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August can be a lazy month for sportsmen. If you’re not actively engaged in pre-baiting for bears or getting in some last-minute perch fishing, there’s not much to do. The days are still hot enough to make a shady porch chair look pretty good, but the mornings and evenings are perfect for “scouting,” the outdoorsman’s term for roaming around in the woods looking for stuff!
Uppermost on the average hunter’s mind are deer and bear, and a long walk in the woods in August is going to reveal tracks, trails and other signs of these animals that may be of use in the coming weeks. Patterning big game is important research and a challenge in itself. Though all animals are creatures of habit to some degree, figuring out their everyday movements is not easy, especially when your plan is to close the distance between you to 30 yards or less (as in the case of bowhunters).
There are two common places to find animals tracks at this time of year: logging roads and stream crossings. Pack a lunch and a bottle of water and start hiking along a logging road. I’d be willing to bet that you will find deer or moose tracks within a mile, bear tracks as well wherever the road traverses a swampy area.
Finding game tracks in the mud or dirt is a thrill in itself, but determining the size and sex of the animal (not an easy task) takes some study and experience. Generally speaking, female or yearling animals make small, thin tracks, while the bigger males make the largest, sloppiest tracks. Suffice it to say that if you can put your fist in a deer track it’s likely to be a big buck, and if a moose or bear track is as wide as your boot, it’s a keeper!
Tracks are obvious signs that an animal has recently passed this way, but I would not bet my hunting season on one set of tracks found in a mud hole on a logging road! Deer and other game meander endlessly in summer and early fall, and if you “scout” frequently you’ll begin to recognize old tracks as having been there for days or weeks.
One of my favorite anecdotes has to do with my guiding days years ago. I had been checking tracks since early summer (it had been a dry year) and there was one set of big prints I’d found in mid-June that were still crisp and sharp on Oct. 1, when the annual archery season opened. I had a hunter up for opening week who considered himself quite the sage when it came to interpreting deer sign. He bent over the track, thought for a minute and declared that it had been made either that morning or the night before, when in fact I knew the track was at least four months old! I never corrected the guy (good guides who want a tip don’t do that!), but it just goes to show that tracks can be misleading and you should not bet your entire season on ONE set of tracks, no matter how big they may be.
What I look for is a number of big tracks at a crossing, tracks that go in both directions! That tells me that this is an active, busy crossing that the animals frequently use in their travels. Because game animals often cross these openings quickly, rarely offering a clean shot, I scout back into the woods 100 yards or more on either side to see where the animals are coming from and where they pause just before the cross the opening. When I find a place that’s covered with tracks, I’ll scuff out the existing tracks and come back every few days to check for new activity. When a pattern emerges, I start to plan a hunt by looking for good places to build a blind or place a stand; check the wind direction (you don’t want to stand in a spot where the wind carries your scent to game that is on a trail or approaching a crossing).
The trick is to find several such crossings and hunt each one just a few times per season. That way, you have a list of hotspots to try and you won’t wear them out by hunting them repeatedly. Deer seem to know when they are being hunted and will abandon a crossing if you press them.
Another easy place to find game sign (deer or bear, especially) is along a stream or wet swamp. Look for low, shallow places where it’s easy to cross and you’ll likely find tracks and trails. Some stream banks will be chewed up with tracks coming and going. This means the deer are bedding nearby and are using this crossing to access forage areas (fields, orchards and the like).
You can find similar crossings on the larger rivers in our area, too. Canoe scouting is about as relaxing as it gets, too. Simply paddle along the river and watch for shallow areas where game can cross from one side to the other with relative ease. Dug-up banks where the animals’ hooves have pounded the grass down to bare mud and dirt usually highlight such areas. Get out of the canoe, check the trails and runs 100 yards or so into the woods on either side and determine how much traffic there is and which direction the animals are coming from. In most cases there will be a field, pasture or other opening on one side of the river with dense woods on the other, which is where the deer should be bedding. They will approach the river at dusk and cross into the open areas to feed. Your job is to find the best place to get there (in early afternoon and downwind) to ambush them.
I have found that deer, bears and even moose will cross these major rivers in roughly the same places. I have found several crossings where the tracks of all three species were clearly evident, coming and going. That’s where you want to spend the majority of your hunting time!
All of this scouting takes time and energy, but what better time to get started than right now? Bear season starts in a few weeks, and the archery deer season is coming up quick, too. Get out there, look around and find a spot that is going to keep you awake nights from now till opening day!
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