Reading deer signs
It may seem simple, deer tracks = deer in hunting area. While this does hold true, there are many other things to look for when scouting a hunting area, or to keep an eye out for when actively hunting an area. Deer leave behind many signs to indicate that they were there, and signs that help you gauge the progress of the rut, and understand what deer are doing at the time. This in turn, helps you plan when, where and how to hunt.
Tracks are the simplest way to start, find fresh tracks in an area, it’s safe to assume there are deer there. There is a great deal of debate on whether or not deer sex can be identified by tracks. The argument is that by using size, depth, and the presence of dew claws, tracks can be identified as bucks. The only tracks I feel confident in sexing are the ones with a deer standing in them. Beyond tracks though, there are many other things to look for, especially during the rut.
Scrapes are made by bucks prior to and during the rut, and are usually an area in the dirt where deer have cleared away the leaves, and scraped the ground down to an area of disturbed dirt, usually several square feet in size. They are usually fairly obvious to the hunter, and should stand out. You should see deer tracks in and around the scrape, as well as the scrape marks from hooves in the scrape itself. You can sometimes tell which direction the deer was heading when making the scrape, which may give an indication to his direction of travel. Deer will make a line of scrapes throughout their territory, urinating them as they go along, as both an indication to possible receptive does, and other bucks in the area, that this is his turf. Bucks will freshen up their scrapes, and usually work their scrape line back and forth, but not necessarily on a daily or regular basis. You may sit on a scrape for a week, and not see the same buck return, as they are not necessarily on a set pattern when they are rut crazed. Hunters can imitate scrapes, roughing up the ground with a boot, and even adding buck urine in it, creating a mock scrape, giving a competing buck some concerns about who’s in his backyard, and maybe drawing him in to investigate.
You will rarely find a scrape that isn’t accompanied by a licking branch. When deer make a scrape in the ground, they generally rub glands in their face on a branch hanging above a scrape, depositing more scent.
As another way of marking their territory, or alerting other deer to their presence, is deer creating rubs. Bucks will rub their antlers and head against the lower part of a tree, leaving scent from glands in their head on the tree, alerting both receptive does, and competing bucks, of their presence. You will often see areas on trees a foot or two tall where the bark is rubbed off the tree. Often, hunters will shoot a rut crazed buck, and find pieces of bark and branches stuck to his forehead and antlers from doing just this.
This is another debated item that some believe can be used to determine the sex of deer. I have heard the theory that clumped droppings are from bucks, and loose pellets are from does. The other theory is that clumps are from deer feeding on more agricultural feed; clover, alfalfa and the like, and pellets are from deer feeding on woody browse and the like. Regardless, droppings can be a great indication to deer activity in an area, as hunters can usually tell how fresh these little piles are. Also, finding larger concentrations of droppings may mean you’re nearby to a bedding area, or to an area where deer are actively feeding.
Aside from following deer rubs and scrape lines, finding deer trails and their travel routes can help determine where you want to hunt. Finding trails deer use to access fields, food plots, or feeding areas can be great places to set up to hunt. This is where using trail cameras can also become very helpful, giving you an idea what’s moving where, and when.
When you’re out deer hunting in the coming weeks, pay attention to those signs around you, as they might point you to that buck of a lifetime.