Associations of the mind lean toward deer hunting this time of year, and a perfect example follows:
Not long ago, while dialing my cellphone outside the front door at Barnes and Noble in Augusta, I absent-mindedly watched an obese man with a pronounced sway plodding toward me in the parking lot, and like a duck, both feet poked outwardly from his line of travel. This waterfowl analogy started me thinking about tracking deer – the “associations of the mind” part.
Portly, big-bodied bucks with rut-swollen necks and heavy antlers also point the front hoofs to the outside, easily noticeable in snow, soft earth or wet leaves. This adaptation supports extra weight in the rut.
Exceptions to the rule exist, but that’s what they are – exceptions.
The man started me thinking – once again – that tracks tell plenty about the animal leaving the prints, and eight obvious tracking observations are worthy of mention:
1. The first one goes without saying: track width. However, a novice with limited hunting experience may call a buck’s hoof print huge, but without a ruler, that could be an erroneous conclusion. For me, my four fingers held together measure 3½ inches across, a mighty big buck. Few whitetail tracks are ever wider.
2. Even if the print measures 3 inches or slightly less, though, front hoofs pointing toward the outside tell me the buck deserves attention.
3. The two toes splay on the front hoofs of big bucks and even on the occasional large doe, but smaller deer toes stay tightly together.
4. If the distance between the two front hoof prints measures wider apart than most other deer tracks, that’s more proof of a big whitetail.
5. Huge bucks arguably have long toes because they put more even pressure on the entire hoof, which lessens deterioration on toe ends, particularly swamp bucks. Smaller deer exert weight on the tips of the hoofs, which wears the toes, making the print slightly shorter and more rounded.
6. In light snow, bucks leave obvious drag marks, and during rut, these troughs reach maximum lengths. A precise measurement offers a constant, though, to catalog in the memory bank for buck-size estimate. (I’ve never memorized exact lengths, but experience has taught me to glance at these drag lines and think, “Wow, what a buck!”)
7. Bucks large or small generally move in a straight line unless an obstacle or doe in estrous forces them to deviate; does meander.
8. Deer hoofs can be compared to a fingerprint, but this takes careful observation to notice individual characteristics on the hoof such as a chipped pad, concave surface, scar or any abnormality that gives the buck an identity.
Development and land posting in the bottom third of Maine generally stops hunters from following a deer’s fresh prints for miles, so how does tracking help put venison in the freezer?
For starters, veteran hunters determine the sections of woods that attract bucks at least part of the time and poke around the sign-rich areas.
Which brings up a crucial point. In my youth, magazine articles about deer hunting in other states led me to believe bucks traveled a trail at a particular time. The secret to success was figuring out that schedule – say, a deer crosses a swamp edge or ridge top at 3 p.m. most afternoons.
In Maine, though, determining specific times is a crapshoot. A scarce deer population, infertile soil producing less forage per acre and hunting pressure from hunters and coyotes make our deer travel on a more fluctuating schedule. Exceptions occur, but don’t bet a 401k on it.
Skilled hunters key on one or more bucks and haunt the areas with the most tracks, rubs and scrapes. With luck and old-fashioned deer knowledge, that plan increases the success ratio.
Hunters with deer calls, lures or rattling antlers tip the odds, too, which can never be underestimated. These tools help hunters maintain a high concentration level because such steps renew resolve through each day. This stops folks from getting careless because of boredom.
In short, knowing how to read tracks puts hunters in the right place, and using tactics to draw deer closer keeps eyes scrutinizing surrounding terrain or ears straining for the sound of rustling leaves in the distance.
In the end, the fortunate hunter may end up with a hunting story, a story that endures for two or three generations. Such folklore creates a big part of the hunting experience.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He may be reached at: