“Tracking a big buck is the most frustrating thing on the planet. You’ll walk your legs off, lose the track, find the track, get lost, and a lot of times you’ll never even see the buck,” Lanny Benoit calmly said. Sitting in an armchair, his hands folded across his stomach and a small smirk on his face, Lanny let those words resonate as he scanned every face in the room before speaking again. “But once you start doing it, you’ll never want to hunt deer any other way again.”
We were all seated in a semicircle of chairs in the living room of Pine Grove Lodge in Bingham, Maine, hanging on every word the living legend had to say. It was the first day of the Benoit Tracking school and the comfortable room filled with mounts of giant bucks was the perfect place to first hear Lanny speak about the art of tracking. Lanny and his family put tracking on the map, building a legacy upon the art of following and killing big whitetails. As he spoke to the hushed room of trackers-to-be, everyone just knew it was going to be a good weekend–one that would perhaps change our hunting futures forever.
The Benoit Legacy and The Formation of The Tracking School
Go anywhere in the Northeast, and indeed the US, and mention the name Benoit to a deer hunter, and they’ll probably know who you’re talking about. The Benoit family has long been known for their deer hunting accomplishments. The family patriarch, Larry Benoit, became arguably the first modern deer hunting icon when he graced the cover of a 1970 issue of Sports Afield magazine captioned, “Larry Benoit—Is He the Best Deer Hunter in America?” This article, along with Larry’s 1974 book “How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life,” made Larry, along with his sons Lanny, Shane, Lane, and grandson Landon, into reluctant celebrities of the deer hunting world. For years during the peak of deer season, people would come for miles around just to see the giant bucks hanging from the porch of the Benoit’s home in Duxbury, Vermont.
“It all started with that porch,” Lanny Benoit told MeatEater. “It was amazing really. We’d have people from Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, and even Connecticut and New Jersey stopping by the house to look at the deer. People driving by would actually get into accidents right in front of our house. Everyone thought we were doing something illegal, but we just figured out a good system for hunting deer. Sometimes we’d have 15 or 20 people out there looking at the deer, and those folks would take pictures, ask us where we got them and how we found them. I suppose that was the first time we really started talking to other people about tracking.”
More than happy to share their knowledge about the whitetail world, the Benoit’s began taking friends and friends of friends on hunts, not as guides but as instructors, teaching their fellow deer hunters about their tracking methods and how to find and hunt big bucks. Soon they started giving demonstrations at outdoor shows and taking hunters out from different lodges. Eventually, the Benoit’s became so requested that they decided to start teaching on a grander scale by forming their own tracking school.
“We always wanted to teach people how to become better deer hunters,” Lanny says. “So I just said one day ‘You know there’s a school for everything, fly fishing, bird hunting, skiing, why isn’t there one for deer hunting?’ There’s just so many people who don’t know how to sight in their guns properly or how to find a big buck track or what to do with it when they find it. I wanted to share information. We tried having a school in New Brunswick, but it was during hunting season so we couldn’t shoot much, and folks were always distracted by actually getting their deer. So, we decided to do it in the spring. I contacted Bob Howe at Pine Grove, where we’d been hunting and guiding for a few years. He was looking to have people at the lodge in the spring when things were slow. So we set it up and we were off and running.”
Lanny and Bob, along with Lanny’s brother Shane and son Landon, designed a curriculum for the school. They knew that they could only show hunters so much in a couple day, so they broke it down into the most vital points of being a successful deer tracker–the Death Creep, Making the Shot, and Field Work. These were the places where people made most of their mistakes when hunting and tracking in the big woods.
The first day of the guide school is all about what the Benoits call “The Death Creep.” After following a buck and getting close to where it’s bedded down or casually feeding, you have to learn to slow down and try to spot the buck before it spots you. It’s a zero-hour moment and is probably the time when most mistakes are made. As you get closer to the buck, the pressure begins to build, and slipping up can be all too easy.
“The death creep is the hardest part of tracking,” Landon Benoit said. “You’ve been out all day, on his trail, and you’re tired and then suddenly, it all comes down to this moment. If you don’t spot the buck first, he’s going to spook and take off and you’ve got to start over from scratch. That’s why learning to spot a buck in the woods is so important. You’ve got to learn to take apart the woods with your eyeballs and train yourself to see that buck.”
