Deer tracking is one of the great thrills of exploring the outdoors for many nature lovers like myself.
The ability to find deer on a landscape and get close without scaring them is enough of a challenge to require excellent strategy & awareness, but not so challenging that it’s impossible.
It’s one of the best ways to test your outdoor skills in a high stakes awareness game that provides many hours of fun & excitement.
It’s also extremely valuable whether you’re a hunter, photographer, or anyone seeking the necessary skills to live off the land.
The process simply involves scouting an area for tracks & sign so you can map out how deer populations are using the landscape. Then positioning yourself in the right place & time, while being quiet enough to stay undetected.
So today I’d like to walk you through 4 phases of a complete strategy required to find deer & get pretty darn close to them if you so desire.
Here are the 4 phases of successfully tracking deer:
- Scout your track & sign – Here we’ll choose our location and do some rudimentary information gathering to make sure you find a big enough population of deer for likely success.
- Tracking & Trailing – Next we’ll spend some time tracking how deer are using the landscape on a daily, weekly, and even seasonal basis. We’ll gather intelligence on things like where they’re sleeping, what they’re eating, where they go at different times of day, etc… so you can more accurately predict their movements.
- Positioning/Movement/Stealth – Next we’ll discuss strategies for positioning ourselves on the landscape in ways that maximize our ability to get close to deer while remaining undetected. This includes ways of moving through the landscape with low impact deer trailing techniques. We’ll also learn to identify ideal spots for hunkering down to let the deer come to you.
- Timing – Finally, we’ll make sure to do all this at the right time of day according to the seasons & land use patterns you’re observing. Knowledge of deer behavior plays a huge role here. There are different strategies for daytime vs dawn & dusk, and if you get this part right then your chances of finding deer go up significantly.
Some people think the ability to find deer just comes down to being a good tracker or being really stealthy.
In actual fact, you don’t need to be an expert at either of those things as long as you have solid basics and use good strategy.
The best results come from having a complete strategy that starts with choosing the ideal location, and goes all the way through to how you move through the landscape at the right time & place.
While there are some differences between white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer or deer in other parts of the world, the overall strategy & tracking skills required to locate deer & get close has a lot of overlap all around the world.
Simply apply this information to your own local deer species and you’ll do great. So let’s get started!
Phase 1: Scouting For Deer Tracks & Sign
Our first goal when tracking deer is to identify where they are likely to be hanging out so we can find an abundance of tracks & sign.
It’s important to realize that some places simply have much smaller deer populations than others, and those locations are not necessarily ideal for being able to find deer & have encounters.
Especially when you first start developing your deer tracking skills, your results will be much better when you work inside the core territory of a large deer population.
This is something many beginners don’t ever consider, and it can lead to a lot of frustration and slow progress.
Deer populations are always relative to things like food availability, shelter & water.
So even before we start to examine our first deer trail, we need to start by tracking the overall ecology and landscape in order to focus our attention on the ideal location.
Choosing The Ideal Location To Track Deer
When choosing where to start tracking deer, you don’t want to make the decision too quickly.
It is possible to find small populations of deer in pretty much any landscape, even the tiniest little forest belts between homes & neighbourhoods in cities.
But if you really want to maximize your chances of getting close, the best results will come from studying a larger habitat with a larger population.
Here are the 2 most important criteria you should look for to determine ideal deer tracking locations:
Criteria #1 – Total Amount Of Edge Habitat
Deer are what is known as an edge species, which means they use the cover & safety of sheltered woodlands during the daytime, but they also enjoy the abundant lushness of plants growing on the edge of open fields.
Some of the best habitats for deer are places where you find agricultural zones or open fields edging up against sheltered forest with a small creek flowing through, and then more agricultural zones on the other side.
This is because the landscape is a patchwork of abundant food, while still providing lots of nooks and crannies to hide within.
Edge habitat is a very different type of landscape compared to endless miles of pure forest with no breaks, or endless open fields with no hiding spots.
