Tracking Techniques for Ethical Hunting

Scout for signs of wildlife in your hunting area and use these techniques to avoid detection.

Tracking a buck

Because deer have poor depth perception, the two-dimensional appearance of a hunter can easily blend into the landscape if their form is simply obscured in some way.

Photo by Fotolia/mbridger68

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Wild meat, hunted in a responsible way, is one of the most healthful, sustainable foods possible. Depending on how it is done, hunting can be as local, intimate and humane as it gets. And aside from this, it demands the hunter enter a world of awareness, wildness, life and death that we have lost connection to as a culture.

The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook (New Society Publishers, 2014) by Miles Olson is a guide for those that come to the act of hunting with pure intentions, motivated by a desire for healthy food that comes directly from the land where they live. This practical manual suggests that hunting is not a "sport" and the animals whose lives are taken are not "game." It combines a deep, philosophical exploration of the ethics of killing with detailed instructions on every step of the process. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, "Techniques."

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store:

The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook.

Several years ago, I was invited by an acquaintance to go deer hunting. Although I had some reservations about the man who was inviting me, I decided to go. He was much older than me, a seasoned hunter with a long lifetime of experience, so I figured he probably had a lot of knowledge and wisdom I could learn from. The idea was that by coming along I could shoot a deer myself or, if he got one, I would give him a hand with any heavy work and could take the hide, fat and organs and any other parts that he didn’t intend to use home with me.

On the day of our hunt, he picked me up at the road near my home early in the morning. We drove in his pickup truck a couple hours, first along the highway and then veering off into a network of logging roads.

The plan was, according to my hunting partner: drive. We would drive until we saw a buck off in a clear-cut or crossing the dirt road in front of us. We both had rifles resting between our legs, at the ready, and when we spotted our quarry, my partner would stop the truck, open his door, aim and shoot if it was on his side. If the deer was on my side, it was my shot. This really was not what I’d had in mind when I signed on to this excursion. Nonetheless, I quietly went along with it, deciding I was there to passively learn from this man.

We drove and drove and drove. My partner chain-smoked the entire time, with the windows rolled up to keep the cold October air out, and delivered an endless stream of raunchy stories.

For hours and hours this was our hunting campaign: driving through one clear-cut after another, stuck in a little box filled with cigarette smoke and one dirty story after another. At some point during this time, I did something that I hadn’t done for years: I started praying.

I started praying that we not find any deer, that we be entirely prevented from coming across any deer at all. Feeling the effects of all the driving, all the smoke and all the stories, I couldn’t think of a more horrific thing than stumbling out of the smoky truck in a daze and shooting a creature in such an awful, stupefied state. I didn’t really know who I was praying to; all I knew was that it was very urgent that we not find any deer. I had killed many deer before, so it wasn’t the act that felt off. It was how we were approaching it; the state we were in did not feel in any way like the state of one who is about to do something so incredibly serious. I knew it would feel absolutely crazy to take a creature’s life in the fog I was feeling.

We continued our search until the day’s light completely faded without seeing anything. My hunting partner scratched his head, completely dumbfounded at our bad luck, apologizing to me and insisting this was bizarre. I was silently grateful; my prayer had been answered. And I realized, of course, that I was the worst hunting partner ever.

There are a lot of ways to hunt. The strategy, preparation and technique you employ to approach your prey can and do make all the difference in whether or not you are successful. It can also shape the entire experience. The story I just related about truck hunting is about as much space as I will devote to that specific technique, as that is most of the experience I have with it. There is nothing inherently bad about any method of hunting, but when you hunt by either patiently waiting for or searching out your prey on foot, you are required to enter, at some level, into the quiet of the land. Your senses are magnified, forced into the here and now. Awareness and wakefulness are demanded. Any method of hunting that compromises this is not really bad news for the prey, so long as it is dispatched quickly, and can sometimes simply be a necessity to get food on the table efficiently, but might in certain circumstances be thought of as unfortunate for the hunter. It is their connection to the experience that is dulled, after all. That’s what I was feeling during the story I related above. Of course our technique was a very poor one strategically, too.

