John's Journal...


Deer Track Quiz, Part I

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’ve heard talk that a big buck is feeding in a green field, but despite watching from dawn to dusk, you haven’t seen hide or hair of him, just some does and small bucks. What’s wrong? As long-time deer hunter Larry Norton of Butler, Alabama, explains, "Big bucks, especially in the South, rarely come to green fields in daylight hours, even during the rut. They don't have to come out in the open and show themselves to find a hot doe but instead can walk along a trail 30 to 40 yards off the downwind side of the field and still smell the does. Generally they'll wait until dark and then move out into the fields to eat." So, you haven’t seen the big buck because he’s not using the same trail as the does and the smaller bucks. The lesson: deer use several different kinds of paths or trails. If you know what to look for and where to look, you can take a stand and drastically increase your ability to find and bag deer. Let’s take a look at some of those trails, and try a short quiz that’ll help separate rumor from reality.

Click to enlargeSome deer-track experts say they can tell the size, sex and age of a deer by its tracks. Hunters often claim that seeing the dew claws as part of the deer's track directly indicates that a buck has made the track. Because so much misinformation exists about deer tracks and what information they can communicate to those of us who hunt, try this quiz prepared with the help of wildlife biologists and avid deer hunters to learn the truth about deer tracks.

1) Question: Can you tell the sex of the deer by its track?
According to Dr. Bob Sheppard, a longtime bowhunter and a student of deer behavior from Carrollton, Alabama, "The only sure way to know if a deer track you've found is that of a buck or a doe is to see that animal standing in its track." Although most wildlife scientists agree with Sheppard, Bob Zaiglin, a wildlife biologist and manager for several Texas ranches, explains that, "Some experienced hunters can distinguish a buck by the size of the track and more importantly by the spread of the feet. A buck's dew claws hang down somewhat, and sometimes a buck will drag his feet and turn a little more dirt up when he walks than a doe does." Joe Hamilton, a wildlife biologist in South Carolina, believes, "When a hunter spots a big track on the ground in the eastern U.S., he's probably looking at the track of a large doe, since in many areas the does are allowed to live longer than bucks and become bigger. However, in regions with snow, sand and/or mud, the buck may drag his feet and/or make deeper tracks." Ronnie Groom, a bowhunting seminar teacher from Florida, comments that, "The medium the track is in and the speed at which the deer is moving often determine the size of the track more than the weight and the size of the animal do. If a 100-pound doe jumps off a small hill onto a muddy road, she may leave a very wide, big track with dew claws showing. But if a 250-pound buck walks up a hard, clay creek bottom, he may not leave a very-wide track because the ground doesn't give way and instead absorbs the weight of his body."

Click to enlarge2) Question: Can does have bigger tracks than bucks?
All the biologists and hunters answered this quiz question much the same way. The type of deer-management program conducted on the lands where you hunt determines the size of a doe's tracks. In much of the East, hunters will find a larger number of older does than deer herds in states like Texas, which have managed deer intensively for numbers of years, will have. As Harry Jacobson, a wildlife professor in Mississippi, observes, "Sometimes deer populations are so badly managed that hunting pressure eliminates a large majority of the bucks, whereas the does are treated like the sacred cows of India and allowed to put on heavier body weights and reach much older-age classes than the bucks. That may be why a doe's track is bigger than a buck's track in regions where the deer herd contains does that are older than bucks."

3) Question: Can you tell the weight and/or physical condition of the deer by its track?
Charles DeYoung, a Texas wildlife professor, explains that you can note some general characteristics about deer if you see their tracks side by side, "Particularly if one set of tracks is a fawn's and the other's a buck's. But generally you can't determine this, unless you're an Apache." However, a well-trained scientific eye like that of wildlife biologist Joe Hamilton may detect some physical characteristics from the animal's track that the average hunter may not recognize. "You can determine if a deer has a broken leg or not, because the track of the broken leg will be smeared and will make a different impression than the other three tracks of the same animal," Hamilton observes. "If the deer is feverish and taking very short steps, we may be able to determine his poor physical condition, particularly if the animal is walking in a good tracking medium like soft earth or mud. If the deer is very cold and walking stoop-shouldered, he may Click to enlargebe taking smaller, shorter, choppier steps, which you also may be able to detect."

4) Question: Can you tell from the tracks whether the deer is walking or running?
Dr. Keith Causey, a professor of wildlife science at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, says, "Usually you can tell whether a deer is walking or running by the distance between the tracks as well as whether the toes are spread on the impact from running. If a deer is wounded, obviously one of the legs will be impaired tremendously, and the animal will put much less weight on that leg than on the other. The wounded foot will leave a lighter track."


Check back each day this week for more about TRACKS AND TRAILS – WHAT DO THEY TELL?

Day 1: Meandering Trails, Terrain Trails and Mating Trails
Day 2: Water, Food and Bedding Trails
Day 3: Escape Trails, Night Trails and Snow Trails
Day 4: Deer Track Quiz, Part I
Day 5: Deer Track Quiz, Part II



Entry 335, Day 4