Having abundant edge habitat is the main thing driving deer populations in most situations.
However – if you really want to have the most success at tracking & finding them, it’s also important to consider a second key characteristic of ideal deer tracking locations.
Criteria #2 – Your Ability To Access And Explore That Landscape
This second criteria is something many beginning trackers don’t consider, but it’s extremely important.
If you want to successfully track deer and have a good chance of finding them, then you do need to have a bit of freedom to follow trails and piece together a complete story of how that landscape is being used.
This is one of the main reasons why little forest belts on the edge of suburbia are not always ideal spots for tracking deer.
While there may be significant populations of deer feeding on the lush & abundant human landscaping, often their trails go into places you will be unable to follow.
If you find yourself running into fence lines & no trespassing zones, this will dramatically limit your ability to understand how the deer are using that landscape.
Simply put… if their trails go through areas you cannot explore, there’s a good chance you’re missing large chunks of information.
If however you can find that magic combination between lots of edge habitat while also having freedom to explore and wander far & wide across the landscape… here you have a really amazing opportunity to track those deer and start getting closer.
So the big question is – how do you actually find these places in your area?
Well, there’s a great trick to this that will help you look at the landscape near where you live and quickly identify ideal deer tracking spots without wasting much time.
Here’s how to find your ideal deer tracking habitat.
Use Google Satellite Imagery To Identify Deer Habitat
It’s helpful to realize that the two landscape characteristics of ideal deer habitat can often be seen from satellite imagery.
This is a great way to save yourself a bunch of time and start scouting things from home using your computer.
1. First – Open google maps in the satellite view. Navigate to your home territory and have a look at the overall landscape patterns.
2. Next – make a list of some possible deer tracking spots that you would have the ability to access.
This might include local trail systems, parks or conservation areas… anywhere you can go into nature and wander around without running into fence lines.
Be very indiscriminate at this stage. If you’re not sure whether a local hiking trail will be good or not… go ahead and put it on the list anyways.
3. Third – once you have a few potential spots in mind, begin to study the overall landscape patterns of those places using the google satellite imagery.
Notice how you can examine the broad patterns of forests & fields and their general relationships to each other.
This is an easy way to determine the amount of edge habitat that would be ideal for deer.
Here’s a good example of the kinds of patterns you’re looking for to help you identify ideal deer tracking habitat.
This is a public trail system close to my home. It’s easy to access with lots of space to roam off trail.
Notice there’s a whole patchwork of open fields & covered forest lands. It’s easy to see this is a landscape with lots of edge habitat.
Now compare the above landscape to another spot.
In this case we have an almost endless patch of forest with absolutely no edge.
This landscape also has lots of freedom to explore, but it’s not really ideal deer habitat because there’s no edge.
There likely will still be some deer in the forest, or perhaps moose… but the population numbers won’t be nearly as high, the territory sizes will be much larger, and as a result, their movements will be much harder to predict.
Now simply go through your list of possible locations and look at them one-by-one looking for things like:
- Where are the field edges with lush greenery that deer like to eat around dawn & dusk?
- Where are the thick, dense areas up on ridge lines where they might want to have their beds?
- Where is the water that deer might visit on hot days to drink?
4. Finally – based on what you’re observing from the satellite view, choose 1 or 2 of the most promising locations to focus on for the next phase of our deer tracking adventure.
Phase 2: Start The Investigation – Looking For Deer Tracks & Sign
The next phase of our deer tracking mission is to actually start visiting your chosen location/s and look for some real life deer tracks & sign.
Our goal now is to figure out where exactly in this big landscape are the deer actually hanging out?
So we need to track some big picture questions like:
- Where are the deer feeding?
- Where are the deer sleeping?
- What routes do they use to move around?
- Where are they at different times of day?
- What happens during different seasons?
These questions take time to sort out, so during this investigation phase we don’t want be in too much of a rush to try and find the deer quickly.
