Winter is winding down here in northern New England. While I’m always thinking about tracking deer, it starts to feel a lot more real now. I’ll be able to follow up soon with real world ground proofing of the online scouting that I’ve been doing using onX over the winter. It feels like I can lose an hour staring at maps, imagining where the buck track I know I’ll find there in November will take me. My training routine picks up looking ahead with an eye toward the mountains. And, because I might think too much, my mind turns back to a couple of mistakes I made last season.
Dad and I headed up a road we hadn’t been on in a few years. With an early season snow, we were excited and thought we could cut a track from the road. A couple miles up we crossed one that was exiting a river and heading east. Dad was intrigued, so we agreed on a spot to meet at the end of the day and I dropped him off. I continued up the road for about a mile and parked the truck at a spot where I knew I could cross the river and head west into some decent country. As always, I was hoping to cross paths with the buck of my dreams. After an hour of cruising, I found a medium-sized buck track that tickled my fancy, so I took it, hoping to either see him or cross something else. I bumped along, following where he had spent the night checking does. I jumped two of the ladies and saw them skip off; no buck in tow. His tracks were staying in the bottom of the valley near the river and I was starting to think that I might catch up to him checking these does. He crossed a small tributary and made a rub on the alders there, then crossed a couple more sets of doe tracks. Obviously, none of them interested him because all of the sudden his pace changed and he started feeding. There were a number of blown down softwood trees with old man’s beard that he munched on. My pace changed to match his and I was going slow, keeping my eyes peeled as far ahead as I could see. It wasn’t long before I came upon his empty bed.
The snow was soft in the bottom and at first I thought I’d blown it, then I saw that he had walked away from this bed. It seemed like a strange place for him to lay down, somewhat open in an older age class patch of spruce and fir near the river bottom. I figured he didn’t like the spot and was going be bedded nearby. His track started to lead me up and out of this chunk of woods. I was starting to feel like I was going to get a look at him when the track headed back downhill. I continued to move at a slow pace, but it wasn’t slow enough, and with the change of direction in the track, the wind got wrong and I was looking left when I should have been looking right. The buck exploded from behind a blowdown about 60 yards away and dove into the thick stuff headed away from me. After a few seconds of trying to catch another glimpse, I followed his tracks down to the right and then saw where he had swung across to the left side. He had been feeding on the other side of that tree, looking my way as he was filling his belly. I gave him some time and then started after him, thinking he’d want to bed down again soon. I was wrong.
He led me up and over one range headed west, then swung north. I jumped him again in the edge of a swamp. I probably should have left him then, but I didn’t. He was now spooked and on the run. He wiggled through thick cover, changed direction regularly, and doubled back on himself. I went from thinking I was going to catch him in his bed to hoping to catch him crossing a cut. The chase continued until early in the afternoon. He crossed into another road system and I decided it was time to turn around. I took my bearings and started for the truck. It wasn’t long and I heard a shot in a nearby clearcut. I assume someone shot that buck. I didn’t have the heart to go look at him.
Two Points Not Connecting
Later in the season snow was tough to come by, so when I noticed some in the forecast for Thanksgiving Day, we made our family meal plan for late in the day and I was ready to roll in the morning. A small dose of snow fell overnight and I knew the day was going to warm up, so I planned to head up high to try to find a buck track. I made the 90-minute drive in the dark to an area I’d been hunting and had seen some buck sign. I cranked along at day break, making my way to the back of the clearcut while I looked for a track. About 90 minutes into my hike, I finally found what I was looking for, a decent buck track. He was all by himself and headed uphill, so things were looking good. As he led me to the top of the mountain, he crossed a set of tracks made by four other deer, does and fawns. I was excited that he passed them by because I thought he was headed to somewhere near the top of the long mountain to bed down. I was contemplating how this might play out when his track angled back into this group of deer. The whole herd went up the mountain and started down the other side, feeding a little as they went. There was a thick patch of softwood ahead and I slowed down, thinking they might be bedded. I poked through this thick stuff, sliding through the branches and picking where I placed my feet in an effort to not disturb anything. After a half-hour of this, it was obvious the deer had only gone through. The softening snow was quiet and I was able to speed up, noting as I played catch up that there were some running tracks twisting in and out amongst the group.
To me, a lot of tracking is about understanding what is going on, figuring out how to read the story that the tracks have written in the snow, and then using that to figure out the best way to use that to kill the buck. Seeing the chasing marks, I thought that the buck had probably caught up to the does and fawns sometime after they had fed, but before they could lay down. The snow was softening a lot and beginning to disappear; I needed to catch up if I was going to make something happen. I followed them down the backside of the mountain and into a swampy bowl when I busted out a doe. I looked quickly for other deer, but saw nothing. I snuck to where she had been standing and found her running tracks leading me into other deer tracks that started running, too. I planned to give them 30 minutes to calm down and ate my sandwich, bemoaning the snow melting around me. As I chewed my last bite, I couldn’t take it anymore and started after them again.
The running tracks continued downhill at first and then leveled off along a bench. The smaller deer stayed at that level while the buck and a doe headed down to another bench. I was following at a medium pace and looking as far ahead as I could through every opening I came to. As I headed into one of these little parks, I jumped the doe. Damn. She had been standing there watching their back track when she took off. I didn’t give them much time as I headed up the hill to see that the buck had been just ahead of her, out of sight. Two points not connecting. The pair headed around the far northern edge of the mountain and angled up and over the end of it, heading in the direction of the truck. My last hope in the melting snow was to catch them in the cut I had come up through in the morning. I cruised downhill, eyes up most of the way, only briefly checking on the tracks. They led me across our old, now-melted out tracks from hours ago in the morning and out into the cut. Not spotting them anywhere and unable to locate the tracks in the open, I headed for the truck and my Thanksgiving dinner. I got into the road and saw where they had crossed, heading for parts unknown, leaving me haunted until we cross paths next season.
Bucks that get away teach us lessons. Apparently, some of us need more lessons than others.
Thankfully, I love tracking deer and I can’t wait to start chasing them in the fall, reading the story their tracks write in the snow.