Hunters can always find an excuse not to go hunting. Waking up too late, not knowing where to go, or having to do something lame like go to work, some hunters will always find a reason not to head into the woods. Of course, it’s these same hunters who need something to blame for their lack of ambition when they end up with an empty freezer at the end of the season.
Some will fault the animals themselves, saying things about how the elk weren’t bugling or the ducks weren’t flying. But the number one excuse for not going hunting is the conditions. Hunters will say things like it was too hot or too cold, the wind wasn’t right, essentially blaming the lack of perfect hunting circumstances for why they spent so many days of the season on the couch. Never is this more apparent than in the world of deer tracking.
Successfully tracking down a big buck only requires one thing, really—snow. Yet so many deer trackers require it to be the right snow. They want that perfect half-melted, soft walking, tracking snow that makes big buck tracks show up like the lights on an airport runway. The kind of snow that’s so quiet to move through that a hunter can leisurely follow a smoking fresh set of tracks through the woods and kill the buck that made them as if the deer was deaf, blind, and dumb. The problem is, of course, that snow hardly ever cooperates the way we want it to, so a lot of hunters end up sitting at home waiting for the perfect snow and miss out on a lot of big buck opportunities. As long as there’s at least some snow on the ground, you can go out and track down a buck.
Perfect snow is one of those almost mystical things that trackers always lament about. The kind of snow you hear old hunters at deer camp talk about seeing in some bygone era while telling a story about some giant buck they tracked down in the past. Of course, these hunters might also tell stories about the time they caught a leprechaun or hooked up with a mermaid because, like those two creatures, perfect snow is something that doesn’t actually exist. Perfect snow is something indefinable that exists for every deer tracker out there in a variety of different forms when the conditions match their preferred tracking method and hunting style.
“For me there’s no such thing as perfect snow but rather perfect conditions,” Master Maine Guide Hal Blood, owner of Big Woods Bucks Outfitters in Jackman, Maine, said. “A perfect snow for me would be a couple inches of damp snow on top of wet leaves so you could see the track perfectly, with four to five inches of powder on top to keep things quiet.”
But of course, that doesn’t ever happen. “What makes conditions perfect or close to perfect for me is wind,” Blood said. “You can deal with a lot of imperfect snow conditions if you have wind. I like to poke right along, through sticks and brush and crusty snow and whatnot, and for that, wind is the great equalizer because the sound of you moving along isn’t carrying beyond what you can see. You’ve got those windy days with snow blowing around and gusting around and stuff like that, those are the days I like to consider ‘a buck killing day’. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and kill one on the quiet days either.”
Hunters like Hal and other big woods buck trackers know that they have to adjust their hunting strategy to the conditions they have in front of them if they want to be successful and that waiting around for the right snow and other weather conditions to be perfect simply isn’t going to get it done.
“In an average deer season, you’ll have maybe a day or two of perfect tracking weather if you’re lucky,” legendary deer tracker Lanny Benoit said. Lanny is the eldest brother of Vermont’s famous Benoit family who, along with his brothers Shane and Lane and his father Larry, put the art of big buck tracking on the map in New England and across the entire country. “So, you’ve got to learn to deal with what you’ve got if you want to have any success as a tracker. Otherwise, you may as well stay home and watch football or something. You can kill a buck in cold, crunchy snow or fluffy snow or even hardly any snow, you just have to know how to go about doing it.”
Walking on crunchy snow can sound like a tracker is walking on cornflakes. It’s a sound that almost reverberates around quiet woods and can give you the feeling that you’re scaring every deer out of the country with each step you take. Crunchy snow is one of the biggest reasons that trackers quickly become tree stand hunters, believing that holding still is the better option as the sound of their walking through the woods will make it impossible to get close to a buck. However, with the right strategy, it’s still entirely possible to get a shot at a buck, even on the crustiest, crunchiest snow on the planet.
