I can still remember being a little embarrassed and offended over 40 years ago when I heard an experienced houndsman commenting to another about my hunting abilities ‘Yeh, but he can’t track!’ At that time, I had done a bit of deer hunting in Australia and New Zealand and had shot one or two sambar, a fallow deer, a whitetail plus several tahr so I wasn’t quite a novice. However, ‘Being able to track’ was regarded as a key skill for sambar hunters in particular back when deer were hard to find so the comment was valid and I obviously had a lot to learn in that regard!
For the novice deer hunter, the first question that they will ask on finding likely tracks is ‘Is this made by a deer?’ Of the cloven-hoofed animals those that are most likely to cause confusion in deer country are cattle, sheep, goats and pigs – no native animals have hooves. The photographs of tracks left by walking hog deer and sambar that accompany this article indicate the general shape of all Australian deer species – sharp edged and oval in shape. Cattle tracks are much larger and round, while sheep and goat tracks, although oval, tend not to be so ‘neat’ and pigs leave much rounder tracks. In addition, if deer are present in the area there should also be other sign present, droppings and rub trees, for example.
Hoof size amongst Australia’s deer varies greatly with hog deer having the smallest and red deer the largest, with sambar having relatively smaller feet than reds considering their quite large body size. Once you have your eyes and brain tuned in to the tracks of a particular species it should be possible to tell mature stags from hinds and younger males as the former will be larger and likely imprinted deeper into the soil because of their maker’s extra weight. A trap to be wary of when judging track size arises from the way four-legged animals walk – often the rear hoof will imprint over the top of the fore-hoof resulting in a misleadingly large ‘single’ print – close examination will reveal the true situation.
Deer that are primarily grazers and thus dependent on grassland (hog, fallow, rusa, red and chital deer), or have a pronounced and noisy rut (fallow, rusa and red deer) are probably rarely hunted by following their tracks – sight hunting or listening for rutting activity being the most productive technique, and in any case tracking an animal on grass can be extremely difficult. Sambar hunters tend to rely much more on tracking animals when hunting – either to find a start for the hounds, to pursue a particular big stag known to be in the area or even to follow sign in order to put an animal out of its bed. Tracking sambar tends also to be much more feasible as a lack of grass in much of their range means that tracks are likely to be quite visible.
When tracks are visible it should be simple to determine whether an animal has been walking or running. Walking tracks will have a neat outline, the cleaves (toes) will be together, and it is unlikely that the dew claws will be touching the ground. Running marks, on the other hand may scatter soil around the tracks, will likely be deeper, the cleaves will be wide apart, and on soft ground in particular, the dew claws above the hoof will be impacting on the ground. The tracks made by walking and running deer are illustrated in the photos. Readers need to keep in mind that the photographs supporting this article were chosen as they were of very conspicuous tracks. In the real-world tracks may be much harder to spot for a variety of reasons - very hard soil, recent heavy rain and the presence of grass or leaf litter will all influence how visible tracks are.
Being able to track is a very useful skill to have and there is no magic involved even though to a novice it may seem that this is the case. When following tracks, it helps to know that un-alarmed deer use well-worn and known paths, often taking advantage of the topography and features such as river crossing, saddles in ridgelines, gaps in farm fences and so on. Patience is a virtue when tracking – slow and steady is the order of the day, and if the tracks are lost go back to where they were last seen and try again. Often, looking for tracks at your feet isn’t the best option - looking ahead in the general line that the animal has taken may make sign more obvious as well as speeding up the tracking process.
Being able to ‘age’ tracks is a skill that is also worth developing by every deer hunter. If tracks look ‘fresh’ ask a series of questions – for example, when was the last fall of rain or snow or the last frost that would have taken the hard edges of the marks? Again, has the soil type and exposure to sun and wind effect how tracks have aged? Marks in soft clay will likely look fresh for several days while those in soft loam will dry out very quickly. Are there cobwebs in the tracks? But be careful as spiders can build a tiny web very quickly! A very useful indicator of whether deer tracks are fresh or not is to punch you boot heel into the soil next to them and compare the two – if they look the same it is reasonable to assume that the deer isn’t too far away. Houndsman Yabbie Smith suggests that checking the underside of a leaf in a track is also worthwhile – if there is condensation there the track isn’t fresh.
I often wonder how many deer are lost by hunters who either don’t follow up after a shot or because they don’t know how to track a deer that ‘ran away’. Chest-shot deer will often run 100 or more metres before they pile up and won’t always leave a blood trail. In this situation, being able to track running marks is a must and has resulted in countless deer being found that would otherwise have been lost.
Years ago, when hunting over the hounds a young bloke in another crew fired at a sambar spikey as it trotted through a saddle and across a track. Later, when asking about the shot, he was obviously devastated that he had missed what would have been his first sambar. The hounds had come through on the scent and then came back to him a couple of minutes later. ‘All very suspicious’ we thought! A quick follow-up of the running marks through the saddle turned up a very dead animal 100 metres from where the shot had been taken. To say that the young hunter was impressed with our tracking skills and ecstatic at the turn in events would be an understatement! Less than two minutes of easy tracking had turned a disaster into a highlight of the young bloke’s life!