The following year, and especially the second year after is when whitetails gain the most benefit from a cut. With the canopy cut and ground exposed to sunlight, succulent new growth begins to sprout. As this grows, whitetails gravitate to it as if it were the corner candy store. By the third year following a cut, enough growth has occurred where the deer are concealed, and they will spend lots of time feeding and even bedding in the cover.


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