There are iconic images associated with the outdoors in Maine. A large brook trout sipping a fly. A burly bull moose feasting, chest deep in water. A landlocked salmon leaping, and of course, a large buck, slipping silently through the forest on fresh snow.
If you are a deer hunter, last week’s snowstorm came either a day late or day early. Deer hunting is a long and storied tradition and Maine, and tracking a deer in fresh snow is one of the most exciting ways to hunt.
Tracking deer is an art, a skill honed over years, and the best trackers continue to learn through experience and listening. There is an unmatched thrill in the chase of tracking a deer. It is an anticipation that is difficult to match when hunting from a stand or a blind.
Fresh snow is the key to tracking deer in Maine. A light dusting of 1 to 3 inches is ideal. Too much snow and deer sink deeply, tracks become difficult to distinguish, and tracking can become exhausting. Not enough snow and new tracks blend in with older tracks that aren’t quite covered.
Knowing whether the tracks are fresh or not is another key. Tracks become less defined over time due to a variety of factors. An easy way to tell how fresh they are is to put your fresh boot print next to a track and compare. If the level of definition is similar, you know that it is fresh.
Knowing whether the track is a buck or large doe is another skill which can be learned, but can be difficult. Some experts say that bucks drag their feet more than does, that a doe’s back foot will be slightly wider in the track than its front foot, and a buck will have a longer gait..
However, as a beginner, look for easier clues. This time of year, bucks will urinate as they walk, while does will stop. A trail of urine a few feet long indicates a buck, as will fresh scrapes on new snow. A buck often will put its nose down and will leave antler marks on either side of its tracks.
Once you start tracking your deer, pay attention to the direction and type of tracks you are following and adjust accordingly. If the tracks are in a straight line, the deer is moving quickly, and you should as well. However, if the tracks start to wander or roam, the deer has likely slowed down to feed or is getting ready to bed. You should slow down as well and proceed quietly at this point.
Walk alongside the tracks, so you can backtrack easily if you lose them. Pay attention to the wind, for a shift in the wind can quickly blow your cover. If the wind starts to change, loop to the downwind side.
Start your hunt early in the day. Cruise along back roads or logging roads until you come across a fresh track. The early start will give you extra hours in the woods, and darkness can come fast while tracking.
Before heading out, tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. Dress in light layers and bring a day pack with two compasses, a map, rope, headlamp, limb saw, extra batteries, a whistle, waterproof matches, tinder and some food.
Preseason scouting can increase your chances greatly. The best deer trackers pattern their deer prior to tracking. They know where they bed, where they feed and where they frequent. This can be invaluable.
Tracking deer also works best in areas where there are fewer deer, and even fewer roads and hunters. So the next time it snows, choose your hunting spot accordingly in order to increase your chances of success.
Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide and the landowner relations/recreational access coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.