Sometimes even when there are lots of deer in a landscape, it can still take a bit of exploring to locate where they are right now.
We still need to confirm that our assessment of the satellite imagery was correct, so your goal at first is simply to wander & explore while getting to know the overall lay of the land.
Let’s say you explore the west side and find nothing. Well… now try wandering over to the east and see if there’s anything over there.
The main thing is to go slow and keep your senses open so you don’t miss the clues!
Then as you explore and wander the landscape, keep your eyes tuned for any track & sign you can find of deer activity.
Here are some of the key things you can look for:
Deer Tracks: Identification, Location, Population & Aging
Deer tracks are great because they show you the exact path of travel your deer were following through the landscape.
Deer have some of the easiest of all animal tracks to identify because they’re so dramatically different from all the soft padded animals like dogs & cats.
In clear substrates like sand or mud, deer tracks are easily identified as having 2 main toes that come to a point at the front of the track, like this:
Deer tracks range in size anywhere from an inch in length to 4 inches, but of course it all depends on the age & species of deer you’re following.
There can be some variation, so I highly recommend you get a good field guide like Mark Elbroch’s Mammal tracks & sign, and learn to take measurements of your own local deer species to confirm.
If the tracks get much bigger, you might be looking at something more like an Elk or Moose… but this is all fairly simple to sort out with a ruler and an accurate field guide.
Occasionally in deep substrates like mud, you will see two extra smaller impressions at the back of the track. These are vestigial toes called “dew claws”.
The dew claws don’t always come into play, but it’s important to not get confused when you see this.
Once you’ve confidently identified that you are indeed looking at deer tracks… now you’re really ready to start putting things together.
One of the cool things about tracking is that there’s so much more information to gain than just the identity of whatever animal you’re following.
So what do these deer tracks actually tell us?
Here are some further questions you should ask in order to gain the most insight from these tracks:
Tracking Question #1 – Where Are These Tracks Located?
One of the most helpful things you can do when you first find a track is to look around at where exactly you are located on the overall landscape.
- Are you in the deep forest?
- Are you near an edge?
- Are you in a feeding zone?
- Are you close to water?
- Are the tracks going uphill or downhill?
This location is the context of a trail, which is often much more important than the actual tracks themselves.
Possibly the biggest mistake of newbie trackers is being so focused on the track specifics, that you lose sight of the big picture (which is much more important).
Remember, our goal here is to get a big picture understanding of how the deer are using this landscape on a daily, weekly & seasonal basis.
This is really the key to predicting where the deer will be found when you want to go and find them.
It might sound incredibly basic, but you would be amazed at how often beginners lose their bearings as soon as they find some tracks.
So pay attention to where the tracks are located because this will eventually give you surprising insight about what the deer are up to.
Tracking Question #2 – How Fresh Are These Tracks?
Another thing we want to do is try and determine when these tracks were actually made.
The ability to age tracks is a pretty tough skill, but at this stage you really don’t need to have incredible accuracy.
If you can simply start to determine whether a track generally looks like it was made today VS yesterday or a couple days ago, this is a huge step in the right direction.
You can look at things like:
- The crispness of a track.
- How much moisture is present.
- Whether the track walls have started crumbling & rounding out.
- The overall depth of color in the impression.
- Whether it’s been rained on yet.
- Little kinks or tears in vegetation (like freshly torn lettuce vs lettuce that was torn yesterday).
You’ll get the basics pretty quickly just by looking at the qualities from the above list, and your accuracy will increase with practice.
Later we’ll also be able to correlate our track aging observations with what we learn about deer behavior in order to further narrow down the exact timing.
For now, just make your best assessment of age and then move on to the next question.
Tracking Question #3 – How Many Animals Are Here?
Another thing to note is whether you’re seeing a single deer traveling alone, or if it seems like there are multiple animals moving together.
