DEER SIGN consists of the clues that deer, whitetails specifically for this article, leave behind in the normal course of their lives. Finding it, understanding it, and the decisions made because of it, are all essential parts to becoming a successful hunter. So what should you be looking for? The signs of a deer’s presence ranges from the obvious to the obscure and all require different interpretations as it changes seasonally from summer and early fall, to the onset of the rut, and the post-rut through winter.
Let’s start with some of the obvious things for which you may notice while afield.
Seeing DeerThe first and best indication of deer in your area is, well, seeing them. I know, duh! Right? Well there is more to seeing deer than just seeing them. I like to make a mental note and eventually a written one about the day and time of each sighting. Other important information to jot down would be the location, weather including wind direction, temperature, precipitation, sky conditions, etc., the number of deer seen, sex, maturity, and in what activity was the deer engaged for example feeding, bedded down, chasing does, etc. It is amazing how much information you can gather throughout the year with some good recognizance. As you build your stack of data, it may prove handy to enter it into a spreadsheet. This may help you to discover patterns that you otherwise could overlook. Great tools to use in conjunction with your sighting reports are aerial and topo maps. These maps will help you determine where the deer may be coming from, identify bedding areas, food sources, and potential ambush sites.
The use of trail cameras can also help with gathering this information. Many of the current models include temperature read outs, date, time, and even the moon phase at the time of exposure. I like to keep every photo taken from my trail cams that has a deer in the frame, whether it be a buck or not. The doe photos will tell you when deer are moving and come November, the bucks will be looking for those does.
The other sure-fire way of knowing that your area holds or is attracting deer is by finding and identifying their tracks. Just like human footprints, all animals leave a track behind and being able to distinguish between tracks and trails of each and learning to understand what the track is telling you will drastically improve your hunting abilities.
A whitetail deer’s track is made by a cloven hoof that is wider at the rear and tapers to the front. This will tell you the direction the deer was traveling at the time the print was made. Evidence of dewclaws in the rear may indicate that the deer making the track was a buck. But soft earth or mud and snow can also cause does to leave the same dewclaw marks. The tips of the hoof print are typically more “sharp” or pointed for a doe than a buck. Bucks wear the tips of their hooves down from making scrapes and they also seem to drag their feet as oppose to does who tend to take a higher step. This dragging is also evident in tracks found in snow or mud.
Size matters! Bigger deer tend to have bigger hooves therefore bigger tracks. Although this varies region to region, tracks measuring 2 1/2″ or greater will almost certainly belong to a mature whitetail buck. Tracks measuring 2 1/4″ – 2 1/2″ may be a younger buck or a large doe at the lower end. Tracks less than 2 1/4″ usually belong to young deer, does, and fawns.
The weight of the deer can sometimes be estimated by the hoof print as well. This guesstimate is relative to understanding the typical body size in relation to sex and age class of the whitetail deer in your area as well as the media in which the print was made. Softer soil is more easily deformed and so harder to judge. But a deep or deeper track on firm soil will often indicate a heavier deer.
Scat, or the deer’s droppings, can also hold clues to the deer movement in your area. Deer scat is typically round or oval in shape and “pellet-like” found along trails or in feeding areas. Once again pellet size is relevant to the size of the deer that produced it. Also, buck scat tends to be more “clumped” than a doe’s. Fresh scat is a great way of determining active travel routes or the hottest food sources that the deer may be using. But how in the world do you know how fresh a deer’s droppings are? Well, keep in mind that a deer is a ruminant, and has a four-chambered stomach like a cow. They are glutens during optimal feeding times so that they can retire to cover and “chew their cud.” This process and their diet often leaves their scat, when fresh, with a greenish color that turns to black as it dries. Therefore, soft greenish pellets found in the morning were usually left there the night before. Whereas firm, black pellets would be several hours to several days old.
RubsI have covered rubs in greater detail in another article titled “Rubs.” So I will generalize here, but rubs are made when a buck strips the bark from saplings and trees as an effort to remove velvet, and create a visual/scent marking of his territory. Discovering a big rub or a series of rubs will definitely tell you that there is a buck or bucks active in your area.
The whitetail buck will begin pawing the ground around the middle of October and may continue as late as December in the mid-atlantic region. He will usually “scrape” the vegetation or leaf litter from the ground until he reaches bare earth and then he will urinate within the disturbed soil. This scent marking helps establish his territory with other bucks and attract does. Both does and other bucks may add their own urine when they encounter a scrape. The buck who originally created the scrape will return to check the scent signatures left by the other deer and may “freshen” the scrape with more of his own scent. The large majority of scrapes are made under the cover of darkness, so although they are a great sign of bucks in the area, you may not want to spend your season in a stand overhead waiting for the deer to return.
When a buck makes a scrape, it will usually be under some low or overhanging branches. During the process of making the scrape, the buck may rub his antlers in the branches, often breaking them. He will then lick the branches. This is yet another way for a whitetail buck to create a visual and scent marker to demonstrate his dominance over a territory.
A deer will bed down several times throughout the day and night. Locating beds and bedding areas is a key point to understanding deer movements and anticipating travel routes and destinations. As you are scouting you may encounter oval-shaped depressions of matted vegetation. These are deer beds and the size of the bed is a direct indication of the size of the deer who made it. A buck bed may be greater than 4 feet in length in certain areas of the country.
Typically a deer’s day beds will be found in thick cover or tall grass that offers the greatest security while they chew their cud and rest from a night of feeding. They may leave a bed during the day for another and use several different areas. A bed found in the open was most likely made during the night when the deer laid down to rest between bouts of feeding. These are only temporary and do not mark a consistent use of the area.
Outside the major forms of sign left behind, there are several other indicators that can help you determine where to place your stand. Hair snagged on fence crossings, chewed up corn cobs still on the stalk or nipped beans and alfalfa shoots all indicate deer activity. Water sources area great location to look for sign. The banks usually have softer soils and are a great place to check for tracks.
So there you have it. Sounds easy right? The whitetail deer leaves a lot of evidence behind for us to find when we know what to look for. But remember, it’s what you do when you find the sign that determines your success. The deer are there, now get yourself in position for a shot.
bedded fawn photo courtesy of ForestWander