By Drew YoungeDyke
This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the December 2019 issue of Woods'N'Water News.
A frigid dawn crusted the snow with a crunchy top layer that made still hunting all but impossible on last year’s opening day. As it warmed up, though, it became soft and quiet and fresh snow fell overnight. Early the next morning before dawn I crawled out of the sleeping bag on my cot in our deer camp’s outfitter tent in the Pigeon River Country State Forest and dressed for the day with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning: we had tracking snow.
Fresh snowfall during deer season awakens the inner Natty Bumpo of Northwoods hunters. At least it does for me as a dedicated still hunter unless conditions are absolutely prohibitive. It’s a method passed down to me from my dad and my grandpa, as was the Winchester Model 70 I loaded with Federal premium copper ammunition at legal shooting light. I hiked uphill into the woods behind camp and cut for sign, hoping to find a buck track that would fit one of my .30-’06 rounds but willing to follow a smaller buck or a doe that may attract one.
When still hunting, I usually follow deer trails. Deer take the path of least resistance, and often it is the path that will allow me to travel more quietly through thick cover. Unlike farmland, on northern Michigan public land forests deer trails go all over, not following any one definitive runway. This allows a still hunter to follow one doe trail to the next to piece together a route consistent with the terrain and wind, always alert for deer sign and presence, but it also makes it difficult to tell which trails are being predominately used. I’ve become adept at following fresh deer tracks without snow, but when fresh snow blankets the ground the picture becomes infinitely clearer. On these days, with soft footfalls and hopefully falling snow to mask my scent and movement somewhat, I’ll take a promising track and just follow it wherever it goes.
On the second day of firearm season last year I found a very fresh medium size track that could be either a large doe or small buck. I decided to follow it, even though I didn’t have an antlerless tag, in case it was a small buck or a doe that would cross paths with a larger buck. The wind cut generally crossways from the direction of the tracks and I followed them all morning through upland cover, wetlands, hardwood hills, young red pine valleys, around in a circle where it checked it’s back trail, and up along a ridge where I shot an eight point a few years ago. It was as good of a workout as you’ll find in the deer woods other than the drag out.
Still hunting is the most all-consuming method of deer hunting for me. Every sense is engaged. Every twist and turn of the track, every new viewscape, tingles the senses with anticipation. Your eyes search below every red pine branch; maybe the deer bedded down. Looking for a horizontal shape in every stand of hardwoods. A flicker of an ear through the falling snow. Stopping and kneeling frequently to scan every quadrant with binoculars, wondering what could be on the other side: a six point you would gladly take for the freezer? A doe that will intersect the path of an older eight point farther on? Along the way, you learn more about the deer.
Tracking snow has always told stories of the deer woods for observant hunters. During one of the first deer seasons I hunted at our former deer camp on Beaver Island, it told a story that, as much as any other, helped me understand the workings of nature. I followed the fresh track of a small deer along a trail just after dawn. From one side, a coyote’s tracks dropped in behind it. Another’s joined from the other side. The deer’s walking gait disappeared and reappearing in a bounding leap and the coyotes’ spaced out, but it was too late. A spatter of blood on the trail and then all three veered sharply off into the thick swamp.
It can tell our tales, too. A few years ago, before we moved our deer camp to the Pigeon River Country, I was camped out alone away from the road behind a couple-year-old clear cut. My dad planned to meet me at the camp for lunch one day and hunt with me in the afternoon, so at dawn I followed the fresh track of a buck away from camp into the woods. I veered away from it to avoid putting the wind at my back at times and rejoined it, guessing from the cover and direction where it might be headed. Toward mid-morning, I saw the blaze orange of another hunter in the woods and was going to veer away in another direction, but the other hunter saw me as well and waved. The hunter’s outline looked familiar and I recognized my dad, but how did he find me a half mile from camp after I’d swung wide away? He couldn’t have followed my tracks and caught up to me, even as slow as I was going.
He told me he saw the direction I was headed, saw the track I was following, and saw where I veered away from it. And since he taught me how to track and still hunt, how to hunt the way I did, he thought about what he would do, given the sign and terrain, guessed where I would end up if I did the same thing, and meet me there. And that’s exactly what he did.
I wondered what tales I would trail on this hunt. What would the tracks tell me? I found fairly fresh pellets, which confirm that I’m not too far behind the deer. I see where it stopped to pee, though, and the yellow snow is behind it, indicating it’s likely a doe. I pass no fresh rubs. Finally, I see what I’ve been following. A horizontal brown body amidst vertical hardwoods. I see the doe just before she sees me and bounds away; I took that one step too many and too fast that every still hunter realizes a moment too late. Without an antlerless tag, it would be a pass anyway. I tracked another deer the next day and watched the doe from 40 yards away wishing I had an antlerless tag. They were the only deer I saw last season.
Tracking snow has yet to connect me with a deer for the freezer. I’ve killed a few deer still hunting with a bow and a rifle, though, following deer trails without snow. My best deer, the eight point I shot from the ridge a few years ago, was killed after still hunting and following a fresh deer trail in the afternoon until it crossed a saddle into a valley I’d scouted in the offseason. I sat against the base of a tree on the ridge overlooking the valley and passed up a fork and two does before shooting the buck cruising for does.
Just as every bend of the trail excites this hunter with anticipation while tracking deer in the snow, so does the dawn of each new season. My rifle is sighted in with premium copper bullets, I’ve scouted our public land hunting grounds, and my freezer is stocked with pasties ready to fill the cooler at deer camp. And this year, I drew a public land antlerless tag for Otsego County. Now if only I can get some tracking snow to go with it…
(UPDATE: I still-hunted upon a pair of does, drew my rifle on one offhand, and as I hesitated - and probably moved the rifle too much - trying to ensure it wasn't a button buck, it blew and ran before I took the shot.)
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.