Following in the Footsteps of a Big Woods Buck Tracking Legend

Snow softly popped beneath my boot like moist popcorn as I eased my heel, then toe, all the way down to the bottom. I leaned ahead, squinted eyes looking out forward, and thumbed the protection on my rifle. It was there, I used to be prepared. I needed to be prepared.

“He could possibly be proper up hee-ya,” Hal whispered again to me in his thick lobsterman accent. “Keep tight to my shoulder now. If it occurs, it’ll occur quick.”

This was the dream that so many hunters have about monitoring deer. The snow and the forest and the mountain and a big-bodied buck, simply forward, on the finish of the tracks.

I used to be right here to see if I might discover a cloven press within the snow, suss out its age and dimension, after which observe it down gullies and up ridgelines, throughout creeks and over hills, proper to its maker. I used to be right here to trace a buck. However I by no means imagined it might occur on my very first day.

mark shot

Classes from the Legend
My host and instructor on this hunt was the legendary Hal Blood, a grasp Maine information and creator of a number of well-read books on the artwork of monitoring big woods bucks. With the Benoit household’s fade out of the mainstream media, Blood picked up the mantle and has now taught 1000’s of keen trackers the way to stroll down a buck via his writings and more moderen exploits in on-line movies and podcasts.

As a younger boy searching in Northern Michigan, I lengthy held a romantic view of what it may be prefer to decipher a track in the snow and stroll it to the buck himself, however I by no means had a mentor who might present me the ropes. Now I had probably the greatest on the earth standing beside me on the sting of 1000’s of acres of Maine wilderness.

Hal stands properly over six toes tall and strikes in a gangly however assured method. He wears a no-nonsense salt and pepper goatee, heavy on the salt, and a inexperienced checkered wool jacket straight out of central casting for Northeastern deer camps of the early twentieth century. Lastly, hinting at the truth that he is aware of one thing I don’t, he duct tapes the bottoms of his wool pants across the base of his rubber boots.

Hal Blood

I’d heard Hal was good at what he does, however I additionally acknowledged that this type of searching can be no small problem. With low deer densities and huge stretches of nation to cowl, we’d stroll all day and by no means cross a buck monitor. Blood reiterated this to me proper off the bat, explaining that we’d cowl plenty of floor and quick, not slowing down or worrying about being quiet till we discovered a monitor.

All of this made our first morning that rather more shocking when, after simply half-hour of mountaineering up a steep snow-covered slope, we got here throughout a monitor that caught Hal’s consideration.

What Makes a Monitor Value Monitoring?
“Alright, you see this, that is what I name a crispy monitor,” he mentioned whereas pointing down at a line of prints within the snow. The monitor had clearly outlined edges and trailing puffs and clumps of tossed snow behind and in entrance of every print.

A crispy monitor, he defined, was an indication that this deer had probably handed via the night time earlier than, not less than throughout the final 12 hours or so. “If it was made someday within the night time, whether or not it’s 4 hours outdated or 12 hours outdated, to me it’s nonetheless a contemporary monitor. And more often than not I can catch that buck that day,” Blood mentioned.

A contemporary monitor’s cookie-cutter straight edges are sometimes paired with a not but frozen pancake of snow on the backside, one thing I noticed Blood take a look at for by placing his fingers into the monitor and urgent down.

All this led to my subsequent query. How will you inform if this track was made by a buck value searching? To this, Hal first defined that he recommends new trackers observe nearly any decent-sized deer monitor, particularly one with dewclaws pressed in behind the print.

tow draggah

Monitoring down any buck, even a younger one, represents a heck of an accomplishment and even when the deer finally ends up being a doe, it’s nice apply. This, I’d quickly study, is one thing that any aspiring deer tracker wants lots of. The monitor in entrance of us, whereas no whopper, can be good for my first day in school.

However, if a giant outdated buck is what you’re after, the factors is steeper. “I’m searching for a monitor that is a ‘three by three’, three inches lengthy by three inches broad, though they’re by no means fairly sq. like that,” he mentioned. He tossed his Chapstick into the monitor as a reference. “It must be longer than that.”

An enormous buck monitor, he would later clarify to me, additionally has giant gaps between the toe pads. “It received’t be a heart-shaped print, there’s gonna be an area between the 2 toes, it may be nearly an inch area on big bucks,” he defined. Broadly splayed dew claw marks, typically even turned perpendicular, are one other good signal.

Lastly, Blood likes a “toe draggah.” Large, heavy bucks, he’s discovered, will typically drag their toes via the snow leaving lengthy traces trailing behind.

On the Monitor
This appeared too good to be true. Solely a half-hour into my first day, amidst the postcard-perfect scene of snow softly wafting via a cover of near-black pines, and we have been already on a monitor.

Now would come the arduous half, Hal instructed me. We needed to catch up.

