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Following Tracks

January 23, 2018
By Ralph Scherder - Hunting Editor , Ohio Valley Outdoors

The late Charles Dobbins, highly regarded by trappers as an expert in animal behavior, once said something along the lines of "let the animal tell you what he wants." He also mentioned something about snow being the best teacher. That wisdom holds true whether you're learning the habits of coyotes or the patterns of whitetails. When there's snow on the ground, take advantage of the opportunity to spend a day in the woods following tracks. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Last fall I started hunting a new territory, and although I was successful in harvesting a good buck during gun season, several old monarchs gave me the slip. That's to be expected when just learning the nuances of new ground. Rarely does anyone ever walk right in and kill the biggest buck of their lives, unless they're extremely lucky. Rather, success is the result of an accumulation of knowledge, and then applying that knowledge to future situations.

As soon as the first snowfall hit, I revisited the territory I'd hunted. I made my rounds checking trail cameras, later finding out that a number of mature bucks had indeed made it through hunting season. Those photos gave me hope, but were also a slight kick to the gut. Even during the times when the woods felt vacant of wildlife, chances are those bucks were right under my nose the whole time, nestled in a thick cut somewhere, waiting until darkness to get up from their beds to feed.

Article Photos

When there’s snow on the ground, take advantage of the opportunity to spend a day in the woods following deer tracks. You might be surprised by what you learn. Photo courtesy of Ralph Scherder

With nothing to worry about, such as pushing deer into other hunters, I set about exploring many of the areas I'd been afraid to venture into during the fall because I hadn't wanted to risk spooking them.

I found a number of good bedding areas and spent a lot of time following tracks. Every time I came to an area where multiple trails intersected, I asked myself why they crossed there. Where were the deer going? Where were they coming from? I paid attention to surrounding terrain features, and I kept track of what locations would be best for certain wind directions.

Following tracks led me passed several old treestands you know the type, where the only remnants left are the wood frame of the platform because the rest of the stand disintegrated years ago. Old treestands always fascinate me. I always wonder who hunted there and what deer they killed from that stand. Every time I find an old stand, I know I've found a good spot to hunt. Few people go through the hassle of hauling in a bunch of lumber to build a treestand in a mediocre location. Even if the habitat in that area has changed, such as the cutting of mature forests, the area around those old treestands usually still has an abundance of deer sign.

One old treestand site in particular has a ton of potential for next year. It's located in a low gap on a ridge, and also near where a point extends out from the ridge. That point is loaded with white oak trees and a ton of old buck rubs not only from this past fall, but from previous falls as well. Off the south side of the point, thick brush and briars make for ideal bedding cover. I can't wait to hang a few trail cameras in that location to see what's around.

The fresh snow made for silent walking, so I crept up and peeked over the ridge. I spotted a big-bodied deer but it was too far away to tell if it was a buck. Still, it was a nice sight that put a little fire in my belly for next year.

Where you find bucks in the winter isn't always where you'll find them come fall. During winter, deer enter what scientists refer to as a semi-hibernation phase when their movements reduce to the bare minimum in order to conserve energy. They'll often crowd food sources, too, especially in low pressure areas by fall, when hunting pressure increases, they tend to move farther away from those sources. I've read studies where some deer actually starve to death because they move so little during extended periods of harsh weather, even though a food source may be relatively close.

A walk in the winter woods often reminds me that nature can be cruel. In my travels, I crossed numerous coyote tracks. In one location I found what appeared to be as many as four coyotes in a single pack. On several old logging roads I found fresh scat loaded with deer hair. I know they need to eat, too, but it's sometimes hard to accept that we're all after the same thing. Nobody likes to think of a big buck being taken down by a pack of coyotes, but it happens.

If nothing else, a walk in the winter woods provides insight into the struggles of the animals we covet. All summer we watch bucks grow their antlers. All fall we try to outsmart them. And all winter they try to outsmart predators and survive Mother Nature.

More than anything, following tracks in the snow is fun. It's a great way to get out of the house and enjoy nature. It can provide valuable insights into the world of whitetails that can help us next hunting season. But it can also provide a deeper understanding and appreciation for what a buck has to endure in order survive and eventually grow those antlers we desire so much.



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