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Tracking on Crusty Snow

Maine’s 2018 deer season came and with it, so did the snow. The first four days of the season was a tracker’s delight. I didn’t make it into the woods until the fifth day. I ended up going to some new territory with poor tracking conditions, but I did the best that I could. I had a good time exploring that day and found an old set of large tracks and some decent sized fresh ones. The next day, I went to more familiar hunting grounds where there had been a little snow in the night, but it rained throughout the day and I never cut a track.
By the time I got back into the Great Northern Woods of Maine again the snow was over my knees. I only ended up getting in three, what I would call “half days" and one full day of tracking. Most of the time I was playing catch-up and the wind that had blown so hard it was borderline impossible to age tracks as well as the direction they were going. Although I love the North Big Woods of Maine, it wasn’t in the cards for me to hunt much that year. I was needed at home as a husband and father. 
      I ended up hunting in central Maine on Thanksgiving week. I had studied maps and asked many hunters I know for advice and found some large pockets of land closer to home. I had a blast learning new areas with old-growth forests and there were plenty of deer around. I let a nice young 8 pointer go that would have weighed 160-180lbs and scored 120 or 30”. I watched him, and a doe get up out of their beds and run around me for a few minutes. 
My hunting crew pulled their campers out of the Great North Woods with too much snow to function and more coming. The beauty for me was, there was more coming in the south as well. The Monday after Thanksgiving was Muzzleloader week and I headed out way before daylight. When I got to where I was going, there was 3” of snow new snow and it was still coming down. It was a stormy, windy day and I found a decent track that took me to another track the same size. I chased those deer all day through the storm, but they were so spoked with the wind, I couldn’t get a look at them. 
I headed out for the same area the next day with now about 5” of snow and a crust a on it. I found a track from the night before that was heading up to the top of a small mountain. This track was of a nice mature buck and I was hoping that he’d be laid down at the top of the small mountain. The woods were quiet, and the snow was crunchy, so how was I going to get close to this buck? He ended up meandering through a strip of thicker softwoods with big-open softwood on one side of it and open hardwood on another. When I could stay quiet, I would, but when I couldn’t, I would blow on my grunt tube. I was trying to sound like a buck, which required moving like a buck also. After going out into the hardwood for a way, I ended up on a bluff near the top. It was wide-open on this bluff and he had bedded down there in the night and then again just 50 feet further the shelf. I knew he had to be close and I was trying to stay low and behind what little cover there was. His tracks continued up the bluff and from there I could see down into the small softwoods below. This seemed like a great place for him to be laying down or feeding. I moved one step every few minutes, scanning all around, but focusing mostly below me. After taking half an hour to cover 20 yards I discovered his tracks had dropped down into smaller trees below. I stopped and tried to follow them with my binoculars as I continued to scan. After another 10 minutes I decided he wasn’t in that piece of woods and I headed out picking up my pace. The second I stood up and took 3 steps down the hill, I saw something move. It was him getting up out of his bed at 70 yards off and he disappeared in flash. I could see that he was a shooter, but never had a shot. I chased him the rest of the day, without seeing him again. I was amazed that I had gotten so close to that buck in those crunchie conditions. 
The next day I chased a monster track all day but didn’t jump him until 3pm, when I had to leave for home. Thursday, I couldn’t hunt, so that left me with Friday, and I could only hunt until 12:30, due to a meeting. It had warmed up every day and got below freezing every night so by now the snow was a hard crust that you would just barely break through. Friday was dead quiet and with the super crunchy snow conditions, it wasn’t really encouraging, but I was determined to do all I could with what I had. I believe the best thing you can hope for in these conditions, is to get around a lot of deer so that when you’re trying to sound like another deer, they’re more apt to believe that you are another deer.
I struck off into the woods and picked up a big track quickly. I didn’t follow him long before we were headed up to the top of a hill that was thick with small softwoods. It was a perfect place for a buck to lay down. With a quiet day once again, I applied the same tactic I’d been using all week. I tried to sound like a mature buck going 50 yards at a time and blowing my grunt tube. As he went higher up the ridge, he started meandering and feeding on the edge of some thick stuff. Now he was feeding heavily, so I blew my grunt tube more and worked my way ahead. I figured the buck was probably within a couple hundred yards. As I entered the thicket, I found that if I went easy, I could actually stay on top of the snow for the most part without crunching. This thicket had a few old skid roads running through it where I could see 40 yards at the most and in places I couldn’t see 10 yards. I creped on top of the snow for 75 yards, when his track disappeared into the thicket. Instead of following his track I decided to circle around and stay where I could see a little. Not long after I started swinging, I broke through the crust. I immediately blew my grunt tube and took a few more quick steps. I heard him get up 40 yards in front of me, but he didn’t go anywhere. I was able to stay on top of the snow for another 30 yards before breaking the crust again and blowing the grunt few more times with some quick steps. I heard him walk slowly along, towards a bluff above us. I continued to circle on the edge of the skid roads on the downwind side of the buck. I was on the last skid road before the thick bluff when suddenly I spotted a huge, fresh buck track. The funny thing was this track was coming from the other way and was maybe larger than the track I was on. It was heading for the same place as the other buck. Though slightly confused, I was fired up that there were two bucks in front of me somewhere. I stuck with my plan and headed for the top of this bluff, hoping to find an opening. I could see there might be an opening through the thick green edge and decided to head in. After 10 yards of thick stuff, I stopped at the very edge of what was sort of an opening loaded with blowdowns where I could see about 30 yards in most every direction. I blew my grunt tube a couple times and just scanned the area, it felt tense. After not hearing or seeing anything for 10 minutes I took a step out into the blowdown area.