Take a look around the area and see if you can find other tracks nearby.
Pay attention to how many sets of tracks you see. This can help you determine the size of the herd, and sometimes the sex of the animal.
In summer if you see small tracks mixed in with larger tracks, it’s more likely that you’re tracking a female group with young.
Don’t worry if you can’t figure out the exact number of deer. Sometimes herds can be really tough to sort out because there’s so many tracks intermingling.
Just do the best you can to get a general sense of how many deer are involved.
Pay particular attention to the differences between deer traveling solo vs traveling in groups.
Tracking Question #4 – Where Is This Deer Going?
It’s always helpful to know that deer tracks point in the direction of travel.
Just look for where the toes come together and follow the trail forward with your eyes… then consider – where could this animal be going?
- Does the trail seem to be leading deeper into the forest?
- Is it coming out of the forest?
- Is it following the edge of an open field?
- Is the trail going uphill or down into a valley?
These are all good hints and clues as to what’s happening on a big picture level and asking these questions is all part of acquiring the ability to actually find where the deer are right now.
Tips On Deer Trailing
At this point in our investigation, you now have two options about how to proceed.
You can either move on and explore more of the landscape looking for more signs of deer activity.
Or if the trail is fresh enough & clear enough, you could try following it.
For starters, try crouching down next to the tracks and use your eyes to scan up the trail. Look for any disturbances where a deer might have stepped.
Deer tracks in forest litter and open fields are much more challenging to spot than in sand or mud, but because deer have such hard & heavy hoofs, it is absolutely possible to trail deer in these conditions.
Often it sort of looks like someone jammed a hard stick into the ground along a line. You might be able to spot areas where the ground looks darker or lighter than the surrounding substrate.
Here’s an example of deer tracks in unclear substrate:
When you suspect you might be seeing a track, go ahead and carefully move to that spot and simply check whether you’re correct by examining the impression up close.
Then repeat the whole process from this new starting point.
Just remember that some trails are much easier to follow than others. If you’ve never done this before, you’ll probably only have success following the freshest & most obvious trails.
Eventually with lots of practice, your eyes will become trained to recognize more and more subtle signs from further distances, until you can mentally watch the animal stepping left and right.
Practicing trailing whenever you have the opportunity, but remember our goal here is still primarily to learn about how the deer are using this landscape.
Don’t let yourself get frustrated trying to find the animal by following a string of tracks. That’s a fairly advanced skill that only comes from many hours of “dirt time”.
Instead, pay attention to how the trail moves and think about why the deer are going this way.
There is a psychology of behavior that can be read in every trail, and it teaches you how to get inside the mind of a deer.
This is really the big key during this investigation phase. We’re learning to think like a deer.
Eventually you’ll be able to almost predict where the deer are going to be before you even find the tracks. It’s not magic. It just comes from having lots of experience.
Then the fresh trails will simply confirm your impressions so you can take the next step towards finding them.
Sign Tracking Deer
In addition to tracks, you’ll also want to familiarize yourself with some of the most common signs of deer like scat, feeding & bedding areas.
These signs can often be much more obvious than deer tracks, which means they’re a great way for beginners to become more alert to the presence of a recent trail.
They also give you amazing clues about deer behavior so you can start to determine feeding & sleeping locations.
Deer scat is a very common thing to find on active deer trails.
This sometimes shows up as small pellets as seen above, but deer scat can also be more like an amorphous patty if they’re eating a very fresh and moist diet.
Rabbit scat is easily discerned by it’s more rounded shape and smaller amounts overall.
Larger ungulates like Moose or Elk are also potentially confused by beginners, but the size is much larger.
You’ll get to know deer scat with pretty good confidence just by seeing it a few times along their trails.
Deer often like to have their day beds on sheltered hills where they have a good view of the land and it’s easier to hear long distances.
You might find them making space under a particularly big trees where there’s extra protection from rain.
The tops of hills and ridge-lines also get more wind, which helps to keep the insects away.