To help students learn to spot a buck in thick cover, the instructors set up a course through a thick patch of woods where they hang a couple of buck mounts just off the trail, placing them in spots where a buck is most likely to be hiding and watching his back trail. Students then make their way through the course one at a time accompanied by an instructor to see if they can spot the bucks. Carrying a rifle and wearing their hunting gear to make the experience as realistic as possible, the tracking students have to learn to look, not just for the deer themselves, but for something that doesn’t look quite right. The tip of a buck’s antler shining in the sun, the curved line of their neck between two trees, and the glitter of a buck’s eye staring at you from the brush are all things that students learn to spot when they’re on their final approach. Each student is given a certain amount of time to find the buck before the animal is pointed out to them so they can see what they missed out on.
After each student runs the course individually, they meet the instructors at the end of the trail to discuss not only the course and where they made their mistakes but also the tracking school itself and what it takes to be a deer tracker.
“Out of all the students we get through here, maybe two of them become trackers,” former tracking school student and current instructor Timmy Bouldoc told students at the end of the Death Creep. “Trackers are like the Navy Seals of deer hunting. It takes a certain kind of person to do it well. We can show you everything you need to know, but being a good tracker is about sticking with it. It’s about finding those tracks and following them for hours or even days at a time until you get your shot. You’ll put yourself through a lot, but if you stay determined, you’ll get the buck you’re looking for.”
The second day of the tracking school is all about shooting. Whether it’s at long range or short or on a running buck or a bedded buck, being able to make that shot is an essential part of being an effective tracker, and the instructors at the tracking school all believe that practice makes perfect.
“To be a good big buck hunter, you’ve got to know how to shoot and you’ve got to know your gun,” Lanny Benoit told MeatEater. “We always have the students bring their deer rifles so they can get used to shooting them and really see what they can do. Most guys who come only shoot once or twice a year. They sight in before deer season and then think they’re ready but there’s much more to it than that. To be a good big buck hunter, you’ve just got to shoot a lot.”
On the morning of the second day, the instructors set up a long-range shooting course so that the students can find out exactly what their rifles are capable of hitting. Most trackers in the big woods get shots at bucks within 30 to 100 yards, but occasionally they spot the buck they’re tracking at greater distances and will want to make those opportunities count.
“You might spot your buck walking out across a power line or a field or something at 300 or 400 yards,” tracking school instructor George Barker told students before the shooting course. “That might be your only shot of the day or even all of deer season, so you want to be able to hit him. Because if he gets away or you try to get closer or something like that, you might not get another opportunity to kill him. Being comfortable at long range definitely helps get you your buck. ”
In addition to their deer rifles, students also learn how to load and shoot muzzleloaders provided by instructor Timmy Boulduc, who works as the Sales and Marketing manager at Woodman Arms—a company that builds muzzleloaders specifically designed for deer trackers.
“Muzzleloading and tracking almost go hand in hand nowadays,” Boulduc told MeatEater. “With changing winters, a lot of hunters only get good tracking snow in the late season when a muzzleloader is the only weapon you can use. Learning how to load and shoot them accurately so you can hunt in the late season extends your time in the woods which can make all the difference to your success as a deer tracker.”
The long-range shooting is set up with two targets at 100 yards and 350 yards with the students first shooting at the closest target to make sure their guns are sighted in, before reaching out to longer range. All the shooting instruction is overseen by ballistics expert John Hutter who, as a former tracking school student, knows exactly what the students need to learn to shoot big bucks in the big woods.
“One of the reasons that Lanny brings me here is because one of my hobbies is shooting and I know more than your average bear,” Hutter told MeatEater. “So I’m able to help out and point the guys in the right direction and help to get their guns sighted in correctly and to learn about the capabilities of their rifles. A lot of people don’t get the chance to shoot their guns at longer ranges so I think that this part of the course is a little bit of an eye-opener for them.”
