Snow softly popped beneath my boot like wet popcorn as I eased my heel, then toe, down to the ground. I leaned forward, squinted eyes searching ahead, and thumbed the safety on my rifle. It was there, I was ready. I had to be ready.
“He could be right up hee-ya,” Hal whispered back to me in his thick lobsterman accent. “Stay tight to my shoulder now. If it happens, it’ll happen fast.”
This was the dream that so many hunters have about tracking deer. The snow and the forest and the mountain and a big-bodied buck, just ahead, at the end of the tracks.
I was here to see if I could find a cloven press in the snow, suss out its age and size, and then follow it down gullies and up ridgelines, across creeks and over hills, right to its maker. I was here to track a buck. But I never imagined it could happen on my very first day.
Lessons from the Legend My host and teacher on this hunt was the legendary Hal Blood, a master Maine guide and author of several well-read books on the art of tracking big woods bucks. With the Benoit family’s fade out of the mainstream media, Blood picked up the mantle and has now taught thousands of eager trackers how to walk down a buck through his writings and more recent exploits in online films and podcasts.
As a young boy hunting in Northern Michigan, I long held a romantic view of what it might be like to decipher a track in the snow and walk it to the buck himself, but I never had a mentor who could show me the ropes. Now I had one of the best in the world standing beside me on the edge of thousands of acres of Maine wilderness.
Hal stands well over six feet tall and moves in a gangly but confident manner. He wears a no-nonsense salt and pepper goatee, heavy on the salt, and a green checkered wool jacket straight out of central casting for Northeastern deer camps of the early 20th century. Finally, hinting at the fact that he knows something I don’t, he duct tapes the bottoms of his wool pants around the base of his rubber boots.
I’d heard Hal was good at what he does, but I also recognized that this style of hunting would be no small challenge. With low deer densities and vast stretches of country to cover, we might walk all day and never cross a buck track. Blood reiterated this to me right off the bat, explaining that we’d cover lots of ground and fast, not slowing down or worrying about being quiet until we stumbled on a track.
All of this made our first morning that much more surprising when, after just 30 minutes of hiking up a steep snow-covered slope, we came across a track that caught Hal’s attention.
What Makes a Track Worth Tracking? “Alright, you see this, this is what I call a crispy track,” he said while pointing down at a line of prints in the snow. The track had clearly defined edges and trailing puffs and clumps of tossed snow behind and in front of each print.
A crispy track, he explained, was a sign that this deer had likely passed through the night before, at least within the last 12 hours or so. “If it was made sometime in the night, whether it’s four hours old or 12 hours old, to me it’s still a fresh track. And most of the time I can catch that buck that day,” Blood said.
A fresh track’s cookie-cutter straight edges are often paired with a not yet frozen pancake of snow at the bottom, something I saw Blood test for by putting his fingers into the track and pressing down.
All this led to my next question. How can you tell if this track was made by a buck worth hunting? To this, Hal first explained that he recommends new trackers follow just about any decent-sized deer track, especially one with dewclaws pressed in behind the print.
Tracking down any buck, even a young one, represents a heck of an accomplishment and even if the deer ends up being a doe, it’s great practice. This, I’d soon learn, is something that any aspiring deer tracker needs a lot of. The track in front of us, while no whopper, would be perfect for my first day in class.
But, if a big old buck is what you’re after, the criteria is steeper. “I’m looking for a track that's a ‘three by three’, three inches long by three inches wide, although they’re never quite square like that,” he said. He tossed his Chapstick into the track as a reference. “It should be longer than that.”
A big buck track, he would later explain to me, also has large gaps between the toe pads. “It won’t be a heart-shaped print, there’s gonna be a space between the two toes, it can be almost an inch space on huge bucks,” he explained. Widely splayed dew claw marks, sometimes even turned perpendicular, are another good sign.
Finally, Blood likes a “toe draggah.” Big, heavy bucks, he’s found, will often drag their feet through the snow leaving long lines trailing behind.
On the Track This seemed too good to be true. Only a half-hour into my first day, amidst the postcard-perfect scene of snow softly wafting through a canopy of near-black pines, and we were already on a track.
Now would come the hard part, Hal told me. We had to catch up.
This is when the subtleties of hoofprint detective work are replaced with the brashness of the chase. There would be no “elmer fudding,” as Hal called it, no slowly sneaking through the woods in search of a wily whitetail. Rather, we’d hike as fast and as continuously as possible to catch up with this deer. We took off at what might charitably be called a brisk walk or, as one of my cameramen later described it, a good jog.