Depending on how worn in the beds are, these can be incredibly obvious, or it might just look like slightly padded vegetation.
An easy way to confirm a deer bed is by looking for their hair. Get down low and examine the bed carefully.
Deer hairs are hollow, which helps to insulate them from the elements.
If you find hair in the bed, you can confirm deer by picking it up and bending slightly. Deer hair kinks at a sharp angle which is completely unlike bears, coyotes and human hair.
Feeding sign is especially common along the edges of open fields where deer walk along feasting on the fresh, fast growing foliage of sun loving plants.
You’ll notice plants look like they’ve been torn right off leaving a jagged and messy looking tip.
Here’s what it looks like:
This type of feeding sign is quite distinct from other families of mammals like rabbits and rodents, which tend to leave a very particular pattern of angularity to their bites, (and in many cases it’s much lower on the branch).
In shrubby growth like when deer eat young trees it’s also possible to see signs of repeated feeding over multiple years where the stalks become thick with multiple shoots.
Deer can and will eat a huge variety of plants, including some of the thorniest brambles and harshest conifer needles you could ever imagine.
But for some reason, different populations of deer sometimes seem to specialize in dramatically different diets.
They might especially love one particular plant in one landscape, but completely ignore that same plant in another.
The most important thing here is for you to pay attention to what YOUR deer are eating at different times of year.
Every time you notice a new food source, pay attention to the time of year and where the feeding activity is happening.
The more you know about deer diets, the easier it is to predict where they will be and successfully find them at any time of year.
Live Sightings Of Deer
While the main purpose of your initial scouting missions is simply to gather information, sometimes you will get lucky and have live deer sightings.
These moments are often fleeting and accidental as the deer run away from you, but it still gives you great information because you already know the exact location, time & weather associated with the encounter.
This is an opportunity to ask yourself those same tracking questions we looked at above in order to identify some lessons:
- Where are you?
- What time is it?
- How many deer were present?
- What were they doing?
Also – a bit of a bird language ninja trick is to listen for the alarms of jays & squirrels in the area of those deer.
Deer are herbivores, so they don’t typically cause alarms in birds unless they accidentally come too close to an active nest.
This can change however when deer are spooked or trying to evade humans.
Under certain conditions like when deer go into sneaking mode, birds & squirrels will make alarm calls that can be used to know where the deer are moving.
So pay attention to these clues too. Bird language can bring you incredibly valuable information here, and eventually help you trail deer more efficiently.
Mapping Deer Movements & Activity
Now that you’ve collected all this data from tracks, trails, scat, beds, feeding zones, even live sightings & bird language…
It’s time to take all this information and turn it into practical insight.
So how do we do that?
Whenever you return from a deer scouting trip, I highly recommend you take some time to draw a basic map of the area and record all your observations in one place.
- Any tracks & sign you found
- Bedding areas
- Feeding areas (with dietary observations)
- Live sightings
- Bird & Squirrel alarms
Your goal is to analyze all your data from a bird’s eye view within the complete context of the overall landscape.
You can base this map on the google satellite imagery, and use some simple landmarks like distinctive trees, walking trails & forest edges to generally organize everything in the space.
It’s not necessary to be super accurate with your dimensions, as long as it accurately makes sense TO YOU.
When you finish recording all your observations, you now have a basic map showing all the places these deer are eating & sleeping, as well as how they travel around the landscape to get from safety to food sites, and back into shelter again.
So What Does All This Tell You?
For the final step of our investigation process… look at your map with all these deer observations collected in one place, and try to tell the story of what’s happening with these deer.
Based on your observations, notice how you can start to piece together some generalized patterns about how the deer are using this landscape to survive.
Look at things like:
- Where did you find the most activity?
- Where are the feeding zones?
- Where are the bedding zones?
- How do they travel from feeding zones to bedding zones?
Then ask yourself – What is all this teaching me about the deer and this overall landscape?