What follows is a discussion of various deer hunting strategies and techniques, as well as ideas for pre-hunt preparation. Giving careful consideration to this and planning adequately before heading out can make all the difference regarding the success of the hunt.

Before the Hunt

Where to hunt?

This is perhaps the biggest prerequisite to any hunting. Without a place to hunt, one simply can’t. If you live on a piece of land that affords you the opportunity for hunting right there, you are fortunate, but most readers probably won’t be in such a situation. If you have the desire and means, you can usually drive into the country and find plenty of land that can legally be hunted on. Another option is to find a landowner who will allow you to hunt on their property. Place an ad online looking for this, or if you are really outgoing, even go politely to people’s doors or call farms on the phone and kindly ask. You might get a scornful “No!”, but that’s okay. Many farmers are delighted to have hunters come and remove creatures that they wish would go away altogether. Eventually, asking around and putting it out there will result in finding great places to hunt.

Once you’ve found a place where you can hunt, you then need to walk the land and determine if it is in fact a viable area for hunting. This is called scouting.

Scouting

Scouting an area means getting out there and walking the woods, meadows, clearings or what have you. Only by doing this will you understand where it is you are hunting and develop a sense of what’s going on there.

Get to know the lay of the land and the patterns of the prey that live there. Study the tracks and sign. In some instances, looking at a topographic map or other aerial view of an area can provide valuable insight into major landmarks and possible patterns there. The more time you put into scouting, the more conscious and prepared you will be going into hunting.

Stealth

Hunting is largely an act of stealth. It’s through reducing one’s scent, being conscious of one’s movements/stillness, how much noise one makes/doesn’t make and so on that one can avoid being noticed by one’s prey. There are three basic elements to this: You want to avoid being seen, smelled or heard.

Scent

As mentioned earlier, deer (and many other animals) have an extraordinary sense of smell, which alerts them to danger. Knowing this, hunters can adapt by doing two things: eliminating their scent (or altering it to make it actually attractive to their prey) and playing the wind to ensure it is blowing their scent away from their prey.

Scent elimination

Many hunters consider camouflaging their odor to be essential for successful deer hunting. Putting some effort into this will greatly increase one’s ability to enter into a deer’s territory unnoticed.

To begin with, keep an outfit of clothing separate from other clothes, reserved specifically for going out into the woods, scent free. Wash this clothing with unscented laundry soap (deer will get spooked by unnatural fragrances) and store it in a sealed plastic bag. Putting some cedar boughs or other aromatic, local plant material in with the clothes can help permeate them with a woodsy odor. Likewise, hanging your hunting clothes over a smoky fire (high up so they don’t get scorched) will impregnate them with a smoke scent that effectively covers yours and is quite benign and natural for deer.

For the same reason that one should use scent-free laundry detergent, use scent-free shampoo, soap, deodorant and whatever else you put on your body prior to hunting. Some hunters (myself included) don’t even cook with or eat garlic leading up to a hunt, as its odor can seep out of one’s pores and alert deer. In many traditional societies, a hunter would also abstain from sex for several days prior to a hunt. This was partially to build a state of clarity and focus, but also because sex is a heavily scented activity.

Deer droppings can also be used as a cover scent. Simply mash them up and rub them onto your clothing and boots. Not for everyone, I know.

Naturally tanned buckskin (usually called brain tan) is possibly the ideal scent-camouflaging clothing. Because buckskin is heavily smoked in the tanning process, it comes with an automatic scent cover. It’s also really warm.

Rubber boots are considered by many to be the ideal footwear for hunting, as they shed scent very easily, whereas most other kinds of footwear have laces and other absorbent materials that go about picking up uniquely human scents. Moccasins made from natural buckskin are good for this, too, although the fact that they are not at all waterproof makes them a poor choice for some regions (the cold and rainy Northwest, for instance). Whatever your hunting footwear, try to be conscious of eliminating scent from it before heading out.

