How to Read Deer Tracks

HuntStand Definitions | Deer Tracks and How to Read Them

Talk to any veteran deer hunter who’s had success before the trail camera boom of the early 2000’s and they’ll tell you the biggest difference between hunters now and back then is the lost art of woodsmanship. Today’s “picture or it never happened” world has put so much emphasis on having to rely on trail cameras to know if a big buck is in the area, that the once common and oh-so-important woodsmanship skills have merely been lost. Things like reading deer tracks, trails, rubs, beds, and browse areas have all taken a back seat to today’s trail camera and food plotting world. Instead of hunters getting down on their hands and knees to dissect and identify an individual track or plant species, most tend to walk on by, simply noting it in our head, but never really paying too much attention to it as they make their way to check the almighty trail camera.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with using trail cameras, but the woodsmanship part cannot be forgotten. Pair these types of skills with the intel from a trail camera and you’ve got a serious advantage over the next guy. After all, a single deer track can tell you almost as much information as a trail camera photo (or perhaps more if you can follow it) without having to spread hundreds of dollars around the woods.

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PHOTO: Now, there’s nothing wrong with using trail cameras, but the woodsmanship part cannot be forgotten. Pair these types of skills with the intel from a trail camera and you’ve got a serious advantage over the next guy.

What to Look for in a Deer Track

Like that of a fingerprint to a human, every buck track is unique. Certainly some are more telling than others, but if you study any track, you’ll find something that’s unique. It may be a flared right hoof, or a single dew claw impression or maybe even something as subtle as the way a buck walks and where the front and back tracks align with each other. No matter what the “tell” is, if you look close enough there’s intel hiding in the imprint.

For most hunters, a big buck is often the fuel behind their pursuit and it only makes sense that a big buck would leave a big track. So, what is a big track? It’s all relative of course, especially when comparing regions. A big old corn fed Iowa buck is almost guaranteed to leave a much larger track than a buck down south. Heck, even an Iowa doe probably leaves a bigger track. The biggest thing to take note of is if one stands out compared to the others in the area. Even on a region by region basis, one thing remains constant, and that is mature bucks are bigger than does and they get progressively bigger with age. If you pay attention to deer tracks while you hunt and scout you will know when you stumble across a whopper of a track.

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PHOTO: *While many people assume it’s the length of a track that is the best determination of a buck’s size, it’s actually the width of the track. *

While many people assume it’s the length of a track that is the best determination of a buck’s size, it’s actually the width of the track. Larry Benoit, a legend in the world of deer hunting and tracking, explained that a big buck track will be as wide as a .30-06 shell (in the north). A track as wide as the length of the cartridge is usually a good indicator the buck is over 200 pounds. Picture it like this, the more weight a buck is carrying, the more his hooves will spread from the downward pressure. This also applies to the dew claws.

Aside from the size itself, there are other telling features that lie hidden in the tracks. One such clue a track came from a big buck is the imprint itself. While it’s often time much easier to tell after a recent snowfall, you can tell how a big a buck might be by how he steps. A younger, lighter buck will not exert the downward pressure a big heavy buck would, thus, a track from the young buck might appear as if he was walking on his tip toes, whereas, the big buck is walking more flat footed. In conjunction with identifying tracks as big or small, there existence can tell you important tips as it relates to their behavior.

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PHOTO: A younger, lighter buck will not exert the downward pressure a big heavy buck would, thus, a track from the young buck might appear as if he was walking on his tip toes, whereas, the big buck is walking more flat footed.

Looking Beyond the Size of a Track

More than anything, a track is cold hard proof that a deer walked exactly in that spot, now it’s up to you to go above and beyond to learn more about that deer. First, ask yourself why is the track here? It’s a question you should ask every time you observe something in the woods. This type of critical thinking and questioning forces you to seek out answers and will ultimately turn you into a darn good hunter. Was it there because of food? What type of food is near? Acorns? Ag fields? Was there a scrape he was going to check? Which direction was it headed? What time did he likely make this track? Are there any fresh rubs along the route? Etc. etc. These are all important questions to ask yourself when you come across a big track or any track for that matter.

A deer track is similar to a buck rub in many regards. For one, they will often indicate the direction of travel. Obviously, you can tell the front and back on deer track based upon the hoof shape and dew claws, thus determining the direction of travel. Similarly, the side of the tree a rub is made on often indicates the direction a buck came from. By determining the direction of travel, you can usually make a pretty good guess as to when a deer is moving through. For instance, if a track is headed towards cover you can make a relatively safe assumption that the deer is returning from food and a morning hunt might be the best time to catch him on his feet. Conversely, if the track is headed towards a field or acorn flat, an afternoon sit is probably in your best interest. The best scenario would be to follow a track all the way back to where the buck bedded. Without snow or mud, a deer track might suggest which run the deer is taking, which will most likely lead to a nearby bedding area.

This gives you everything you need and tells a whole heck of a lot more than a trail camera photo! Again, the work doesn’t stop there for you. Analyze the bed and determine which wind direction that buck would likely be using to bed there (hint – big bucks almost always bed with their backs to the wind to smell behind them, while they watch out in front of them). Figure this out and you stand a good chance of an encounter with Mr. Big buck.

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PHOTO: *The best way to read a deer track beyond who left it would be to follow a track all the way back to where the buck bedded. This gives you everything you need including, the route he takes from and to his bedding area. From there, analyze the bed and determine which wind direction that buck would likely be using to bed (big bucks almost always bed with their backs to the wind to smell behind them, while they watch out in front of them). *

Using Deer Tracks to Hunt and Scout

For most of the year and most of the country, there’s only snow on the ground for a small percentage of the hunting season. Combine that with gun season specifically (as not many hunters can’t stalk a buck to within bow range from following a track) and you’re left with a pretty slim margin of time to utilize fresh tracks for hunting purposes. Undoubtedly, tracks found in snow or mud, found anytime in the season, are more of a scouting tool than anything. As previously mentioned, the intel that lies hidden in a deer track is incredibly vital. So, the next time you’re out in the woods checking cameras, take a moment to smell the roses as they say. We’d be willing to bet it’ll pay off.

Want to learn more? Check out our other HuntStand definition blogs below!

Deer Bedding Areas

Waterholes for Deer

Deer Funnels

Minerals for Deer

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