Deer hunting experts share their top tips and tactics for tracking deer activity and movement to give you and edge this fall.
Deer hunters love to prepare for hunting season. In fact, for many hunters, the preparation process is nearly as exciting as the hunt itself. Unfortunately, for many hunters the planning and preparing consists of nothing more than buying, trying, and adding new gear. Truth is, new gear won’t punch deer tags. However, your ability as a hunter to know how, when, and where deer move on the properties you hunt will greatly increase your odds for success, year after year.
Knowing how to track deer activity and movement, both before and after the shot, is a skill every hunter should hone. Below you’ll find a short list of the deer tracking tips and tactics to help you better prepare for a successful deer hunting season.
Tracking Deer Movement Day or Night with Trail Cams
No other scouting tool allows you to track deer movement like a trail camera. Habits, patterns, behaviors, and daily routines of whitetail deer are easily captured with these cameras. They are incredibly effective, and quite honestly, a very fun way to keep tabs on the herd.
Bobby Cole of Mossy Oak knows the value of a well-placed trail camera. “I love trail cameras for their ability to tell me the who and when for the deer on my property,” says Cole. “Which bucks are living and making the rounds on my properties, as well as when they are showing up is priceless intel for my success.”
But keep in mind, your human presence can often do more harm than good. Running trail cameras can be addicting. It’s tempting to go in and out checking SD cards on a regular basis to see what’s happening on the farm. This abundance of human pressure will have a negative impact on the deer you’re hoping to capture on camera. That’s why cellular trail cameras have become so popular in recent years.
Cellular trail cameras allow you to set it and forget it. No more trips to the woods to pull SD cards. With captured images wirelessly sent to your phone, you can now do all your trail cam scouting from the palm of your hand, with minimal human scent and pressure applied to your hunting property.
“The less scent you can leave and the less intrusive you can be on a property, the better off you’ll be,” says Cole.
The camera technology mentioned above is great, but what about old school tracking skills? Despite all the advancement in gadgets and electronics, nothing can replace a hunter’s ability to track deer with classic woodsman skills. What do they mean? Where do you find them? How can they benefit your hunt?
Deer tracks play an important role in the way Parker McDonald of Southern Ground Hunting conducts business in the deer woods. They are the key element in his effort to track deer movement and activity.
“Tracks are about the most important info for me at all points of the season,” says McDonald. “If I’m seeing loads of tracks in the mud or on trails, I know I’m in the right area.”
But what kind of tracks should a hunter be looking for? Big ones, small ones, wide ones, or fresh ones? Do they really matter?
“I’m looking for volume of tracks, says McDonald. “Of course, I like to see big tracks in the mix, but even doe tracks confirm that the deer are in the area. And when I’m hunting mature bucks in or around the rut, every doe in the area could potentially have a buck behind her. I’m usually looking for tracks on lake edges as I am usually accessing from water.”
Aaron Warbritton of The Hunting Public keys in on high traffic areas when it comes to deer tracks. “I really like super fresh, big, walking tracks going to and from on the same trail,” he says. “Another place I like to find tracks is a really fresh scrape next to a thick bedding area.”
Deer tracks are a solid piece of the scouting puzzle, indicating how and where deer consistently travel, where they water, feed, cross fences or creeks, and where they enter or exit a food plot or Ag field. Don’t underestimate the value of deer tracks for your scouting intel.
Tracking Deer in Snow
Consider yourself blessed if you live in an area that receives regular snow fall during the deer season. Tracking deer in the snow can be an easy way to keep tabs on how deer travel the landscape.
Set the onX Hunt Tracking feature to start and follow these tracks in the snow to quickly gain a better understanding of how deer are traveling in the places you hunt. This is an extremely effective tactic for hunting the late-season and post-season scouting.
Deer Scat (Poop, Droppings, Pellets)
Regardless of what you call it, deer scat is a great indicator of where deer are spending a considerable amount of time throughout the day or night. And the more of this sign you see, the more the herd is likely hanging out in a particular area.
You’ll typically find this sign in bedding areas, as well as the hottest feeding areas at the time. Think about it. You don’t want to simply hang your treestand over the first white oak or persimmon tree you find that’s dropping fruit on the ground.
