His name was Ernie. The sun has just gone down on the last day of the Vermont deer season when the flannel-clad old man with a white beard backed his rusty Chevy into the parking lot with the antlers of the biggest 10-pointer I’d ever seen sticking up from the tailgate. I was 17 years old, sitting in my car outside the general store and big game check-in station, eating beef jerky and begrudging my rotten luck. I hadn’t gotten a buck and had only dropped by to see if the check-in station was empty when Ernie arrived. I dropped my jerky and jumped out of my truck to introduce myself and hear the old man’s tale.
“Where’d you get the buck, Ernie?” I asked marveling at the brute. He pointed nonchalantly off into the darkness. “Up on that mountain.” I looked off towards the vast and seemingly endless shadow that formed the distant horizon. “How’d you find him way up there?” I asked. “Tracked him down,” Ernie said with a shrug—and just like that my life as a deer hunter changed forever.
In the modern whitetail world of food plots, trail cams, and tree stands, the art of tracking down a buck is becoming a forgotten practice. Yet in states like Vermont and Maine where deer densities are often less than one buck per square mile and finding the right spot to set a stand is like playing a life-size game of Where’s Waldo, tracking remains an efficient and rewarding way to find a trophy buck. Additionally, having tracked bucks from New England and New York to Indiana, Montana, and Wyoming, I can say that for hunters who like to walk, the technique will work anywhere you have wide swaths of country, big bucks, and most importantly, snow.
Snow is vital to successful tracking. Although it is possible to find and follow tracks on bare ground, snow allows you to determine whether the tracks you’re seeing belong to a trophy buck and to follow them quickly enough to catch up. According to Hal Blood, legendary deer tracker and author of the book Hunting Big Woods Bucks, being able to identify big buck tracks is the most crucial skill a deer tracker can have.
“You got to know that the tracks in front of you were not only made by a buck but that they were made by a buck worth following. They’re easy enough to identify once you’ve had a little practice,” Blood said. “A big buck’s footprints will obviously be bigger than other deer tracks, but there’s more to it than that. Big bucks walk a certain way, sort of with a swagger where they swing their legs outward. They’ll have a long stride, drag their feet a bit, and the dew claws will be perpendicular to the hoof print.”
There are other signs to look for to determine whether the tracks you’re seeing belong to a buck. They’ll leave impressions in the snow with their antlers when they put their heads down to feed or sniff at scrapes and go around tight gaps in the trees or areas with a lot of thick brush where their antlers may get caught up as they’re walking. Unlike does who squat down to urinate, bucks pee on the move, splattering sign across the snow. Such indications can tell you that you’re on the trail of a buck and even give you an idea of what his antlers look like, but you can only really find these signs by following the tracks.
“When you first start out you’re not a tracker, you’re a track follower,” Blood said. “But if you keep at it and learn to read the sign, eventually it becomes second nature. You’ll be able to see the tracks, know they’re from a good buck, and know they’re fresh enough to follow.”
Identifying the freshness of buck tracks is vital to success. You don’t want to waste your time following the trail of a buck you won’t be able to catch up to. The best way to do this is by following the weather. Knowing when snow has fallen, how much has accumulated, and how much has melted in the past few days will give you at least an idea of when the buck made the track. Fresh tracks will have sharp, clearly defined edges and not be melted out in warm weather or filled with snow when none has recently fallen.
Finding fresh buck tracks in large chunks of otherwise empty forests can be one of the most difficult aspects of tracking. Trackers like Hal Blood spend a lot of time in the woods on foot before, during, and after the season, scouting out spots and taking note of areas that have produced in the past or seem like they have big buck potential.
“I have particular areas I like. So, I try to get to where I want to be early in the morning so that I’m in the woods at daylight,” Blood said. “If I’m striking off to find a track, I’ll head up to the top of a ridge and then walk the length of it because the bucks are usually going to come off one side or another. Once I cut a good trail, I’ll see where it takes me.”
This is an efficient way to find a good buck track when you know the area and have had a lot of time to scout. However, if you’re in new and unfamiliar ground during the season, it’s still possible to find and track down a big buck by covering ground quickly and finding tracks or potential hunting spots from a vehicle.
“I put in a lot of roadwork when I’m checking out unfamiliar territory,” expert deer tracker Rodney Elmer said. Elmer, along with his sons Taylor, Rion, and Casey host the Mountain Deer YouTube channel and podcast. “Almost everywhere you go in the woods, there’s a sort of chalkboard of old logging roads or trails that you can drive a truck or ATV around in and learn about.”
Elmer especially likes to scout from a vehicle when he’s with multiple hunters because he can drop them off in a section of woods and then drive around to another area to pick them up and make a plan for the rest of the day—depending on whether or not they found a good buck track.
“It’s like playing battleship, where you fire a line across an entire board,” Elmer said. “Circling around a spot with the truck gives you lots of opportunity to isolate where bucks are and with hunting partners, we can blast right straight through a new area and check a chunk of woods for tracks first thing in the morning. It’s one of the best ways to find out what happened during the night and ensure that you’re following a fresh trail.”
Trailing a big whitetail buck is a nuanced thing. You have to move quickly enough to make up the time from when the buck made the track to when you found it, but not so fast that you end up bumping the deer. During the rut when big bucks are either following does or covering a lot of ground looking for does, their tracks will be traveling in a straight line through the woods in large even strides. That’s a buck that’s on the move, and you’ll want to move quick to catch up. However, if the buck starts to meander, taking multiple turns through the woods, stopping to feed or stand in place, it’s time to slow down and start looking for the deer. A lot of first-time trackers make the mistake of getting so focused on the track and looking at the ground they’ll walk right into the buck, sending him running into the next county. Therefore, it is vital that whenever you feel like you’re getting close keep your head up and your eyes on the woods in front of you, ready to take the shot.
“You always have to try to figure out what he’s doing,” Elmer said. “If he’s slowed down and is wandering in tiny areas and feeding, it’s time for you to slow down. I always tell myself ‘Okay I’m in his house, now I got to slip into his bedroom.’ I’ll start calling a bit and see if I can get him to come to me or I’ll just start creeping forward looking for him. You have to take it easy, that’s the best advice I can give, take it easy and work your way right into him.”
Before that day at the general store, I had tried all manner of deer hunting. From sitting in tree stands over likely spots to bribing my friends to mooch for me, none of it ever really worked for me. I just wasn’t a hunter who could hold still and wait for a buck to come to me. I had to go out and find him. After talking with Ernie, I bought every book I could find on tracking whitetail bucks. By the following season, I was out of the stand and on the trail.
Tracking works because it allows you to rely on your own woodsmanship for success and completely immerses you in a buck’s hidden world. From a buck’s tracks you get to see where he likes to go, what he likes to eat, whether he’s looking for or following a doe, and where he likes to bed down. Tracking takes the guesswork out of deer hunting. You never have to wonder where the buck is because he’s right in front of you and if you read the sign and keep your chin up, you’ll catch up with him soon enough.
Feature image via Matt Hansen Photography.