Deer hunting is about being in the right place at the right time. How do you find that right place? By reading sign. Deer leave clues, or sign, that help bowhunters determine the areas they are actively using. Let’s examine how different types of deer sign can affect your hunting strategy.
Deer droppings look like black oval pellets. They sometimes clump together when deer have been eating a lot of leafy greens. If droppings look moist, that’s a good sign they’re fresh and deer have been in the area. If you’re finding a lot of fresh droppings in one place, it’s likely a feeding area and a potentially good hunting spot.
A scrape is a bare patch of ground shaped like an oval or triangle under an overhanging branch. To make scrapes, deer paw away leaves and debris to expose the soil, which acts as a host for scent they leave behind. They mouth and rub their foreheads on the overhanging branch, which also holds scent. It’s all part of a communication ritual they perform during the weeks leading to the rut.
Fresh scrapes have moist soil, a strong scent, and are void of any leaves or debris. If you find a large scrape, called a community scrape, set up a trail camera along that spot. As the rut approaches, typically mid to late October, you can also hunt within bow range of a scrape to catch a buck eyeing the location for signs of does or other bucks.
In early fall, bucks strengthen their necks and mark their territory by rubbing their antlers on trees. This leaves exposed wood and scarred trees that are easy to spot. New rubs will cause a tree to have wet sap, a fresh smell, and bright-colored wood. An old rub has already healed over, and the wood will look dull by comparison.
Rubs tell us there is a buck in the area. You can learn the direction the buck is traveling by which side of the tree he has rubbed. It’s common for bucks to rub a line of trees as he travels through his territory. If you find a large concentration of rubs, you’re likely in the buck’s “core area.”
If you find fresh rubs, trails and other deer sign, you’ve located an excellent hunting spot. Set up your tree stand or ground blind within bow range of the deer trail – or even better, where two trails converge.
Deer tracks provide valuable information, such as which trails deer use and the direction they travel. This information is helpful, but only if those tracks were made recently. Interpreting deer tracks is an art that takes experience and practice.
One of the best clues to determine if a track is fresh is to look for clearly defined edges. Wind and rain will wash away tracks, and they’ll become less visible the more time passes. That’s why looking for tracks after a heavy rain or fresh snow is a sure way to discover fresh tracks.
Deer don’t always leave a defined track on the ground, but you can find trails caused by deer repeatedly walking through an area. A deer trail can be faint, or it may look like a troop of elephants blazed the trail. The obvious trails are usually found in areas where deer congregate, such as a feeding area. These trails can also indicate a pinch point or funnel, which is a terrain feature or anything that constricts deer movement to a narrow area. Faint trails are more common. You can learn a lot about deer by following these faint trails. You’ll learn how deer travel and their possible destinations, such as a feeding or bedding area.
Now that you know what to look for in the woods, you can begin putting the pieces of the puzzle together. As a final tip, always hunt fresh sign. The goal is to be where the deer ARE not where they WERE.