“In crunchy snow, I just try to sound like another deer,” Blood told MeatEater. “Deer make sounds when they walk in frozen snow too, so sometimes you can tip-toe along in their tracks so it’s not as noisy. But you have to sound like another deer walking. You can’t just walk heel to toe and try to sneak in loud snow. You have to walk like a deer, taking a few quick steps and stopping. The other thing to do is to mix in the occasional grunt or bleat as you go, either one will work because you want to sound like another deer and less like a predator.”
This can be an incredibly effective strategy and one that can draw a big buck back towards you, especially during the rut. When using this strategy, take a few quick steps, then call, and then sit back and listen for a few minutes. Occasionally, the buck you’re following will respond to your call by grunting back, and if you stay quiet and are close enough, you may even hear him walking back to you, giving you plenty of time to set up for a shot.
Another good strategy for hunting on crunchy snow is to keep up a faster pace while you’re behind the buck so that when he stops to see what’s following him, you can cover that last chunk of distance you might need to kill the buck before it has time to run.
“You can’t go too slow because they hear you coming from a long way off,“ Benoit said. “You can’t be sneaking and peaking, you’ve got to ‘crunch up on ‘em,’ as I like to say. Go fairly fast and don’t give him time to decide to run. It’s like when you come eye to eye with any deer in the woods or on the road or wherever, and they hold still for a few seconds before they take off—that’s your window.”
This strategy often requires a hunter to make some quick, accurate shots before the buck takes off so Lanny believes in always being ready. “When I’m tracking a buck like that, I’m not carrying my rifle on a sling or down by my side, I’ve got it up across my chest with the stock near my shoulder so when I see him I can be sure to get a bead on him real quick.”
Sparse and patchy snow where thick foliage or warm weather leaves long swaths of bare ground through the woods can be a difficult thing to manage for a lot of hunters. Tracking a buck in conditions like this means constantly losing the track in spots with no snow and having to make wide circles around an area to pick it up again. It can be slow-going and frustrating work that causes a lot of hunters to give up and go home. But it doesn’t have to be a long day of circling and pawing at patches of snow like a young hound going through training. Once you understand the general direction a buck is going, you can stay on his trail even when you don’t see any tracks.
“In patchy snow when you keep losing a track, you have to just think about how the deer is traveling and recognize the type of terrain they're going through,” Blood said. “Typically, when they're traveling, they have a method to their madness and after following a buck for a while, you can look ahead of you and even when you don’t see any tracks you can figure out where they’re most likely going by noting the similar type of terrain they’ve been traveling through. Some bucks like heading through thick brush, some bucks like staying under the trees, and so on. A lot of times when you lose the snow, you just go where you think he’s gonna go, and boom, there’s his track again. It's only when it’s not there that I’ll make a circle and head towards each piece of visible snow until I find it again.”
Bucks on the move will generally stick to an almost straight line when they’re going through the woods, only diverting slightly to feed or to make a quick visit to a scrape or a rub before continuing on their way again. It is a good idea, though, to make a quick circle when you haven’t seen a buck’s track for more than 100 yards to make sure you’re still behind him. This is because when a buck makes a real sharp turn off a chosen path, it’s generally when he’s planning on bedding down. This can only be indicated when tracking on sparse snow by suddenly finding the track going in an entirely different direction. Often, this means that you haven’t lost any time in circling out to look for his track because the buck is bedding not too far off.
“Experience helps a lot,” Todd Havel, owner of Misty River Trackers Tracking School and Youtube Channel, said. Todd tracks bucks down in the Northwoods of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario and believes that any hunter can stay with a buck in sparse snow conditions so long as they pay attention.
