Hunters spent a lot of time focused on deer signs. Mainly, we focus on the typical signposts that a buck was near, scrapes, rubs, licking branches, etc. While most hunters note deer tracks, they don’t often stop to think much about the wild animals that made them. They don’t contemplate where the deer was going, how fast it moved, or what animal made the hoof prints. Could it have been a doe with two fawns? Maybe it was a displaced button buck. Or was it the buck of your dreams? There’s a bit more to deer prints than you might realize, and once you learn how to analyze tracks a little more thoroughly, a broader and more precise picture of deer behavior and movements begins to unveil itself. This is everything you can learn about the tracks you see on the deer trails in your hunting area.
Identifying Deer Tracks
If you’re new to deer hunting, track identification is one of the easier things to learn. We’ve already discussed the hooves of deer at length so that we won’t get too deep into the weeds on that. All you really need to know is that deer are cloven hoof animals, and they leave a distinct, roughly heart-shaped, split-toed footprint that you don’t need to be a tracker to identify. Of course, many cloven hoof animals live here in North America, so it becomes harder to determine the exact species in areas where mule deer and other ungulates live.
There is some discord among hunters on how they measure tracks. Some only measure the two cloven hooves. Others include the dew claws, which are vestigial and are not always visible. Generally, an adult white-tailed deer track, measuring just the two main parts of the hoof, will measure 2-3 inches long and maybe 2-2.5 inches across. Some larger bucks may have feet that are 3 inches across.
The appearance of the tracks may vary depending on the deer’s health and weight. Sometimes deer experience uncontrolled growth of their hooves due to a condition called “sleigh hoof,” which essentially causes the Keratin in their hooves to grow uncontrollably, to extreme discomfort. Fortunately, the condition is rare. However, it’s probably a good bet that a deer with more pointed tracks is younger than one with prints where the toes are rounded. That brings us to another frequently asked question.
The Difference Between Buck & Doe Tracks
Now, I’ve heard a lot of differing opinions and theories on how to analyze the deer tracks we find in the forest over the years. With all due respect to the old-timer hunters out there and their tracking abilities, I have concluded, after 23 years of hunting, there is no reliable way to tell the difference between doe tracks and buck tracks. Not unless you see the deer make them. I don’t claim to be an expert tracker. I say this because I’ve witnessed exceptions to almost every “rule” I’ve ever been told on the subject. For instance, people have told me for years that bucks drag their toes in the snow and that all snow tracks with drag marks are bucks. It sounds good in theory. However, I hate to burst their bubble, but during the Michigan firearms season just this year, I watched several older and very large does dragging their toes in six to eight inches of snow in a food plot. It made me wonder how many times I’ve been fooled over the years.
Likewise, I don’t believe the appearance of dew claws in the tracks indicates a buck. I’ve seen plenty of fat does leave dew claw marks, given the right soil and situation. Whenever a deer leaps a fence, the front feet will almost always show dew claws because all the animal’s weight is coming down upon them. Likewise, if an animal rears up on its hind feet to snatch an apple or other forage out of a tree, you’ll likely get dew claw marks with all the weight shifted to the rear. I’ve also concluded that splayed tracks play no part in the equation. Any deer that’s fat enough will leave splayed toe marks, given the right soil, especially if they are on the move.
The weight of the deer is another variable that’s hard to ignore. I’ve harvested a few bucks with large bodies and thick necks that left very deep tracks. However, I’ve also seen rutting bucks that ran themselves thinner than the does in the area, leaving tracks some might mistake for female deer. Every deer is distinctly different in its behaviors, so it’s difficult for me to paint the tracks they leave with a broad brush.
At the end of the day, I think too many variables can come into play when determining with any finality whether a buck or doe made a track. Was the animal running or walking? What type of terrain was present? Even a fat deer will leave a little impression in sun-baked, hard-packed soil like you might find on the edge of a food plot in summer. Likewise, even a yearling’s tracks can get distorted in the snow if they melt and enlarge.
That said, I believe it’s possible to guess which kind of deer left a track. If the track is 3-3.5 inches or more (excluding dew claws) and is especially deep, there’s probably a good chance you’re dealing with a buck. At the very least, a rather large-bodied deer in the area should help you fill your freezer. Remember that fresh tracks are least likely to be distorted and will show sharp detail and features. The older tracks tend to get distorted, especially in the snow.
Things You Can Learn From Deer Tracks
While I don’t think it’s likely possible to identify a deer based on its tracks definitively, they are still a vital clue while hunting. Animal tracks are an obvious signpost that a deer was in the area, and it gives their direction of travel. When analyzing tracks, stop and think about that direction of movement. Was the deer heading toward a food source? A bedding area? Do the tracks make it appear as if the animal was lazily sauntering its way along? Or was the animal on the move? Watch also for paw prints of coyotes or other predators that may indicate the deer was fleeing. A close-up examination of the tracks will usually help reveal the speed of the deer’s movements. Look at how the dirt, mud, or snow was displaced and in what direction. Debris flown a good distance from the track is usually an indicator of a running deer.
If you find a lot of tracks centralized in one area where it looks like the deer were milling around, odds are you’ve found a bedding area. Look for piles of scat that indicate the deer spend extensive time there. From there, find the trails leading between these areas between food sources. Look for natural funnels in the cover, as these are the obvious ambush points to place a stand. You’ll know a pinch point when you’ve found it. The tracks will likely be so thick you won’t discern one track from another.
Don’t forget to look for other obvious signposts of bucks when you’re following or examining deer tracks. Look for rubs where bucks have been raking their antlers on trees and scrapes they may have worked to mark their territory. While you can’t always definitively identify buck tracks, plenty of hunters have had great success backtracking a larger set of tracks through the woods to find hidden bedding areas. It’s probably best to do this after it snows in the early off-season. You might be surprised by what clues you can gain for the following year.
Tracks are also an obvious clue of what forage works in your food plot and what isn’t for those in northern climates to check your plot after a snowstorm to see what the deer focused on. If you’ve got something that the deer pawed up the snow and dirt to get at, the odds are that’s a good forage to focus on planting from now on. Doing a post-snow check on your plots will also help you identify where most deer are entering and leaving, which can help you figure out future stand placements. It can also guide your scouting efforts for the following season.
It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many hunters I’ve seen who complain they never see anything and then come to find out there’s no sign of any kind in the place they’re sitting. It would be best if you went to where the deer are, where the tracks are the heaviest. Patience is key, even if you suspect many tracks came from does and younger bucks. Where the does are, the bucks will eventually follow.
For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels for original videos.
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