After the morning long-range shooting session, the students then move on to learning how to hit moving targets. Much of the time in big woods hunting, the only chance you get to kill a big buck is after you have jumped him and he’s running hell for leather to escape. A lot of hunters aren’t comfortable shooting at a running deer, but the instructors at the tracking school know that it may be your only chance and that with a bit of practice, it’s entirely possible to make ethical and accurate shots on running bucks.
The Benoit’s all believe that accuracy on a running deer all comes from instinctive style shooting and so they begin the afternoon’s shooting instruction with a skeet shooting session to get the students warmed up before they move onto more real-world scenarios.
“I like shooting a lot of skeet,” Lanny Benoit, a former skeet shooting champion, said. “It teaches you to follow targets with your eyes and your gun and is a great warm-up before we move on to shooting moving targets with rifles.”
For rifle practice, the instructors at the school use tires with targets attached that are rolled down a small hill. Each student gets a chance to shoot at the tires, which move and bounce haphazardly like a running deer, learning how to make quick and accurate shots with their rifles. After each tire rolling session, instructors go over the accuracy and groupings with each student to help them better understand the finer details of shooting at moving targets.
“We like to show everyone how to do a proper lead and how to shoot instinctively,” Lanny said. “So that when they’re out there shooting at a running buck, they won’t have to think about it. They’ll just look at that buck’s shoulder going through the trees and then they’ll raise up and kill him.”
The third and final day of the tracking school is spent in the woods. The students are loaded up into trucks and driven into the Maine backcountry where they are shown not only how to identify big buck tracks but how to find them. The students learn what makes good deer habitat and how to identify it from a distance before moving into the woods for some more in-depth scouting.
“We want these guys to leave here knowing where to start looking for a buck worth tracking,” tracking school instructor Glenn Bombardier told MeatEater. “We want them to be able to look at a mountain and identify the different mountain saddles and tree species where they are most likely to find a deer. It’s what makes the Benoit style of hunting so effective and it makes it unanimous because it’s not just for deer trackers. Tree stand hunters, ground blind hunters, and still hunters can all take something from this course because it’s all about finding big bucks.”
After learning what makes up good deer hunting country, the students follow the instructors into the woodlands to find deer sign and to learn how to identify the tracks of a mature buck. They look at deer trails and food sources and search for tracks that, once they are found, are then scrutinized by the instructors so that the tracking students know exactly what to look for in a good buck track. Big bucks walk differently from small bucks. They take different routes and walk with a sort of swagger all their own. The instructors teach students how to see these traits in a buck’s stride and in its track to help them learn to separate a decent buck from a true monster.
“You can’t just willy-nilly follow any old buck track you find and expect to get the big buck you’ve been dreaming about all year,” Lanny said. “You’ve got to be able to tell how big that buck is by how big his track is and by the way he walks, the way he puts his feet down. It takes a lot of looking at deer tracks to understand this but eventually, it becomes instinctive. When I see the buck I want, it does something to my mind. I can’t explain it exactly, but I know that buck is the one I’m going to go after and the one that will hopefully be riding home with me in the back of my truck at the end of the day.”
Every evening of the tracking school is spent in the living room or around a campfire at the lodge, where the students swat mosquitoes, look up at the stars, and have their questions answered. It is a time to enjoy the rugged yet relaxed comfort of the Maine wilderness and to listen to the instructors as they give advice and tell big buck stories from the past.
“In the evenings, we sit around a lot to answer specific questions and I can tell different stories about the bucks that I’ve tracked,” Lanny said. “You get a lot out of that because I’m always bringing up stuff that I take for granted. Little details about how a certain buck was walking or where he was heading to are things that other hunters recognize happening in their own hunting. You can learn a lot from storytelling because there’s always a lot of interesting stuff in there that can help you shoot a deer.”
It is these stories that resonate most with each of the students. After they receive their tracking school certificates at the end of the course,the stories are the thing that will stick with them. Not just the tales told to them by Lanny Benoit and the other instructors or even the ones they shared during their time taking the course, but also the ones that they are going to tell in the future. After taking the Benoit Tracking school, the students can head into the woods in the fall knowing that they will get on a big woods buck’s trail and write some epic tracking tales of their very own.