Shed hunting is a practice growing in popularity. As a winter activity, shed hunting gets people out in the natural world during the long cold months, where most sane individuals are parked in front of the television and waiting for spring. The biggest problem with shed hunting is that it is often hard to be successful. This is because bucks begin to lose their antlers at the end of the rut and this is when winter is just beginning to arrive. With winter comes snow, and snow can be one of the most detrimental aspects of shed hunting. The deer are scattered and ranging about looking for food, and the antlers we’re seeking so often fall from their heads and end up buried in snow, never to be found. However there is a method of hunting that can aid us in finding antlers even when there is snow on the ground. That method is tracking.
Tracking is an ancient and seldom practiced art, seemingly forgotten in the modern age. A once popular method of deer hunting, many fail to realize the benefits tracking has for shed hunting. It is a technique of searching that places shed hunters into a buck’s world. Tracking teaches shed hunters how bucks move, where they go, and where they will most likely drop their antlers when the time comes. Snow is a benefit here, as to an accomplished tracker; deer tracks in snow are as easy to read as writing on a page.
The first step to becoming a good deer tracker is learning to identify the tracks of a buck from a doe. This is easier said than done, and there is many a tracker who has followed the trail of a paddle footed doe. Yet there remain some general guidelines that help to assure that you are indeed tracking a buck. First and foremost is size. Bucks are generally larger than does and therefore they simply leave bigger tracks. The hoof prints of a buck are wider and longer than a doe’s most of the time. Yet trackers don’t just start following a big deer track, as another factor of finding a buck’s track is the depth of the print itself. An adult buck is a heavy animal that carries his weight in his chest. His tracks will leave a distinct impression in the snow and will often punch all the way down to the earth.
Another determining factor is the length of the stride. Think of a buck and a doe as a NFL linebacker and a cheerleader. They are built differently. They have different manners. Does keep their feel in line, they walk with a feminine manor, often keeping their feet in an almost straight line. Bucks have swagger, they have longer legs and wider chests. The width of their tracks is naturally wider than a does, the length of their stride longer. Think of the way a doe walks, lightly delicately, slinking through the forest like a shadow. A good buck, whose antlers are worth finding, is heavy and strong. He will trudge through the snow, punching holes like stamps as he goes.
Perhaps the best indicator of whether or not you are tracking a buck or a doe is the signs they leave when urinating. Just like most females of any species, does generally tend to squat and urinate in one spot, leaving a distinct and clear hole in the snow. The mark will be clearly centered in her tracks. A buck will often pee on the go, leaving a dribble mark several feet long. As a buck also lacks hands to direct his stream, his natural “wobble” will leave urine scattered over a larger area even when he is standing still.
Getting behind a buck track early in the year, often right after the hunting season has ended and the first snow has fallen is a great way to ensure that you will get his horns when he is done using them. Knowing of a buck in the area helps but simply finding a likely set of tracks and following them will put you into the right neighborhood. You’re in his home range, where the buck lives, where he spends most of his time and will most likely drop his horns. Try to walk slowly and with stealth. You don’t want to disturb the buck; you want him to feel right at home. Get to know his habits. Where he feeds, where he beds, these are the spots to begin searching first. If the buck jumped a fence, if he scrambled through some thick brush, if he suddenly started to run, slow down and take a look around. You may see an antler shaped hole in the snow.
Tracking is much more than just a way to find deer or deer antlers. It is a way of looking at the world that very few people seem to remember. Tracking brings us back to the natural world, makes us a part of it again, tugs at something deep and dormant within us all, and sparks it awake. The forest is soft and silent, gentle and at peace in its hibernation. The tree branches are bent with the weight of the winter and the sunlight breaking through he highest branches paints its own dark kaleidoscope of shadow on the pallid forest floor. And there you are, among it all. The tracks stand out, fine and dark against the snow. The trail leads on and you’ll follow, for you’re a tracker, and each day brings a new success.