“Generally, big bucks want to hold their course, so you can just keep moving ahead even when you lose the track for 100 yards. Even if you don’t have any visible snow at that point, there’s still other ways to find it. If it’s a 200-pound buck and the ground is soft, he’ll dig in and leave a track, and you can find it that way, or you can even see where he may have passed through some fallen leaves," Havel said. "Once you get used to that, you can walk them a long way with no snow in front of you. One of the things to remember is to not focus so much on the tracks when you can’t see them because you’re no longer hunting the buck, you're hunting tracks, and when that moment of truth comes, you might not get the shot.”
Deep snow of a foot or more can be a real challenge for deer trackers. Whether it’s heavy wet snow or piles of deep powder, deep snow can be hard to identify buck tracks in, labor-intensive to walk through, and has left many a tracker with a long, slogging, exhausting day in the woods with no buck to show for it. Tracking in deep snow often requires hunters to have a bit of extra endurance and grit and to think a bit creatively to adapt their strategy and make sure they fill their tag.
“I do a lot of road hunting when the snow gets deep,” Havel said. “Driving down plowed roads can be the only way you can really get a good look at a track and tell if it’s a good buck worth following. Sometimes, though, the snow’s blowing around and filling in the tracks so that I’m only seeing dimples, but I’ve got a trick for that. I carry a short tube of PVC pipe in the truck with me, and whenever I see a blown-in track, I’ll blow the snow back out of it with the pipe. If you try to do this with just your breath, it won’t work because the snow will melt, but through the pipe, your breath cools enough so it will just blow the snow out and give you a good look at the track.”
Once a hunter finds a good buck track in deep snow, it’s fairly easy to stay on the track until it gets mixed in with other deer tracks. By paying attention to not only the size and shape of the track when you first find it but also to the buck’s stride and how he places his feet, it can be easy to pick out the buck you’re after, even if he’s walking through a herd of other deer.
“Big buck tracks are just wider and heavier than other deer, and they carry all their weight in their chest so they walk with this sort of rolling gait,” Benoit told MeatEater. “They’re also bigger deer and are gonna be taking longer strides that you might have to jump forward to match. Once you know what these tracks look like, it can be easy to pick out your buck’s track in deep snow because it just looks like something big has plowed on through. Hell, I can spot buck tracks in deep snow from a truck going 40 miles per hour.”
While tracking bucks in deep snow can be hard going for a hunter, a big buck in deep snow conditions is also going to be having a hard time traveling and for the most part, he’s not going to go very far before he needs to take a break. By picking up the freshest tracks possible, a hunter can really ensure that they won’t have to go as far to find their buck.
“You have to still catch up to them in deep snow and you can’t cover the amount of ground you normally would, so you have to be picky about their tracks,” Blood said. “In that kind of snow, you can’t make any time, but on the other side of that the bucks don’t usually travel as far either. So you want to be as selective as you can about the tracks you take and try to pick up a track made a little earlier in the day. Hopefully, the buck you’re tracking will be bedded down in the first set of trees you find on the ridge.”
The thing about big-woods buck tracking is that once you’ve done it a few times, it gets into your blood. There’s no other way to pursue a whitetail buck that brings you closer to your quarry and teaches you more about deer and deer hunting than letting a buck bring you to the places where he lives.
“It’s always an adventure, especially if you don’t know the country,” Benoit said. “Tracking a buck can take you three, four, or ten miles down into the backcountry and help you find those hidden places in the woods, where there’s deer all around you. It’s so much more fun than hunting the same place over and over again from a stand. Tracking is just the best way to deer hunt, it’s fun, it’s challenging, and if you push yourself, it can get you some big bucks. But you’ve got to get out and do it no matter the snow conditions if you want to be successful. There’s nothing special about me that makes me a good deer hunter beyond simple determination. I always tell people that when I’m on a good track, there’s only two things that are gonna save that buck, a big river or daylight ends, otherwise, he’s coming home with me.”
Whether you’re a hardened veteran or a rookie tracker new to the big woods, the key to success is not letting the conditions keep you at home. There’s never an excuse good enough for not going out and having an adventure in the woods.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.