- Does this place still seem like it has a high population of deer? Why or why not?
- What are the core drivers of deer behavior in this environment?
- Did anything surprise you?
- If you were going to go back and study closer, what questions would you want to focus on next?
- What areas would you like to explore more deeply?
And with the asking of these questions, you have now concluded one complete cycle of investigation.
I know this was a big step, but it’s also probably the most important step required to successfully learn about your local deer.
The more times you repeat this scouting and mapping process, the better equipped you’ll be to find them much faster and with the most reliable results.
The most successful trackers are those who simply repeat this process as often as possible during multiple seasons over many years.
This is enough to get you great results. However – if your goal is to have more live sightings and practice getting closer to deer, there’s still a bit more strategy we can use to really speed things up… so that’s what we’ll cover in phase 3 & 4.
Phase 3: Getting Close To Deer With Positioning, Movement & Stealth
Once you’ve gathered some good information about your local deer, now it’s time to try and see them with your own eyes.
By far – the easiest way of getting closer to deer is by setting yourself up in a hidden place at the edge of a forest where deer are feeding in the early morning.
If you followed the steps from phase 2 – then you probably already have some pretty good ideas about where the deer are going to feed at dawn.
It’s important to realize that deer are what’s known as a crepuscular species. This means they’re most actively feeding & traveling during dawn & dusk, at the transition between daylight and darkness.
This is when they tend to emerge their hidden beds to feed, and risk exposing themselves at the edges of open fields.
The dawn is particularly useful for getting close to deer because there’s less human activity that might disturb their normal patterns, and you can use the cover of darkness to reach your hiding spot before the deer are aware of your presence.
Choose Your Spot Ahead Of Time
During one of your investigation missions back in phase 2, look for a dark tree or other possible cover to blend with on the edge of their core feeding zone.
Choose somewhere close to where you routinely find feeding sign, keeping in mind the trails they use to get in and out of the area.
It’s your choice to decide how close you want to be. Just remember that the closer you setup to their trails & feeding zones, the more likely they are to smell you.
If you want to get real fancy, you can setup a raised blind, or bring some basic camouflage gear to hide your shape against the forest edge.
Give Yourself Lots Of Time To Settle In
If you want to have the best possible success, try to get out there before first light and ideally even before the first birds start singing.
This means you’ll need to know how to navigate the landscape quite well, and plan your entrance route ahead of time so you can find your way in the dark.
Give yourself lots of time to reach the spot. If you’re feeling rushed then you’re probably going to make a lot of noise.
Also pay attention to which way the wind is blowing & consider the trails your deer will be using to enter their feeding area.
You don’t want to drop your fresh scent all over their trails before they arrive, or set yourself up somewhere the wind will blow your scent towards their current location.
It’s also quite possible that the deer have a night-time bedding area in the field itself that they use during the cover of darkness. If you found sign of this during your investigation, you need to make sure you don’t disturb them upon your arrival.
This is one of the big reasons why we studied and mapped their bedding areas in phase two, so you can avoid disturbing those areas.
Hunker Down & Be Patient
When you reach your observation spot, now it’s time to hunker down & stay quiet.
This method does require patience, but it’s probably the most reliable way for beginners to have success with spotting deer.
Of course, sometimes you might follow all these steps and still not have any luck.
But rather than viewing these times as a failure, instead you should see this as a learning opportunity to go and find out what happened.
Go use your tracking skills to find out where the deer actually were. Maybe you’ll discover a different feeding site that you didn’t realize was there.
Or maybe you’ll discover fresh trails that stop at the forest edge and turn back the other way, indicating they might have seen, heard or smelled you.
This is all good feedback that will help you do better next time.
It’s also possible there are seasonal changes that contribute to a shift in deer behavior breaking the normal patterns you were tracking in phase 2.
We’ll talk more about the effect of season on deer behavior & timing in phase 4 so you can learn to predict their movements at all times of year.
