Advanced Tracking

Tracking an animal is one of hunting's most impressive accomplishments. It's not a guessing game--you know the animal has been there, so you don't have to scout or hike for fresh sign. The task is to follow the prints, spot the animal before it sees you and make your shot. Ideally, you'll shoot it in its bed. A bedded animal is fully alert, and though it dozes on and off, it is always attuned to the scents, sounds and sights around it. You're more apt to track an animal to its bed during the day. In early morning or late afternoon, the quarry is probably traveling between feeding and bedding areas.

AGAINST THE ODDS

Tracking might seem simple--you just stroll along and follow prints. But in reality it's seldom that easy. More tracking efforts end in failure than success.

Many years ago, while hunting moose in Wyoming near the Utah border, I discovered a moose track in the snow. It seemed to be at least two or three days old, but the conditions were so perfect I decided to follow it. There were 10 inches of five-day old snow on the ground, it was cold enough that it hadn't thawed, and there was no wind. I followed the track through willow thickets. At times it became mixed with others, or so I thought, so I backtracked to decipher all of the prints.

I figured out there were no other moose; the bull was simply feeding and sometimes circling over his own tracks. After two hours, I found where he'd bedded. After three more hours of steady walking, I found another bed. The tracks were getter fresher. While the moose was spending hours in an area feeding, I spent only minutes. The more I walked, the fresher his track became, until I jumped him--within 15 yards of the Utah border, which he promptly crossed. The brush between us prevented a shot, and since I had a Wyoming tag, the moose was home free.

INTERPRET THE SIGNS

A big part of tracking is taking in the whole picture. Instead of focusing on the track, stand back and size up the scenario. Look as far up the route as you can; try to determine where the quarry was going, and what it was doing as it walked. A feeding animal meanders here and there, walking up to brush and leaving signs of fresh browsing on shrubs and grasses. An animal that is intent on reaching a destination such as a feeding or bedding area is more apt to travel in a straight line. A migrating animal also follows a straight course.

A major aspect of following a track is determining how fresh it is. Snow offers the best clues, but even snow can be deceiving. If I'm in doubt, I'll step down hard in the snow next to the track, lift my boot and compare my print to the track. Look at the edges of the track, as well as the debris and amount of snow in it. A sharp edge may or may not determine freshness. The snow might have frozen hard just after the print was made; if it stays cold, a seemingly fresh track could be several days old. Debris or snow in a track was most likely blown by a breeze, so think back to the last time it was windy.

If you're looking at a track in the sunlight, note its appearance and then check one made by the animal in a shady area. Typically a track in the shade is easier to interpret because it hasn't been subjected to as much melting and refreezing.

MORNING VS. EVENING

If you're tracking early in the morning, take your time. The quarry might be bedded and you'll need to spot the animal without being seen. If you're tracking in the evening in a place where you know the location of feeding areas, such as croplands or orchards, consider leaving the track and circling to intercept the animal before it gets to the food source. Do this quickly, since an animal feeding in a field is tougher to approach than one walking through a wooded area where there's cover.

When you track, consider as many scenarios as you can. For example, let's say that during the rut you see several tracks in the snow and you spot a drop of blood. What you're looking at is a sign that a doe is in estrus. She's a "hot" doe, and every buck in the county will be looking for her. Follow that track intently, and don't be surprised if a bigger track--a buck's--joins up with it.

NEED FOR SPEED

How fast should you track? Slowly is the word, but there's an exception. If you're in the woods with other hunters, step up your pace a bit. More than once I've picked up a track on public land, only to find where another hunter came across it and began to follow the same track I was on. When that happens, of course, you're dead in the water. The other person is ahead of you, and you have no claim to the track.

What gender is the animal you're tracking? Whether we're talking about deer, elk or moose, in every case the males have bigger bodies than the females. The most reliable and credible clue, therefore, is the size of the track. Some argue that you can sex an animal based on the shape or position of the tracks, the presence of dew claw marks and other factors, but I'm not always so sure. If you're following a mature buck, the size of his tracks should be a dead giveaway, especially if it's during the rut and the deer is traveling alone. But smaller 2- or 3-year-old bucks, which might not be much bigger than an old doe, could be much tougher to properly sex [see sidebar, page 28].

The bottom line is, the track in front of you is only one clue. Consider everything else, and play it smart. Only then will you be consistently good at this exciting hunt strategy.

For Information on Jim Zumbo's books, go to jimzumbo.com

TROPHY BUCK OR DOE?

A small whitetail buck's tracks are easy to confuse with a large doe's, but trophy-sized bucks leave distinctive prints with their hooves.

PRINTS: Because a mature buck's hips are narrower than its chest, a buck places its back hoof to the rear of the front hoof. A doe's rear hoof typically lands directly on top of or just slightly off the front track. Big buck tracks also dig deeper into the soil.

GAIT: The average distance between a mature buck's right and left hooves is 6 inches, while a doe's is little more than 2 inches. A buck's stride also stretches about 20 inches when the buck is walking, farther when it's running. A doe's stride is only around 14 inches.

HUNT OF THE MONTH EASTERN MONTANA MULE DEER

WHERE: Custer National Forest

SKINNY: The Custer National Forest has many small sections scattered throughout southeastern Montana. Try the area west of Broadus. Best access is via State Highway 212, which runs through the forest. There are several good access roads throughout. Much of this is pine forest and fairly open. Glassing combined with spot-and-stalk is an effective technique.

SEASON: October 23 to November 27

FEE: Resident: $13; nonresident: $340.25

CONTACT: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, (406-444-2535)