Finding joy in the outdoors since 1988
Often referred to as the "original forensics", tracking is a skill that quickly transforms into a hobby. Scanning the brush in the forest the chaos of piles of leaves and twigs seem meaningless but over time you become more aware of the sign (evidence) left behind by animal movement. The excitement builds as you navigate the forest and piece together what happened as the animal moved through and it's that much more fulfilling when you connect those dots to make the harvest. As you improve your tracking you realize that not only are you looking at one animal, your piecing together the larger story of animal behavior in your hunting zone.
Sign is any type of evidence of animal locomotion; This includes scat, broken vegetation, trails and runs, etc. Today's installment will cover reading the actual prints. I usually I.D. a few important characteristics as I read the print:
Obviously it's important to identify which animal left the prints your reading... though it's not always as easy as it sounds. A realistic statistic here would be 98% of the tracks you come across are distorted in some way, very few will be clearly registered, for this reason I suggest "getting your feet wet" while some snow is on the ground. It's very easy to track in the snow and keeps the tracker from losing the trail. The more prints you take in the more accurate and efficient you'll become. When it comes time to follow the trail during the summer and fall you'll be much more experienced at finding sign in "harder" conditions.
Look to identify the print by it's general shape first. Some prints are pretty unique and make identification a breeze, for example everyone knows the deer print. As you begin to identify closely related species, for example: the dog and coyote, you'll need to inspect the track a little closer. Heres a list of some of the common species I track here in Ohio.
The cat family tends to have a round print. This includes the toes as well as the heel pad. The plump round toes and slim heel pad are pretty easy to pick out. Cat's usually don't leave claw marks behind due to them being retracted during most of their travel. One neat thing to notice about the cat print is how it's rear paws register. Nearly all of the time the cat replaces with the rear paw perfectly where the front paw was placed. That's why it often looks as though there are only two legs making the tracks. The rear prints replace the front ones. Stealthy.
Deer are pretty easy to identify due to the hoof markings being so unique. Deer register tracks as shown above with rear hooves trailing front prints slightly. At times prints are registered with a 1-2" gap between front and rear hooves while at others this gap extends. When stride is elongated during fast movement you'll notice the bounding-like pattern in which there will be 2 sets of the prints shown above but 7-10 feet in between these sets; just an indication of speed.
Another beneficial sign is determining the sex of the deer. I have been asked how I know when I'm tracking a buck or doe and I can usually detect this by looking at the straddle of the track set. Doe's have wider hips (like women) which are specialized for birthing the fawn while bucks have slightly wider shoulders (like men). The trick is to find the front and rear prints that aren't distorted too much. Take a look at the diagram to see what I mean. Wider rear prints means your tracking a doe.
*RF=Right Front, RR=Right Rear
One of the tougher calls when small game hunting is deciding if your prints are squirrel or rabbit. I've learned one easy "tell" and to my knowledge it has held true. The front paws register at an angle for rabbits while they register evenly and parallel for the squirrel. When the rabbit is running remember that the front paws are the prints that are actually in the back and back paws are in the front. When moving swiftly the rear prints mock those of squirrels by appearing more like the small round shape above and more elongated when moving slowly.
Squirrels have a couple distinguishing features. 1, as listed above, the front paw prints (that appear behind) register evenly and directly across from one another. The second feature is the amount of toes on the front and rear paws. Squirrels have 5 in the front and 4 in the back.
The Canines family features the domestic dog, fox and coyote. It's important for hunters to be able to identify a coyote or a fox in there hunting zone. One of the easiest ways to do this is the "X test" if you can make an X in the paw print without having to go through the heel pad to do it then your looking at a coyote or fox print, if you can't make this X then it's a dog print. Another feature is the positioning of the toes. Coyotes have nearly forward facing toes and claws whereas the domesticated dog has a more sprawled register with wider toe markings. I haven't found an exact way to distinguish the fox from the coyote except by general size. The coyote heel pad diameter is 2 inches and above and foxes are much smaller usually no bigger than an inch and a half.
This group includes the weasels, fishers, martens, badgers, wolverines, minks, otters and skunks. Members of this group utilize the bounding gait as shown above; front and rear paws register as is. 5 toes in both the front and back.
It's not hard to imagine that the bigger the print the bigger the animal. This holds true in most cases but as mentioned above gender also plays a role as well as reading the "true print".
It's important to use the "true track" as a reference to size.
You might get a chuckle out of this one. I use a crude field measuring system for determining size in the field, after all who carries a ruler around with their gear? I call it the knuckle system. I place my hand over the print and using the "true track", measure the widest diameter of the print with my knuckles. It actually works pretty well. Stop laughing.
Another trick for estimating the size of deer is to observe the shape and detail of the hoof print. Older deer tend to have a rounded hoof tip due to wear and tear over time. The young yearlings will have sharper hoof tip. If you've found a buck print with "hock" marks or two little blips just behind the print this gives you an idea of the weight of the animal. The smaller deer don't weigh enough to press down to cause these markings. Well-defined "hock" marks are often left by the trophies. Be sure to take soil consistency into account as well. The looser and softer the soil the deeper the print will register and distort causing estimations to be a little off.
As far as other species goes I haven't patented a knuckle system as of yet, but in general the more prints you see the better able you'll be at determining the size of your game.
In my opinion this is where the trail gets fun. I love the blend of art and science spritzed with luck and determination; it's a beautiful thing. To this point we've covered identification, understanding how to read the true track, estimating size, now it's time to turn the detective switch on.
When tracking, the biggest question I want to answer is when. It's valuable to know the type and size of animal but when is HUGE. When tells us when to set-up, when our game is going to show up, when we're ready to make our harvest. But understand that it's not just a time of day. It may be a lunar phase, a time during the season, a time driven by mating, or a time driven by weather, or a time driven by food source. I can't cover all these variables in one article (I probably will later on) but I can get you started.
Get to know the mood of the prints you've found. If they are evenly spaced and register close to straight down your animal is walking or browsing through the area. Animals usually run to catch food and to not be food. Theres just no need to waste precious energy for no reason. If you encounter erratic prints that are spaced far apart you know the animal is running, and for a reason.
Tracking is a great way to enjoy the outdoors as well as learn more about your game. Do yourself a favor and put a little more effort into your tracking skills and reap the benefits of scouting the native american way. Over time you'll be reading the trails like a book.
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