You want to find the white oak or persimmon trees that are dropping an abundance of fruit, but also have ample piles of scat left behind by deer. These are the hot feeding spots that’ll likely result in shot opportunities for the hunter.
Pay close attention to the freshness of the scat left behind. Old, dry brown/black pellets tell of a deer that was once hanging out there. Shiny, green or brown pellets tell of a deer that just left.
Tracking Deer Movement with onX Hunt
Documenting deer movement and activity has never been easier than it is these days with the use of a hunting app loaded to your smartphone or GPS. Every piece of the scouting intel mentioned above can be easily and efficiently stored for future use in the onX Hunt app. Hunters can easily use this info as a quick reference guide that’ll give them a wealth of information about deer behavior, patterns, and overall history of deer activity on the properties they hunt.
“I’m dropping pins nonstop with tons of notes about how deer entered or exited an area, where we found fresh sign, and specific trees or ground setups that will work for certain wind directions,” says Warbritton.
Bobby Cole agrees that documenting potential feed trees on your property can provide a quick reference point, and reminder, of what areas to keep an eye on throughout the season.
“I like to use onX to help me remember certain tree locations,” says Bobby Cole. “It serves as a reminder – I need to check that persimmon tree or that white oak for deer activity – I may forget them if I don’t mark them in onX.”
Think about all the other sign that tells the story of a deer’s presence in the area. Mark these in your onX Hunt app as well. It may seem simple or insignificant, but all these pieces add up to paint a broad story of how deer behave on the property you hunt.
“I try to be diligent about marking everything, but the most valuable sign I will mark every time are scrapes and rubs,” says Parker McDonald. “To me, it’s the greatest confirmation that a buck was absolutely in that exact spot. It doesn’t mean I’m going to hunt him in that spot, but as I mark each piece of sign, I will start to see how he uses the area.”
Tracking Peak Deer Activity
What’s the best time to be in your treestand? That’s the million dollar question! When do deer seem to move the most? That can vary depending on where your treestand is located, but many hunters agree mid to late morning can be the best time to encounter mature buck activity.
“Most of the bucks I’ve killed in my life have been in the 9:30 – 10:30am timeframe,” says McDonald. “Even on the slowest of days, 9:30am seems to be the magic time of day for buck movement. Likely due to thermal shifts.”
The Hunting Public crew tends to prefer that final hour of the day for their best opportunity at punching a deer tag. “You can kill them any time of day, but the last hour of the day is my favorite,” says Warbritton. Aaron’s THP team member, Ted Zangerle, shares a similar view on afternoon sits. “It depends on the time of year, but in the early season, it’s hard to beat evening movement in my opinion,” he says. “Mornings can be good, but they are often hit or miss on deer activity.”
Hunters are wise to make a habit of documenting all deer activity and encounters from the treestand in a log/journal in the notes on their phone. Again, this may seem like an insignificant task, but over time, these recordings can prove to be critical data to help you know the best time to be in the treestand when deer activity seems to be at its peak.
Tracking Deer After The Shot
Keep in mind, your hunting app does far more than just help you navigate and scout the woods before the hunt. onX Hunt pulls double duty, working equally well after the shot as it does leading up to the shot opportunity on deer. It’s a vital tool for helping you recover more game after the shot.
“The onX Tracking feature is a big help if you lose a deer,” says Bobby Cole. “It allows you to see where you have been and fill in the gaps as you attempt to recover your deer. It really helps to ensure that no area is uncovered in your search.”
Not only does onX help you track where you’ve been and what areas still need searched, but allows you to mark last blood, or other sign you’ve discovered in your recovery efforts. Gone are the days of having to use toilet paper or flagging tape to mark a blood trail. onX Hunt makes documenting the deer recovery process quick and simple, but it also helps paint of picture of where your next move might be.
“Marking last blood on onX gives us a huge advantage of being able to predict the possible direction the wounded deer is traveling,” says Parker McDonald. “Especially when hunting in varied terrain, being able to follow the topography lines is a big advantage.”
Woodsman skills are a must for anyone wanting to hunt more efficiently and notch more tags when they step into the whitetail woods. Time and experience deep in the heart of deer country are the best teachers here.
Pair these woodsman skills with the ability to scout, navigate, and document deer tracks and activity through onX Hunt and you’ve got an incredibly deadly combination to help maximize your success in the deer woods season after season.