Always an exciting find—while scenting a doe in heat, these “Railroad Tracks” were made by a dominant breeding buck, heading into the wind, heading towards a well-known whitetail feeding area.
There were no fresh deer tracks in the narrow valley feeding area where I had planned to stand hunt that morning, so I climbed the steep slope in the dark on the far side and headed south into the wind toward another feeding area. Just short of the deer trail I planned to follow to a likely stand area about 100 yards ahead, a doe crossed the trail and halted in the beam of my flashlight to stare (tail down) a few seconds in my direction. About 50 yards ahead I came to a patch of snow heavily trampled by two battling bucks.
These tracks were made by bucks during Phase III of the rut.
Still short of where I planned to sit, I continued cautiously on until I came to another spot where the bucks had battled. Just to the right was a large, freshly renewed ground scrape with black dirt scattered widely across the new fallen snow on one side. Knowing what this meant, I immediately backed away. As the cloudy sky began to brighten, I silently placed my backpacked stool on the ground at the foot of the two-foot-wide trunk of an ancient quaking aspen about 25 yards downwind of the scrape, surrounded by a dense patch of head-tall (while seated) mountain maple saplings. Fifteen minutes later the crosshairs of my scope were centered on the neck of a big 8-pointer rubbing scalp musk on a spruce bough overhanging the scrape.
These tracks indicate at least 3 deer are very near: 1) a dominant breeding buck, 2) with a doe in heat, 3) and a second buck that is attempting to move in on the first buck’s doe.
This was the third time in ten years I had taken a big buck, one a 12-pointer now on the wall over my desk, soon after discovering a rare, freshly renewed ground scrape while breeding in in progress. During Rut Phase III, a freshly renewed ground scrape is not just another ground scrape. It’s a ground scrape packed with information that is almost certain to enable a knowledgeable and skillful stand hunter to soon take one of the largest bucks in the area. A freshly made ground scrape while breeding is in progress means 1) the buck that renewed it is the local dominant breeding buck, 2) it is near, 3) its is accompanying a doe in heat, 4) another buck is near, 5) the dominant breeding buck renewed the scrape to warn that other buck to stay away from the doe and 6) the nearby dominant breeding buck is almost certain to return soon to determine whether or not the scrape is functioning as intended. Sometimes it takes a few hours. If found in the evening (and the three deer were not alarmed by the hunter), the odds are good the buck will show up early the following morning.
There is another situation while breeding is in progress when a freshly renewed ground scrapes can be very productive. Mature bucks 2-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age that are temporarily keeping a low profile in secluded areas off-range until breeding ends can also be unusually vulnerable to skilled stand hunting if you know where they are. Such bucks commonly make and regularly renew a succession of ground scrapes and antler rubs along the few deer trails found in their relatively small refuges — typically only an acre or two in size. If you can get within sight of one of these trails without the buck knowing it, approaching silently from downwind hidden by dense intervening cover or terrain, your odds of taking such a buck within a half day of hunting are excellent. A great number of the lesser mature bucks my hunting partners and I have taken since 1990 were found in such areas season after season.
Whenever you discover a freshly renewed scrape early in the morning while breeding is in progress, immediately begin stand hunting within sight of it downwind or crosswind with the breeze angling toward one cheek. If found at any other time if the day, plan to stand hunt near it during the next whitetail feeding hours of the day. Upon initially spotting it, stay well away from it. Do not deposit any of your trail scents, which will persist four or more days, or any other scents anywhere near it. Do not attempt to install a portable stand in a tree anywhere near it. Instead, sit on a backpacked stool where well hidden by natural, unaltered, intervening cover with a solid background at ground level and wear a camo headnet or mask. Remain as still and silent as possible, using no call or rattling antlers. If you take all these precautions, chances are you will soon experience a hunting adventure of a lifetime.