The Art and Science of Interpreting Deer Sign

Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer By Steve Bartylla

To be a truly great bowhunter, one must be able to find and accurately interpret the sign left by the game we hunt. Honing this skill is a task that requires constant and dedicated effort on our part even though we know we will probably never fully master it. This an area that provides no short cuts, no mystical revelations, and no easy solutions. Certainly, no new hot piece of equipment will help us solve this riddle.

Knowing what time period a buck uses a specific travel corridor dramatically increases our odds of harvesting him. Hunting during the wrong time of the day unnecessarily disturbs the area and decreases our chances for success. 

Books, magazine articles, videos and picking other hunter’s brains can all help, but it ultimately comes down to field experiences. This is because reading, interpreting, and “fitting” deer sign together is just as much of an art as it is a science. There simply are not many cut and dried rules that have no exceptions. Whitetail’s behavior consists of TENDENCIES, not a set of rigid rules that are religiously followed. There are countless pieces to the puzzle as to why deer behave, at any given moment, in a certain manner. What I am going to attempt to do is layout several tendencies that I rely on to help unravel the mysteries encountered in the deer woods.

Please keep in mind that they are only tendencies and I have come across exceptions to each one. With all the qualifying statements out of the way, lets get started.

1. The Big Picture

Although we will be getting into greater detail, the true key is seeing the big picture. Most of us, at least at one time or another, have been guilty of going to great lengths to analyze individual pieces of evidence while almost completely ignoring the larger picture. It does precious little good to figure out what a deer was doing in a specific location without knowing why it was doing it when it was done and the odds of it happening again. This is where seeing the entire picture comes into play. By understanding that the rub was made as to the buck traveled through a funnel, on the way from his bedding area to his food source, yields invaluable information.

By taking it a step further and predicting the value of the food source — how long will it be a draw and how it compares to the alternatives — we can determine the potential value of placing a stand in that location.

Assuming we are talking about the pre-rut or post-rut periods, the rub indicates a potential travel corridor. Further study of the rubs in the area can help us determine which direction the buck was traveling at the time he made them. The rubbed bark generally points the direction from which the buck came. By locating both the bedding and feeding areas, we can then determine whether it was made in the morning or evening. If the rub points toward the bedding area, we can assume the buck made it in the evening while traveling from its bedding area to his night time food source.

Buck Rubs

If the rub is pointing toward the food sources, this indicates it was made on his way back to his daytime bedding area in the morning hours. Finally, by taking inventory of the area’s preferred food sources, along with estimating when they will be most desirable, we can determine the time period when this stand will be most productive.

Both aerial photos and USGS quadrangles can help immensely when trying to see this picture. Not only do they show potential food sources, bedding areas, funnels, etc.., they also can serve as a base map to plot our findings on. This is a key step in determining the overall patterns of a local deer population. Often, individual pieces of evidence do little to paint the overall picture. Once these pieces are plotted on a map, suddenly they seem to tie everything together and a greater picture is revealed.

Many times I have marveled at articles that promote hunting rub lines. The technique they describe sounds so simple. All one must do is follow a rub line from the food source and set up in the staging area.

Although it does happen, seldom have I found a nice orderly rub line by simply walking in the woods. Not only are somewhat evenly spaced rubs a freak occurrence, I have yet to figure out a method of consistently telling one buck’s rubs from another. What I frequently end up with are a bunch of seemingly random clumps of rubs and single rubs that seem to have no relationship. This is true until I plot and study them on a photo or quad. Although it still is difficult to differentiate rubs made by different bucks, now I can see how they relate to other features and the pieces begin to fall together.

2. Tracks

 Deer trails
Deer trails

Deer tracks and trails are usually the most obvious types of signs to find. However, as we have already illustrated, just finding a sign is not enough, we must glean meaning out of it. To begin with, the individual deer track can provide us with clues as to what caliber of animal left it.

The first clue is the size of the track. It is usually fairly easy to break deer into three classes by observing their tracks: fawns, yearlings, and adults. After that point, it gets kind of fuzzy. Generally, large-bodied deer have large tracks, however, there are many exceptions to this. By most people’s accounts, I would be considered a large man. I wear a size ten and a half shoe. I know many people, that I easily outweigh, who have larger feet than I. The same holds true for deer. I have seen and harvested several trophy-class whitetails whose track size did nothing to indicate their physical stature. I have also harvested several does whose track size was enormous.

Although track size, more times than not, provide a general idea of the size of the animal, I’ve found the relative depth of tracks to be a much better indicator. Physics proves, all else being equal, that the more mass an object has, the more it sinks into mud or snow.