That is when the subtleties of hoofprint detective work are changed with the brashness of the chase. There can be no “elmer fudding,” as Hal referred to as it, no slowly sneaking via the woods seeking a wily whitetail. Quite, we’d hike as quick and as repeatedly as attainable to meet up with this deer. We took off at what may charitably be referred to as a brisk stroll or, as one in all my cameramen later described it, an excellent jog.

quick jog

Regardless of Blood being close to the age of my retired father, he sped throughout the up and down panorama like a person half his age. We hopped over creeks, clawed up muddy banks, and clambered over and round downed bushes, boulders, and alder thickets.

That is the place many first-time trackers drop the ball, I used to be instructed. Too many hunters really feel obligated to slowly sneak their means via the woods, their ambush searching habits being arduous to interrupt, and by no means find yourself getting anyplace close to the buck that may be many miles forward of them. Hal, and I now, would don’t have any such downside. We might hike and hike and hike and solely decelerate when the proof urged that our quarry was doing the identical.

mark phone

We stumbled on our first such proof about 4 miles in, because the buck’s monitor circled again on itself after which approached a steep cliff beneath a rocky level. The path switch-backed up the slope, a tell-tale signal, Hal mentioned, of a buck heading to the next elevation bedding location. This, along with every other signal of meandering journey or visibly ate up vegetation, alerts a brand new section of the hunt.

It was time to enter “creep mode.”

The Creep
“If it occurs, it’ll occur quick,” he whispered.

Right here, on the prime of the purpose, we slowed to a crawl. Each patch of floor was studied earlier than dropping a boot, each department in the way in which slowly pushed apart as we handed, and each hole within the pines and oaks forward scanned for a flat again, black nostril, or white tail.

I held my rifle excessive and tight, imagining how I’d pull up and settle the scope if a buck materialized forward. I must be ready for the briefest of alternatives, I used to be instructed. Bucks on this scenario flee quick, if in case you have even a second of stillness that you must take benefit. Many trackers, Blood too, even advocate for photographs at transferring deer. “It may be the one probability you’ll get,” he mentioned. Sadly, that may be one probability I wouldn’t take. The chances for fulfillment have been even slimmer.

mark and hal

We took one other step. I peered previous Blood’s define forward of me hoping and wishing and keen a deer in existence. However none appeared.

The Sandwich Break
“I believe we bumped him,” he mentioned. And right here can be my last lesson within the Hal Blood means: “The Sandwich Break.”

Upon bumping a buck, whether or not or not it’s visibly or by coming upon a contemporary mattress, Blood will sit down, eat a sandwich, and wait half-hour. Our “hen dinner sandwich” was to die for.

sandwich break

Many different hunters, he lamented in between bites of leftover hen and stuffing, will simply carry on chasing a spooked buck and destroy their possibilities of success within the course of. However by giving that bumped buck sufficient time to look at behind him and never see hazard, he’ll finally cool down and resume his routine. It’s at this level, after the primary bump, that Blood enjoys his most success. He now is aware of he’s inside a comparatively quick distance of the buck and that the deer is on the hoof. If circumstances are proper, specifically having a little bit wind and never too crunchy of snow, his confidence now skyrockets.

From right here Blood’s advice was to push ahead, albeit barely much less haphazardly than in his earlier cover-ground mode. We started our path run once more and coated one other 4 or 5 miles. However we by no means did catch as much as that buck.

Off On My Personal
The subsequent day I struck off alone and started a three-day search of the white and winding hills of Maine. Alongside the way in which, I bought to expertise each section of the sport and work via every particular person problem for myself.

I discovered buck tracks, performed Sherlock Holmes, and chased them down. I bumped bucks, loved a meatloaf sandwich break, and even at one level, actually actually thought I used to be about to see the buck on the finish of the path. And thru all this and extra I discovered a couple of issues to be true.

mark hunting alone

I discovered that monitoring whitetails is, no surprises right here, arduous. Fairly arduous. It requires unbelievable bodily endurance—I ended up mountaineering about 40 miles over 4 days—whereas demanding acute psychological focus alongside the way in which too. My toes blistered and peeled. My knees clicked and popped. My head ached after hours staring on the floor, wracking my mind to translate the stories indiscriminately written in the snow.

However I additionally discovered that it’s enjoyable. Fairly enjoyable. In no different type of searching I’ve skilled are you able to relaxation assured that your quarry is the truth is current and simply forward. When you hit that monitor, in a single kind or one other, hope abounds. Your dream is there in entrance of you, you simply must hold strolling.

To my shock, the joy current after discovering a huntable monitor or refinding one after shedding it in dry leaves was palpable. It was not in contrast to the frenzy I’ve felt so many different instances when a buck seems within the distance and turns in the direction of my stand.

The bodily problem, the detective work, and the slow-drip rigidity of the eventual creep made for a wildly various and interesting journey. “You both hate it otherwise you like it, there’s not often a lot in between,” Hal incessantly jogged my memory. And he was proper.

Keep tuned for this hunt to be featured on MeatEater’s latest whitetail present, coming to the MeatEater YouTube channel later this yr.

I'll be back

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