The key is to learn from your mistakes. Adjust. Try again. Repeat until you have success.
Technique #2 – Active Trailing
Trailing is a much more challenging technique for spotting deer because it requires multiple awareness skills coming together simultaneously.
1. First – you need to be able to see deer tracks fairly well in difficult substrates.
This just takes lots of practice & dirt time, but it does get easier the more you do it.
When you first start trailing deer, your seeing capabilities will typically be limited to what’s immediately in front of you at close range.
With practice, you want to work on being able to scan up the trail 10, 20 or even 30 feet so your eyes can be trained on the horizon while still seeing the tracks.
If you’re staring at your feet, it’s unlikely you’ll have success with active trailing, but in the early stages it’s all just part of the learning process.
2. Next – once you’re able to actually see the tracks stretching out from further distances, you need to be able to follow the trail relatively quickly.
Deer will typically follow a daily rhythm of filling their stomachs at dawn & dusk, and possibly again around midday. Then retreating to safe bedding areas to rest and digest.
In the early stages of learning you’ll probably be trailing at a snails pace, but eventually you’ll need to move a bit faster.
Deer will typically only bed for a few hours at a time, so if you’re going to catch up, you need to move at least quickly enough to close the gap during that time frame.
3. Finally – you need to be able to do all of this while staying relatively quiet.
Part of the trick to this is knowing how to adjust your stealth according to the trail behavior.
For example – If you know the deer are currently on the move, then it’s less important for you to be a total ninja about walking silently because your sound will blend in more easily.
In this case you can sacrifice a bit of noise in order to cover more ground.
But if you’re following a fresh trail into an active bedding area, then you’ll likely need to go into stalking mode.
At this stage it becomes less important for you to cover distance, and more important to be completely silent.
If you’re trying to sneak up on deer in their day beds, often the best thing is to get on your hands and knees and move very slowly.
If you time all this correctly, you now have a couple hours of stalking time to get in closer. It’s an incredibly challenging & rewarding experience to sneak up on deer in their daybeds.
Active trailing is definitely a much more advanced method than sitting quietly at the edge of a feeding area.
The advantage of trailing deer this way is you can do it any time of day as long as you find a fresh trail.
The experience of following a trail all the way to the animal is an incredible feeling.
It will awaken all your senses and make you feel totally alive. I highly recommend it!
Phase 4: Know Your Timing
The general rule about timing with deer is they tend to be most active around dawn & dusk, with lesser periods of activity around midday.
These are typically the easiest times of day to actually see deer and have a good chance of getting close to them.
However – we also need to remember that deer behave differently during different seasons.
This daily cycle of activity happens within a context of yearly cycles that include mating, birthing & shifting availability of food & shelter resources.
This is very important stuff to consider when you’re deciding how to get closer to deer without causing alarm.
Of course, if you simply wait in one place long enough in their core territory, eventually something will come by.
Patience is always a good fall-back strategy, but with a deeper knowledge of deer ecology we can dramatically speed up the process by altering our own behavior to meet the unique situation.
You might eventually use one strategy for seeing deer during spring, and a completely different strategy for finding deer during summer.
So here are some things to keep in mind about deer behavior that could alter your timing and strategy in the four seasons.
Winter is a challenging time of year for deer. There’s less food, less shelter, and much harsher conditions.
It’s also the darkest time of year. If you live in a place where days become particularly short… you might notice a shift in the usual crepuscular feeding patterns.
The only way to determine the effect of winter in your area is to track what happens.
You might notice deer are prioritizing energy conservation more than trying to feast and build strength. They might travel less, and rely on a more harsh and restricted diet including woody shrubs & young trees.
During winter, deer are doing everything they can to survive. There isn’t really enough food for them, so they rely on their stores of fat from the previous summer.
If you live in a place that has snow, this is an excellent time to practice your trailing skills and really get a feel for the daily rhythms of deer.
In places that get deep snow, you might find they retreat to more sheltered places in the woods. They’ll gather in large groups & save energy by carving shared trails through the snow.
This is one time of year when edge habitat can become less important to deer because there’s no food in the fields anyways.
In this case, you might notice there are places abundant with deer during spring & summer that are basically abandoned during winter.
As the snow melts in spring, deer will gently migrate back to more abundant edge habitats.
It’s important to pay attention for their preferred food sources at this time of year.
During early spring, their options may still be quite limited, so if you can identify what they eat at this time of year, it will really help you predict their movements.
As you get into late spring, you’ll notice an increasing abundance of food, enabling deer to be a bit more choosy & diverse about their diet.
This gives them a new advantage because they don’t have to take as many risks to find nourishment. There’s also more cover to offer protection.
This is also the time of year when fawns are born. Pregnant females will leave the doe herds and settle in a sheltered area for a few weeks until their fawns are strong enough to move.
If you observe a female being closely linked to a small & thick area of vegetation around this time, be very respectful because she might have a fawn nearby.
The wetness of spring with fresh low growing herby vegetation makes trailing a breeze at this time of year.
This type of trailing is still more challenging than snow, but still quite doable even for beginners, so take advantage of these opportunities to learn in medium difficulty scenarios!
Summer is a time of abundance for deer. There’s plenty of food & shelter, enabling them to eat a wide diversity of plants and gain weight.
This is also the time of year when deer populations are at their highest.
Some of the young ones haven’t developed their awareness skills yet, so you might notice you have an increase in accidental close encounters at this time of year.
If you live in a place that experiences significant summer heat, pay close attention for any behavior changes associated with an increased need for water.
You might find a local watering hole becomes the ideal spot for you to observe deer as they routinely visit during hot afternoons to drink.
Trailing can become more challenging at this time of year when the forest is dry and crusty. Wet areas become your friend for finding fresh tracks.
Fall is a time of big changes in the life of deer.
This is the deer mating season when males start to think a lot less about food, and more about procreation.
It’s important to realize that not all deer are involved in mating every year.
In fact, most of the same tracking mindsets that worked during spring & summer will continue all the way through fall with the young, non-breeding males & females.
The real change happens first with the breeding males, and then later on with the breeding females as well.
You’ll notice groups of males who were traveling together during summer, now start to disband and move as individuals in search of females.
This is a great time of year to do sign tracking because there are lots of unique signs being made like antler rubs on trees & scrapes on the ground.
When you find fresh rubs or scrapes, it means the males are probably moving around a lot, so if you exercise patience near their trails, there’s a good chance you’ll see them with full antlers.
This lasts for a few weeks. Then as the scrapes & rubs become aged, the focus will shift towards female groups still following the usual patterns of feasting & resting in safety.
Finally the mating females will begin to separate from the younger herds and complete the fall courtship process.
As mating finishes up, the days are getting cold & long. The snows might be beginning if you live in a cold climate.
Herds will rejoin to prepare for winter with possible seasonal movement to winter territories, and the whole story repeats over and over again!
Through observation & tracking year after year, you’ll learn what to expect in all different conditions.
This will gradullay help you time your outings more accurately to really have the best & most effortless results with finding deer.
The Importance Of Practice
I know we covered a lot of detail here…
Deer tracking is a big undertaking, and I wanted to give you enough information so you can get outside and start having some real success.
If nothing else, I hope this guide has given you a real sense that you can actually do it.
At this point, you know how to start from nothing and go through all the necessary steps…
- Identify where the deer are hanging out,
- Track them carefully over the days, weeks, months & years.
- Actually use what you learn in order to see them.
Anyone can do this with a bit of practice, but dirt time really is the key.
There’s simply no replacement for getting your butt into the woods and following those tracks & sign.
I hope I’ve inspired you to take action. It’s an incredibly rewarding adventure that will change how you see the forest forever!