Tracking Bucks Using A GPS

Posted on February 18, 2020

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Once you know where they go, you’ll quickly realize that you don’t really need the snow! – R.G. Bernier

 

Anticipation was running high as I lumbered up the mountain. The source of my newfound excitement was four inches of freshly fallen snow. Somewhere up on the top lived the buck that I was after and today, for the first time during the season, he would not be able to conceal his comings and goings.

 

The texture of the snow was wet and would provide cookie-cutter imprints, if I could only find a track. It was eerily silent with a thin fog hanging close to the ground. For nearly four hours it seemed that this pristine world of white held no forest inhabitants; at least none that were moving anyway.
I was joined on this morning’s foray by one of my hunting partners, Big Daddy. Don’t ask how he got that tag line; just know that although he is a Dad, he is definitely not that big. “So where are the deer Bernier?” my friend ribbed, “I thought you were going to show me how to run one down?”

With a wry smirk and wink of the eye, I replied, “All in good time my friend, all in good time.” Despite feeling a bit pressured, my resolve and expectancy to locate a good buck track remained high as we pushed on.

Suddenly and without warning, out of a labyrinth of tightly knit firs bounded a huge doe. Although no buck was trailing her, despite the chase phase of the rut being underway, I knew from experience that other deer would not be far away.

 

Now we were on red alert, carefully placing each step, scrutinizing every part of the real estate as we methodically proceeded. And then, as hoped for, not 75-yards away were two sets of imprints, one of which belonged to a fine buck. I turned to my friend and uttered, “Let the games begin.”

The buck was trailing a doe, but unfortunately for us, his interest was not peaked enough to follow her for very long. After a few hundred yards we rounded a bend in the trail and instantly spotted a large, freshly vacated bed located at the apex of this knob, a hiding spot that provided him all the advantage. The noise generated from compressing wet snow beneath our boots in the absence of any wind had given us away.

The GPS

Here now is where a GPS with maps becomes an incredible tool beyond letting one know where they are in the woods. By leaving the unit on it was recording our every step and facilitated marking several waypoints as we tracked this buck. The other advantage was being able to view the terrain ahead of us on the GPS, and knowing how whitetails use specific terrain, that provided clues as to how this buck would travel.

 

The buck had leapt off the knob and was taking huge, effortless bounds in his escape. Initially he headed south. However, as the forest began to tighten and become more difficult to pilot, the buck’s trail swerved west staying just above the morass. He ran for what seemed like a long distance, but in reality, how long can it actually take a bounding buck to cover a quarter mile? Not long, I assure you.

This was an unfamiliar landscape to me, but the course was dictated by the buck. One thing is for certain, regardless of where he leads, if you are going to catch him, where he goes you must follow, and follow we did. The one drawback to this chase was how late in the day it was before we located his track. Starting a buck at eleven o-clock in the morning is not an ideal situation.

For the first time since jumping him, the buck’s pace slowed from a run to a fast walk. At this point we halted to look at the map to see what the terrain ahead would be like. There was a long bench, the very one he jumped down onto then pointed his nose north using a four-decade old path to walk.

 

A little further on, and there they were, his prints showing he turned where he obviously had stopped to look back. And then the inevitable proof that you’ve been spotted, he was once again running. Swerving east he loped until his spoor intersected other deer prints, which in turn led us to a place in the forest where loggers had selectively cut.

Unbelievably, we walked onto where he had briefly bedded again, only this time when he exited it was at a casual walk. This meant two things, he seemed to have forgotten about his pursuers, and secondly, we had some ground to make up. No buck rises from his bed and walks away if he feels threatened.

Reversing his direction to the west now, the hounded beast walked us through several other deer trails; it appeared as though nature’s children had finally awoken, and they were indiscriminately moving about. The buck was now relying on his cunning rather than trying to outdistance us. His trail intersected two other respectable buck prints, tracks that were hot on the dainty slots of a doe. Although he crossed several does prints himself, this buck was much more concerned with preserving his hide and refrained from any thoughts of seeking a doe with interest.

 

It was getting late in the day and the buck was heading directly north, the direction from which we had begun our journey at first light. Still not certain where we were, the buck crossed a streambed located between two beaver flowages. Recognizing this spot by a distinctive rock outcropping, having been there two days prior, I told my pal I knew exactly where we were. With precious little time left, we picked up our pace with the hope of at least getting a look at the big fellow. But it was not to be on this day. We left his track at the edge of a big beaver meadow under the shadow of eventide.

Knowing Where & Understanding How Deer Use the Landscape

Whitetails, much like bass, live and use structure in the landscape that benefit them. To the untrained eye, the woods look pretty much the same, but as one refines their skill of observation, they see that there are indeed certain topographical features that attract and keep deer within that plot of ground.

 

Water is the chief component that I first look for, find the water and deer will not be far away. Next, I look for where the terrain rises near the water. I’m essentially looking for hills, ridges or even mountains. Bucks will always be up high and traverse down to the doe populations near the best feed and water using fingers coming off the elevated ground. Other than when they are with or chasing does, bucks will bed high.

The Lesson

Although we did not capture our prize, much valuable information was certainly gained in the process of this adventure. That evening back at camp, my hunting partner, using the many waypoints he had taken during our trek, plotted on a map the entire route the buck had taken during the chase. As it turns out, the buck led us in a big circle. Included in this information was where the buck had intercepted other buck tracks, and the location of doe groups, all worthwhile information for future hunts.

 

With this knowledge, coupled with knowing deer behavior and their geographic preferences, much of the puzzle can been solved. Now, when tracking that buck or another that takes the same route, (all deer will use the same routes for the same reason they were first established) I can look at my GPS and make an educated guess as to where he is about to go. In turn, I can leave the track, make a loop to where I think he will be heading and intercept him. If he has already passed through, I can repeat the process, multiple times if needed. I call this strategy ‘Stitching.’ If there is two of us, this tactic becomes incredibly effective. One guy stays on the track while the other stitches ahead. As the tracker who is stitching waits, either the buck or trailing tracker will appear. My Pop and I used this method for years before GPS was available.

 

And so, after this experience, I became a convert to the use of a GPS. Not so much to find my way out of the bush, but more so for the value of pinpointing where specific deer are traveling, how they are using the terrain and where their favored escape routes are. It really is almost like cheating.

 

The invaluable lessons from this experience provided increased opportunities as the season progressed, despite the disappearance of snow – once you know where they go, you will quickly realize that you don’t really need the snow!

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer