Learning and Understanding
When people are learning how to deer hunt for the first time, they normally have many questions. One that consistently pops up is how to scout for deer sign. Your first time in the woods, you might have no clue what to look for, let alone how to interpret deer sign.
But once you get over the intimidation factor, deer scouting is a lot easier than it seems. Before you know it, you’ll be tracking whitetail deer and understanding deer movement like a seasoned hunter! So in this post, I want to describe deer travel patterns, explain the basic types of deer sign you will find, and ultimately help you learn how to find a good deer hunting spot. Let’s do this.
Deer Movement Patterns
First, a little biology lesson. White-tailed deer are “crepuscular” animals, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. Conventional wisdom says that the deer daily routine revolves around feeding areas at night and bedding areas during the day, but there are caveats.
During the day, they do typically find a safe spot to rest and bed down. If they are not pressured or hungry, they will loaf around this same general spot all day. This is especially true in heavily hunted areas, where deer seek places of refuge to hide out during the only time we can hunt.
As evening approaches, deer will usually make their way towards feeding areas, which could be an agricultural field or a young clearcut area full of woody browse. Numerous deer movement studies have documented this same general deer movement pattern.
As they go about their daily business, they are leaving deer sign behind. It’s up to us to interpret those “bread crumbs” and develop a hunting strategy based on it. Here are the most common kinds of deer sign you will find and how they could help you while hunting.
Basic Deer Sign
Let’s start by defining what we mean by “deer sign” – this is basically any identifying mark made or left by a deer. As I mentioned, there are only a handful of different signs you will need to know. Below, I have several pictures and descriptions for each kind, as well as what it tells you.
Whitetail deer tracks are some of the most obvious kinds of deer sign and following them is a great way to learn how to track deer movement patterns. Luckily, deer tracks are very distinct too, so you probably won’t confuse them with other wild game species. Deer have bilaterally symmetrical hooves, which means each toe is a mirror image of the other. The rear part of the deer track is usually softer and less defined, but the sharp tips of the hooves curve inward and they are clearly defined on the ground. Deer also have “dew claws” – small nails/claws positioned just slightly higher up the foot and on the rear side of the hoof. Tracking deer in the snow is a great way to learn the basic deer track shape.
What It Means:
So what can deer tracks and trails tell you besides a deer was there to make it? You can get a general idea of the size, age, and gender of a deer by their tracks, but it’s not an exact science. Obviously, smaller tracks equal smaller deer and the opposite is also true. For example:
- Fawns tend to leave very small triangle shaped tracks that are shorter than your palm.
- Does and young bucks tend to leave larger tracks with distinct halves shown that measure about about 4 inches in length.
- Mature buck tracks are usually deeper and larger in size, measuring 5 or more inches in length. The heavier a deer, the more their hooves will splay out to each side as well.
Usually only heavier deer sink into the ground enough to leave the dew claw impressions. So when you see them, either the ground was very soft and muddy, or a larger deer (likely a buck) left the deer tracks. Once you learn how to read deer trails, you can tell the direction the deer was moving because the sharp tips will point forward. Further, you can see if the deer was in a hurry or simply walking by. Walking deer tracks will be spaced every couple feet, while running tracks will usually sink much deeper and be spaced several feet apart.
The easiest way to describe most deer scat is that it looks like little chocolate covered raisins. You know, the kind you would give to your worst enemy. During the fall and winter, deer feed heavily on woody browse (i.e., branches), which contains a lot of fiber. This creates the little pellet-shaped deer sign that is often deposited in little mounds along deer trails. However, when they eat a lot of lush green plant material, it creates much looser, watery clumps of pellets. In comparison, rabbit feces are generally rounder, browner, and even more fibrous looking.
What It Means:
Why am I so interested in deer poop, you might ask? It can tell you a lot about what the deer are eating and where they are congregating. If you only find piles of pellets in an area, you can be reasonably sure they are eating mostly woody browse. This can tell you that deer are spending their time in young, brushy forests with lots of available branches at deer height. And as for other deer tracking tips, you can use the presence of scat to help guide you along if you lose sight of the deer tracks themselves.
