Every creature that moves on the planet leaves a mark of its passing, regardless of how subtle its movements are or what type of surface it travels upon. From the little footprint of the Bushman in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, to the lug soled boot marks of the Northeastern deer tracker; from the wildebeest of the African plains, whitetails of the Eastern forest, moose of the Alaskan tundra, elk of the Western meadows to even the bighorn ram living atop the world in the Alberta Rockies–all make impressions characterizing their whereabouts.
Other than a crafty fugitive attempting to “cover his tracks” in an effort to elude capture, all of God’s creatures–man and beast alike–unconsciously make tracks as they go about their daily activities. While it is a fact that some animals are tougher to track than others due to the wispy imprint they leave and the hard surface of their habitat, there are other recognizable traces of evidence that provide clues to the observant tracker–signs such as scuff marks on a rocky plateau, a broken branch, bent stems of long grass, water marks on an otherwise dry stone, a piece of hair dislodged by a brier, or nipped vegetation where they have browsed. These are readable to all who can decipher the language.
The ability to read and interpret tracks was once as common to the woodsmen as driving a car would be today. In fact, it would not be unfathomable to imagine a good percentage of these huntsmen having a better aptitude when it came to reading the spoor of an animal than with the written word itself. The academia of their woodland skills would be the equivalent to a college degree by today’s standard.
There is a drastic decline in the number of people still possessing these primitive abilities for a variety of reasons including modernization, mechanization, urbanization, and even general inertia on the hunter’s part. Perhaps the convenience of a simpler, more effective means of capturing one’s prey was the impetus that led to this abandonment.
Or maybe because our next meal is not riding on the outcome of a hunt, we are no longer hungry enough to go after the animal with an all-out gusto. Whatever the cause or combination of reasons that has led to this demur, two facts still remain: animals reside in the wild and they continue to make tracks.
If your desire is for greater success on a more consistent basis when it comes to taking mature whitetail bucks, begin being a far better investigator, and look at the big picture. Hunting hard, having the proper gear, keeping your scent in check, and being in good deer country all help, but won’t seal the deal, at least not very frequently. After all, one can only be lucky just so often.
In his book Buck Naked, Jim Collyer writes,
There are approximately twelve million people hunting deer in this country every year. Success ratios on harvesting trophy-class whitetails on public lands runs in about the .5 to 2 percent range. Not very good odds. This is just the beginning of the bad news. Only one in five hundred hunters will ever consistently harvest trophy deer on public land. A hunter who can harvest a great deer four out of every five years on public land is a legendary person…it is five time easier to become a millionaire than it is to consistently harvest trophy whitetails on public land.
So, what sets these hunters apart? What are they doing that the rest of us are not? In two words: making observations. They are looking at what is present for sign, where the sign is located, interpreting that sign accurately, and then, based upon what they’ve found, formulating a game plan to outwit an animal they have yet to see. Sounds simple doesn’t it? In fact, so elementary that most miss it. As the most famous London investigator Sherlock Holmes once stated, “Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
What happens all too frequently is that we head into the bush with preconceived ideas; we’re looking for a buck and expect to find him where we want him to be rather than where he actually is. When a shred of evidence is uncovered, we are quick to make assumptions and then formulate a plan based upon our find. And when the buck doesn’t appear our hopes are dashed and we wrongly come to false conclusions.
The problem is that our search begins and ends where we want the deer to be rather than where they actually are. In an effort to see what we wish to find, we all too often miss what is right in front of us: clues that tell a much larger story. In essence, we try to control that which cannot be manipulated.
A good detective never makes assumptions. He only gathers evidence; all the clues that will ultimately substantiate the facts. Although all bucks will have the same basic functions, each and every one that I have hunted had its own unique personality. With that individuality comes a distinct difference in how a buck will behave, how far he will travel, when and where he will eat, how timid he is, and if he will even participate in the breeding process.
Being an inquisitive hunter is far better than having all of the answers. Yes, it certainly can be validated that timing is everything, but the huntsman that asks more questions as to why the buck is using this trail, when is he using it and what is his motivation for doing so will place himself in that right place, at that right time far more often than he or she who whimsically just shows up.
Although I, without reservation, attribute my deer hunting success to the Creator who has blessed me beyond measure, those achievements could never have come about without me using and refining the skills necessary to put me in place for the shot. Combining past knowledge, understanding the geographical features that attract deer, knowing whitetail behavior, gleaning new clues with fresh eyes each time I hunt, and recognizing that the only thing I can control is my own actions continues to lead me to desired results. And even with that, I concur completely with Rutledge, who once wrote,
Hunting is more like life than anything else known to me; for no matter how long may have been one’s experience, things are all the time coming up to make a man think he is still in First Grade…Or, to put it more fairly; I expect a certain thing, but always try to be ready for what I never anticipated and could not possibly have foreseen.
This article originally appeared on bigwhitetail and is republished here with permission.
Images copyright Richard Bernier