This post was written by a good friend of mine, Caleb Musgrave. Caleb and I have hunted together, spent time working in the woods, and discussed a range of topics related to hunting and wildlife. Caleb runs Canadian Bushcraft and he has a depth of knowledge about being in the outdoors. One of his skills is tracking, and he wanted to give an introduction to some of the things we should understand to become a good tracker. Thanks, Caleb.
So, you want to hunt big game. You got your hunting license, your tags, and your weapon of choice. You got all the right gear, and you spent the time at the range making your aim as lethally accurate as you can. But now you’re in the field, and you have no idea where to go from here. Yeah, you may see the occasional footprint from an animal, but how do you know it is from your quarry? And how do you know it is recent enough to make it worth following? On several occasions annually, Search-and-Rescue are called in to find lost hunters who were following elk, moose or mule deer tracks that were over a month old. So this is not some unlikely scenario. And even if you are plumb lucky and see a deer or moose, then shoot it. Now what? Where did it go? Are you sure?
Tracking is a vital component to any hunter’s mental toolkit. It helps you find game, before and after dispatching. It helps you understand what predators may be pressuring the animals in your area. It helps you understand what foods are being eaten by your quarry. It identifies so much more than simply seeing a deer, rabbit or turkey ever could.
The truth is, tracking is the oldest science our species has ever developed. Many animals track by scent, and through that system, they can discern species, gender, age of activity, and even the age and health of the animal they are tracking. However, we – as humans – do not have the olfactory system made for such an endeavour. We do however have sight on our side, and the ability to discern differences in the environment. Being able to identify a track, trail or other sign left over by animals, our ancestors were able to read all of the details needed to find, kill and bring home meat for their families. The Saan People of Namibia and Botswana, the Lipan Apache of Texas and Mexico, and many other Indigenous peoples still carry the knowledge of reading the ground like a newspaper. Biologists, naturalists and professional guides have also learned the science of tracking for their daily living as well -though from a more western perspective.
For us, as hunters, or supporters of wildlife conservation, there is a lot to take in if we wish to learn how to track. One of the first things I want to emphasize is humility. This article, and no amount of time spent tracking will ever make you perfect at it. I’ve seen some of the best trackers in Canada and the States get stumped. Tracking is not easy. But it is vital if we wish to be good, effective hunters. So learn to take your mistakes openly, and when you don’t know? Just say so. Admit it, and move forward.
So before we go too far into how to track an animal, let’s discuss how to find tracks. When you come into an environment (field, swamp, forest, dirt trail, etc), stop, breathe deeply and slow the hell down. You are going to miss details, and those details will be the ones you need. Expand your vision beyond your own set of feet, and examine your surroundings. Look at the dirt. Now really look at it. Study it until you’ve picked out every individual stone. What you are looking for is the baseline symphony of life. This sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Okay, how about we delve deeper.
The Baseline Symphony of the forest is what everything looks like normal. Rain, wind and other variables of the elements have all impacted the land around us. Dirt has been buffeted by breezes, and pounded smooth by rain. When a deer trots through that dirt, it will leave dents and scuffs in that smooth ground. These are tracks, and when they are made, they disrupt the baseline symphony of the dirt. They stand out for a reason, as if they are yelling at you. But only if you slow the hell down.
This becomes even clearer if you are tracking a running deer through a hardwood forest, full of leaf litter. The normal shape of the leaves are all flat, like tiles on a floor. But when the deer charges through, the leaves are kicked up and end up looking like miniature Sydney Opera Houses. The deer has disrupted the Baseline Symphony.
This Baseline Symphony concept can be extrapolated beyond dirt and the forest floor. Scratches and scuffs on trees. Scat (poo) on rocks or logs. Hair clinging to a branch. This all will begin to stand out to you, if you only would just slow the hell down, and look around you.
The problem I see most people falling into with tracking, is they are looking for clear, obvious prints, like the ones in the pictures of a field manual. The truth is, most animals are moving for a reason, and rarely does that reason involve how their tracks look. They’re just not as egotistical or narcissistic as us. This means a coyote track could look like a deer track, unless we carefully examine more than just the individual track.
So, what are we looking for exactly? Anytime an animal come in contact with the ground, branches, or other parts of the environment, they leave behind something. Let’s list some stuff:
Scrapes/Drags: Where an animal has scuffed the ground. This could be from looking for food, making a wallow, or dragging something along (like a fox dragging a grouse through snow).
Bedding Spots: Where the animal lays down to rest for a time. Often on hillsides, and in the daytime, usually facing south. In the evenings, usually on the eastern side of the hill (to avoid wind and to greet a warming sun). This could also include dens.
Trails: Where an animal walked through grass, cattails, sphagnum moss, or other plant life. These trails may be occasional, or they may be daily used trails. A snowshoe hare will make trails through the snow and these will become their main paths for the winter. The path of least resistance is the most attractive to the majority of wildlife. A trapline can become very productive after a heavy snowfall, because the animals will want to follow the trails made by the trapper rather than make their own.
Now, begin to examine your surroundings, using this information. Don’t try to make any of it appear, or you’ll begin to follow an imaginary trail. Just look around. At some point, an animal will have walked through where you are, and chances are you can find their signs, without any formal training.
But that brings us to the last part of this article. It is really difficult to self-teach yourself how to track. Remember the Lipan Apache and Saan People? Well they have countless generations of knowledge on the subject, passed down from parent to child. Those big game guides and field biologists? Well they got training from either their employers or from a school. For almost every province, territory and state in Canada and the USA, there’s someone teaching tracking. There are even tracking clubs! So don’t think you have to do this on your own. Jump on a search engine (you’re already reading this online for crying out loud, so don’t give me any excuses), and look for tracking schools, tracking courses, or tracking clubs. Trust me, they’re out there.
And if you can’t, well do not worry, I will have a few more articles in the near future to help you out.
Caleb Musgrave is the owner and head instructor at Canadian Bushcraft; a wilderness living skills school, located on the north shores of Rice Lake. He has been featured on the CBC, CTVnews, the Globe and Mail, and several survival magazines. His articles can be found on WildWoodSurvival.com, Survival Quarterly Magazine, and Self-Reliance Illustrated. Caleb has traveled to many parts of North America, to learn the skills of the land, but where he finds home is where his ancestors -the Anishinaabeg- have always been: Peterborough, Ontario.