Every hunter wants a big buck. Sure, venison is a priority, but when we enter the forest amidst that first beautiful blue light of opening day, none of us fantasizes about coming home with a spike buck. Big-bodied, heavy-antlered white-tail bucks are what dreams are made of for many hunters. These big buck fantasies are what have us scouting for months before the season. We buy attractant scents, grunt calls, and decoys. We set up dozens of trail cams, learn bucks’ different traveling routes, set up our stands perfectly, and yet often enough we fail. We come home empty-handed or with a lesser buck than we wanted because time was running out and we needed to fill our tag. The truth is, no matter what we do, how many trail cams we put out, how many times we see that buck in the field, or how many hours we put into the stand, there’s no magic way to guarantee that big buck. But there is a way to improve the odds. A simpler, more ancient way of hunting focused solely on pursuing big bucks: tracking.
In this modern age, when so much of hunting culture is based on the idea of pre-planning, scouting, and stand placement, tracking has almost become obsolete. Yet it remains one of the only hunting methods that guarantees a hunter is “on track” to take a trophy buck, because the techniques employed in tracking really only work for large bucks. It’s almost impossible to track a small buck because they just don’t leave much of an impression. Small bucks flit more daintily through the woods, leaving smaller and less noticeable indications of their passing. They intermix with does and other smaller bucks, making their trails frustrating and confusing for trackers. Big bucks, on the other hand, plow through the woods like tanks and leave big tracks. With a bit of practice a hunter can distinguish these tracks from any others, making their paths easier to follow.
Although it is an incredibly difficult hunting method to master, with patience and practice a tracker can learn to identify a mature buck just by his track and can actively hunt him without a lot of scouting or pre-planning. Most tracking begins with first finding a good patch of woods and heading into it. It’s best to use a vehicle for this initial approach: driving up old logging roads, into public forests, and searching for deer tracks that cross the road. While best done in snow, it’s not a requirement. On bare ground, many trackers prefer hunting on cold, rainy days when deer make a substantial impression on the soft earth. Look for tracks that really dig into the ground, indicating a deer with a lot of body weight, and those that are generally larger than three inches in length. Buck tracks will be more spread out, with a gap between the toes of the hoof. Make sure the tracks are fresh, with clearly defined edges and even loose dirt or snow in the track itself.
Tracking is a game of patience and cannot be rushed. When decent, fresh buck tracks are found, it doesn’t mean the hunter should immediately grab their bag and gun and start off in pursuit. Instead, hang back and follow the tracks for a little way off the road, searching for indications to determine whether the buck is one worth chasing. Check out the buck’s stride, because bigger bucks have wider chests and longer strides than younger bucks and does. The stride of a large buck is similar in length to a human stride. With their wider chests, the tracks made by their left and right hooves might be almost a full foot apart. A mature buck’s tracks will also reveal the buck’s advanced age, the outside edges of the hoof being chipped and rounded.
Follow the tracks into the woods for a bit and look for other signs that the buck is a good one. Look for densely wooded spots where smaller bucks or does could pass through, but where a big buck has to skirt because his antlers won’t pass through. If the deer put their face down in the snow to feed or smell, look for antler impressions, which will give you a good idea of what the buck is carrying on its head. Once it’s decided that the tracks belong to a trophy buck, try to memorize the details of the track. Just like our fingerprints, all deer tracks are different, so look for unique marks—a chip out of the right toe or an extra-long dewclaw, for instance—to ensure you’re following the right deer should you lose and then find the track again. Then it’s time to go back to your rig, grab your gun and pack, and start tracking.
Tracking is a simple practice, really, since all the hunter must do is follow the tracks. But there’s a lot to it. A good tracker doesn’t get too focused on the track; they must keep their head up, always looking for their quarry. They must understand the speed at which they need to travel in order to catch up with the buck, but also how to look for signs for when it’s time to slow down and prepare to shoot. Trackers must stay aware the entire time they are on the hunt, in tune with the forest and the deer themselves. But it’s there that a hunter finds the art and fun in tracking. It makes you a better deer hunter in general. Most importantly, when it’s done right, tracking almost guarantees that the hunter is after a true trophy. It’s a hunting method that provides the best chance for realizing big buck dreams.