Despite Blood being near the age of my retired father, he sped across the up and down landscape like a man half his age. We hopped over creeks, clawed up muddy banks, and clambered over and around downed trees, boulders, and alder thickets.
This is where many first-time trackers drop the ball, I was told. Too many hunters feel obligated to slowly sneak their way through the woods, their ambush hunting habits being hard to break, and never end up getting anywhere near the buck that might be many miles ahead of them. Hal, and I now, would have no such problem. We would hike and hike and hike and only slow down when the evidence suggested that our quarry was doing the same.
We came upon our first such evidence about four miles in, as the buck’s track circled back on itself and then approached a steep cliff beneath a rocky point. The trail switch-backed up the slope, a tell-tale sign, Hal said, of a buck heading to a higher elevation bedding location. This, in addition to any other sign of meandering travel or visibly fed on vegetation, signals a new phase of the hunt.
It was time to enter “creep mode.”
The Creep “If it happens, it’ll happen fast,” he whispered.
Here, at the top of the point, we slowed to a crawl. Every patch of ground was studied before dropping a boot, every branch in the way slowly pushed aside as we passed, and every gap in the pines and oaks ahead scanned for a flat back, black nose, or white tail.
I held my rifle high and tight, imagining how I’d pull up and settle the scope if a buck materialized ahead. I should be prepared for the briefest of opportunities, I was told. Bucks in this situation flee fast, if you have even a moment of stillness you need to take advantage. Many trackers, Blood too, even advocate for shots at moving deer. “It might be the only chance you’ll get,” he said. Unfortunately, that would be one chance I wouldn’t take. The odds for success were even slimmer.
We took another step. I peered past Blood’s outline ahead of me hoping and wishing and willing a deer in existence. But none appeared.
The Sandwich Break “I think we bumped him,” he said. And here would be my final lesson in the Hal Blood way: “The Sandwich Break.”
Upon bumping a buck, whether it be visibly or by coming upon a fresh bed, Blood will sit down, eat a sandwich, and wait 30 minutes. Our “chicken dinner sandwich” was to die for.
Many other hunters, he lamented in between bites of leftover chicken and stuffing, will just keep on chasing a spooked buck and destroy their chances of success in the process. But by giving that bumped buck enough time to watch behind him and not see danger, he’ll eventually settle down and resume his routine. It’s at this point, after the first bump, that Blood enjoys his most success. He now knows he’s within a relatively short distance of the buck and that the deer is on the hoof. If conditions are right, namely having a little wind and not too crunchy of snow, his confidence now skyrockets.
From here Blood’s recommendation was to push forward, albeit slightly less haphazardly than in his earlier cover-ground mode. We began our trail run again and covered another four or five miles. But we never did catch up to that buck.
Off On My Own The next day I struck off on my own and began a three-day search of the white and winding hills of Maine. Along the way, I got to experience every phase of the game and work through each individual challenge for myself.
I found buck tracks, played Sherlock Holmes, and chased them down. I bumped bucks, enjoyed a meatloaf sandwich break, and even at one point, really truly thought I was about to see the buck at the end of the trail. And through all this and more I found a few things to be true.
I learned that tracking whitetails is, no surprises here, hard. Quite hard. It requires incredible physical endurance—I ended up hiking about 40 miles over four days—while demanding acute mental focus along the way too. My feet blistered and peeled. My knees clicked and popped. My head ached after hours staring at the ground, wracking my brain to translate the stories indiscriminately written in the snow.
But I also learned that it is fun. Quite fun. In no other form of hunting I’ve experienced can you rest assured that your quarry is in fact present and just ahead. Once you hit that track, in one form or another, hope abounds. Your dream is there in front of you, you just need to keep walking.
To my surprise, the excitement present after discovering a huntable track or refinding one after losing it in dry leaves was palpable. It was not unlike the rush I’ve felt so many other times when a buck appears in the distance and turns towards my stand.
The physical challenge, the detective work, and the slow-drip tension of the eventual creep made for a wildly diverse and engaging adventure. “You either hate it or you love it, there’s not usually much in between,” Hal frequently reminded me. And he was right.
I’ll be back.
Stay tuned for this hunt to be featured on MeatEater’s newest whitetail show, coming to the MeatEater YouTube channel later this year.
Images via Dylan Lenz.