Reading Whitetail Sign
Reading whitetail deer sign helps determine which areas the deer are using and when they are using them. Determining when the deer use particular areas is the key to knowing where to setup during the hunting season.
One of the most visible big game signs are trails, and being able to interpret trails can tell you where and when to find game. While most hunters know that big game animals prefer to travel into the wind they don't take wind into account when reading sign. If the game prefers to travel into the wind, their trails should reflect the prevailing wind direction.
I have kept a daily record of wind direction and speed from September through December. Looking at the data I found that out of 102 sightings of deer or deer groups, 64 percent of the movement was into the wind, with 60 percent of the movement in a westerly direction. That may not sound like much until you realize that 84 percent of the total movement was either westerly, or into the wind. In my area the wind is primarily out of the west during the fall. In the particular area of this study, the food sources were west of most of the deer core areas, therefore much of the movement I saw was in a westerly direction. But at what time of day did the deer move? My data shows that the deer traveled west 79 percent of the time in the evening, and east 67 percent of the time in the morning. They moved west to food sources in the evening and east to their core areas in the morning. When you are reading sign remember that the availability of preferred food has a strong influence on game movement and should be taken into account. The pattern I saw may not occur in other areas. But, if you keep a journal of deer activity in your area, the local patterns will become evident.
In hilly or mountainous regions deer, elk and other animals take advantage of thermal currents. Thermals rise in the morning and fall in the evening. By bedding high during the day they can catch uphill scents, by moving down hill in the evening they move into the thermals that are still rising. Game animals often bed low at night where they catch any falling scent with the changing thermals. When they move uphill to beds in the morning, they move into thermals that are still falling. When you are scouting and observing, and you see trails, tracks, droppings, rubs, scrapes and beds in certain areas, and understand how the animals react to the wind and thermal currents, you are better able to interpret sign correctly, which helps cut down on the time needed to locate the game.
Purpose, Preference, Location and Use Area
The purpose of a trail is to get the animals from one "high use" area to another. The preference of the animals is to travel through the areas of least resistance, so they expend the least amount of energy. The preference of the animal to move through the area of least resistance is overridden by the need for security. Security to a prey species is being in a place where it cannot see, smell or hear a predator. With sight a primary means of detection, deer prefer to move when and where they cannot be seen, or they cannot see predators.
Trails used at night, when animals feel secure under the cover of darkness, are often located in open fields, hilltops and meadows. These are areas the animals wouldn't use during the day because of the exposure. Daytime trails are usually located in woods, brush, heavy cover, ravines, gullies or low lying routes, where visibility is limited. Traveling in low routes has other advantages. Wind speeds are not as strong in low areas as they are at higher elevations, which result in less noise in low-lying areas. Scents may gather in low areas where they are not easily dispersed by winds. Traveling in low-lying routes allows animals be relatively unseen, to smell any scents left by predators, and to hear better than in more exposed areas.
Groups and Hubs
Groups of trails and hubs are found in high use areas; bottlenecks adjacent to preferred travel routes, crossings, staging areas, food sources, bedding sites and watering areas. The amount of cover dictates when these areas are used. Groups of trails that join in wooded areas usually indicate daytime staging or core areas, or food and water sources. Groups of trails that join in open areas indicate nighttime bedding sites or food and water sources. Groups of trails may mean regular use by both does and bucks on different trails. They may also indicate areas where the game moves deeper into cover once vegetation is gone. Hubs, several trails that cross each other, are usually found where different groups of animals travel from one high use area to another.
Frequency and Time of Use, Tracks
The frequency of use of the trail can be judged by the amount of vegetation or snow in the trail, or the relative number of tracks on the trail. The less vegetation or snow, and the more tracks, the more the trail is used. I check a trail after it has rained or snowed to find out how many tracks there are, and to see if it has been recently used. I often kick dirt, leaves or snow over the existing tracks, and then check it later. I also use a Trail Timer to see how many animals use the trail, and when they use it.
Type: Traditional, Buck, Rub Route, Doe, Escape
Frequent use of a trail can tell you how often (and sometimes how many) animals use the trail, but may not indicate the type or importance of the trail. Traditional trails, those that are used year after year, may show little use during certain seasons. Trails leading to ripening agricultural crops may only be used in the fall and winter. Less frequently used trails may be used only at certain times of the year, certain times of the day, or used for escape; they may also be used by only one doe group or one buck. Infrequently used trails that parallel more heavily used trails, or are in heavier cover, when used by only one animal, indicate a buck trail. The presence of other sex related sign (tracks, drag marks, clumped droppings) should be looked for to confirm that it is a buck trail. If you find rubs and scrapes, you have found a rub route.
Locating frequently used trails is the key to locating the "high use areas" of the animals and setting up in the right spot at the right time for hunting. If you find the does you will find the bucks during the rut. Locating buck trails, especially rub routes, is the key to locating the buck's "high use" areas, which is the key to hunting bucks.