To take a certain class of whitetail, a big buck, for example, you can randomly wander about (being the easiest of hunters for mature whitetails to identify safe distance away and avoid) until you finally see one or you could sit at a certain spot that seems ideal because from there you can spot whitetails considerable distances away (the kind of area most mature whitetails avoid during daylight hours while hunting seasons are in progress). Wouldn’t it be great if you absolutely knew where that buck is feeding right now, or is likely to feed later today or tomorrow morning or a trail it uses to get to that feeding area? Discovering such things is what productive scouting is all about: scouting thoroughly 2–3 weeks before a hunting seasons begins and scouting along designated trails midday during a hunting season in a manner than does not seriously alarm whitetails.
The ABCs of productive scouting are deer signs. Such scouting began for me in 1970 with the simple realization little deer (fawns) have little hooves, droppings and beds, medium-sized deer (does) have medium-sized hooves, droppings and beds and big deer (mature bucks) have big hooves, droppings and beds. Subsequent years of study revealed five classes of whitetails could be accurately identified by lengths of their hoof prints, droppings and beds and places where specific deer currently feed, water and bed can also be identified by fresh deer signs. Admittedly, my hunting partners and I have taken a few deer with hoof lengths uncommon for their class (about one in ten years including one last year) but throughout the past 46 whitetail hunting seasons we have never allowed rare variances of this kind to cast doubt on the efficacy of fresh deer signs (with or without snow on the ground) for keeping us close to mature bucks during a hunting season. Only once since 1990 have fresh deer signs failed to enable us to take our self-imposed annual quota of four (sometimes five) mature wolf-country bucks.
To simplify what you need to know about deer signs, I have created the following table (applicable to northern whitetails after September first).
|Track Lengths||Dropping Lengths||Bed Lengths|
|Fawns||2–2-3/8 in.||1/4 in.||30–36 in.|
|Yearling Does||2-5/8 in.||3/8 in.||38 in.|
|Mature Does||3–3-1/8 in.||1/2 in.||42 in.|
|Yearling Bucks||3–3-1/8 in.||1/2 in.||42 in.|
|Bucks 2-1/2 yrs. old||3–3/8 in.||5/8 in.||45 in.|
|Bucks 3-1/2–6-1/2 yrs. old||3-5/8–4 in.||3/4–1-1/4 in.||50–56 in.|
Tracks, droppings and beds have hunting value only when they have been freshly made. They reveal trails currently used by specific deer. Greater numbers of off-trail tracks and droppings reveal feeding areas and bedding areas used by specific deer. They reveal where specific deer are likely to be seen right now, later today and tomorrow morning. However, because of your hunting (and mine), including stand hunting, don’t count on seeing whitetails 2-1/2 years of age or older on those trails or at these sites after three successive half-days of hunting near them.