Some hunters, of course, don’t really do anything to cover their scent and still have success. I had a man tell me once that he had shot many a deer with a lit cigarette dangling in his mouth! If you want to cover all your bases and increase the likelihood of connecting with your prey, however, it’s pretty easy and very wise to reduce your odor.

Wind direction

In addition to reducing or eliminating your scent, you can also position yourself so that you are downwind or crosswind from your prey. If there is any breeze, deciphering wind direction is easy. Simply pay attention to which way things are being blown. Wind direction can be fickle and shifty, so make sure you keep on observing for a while to get a sense of where it’s consistently blowing, and then keep observing for changes.

When the wind is more subtle, you can test in a few ways. Many hunters use milkweed seedpods for this. I haven’t had the pleasure of doing this myself, but the basic method is to gather the ripe seeds in the late summer and store them dry. You then take a handful of the lightweight, feather-like seeds and let them loose into the air. They will ride on the slightest current of wind and flow along, showing you both the wind’s direction and if there are any shifts in its current that might make you reconsider your position. You can also tie a fine, lightweight thread to your hunting tool — the end of a rifle or shotgun barrel, or the tip of a bow or crossbow. The thread will act as your automatic wind tester.

Whatever hunting technique you are applying, being mindful of the wind and making sure you are crosswind or downwind from your prey is a good practice.

Using scents as an attractant

While human body odor and artificial fragrances can send deer running away, some smells can actually get deer to run toward a hunter. Indeed, there is a profitable industry built upon this, and hunters spend large amounts of money every fall on expensive scents with names like “XXX Doe In Heat” or “Supercharged Buck Rut Fever.” As these names suggest, most of the scents used to lure deer are specifically geared to the autumnal rut, when deer are lustily seeking companionship and following their noses to find it.

There are alternatives to the suggestively named store bought scents, however. If one kills a buck or doe, the tarsal glands (located beneath a darkened patch of hair on the inside of the knee) can be removed and used as a lure. Store them in a sealed bag in the fridge or freezer to preserve their moisture and keep them fresh. Scent lures, whether store bought or self made, are used a few ways: One method is to hang your lure in an open canister from a low branch, where it will travel through the breeze attracting curious bucks. Whitetail hunters often apply a buck-urine based scent lure to scrapes (areas of ground that bucks scrape clear and urinate on during mating season), or make “mock scrapes” themselves and perfume them to lure territorial bucks in. These lures can also be applied on the ground wherever one would like to lure a buck in for an ideal shot. Some hunters even apply scent lures to their boots or clothing in hopes of getting really up close and personal. I’ve heard a couple stories about this tactic being so effective a hunter was mauled or mounted by a lusty buck, though the validity of these reports hasn’t been confirmed.

This kind of luring can very effectively bring in bucks. If one would prefer to shoot a doe, however, it usually won’t be as useful.

Appearance

Deer have been traditionally thought to be color blind, but recent research has proven this to be only partially true. Deer do see a limited spectrum of color, but much less than the human eye. This is why the blaze orange caps or jackets worn by many hunters can go unnoticed; what stands out as a brilliant beacon of light in the dark woods to our eyes easily goes unnoticed by deer, who don’t pick up the red/ orange spectrum of color well at all. They supposedly do, however, register the blue end of the color spectrum quite well. With this in mind, avoid clothing that is blue or in the blue range of the color spectrum. Generally earth tones are best — or clothes that match the tones of the environment you’ll be hunting in. The old adage around deer hunting and camouflage is that you should break up your form as much as possible. Because deer have poor depth perception, the two-dimensional appearance of a hunter can easily blend into the landscape if their form is simply obscured in some way. The old-fashioned plaid jacket worn by hunters accomplishes this well, as, of course, does camo gear or an old sweater to which you have attached leaves, moss or other local plant material so that you look more like a bush or a fern-covered rock than another animal. Making your own camouflage outfit in this way can be astonishingly effective, not to mention fun. Traditional buckskin clothing with long, dangling fringes was designed to break up a hunter’s form in this way, too.