A deer bed is a very simple deer sign and you can accurately identify it pretty quickly. Generally, it just consists of a simple oval or kidney-bean shape on the ground. It stands out really well in the winter when you can see a depression in the snow, but you can also see it pretty well in grassy areas. The larger the bed, the larger the deer. Also, the number of beds can help you identify the gender. During the fall, most bucks will bed by themselves, while does will usually bed with their fawns or other doe/fawn groups.
What It Means:
As you read above, deer typically lie down in bedding areas during the day, so it can help you learn where to find deer while you hunt. For example, if you are finding a lot of smaller beds, you can be reasonably sure that does and fawns use that area during daylight hours. As the rut approaches, bucks will start to circle downwind of these doe bedding areas to find an estrous doe to mate with. So if you find a single large bed in a remote spot or downwind of a doe bedding area, that probably means a mature buck is nearby.
As the summer ends, the change in photoperiod (length of daylight) triggers changes in bucks. The growing tissue (i.e., velvet) on their antlers begins to die, and bucks start rubbing their antlers against trees and shrubs to scrape the velvet off. But this isn’t the primary reason they make rubs. It also allows them to strengthen their neck muscles in preparation for the rut and it is an important scent communication tool. The glands on a buck’s forehead deposit scent onto the tree, which other deer can detect.
Rubs can be made on nearly any tree species, but they seem to prefer small to medium-sized trees with thin bark. To tell a rub from an animal gnawing on the tree, look for shredded bark versus neat tooth marks. Depending on the size of the buck’s rack, there may also be deep gouges in the tree where a certain tine dug in deeper. Due to the damage this causes the tree, you can easily see old rubs as they have dark brown scar tissue. Bucks very commonly make rubs along habitat edges, such as the transition between a field and forest.
What It Means:
You’ll often hear the term “rub line” used in deer hunting circles. As bucks move about between bedding and feeding areas, they will likely rub trees along the way. Over time, this line of rubs can reveal a corridor of buck movement that helps you understand where they go and how they get there. If you find a fresh rub line coming out of a suspected buck bedding area, it is very likely worth hunting.
A deer scrape is made when a deer uses its hooves to scratch the leaves and debris out of a small area (usually around a three-foot oval), exposing the soil beneath it. Whitetails use scrapes to communicate with each other via scent. After making the scrape, they will squeeze their back legs together and urinate down their legs. This picks up important scent molecules from their tarsal glands and deposits it in the scrape. Bucks usually make scrapes beneath a tree limb, called a licking branch, where they can leave scent from their eye glands (preorbital glands) and forehead glands as well.
What It Means:
Bucks use this deer sign to let other deer know their social dominance, breeding status, etc. Does will occasionally also urinate in it, particularly when they are ready to breed (in estrous). In that sense, a deer scrape is kind of like a dating website for deer. Scrapes are exciting to find, especially when you find a fresh one within shooting distance of your tree stand, but they don’t always pan out. Multiple studies have found that most scrapes are made and visited at night. I have had some bucks walk directly in to visit a scrape, but more often, I have not had any luck hunting over them.
This is a deer sign that many people ignore or don’t notice. Deer do not have any upper incisors – instead they have a rough palette on top. So to remove vegetation, they pin it between their bottom incisors and upper palette and rip it off. This leaves a jagged edge, particularly with branches. This is a sure sign you found deer browse and not rabbits, since rabbits have sharp teeth and will neatly clip a branch off.
What It Means:
While it doesn’t necessarily tell you when deer were there, it does tell you that they do feed in a certain area. It can help you identify potential feeding areas to play into that deer movement discussion from earlier. For example, if you find a recent clearcut where every branch below 6 feet tall is nipped off, you can be pretty sure that deer spend a lot of their night there. Setting up a tree stand nearby could make for a great evening deer hunt.
Practice Scouting Now
This is a great time of year to practice your observation and scouting skills. You can wander around public lands without a fear of spooking deer, and you might even find a shed antler. Get out in the woods and look for the deer sign mentioned above. It will help train your eye for next fall.