When I took that step, there was a commotion to my right. I swung right and saw a large buck with a magnificent set of horns in mid-air before disappearing into the thicket. After looking around I figured out it was the buck that had come in from the other way. He was a brute with a rack bigger than anything I’d seen in the woods before. Thankfully he headed the way I was going, so decided to stick with my plan not knowing where the first buck was and continue to creep up the bluff. I snuck ever so slow and quiet, while staying low. When I got to the top of the bluff, it was so thick it was tough to figure out the tracks. I finally figured out that both bucks had gone out the same way off the thick bluff. The buck I had just jumped was on top of the buck I was on. 
I busted out into a beautiful ridge where I could see 150 yards at times. The buck I just jumped veered off to the right and stayed high on the ridge. The first one was meandering straight down over the ridge. I decided to take the original buck because he wasn’t spooked. Again, taking it ever so slowly looking as far down low as I could, stopping behind trees and peaking with my binoculars. If I made any noise, I was sure to take some quick loud steps and blow my grunt tube. After 45 minutes of only going a couple hundred yards, I decided it was time to speed up a little. I took about 5 steps when I heard a deer go. It sounded like the deer was far out of my sight, so I didn’t raise my gun. Just then, the buck popped out in front of me at about 150 yards away in the wide open. I only saw him for a couple seconds, but it was plenty of time to see that he was another huge deer with an extremely wide rack. The tines were shorter than other, but the beams almost touched each other. By the time I got my gun up it was too late.
I had now seen 2 beautiful bucks within 90 minutes and had only traveled 1/3 of a mile in 4 hours. I was going easy, grunting, looking, listening and it had paid off. It was now 11am and I had to head out of the woods at noonish for my meeting. I followed that buck’s track down the ridge where he made a hard swing to the left. He had gone behind a little knoll of fir trees and was on the other side and out of my sight. He was only 70 yards away listening to me and feeding along the whole time. He started running at the bottom of the ridge and got into a deer run making it hard to figure out the tracks. I finally figured out that he had turned right, in the same direction as the other deer I jumped! I decided to get back on the first buck I had jumped. It had been an hour and hopefully he had forgotten about me. I headed back up the ridge and found his track quickly. I went down the track at a good pace and ended up at the bottom again going into the same deer run as the other buck. Both bucks were headed down this deer trail and I was excited but was running out of time. We had now got to a flat area that had many trickles and small streams in it with smaller mixed softwood. It was beautiful hunting where I could see 30 to 80 yards in all directions. The tracking and snow conditions got better as we went along. I could see the tracks better and now the snow had softened up some. Soon, one of the bucks turned to the right and started to meander and feed heavily. Instead of following that track I opted to stay in the trail, because it was quiet going and I knew the buck had to be close. 
I ducked down all that I could and stayed in the wet, soft and quiet snow as much as possible as I crept down the trail. I had gone about 150 yards since that buck had veered off when I dipped down to a large stream. I slowly peaked out around as I edged up the other side and stopped just before the top. As I looked around, I heard a twig break to my right. I saw the backend of deer moving forward and then saw his tail go straight out. At first, I thought the deer had seen me and was getting ready to bolt. I got my binoculars out to get a better look and see if it had antlers. The deer took another step and then put its head down to feed. When he did, I could see that he was just the buck I was looking for. I saw enough to know he had to be at least a 150” deer with at least 10 knurly points and tall tines even at 70 yards through a bunch of crap, I was excited. Though I was started to figure out this buck was just feeding, I was still concerned he was going to bolt very soon and felt that I had to take the best shot I could immediately. I didn’t dare to take a step for a better shot so just brought my gun up. There was plenty of whips between us as well as a huge fir blowdown, with its branches sticking up like a picket fence covering him. Just when I was about to lower my gun and try and get a better position, he took a step and stopped. I could see what I thought was his shoulder between the crook of a tree halfway between us. At the last second, on an impulse I snapped the trigger. I don’t think my heart was ever in the shot, but I was excited none-the-less. I heard him run off while the smoke was clearing. I reloaded and headed over to where the buck had been standing. By the time I got the where he was, I realized how far he was and how much crap there was in between us.
I saw his jumping tracks and followed them for a quarter of a mile or so and then did a circle. There were tracks everywhere. For some reason there were many deer in that area at that time. Just as I’d thought, I hadn’t hit the buck. Had I been more experienced and patient I could have positioned and waited for a better shot, but who knows maybe he would have winded me by then. I thanked God for maybe the most exciting tracking day of my life and headed back to the truck. I had only gone about a mile from the truck the whole morning. While walking out of the woods and driving back home, I reflected on the day and what a joy it had brought me. It led me to thinking of my joy in God and his glory and I hope that anyone who reads this story will have the same joy in a relationship with the Father and Christ the son.