Tracking is one of the most genuinely effective skills that a woodsman can possess. It is also one of the most difficult skills to truly master. Following prints allows a hunter to anticipate an animal’s movements, patterns of behavior and whereabouts. The goal is to make sure that you see the animal before it sees you, and capitalize on that moment. In a perfect world, a huntsman will track an animal to its bed during the day. First-light and last-light hunts can lead proficient trackers to quarry that is moving from bedding to feeding areas, or vice versa.
Rolling Dice and Reading Signs
More tracking attempts end in tag-soup than not. While the idea of tracking seems very simple, it is seldom an easy thing to pull off. At a certain point, a tracker is going to have to make an educated guess. But before you get there, reading the signs clearly will help put you on the right path, and make the right choice.
A huge part of successful tracking is seeing the big picture. That old-timer saying of “see the forest, not just the trees” comes to mind. Often times, novice trackers will spend a great deal of effort examining the tracks themselves. While this is important, and taking in all the elements of each track is important, try standing back for a moment to examine the entire scenario. Look as far up the path as possible, try to determine what the animal was doing as it walked. While a feeding animal may meander, an animal determined to reach a feeding or bedding area is more likely to travel in a straight line.
A primary aspect of tracking is determining how fresh a track is. Mud can offer excellent clues, but even mud can be deceptive. When in doubt, try making your own track directly next to the track that is in question. Compare the edges of the track to your freshly-left track. Make certain to also check for debris left by your track, and compare it to what debris you find or don’t find in the animal track. A sharp edge in the mud may not always determine freshness. The mud may have hardened as a result of cold weather just after the print was made; if weather has been very cold, a track that seems fresh may be several days old. If you happen to be tracking in snow, check the difference between tracks left in sunlight and those left in the shade. A track in the shade is easier to read because it hasn’t been subjected to melting or refreezing.
Day vs Evening Tracking
Tracking during the morning in a first-light scenario means you need to take your time. The game may very well be bedded down, this does not mean that the animal will be unalert. You will need to spot the animal before it spots you. If you are tracking during the evening in a last-light scenario, try leaving the track and circling around to intercept the animal before it reaches a food source. Move quickly, as sneaking up on an animal feeding in the field is usually harder than getting the drop on one that is moving through a wooded area that offers you cover.
At the end of it all, the most important thing to remember when tracking is that the track itself is only one clue. You must consider every other element of the equation and choose wisely. That’s part of the fun, and getting good at tracking leads to more fun—meat!