Wearing clothing that breaks up your form, whether it’s camo gear or a plaid jacket and some old-fashioned wool pants, will greatly help you in remaining unnoticed. If you want to go the extra mile, a little mud on the face, hands and any other exposed patches of skin can help too, as they stand out, especially if you have fair skin.

If you prefer to wear blaze orange (or are required to in the area you’re hunting), choosing articles of clothing that incorporate some camo element or strips to break up your form can be a good idea.

Once you have an outfit that satisfies this need to obscure your shape and blend in, the other significant feat will be to move stealthily and keep still whenever a deer has you in its field of vision. Remember that deer have an extremely wide range of vision, and take this into account when you are on their periphery.

Movement

Moving silently, slowly and gracefully, in a way that doesn’t startle your prey, is an art of its own. The crunch of a dry branch underfoot can be all it takes to send a nearby deer bounding off into the distance. For this reason moving in a slower, intentional and silent way is a skill worth practicing.

The first step to this is easy to say, harder to practice: slow down. Move slowly and fluidly, aware of where you are putting your foot down when taking a step, while at the same time paying keen attention to all that is going on around you. Practice this when you are scouting or just walking in the woods, on your way to a hunting spot or, obviously, when you are actually hunting. The more you practice moving silently and fluidly with discipline and awareness, the better you will become at it.

In addition to this slowing down, moving slightly crouched over can also help you both blend into your surroundings (by breaking up your upright form into something less conspicuous) and switch into a mode of careful, conscious movement.

Awareness

In addition to being as stealthy as possible, you also should attempt to use your senses to the fullest extent possible in order to absorb information from the environment during the hunt. Much of this could just be called “Wake up, pay attention and stay awake.” There are some specific techniques, however, that can be used to enhance one’s awareness — and add fun to the hunt.

Hawk eyes

Usually when we look at things, we do just that: we zone in on specific objects and fixate. Whether we’re looking at the words on a page, someone’s face, a cloud or a puddle, much of our visual observations are narrow, specific ones. For many predators, finding their prey depends on having a broader type of vision. As a hawk flies above a meadow or sits atop a tree, its eyes drink in the land in wide sweeps. When they detect a movement within the field of vision, they move their focus and attention there to determine what is happening, but that initial state of open looking is a key first step.

Taking a note from the hawk, many hunters and trackers practice something called hawk eyes, which is essentially nothing more than the unfocused looking described above. Relax your focus, indeed don’t consciously fixate on anything, but instead allow yourself to be aware of your whole field of vision. All of the peripheral vision, everything the eyes are catching, can be absorbed in this way. By not focusing on anything specifically, one’s awareness is not narrowed. One remains open and receptive.

Try it! Go for a walk in the woods or sit someplace quiet and turn on your hawk eyes, expanding your awareness to encompass your entire field of vision. When hunting try to practice this from time to time, and when something stirs in that broad relaxed field of vision, narrow your focus in on it.

Deer ears

Deer of course have hearing that is far more sensitive and acute than human hearing. This is due to the inner workings of their ear, but also to the big protruding flaps of ear that collect and funnel sound inward very effectively. We don’t have ears like that, but we can improvise a makeshift version with nothing more than a cupped hand.

This is called putting on deer ears, and is shockingly effective at increasing one’s ability to hear.

By cupping your hands behind your ears, you will notice an instant amplification of the sounds in front of you. By cupping them in the opposite direction, at the front of the ears, you will amplify the sounds behind. Throwing on your deer ears can be very helpful when trying to discern what and where a sound is coming from. Deer ears is a useful trick for all sorts of things, not just hunting! Whenever I think I have heard something in the distance and want to figure out what it is, I put my cupped hands up to gather in the sound.

Practices like deer ears and hawk eyes are just two small examples of ways that we can tune into our senses and amplify our awareness of what is going on around us.

Read more:

Proper Shot Placement for Humane Hunting

The Compassionate Hunter


Reprinted with permission from The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook by Miles Olson and published by New Society Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook.