A Novice’s Guide to Tracking: Part 1

Colin T.

Today on the blog I have the pleasure of sharing a great article written by Colin Temple. Colin loves hunting in the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont and his favorite way to hunt is by tracking. So today Colin shares with all of us what he has learned over the years as he's spent his time pursuing the elusive whitetail buck. I know you will enjoy reading this two-part series as much as I did. Enjoy!

A Novice's Guide to Tracking: Part 1
By Colin Temple

I’ve always found something romantic about getting out in the woods on a cold November morning with a checkered red and black Johnson Woolen Mills jacket and Bean boots on in search of that big buck’s track in a fresh snowfall. In many areas of VT that is difficult to do for a multitude of reasons - no snow, too many hunters, not enough land, low probability of finding a “big buck” track, and the list goes on. Growing up with family and friends I always knew of people who had tracked down many bucks that I would only dream about seeing in the woods. At the time my grandfather, father and I spent most of our time hunting down in unit J2, where tracking was largely an impractical method of hunting for all of those reasons listed above. 

That all changed when we were invited by some of our best friends to spend the second weekend of rifle season at their camp on Newark Pond 4 years ago now. My life as a deer hunter will never be the same. That weekend we got into some tracks and I was hooked. (More on that later.) I now obsess over weather forecasts and doing my snow dance well in advance of the season. 

In preparation for that style of hunting I had done quite a bit of studying and listening to my elders. I have also learned quite a bit by reading both of Hal Blood’s books “Hunting Big Woods Bucks”. I would recommend both of them. 

Let’s start with a few key aspects of tracking…

Track Identification

You’d like to think that the most challenging thing when looking at a big buck’s track is identifying whether it is a mature whitetail buck or a moose...in reality, unfortunately that’s not the case. You’re not always going to happen upon the track of a buck that is going to land you in the 200lb club. There will be many times when you come across a track where it is difficult to determine whether it’s a buck or a doe. There are a few tools I use to “sex” a track. 

1)      Track size, obvious I know, but I consider both length and width of the track. The rule of thumb is that if you can fit a 30-06 shell in it in both directions then that’s probably a 200lb buck. 

2)      Length of stride and width/girth between the left and right hoof prints. A large buck will have a notably longer stride and a wider stance between hooves. 

3)      Is the track alone? A “Yes” would indicate a higher chance that it’s a buck, if it meets the criteria described above (in my opinion, I don’t have any data to back that up). If it’s not alone I like to look at the relative size of the tracks to help determine if it’s just a doe and fawn, or if it may be a buck traveling with a doe. 

If I think there’s a chance the track may belong to a buck I will follow it for a while to get a feel for the deer. I figure at least I am following a deer with a good track. It will either do something to confirm it’s a buck (walk by rubs/scrapes, eat/lay down in the snow where antler impressions may be visible) or I will peel off and restart the search. 

Hunting Speed

This is one of the things I’ve yet to master, because it requires a great knowledge of the area you’re hunting (in my opinion) and a great feel for what the deer are doing out ahead of you. If you’re not on a track my one recommendation is to keep your head up. You’ll never see deer staring down at your feet. This is tough because you obviously want to avoid breaking twigs and tripping on sticks. For that reason I love wearing LL Bean’s hunting shoes. The soles are relatively thin and soft so I’m able to feel sticks under my feet before I snap them (theoretically). However, if you snap a twig and jump a deer that’s OK, sit down for 15-20 minutes then hop up and start following the track. Be aware, though, because the deer’s senses are now heightened. They will be on high alert looking for something following them. 

Gear

Wool, wool and more wool. I can’t get enough of it. Every layer I wear, aside from maybe my Chamois shirt, is wool. Darn Tough socks, merino wool long underwear, Johnson Woolen Mills Red and Black Checkered Jacket are all items I won’t head to the woods without, but I’m actually in the market for new wool pants (recommendations are welcomed). I’m thinking of going with First Lite Wool Kanab pants this fall. I like wool over other materials for several reasons. First, it regulates body temperatures incredibly effectively. Wool maintains its thermal properties when wet. My father fell flat on his back in a brook two years ago on a 20-25deg day at 8AM and hunted all day with the same clothes on. His wool outer layer froze up in minutes and he was good to go. Second, wool is very quite when moving through the woods. There is no sound from the material rubbing together while walking or from branches or sticks slapping it. Third, it has natural antibacterial properties which help control scent. I’ve noticed this first hand, being able to wear the same long underwear and wool socks for at least few days before noticing any smells (I can feel you all judging me right now). Finally, when well constructed it is a very tough material that will last for years. 

For Boots I wear the Gore-Tex LL Bean Hunting shoe. The most important thing for me is the Gore-Tex, well that and the thin-ish soles. I’ve tried other types of “waterproof” boots, but in my opinion nothing comes close to Gore-Tex, and there is nothing that will ruin a day quicker than having a soaked foot in 30 degree weather. 

The only other piece of gear I consider vital to tracking is a GPS. Other people may be able to do without, but I am much more comfortable knowing that no matter where the track takes me I should be able to get back to the truck when the sun starts to go down. We use the Garmin 2 Way Radio/GPS combo units. They are a great dual purpose product. 

Be sure to check back tomorrow for part 2 of A Novice’s Guide to Tracking...

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