By comparing track size and, more importantly, depth at river crossings, watering holes and where ever conditions allow for sinkage, we can estimate relative body sizes of the animals in the area. Because trophy-class bucks almost always have above average body mass, we can determine, with a fair amount of accuracy, if they are present in a specific area.

3. Stride

The stride of a whitetail “the distance covered between steps” does little more than indicate what general age class a deer falls into. What measuring a specific deer’s stride will do is make tracking an individual deer much easier.

Deer's stride
Deer’s stride

When a deer walks at a normal pace, it’s stride is almost exactly the same for every step it takes. If we can get an accurate measurement of the distance between where it puts its right front foot from one step to the next, we can mark that on a stick. Then we can use that marker to anticipate where it’s next step will fall.

By carefully studying the area for a sign of a track (broken grass, indented leaves, small depressions in the ground, etc.), we can track a deer through most conditions. It is a slow and tedious process, however, it does work. This can allow someone to successfully track deer through areas where we otherwise might find it impossible, such as pine forests, open fields and woods littered with leaves. It is also a good technique for recovering that deer that is bleeding internally.

4. Beds

During the early stages of fawn rearing, the adult doe drive all other deer from her fawning range, beds her fawns around 200 yards apart, and shifts bedding locations daily in an effort to stifle predation.

We can also learn valuable information by studying the beds of whitetails. To begin with, family groups (the matriarch doe, her female offspring & the entire group’s fawns) generally bed in areas away from the local buck population.

Therefore, when we stumble across a bedding area that has a mixture of both large and small beds, we can assume that this is a family group bedding area. The exception to this is the early stages of fawn rearing when the doe becomes very territorial and drives all intruders, including the previous year’s offspring, from her fawn rearing area. Even during the yarding period, experienced in the North, family groups and bucks will tend to segregate their bedding within the confines of the yard.

Another sign that indicates the sex of the maker is the location of a urine spot in the bed. Frequently, deer will raise from there beds and urinate before stepping away. When this urine spot is on the edge of the bed, it indicates a doe. When this appears in the middle, chances are good that a buck made it.

Unlike track size being a flawless indicator of body mass, bed size generally is. Obviously, the bigger a Whitetail’s body, the bigger its bed will be. I have shied away from providing the actually dimensions I use to determine trophy deer. This is due to the fact that nutrition and subspecies of whitetails vary throughout its habitat and unless you hunt in the same areas I do, they may not be accurate for your setting. Qualifying the size of trophy deer signs, such as tracks, stride, and beds just take field observations and record keeping.

For example, when you see a particularly large buck feeding in a field, return the next day and record measurements on his track, stride and bed sizes — deer frequently bed right in their food source during the evening. Also, documenting the sign left by unseen deer will also provide a benchmark. If you have never measured a track over 2″ long and suddenly you find one going 2 ½”, you might be on to something.

5. Scrapes

There seem to be two predominant theories on why bucks make scrapes: in an effort to attract does or as a means to communicate with other bucks. I refer to them as theories because that is exactly what they are. At this point the only deer know 100% for certain why they make scrapes and, unfortunately, they haven’t told anyone why yet. Although I could go on for hours about why I believe its a source of communication between bucks (actually have on numerous occasions, for some reason the wife doesn’t get as enthralled with the discussion as my brother and I do), that is really an article in itself.

deer scrapes

Along those same lines, hunting the breeding phase is also an article in and of itself (see the upcoming November issue of North American Whitetail for just that article). If one were to believe that scrapes were made to attract does, then hunting scrapes during the rut would be a very solid tactic. On the other hand, if you believe that scrapes serve as a mechanism for communication between bucks, then the tactics I lay out in North American Whitetail may be more productive. Peak pre-rut “the two or three week period before breeding begins” then becomes the time when scrape hunting is at it’s best.

To further complicate the issue, I classify scrapes into three categories:

  1. Primary Scrapes scrapes that are used by more than one buck on a consistent basis. They occur in areas of high deer traffic and serve as a communications hub for the local bucks.
  2. Secondary Scrapes scrapes that are consistently revisited by the maker (one buck). Scrapes that fall into this category can be either territorial markers or simply scrapes that occur on a travel way frequently used by the maker.
  3. Random Scrapes scrapes made by an immature buck or by bucks as they engage in random travels. They are not consistently revisited by any buck. In many areas, this is the largest category of scrapes. This is due in part to the generally low number of mature bucks in many heavily hunted areas.

Each of the categories presents a varying level of desirability to the hunter. Because of the brief two to three week window when scrape hunting is at its peak (this window will be larger, yet less intense, as we travel south due to the elongated breeding season southern states experience) the trick is to be able to find, identify and set up stands before primary scrapes are made. This task is best accomplished immediately after snowmelt in the spring.

Because primary scrapes generally occur in the same location year after year, locating them in the spring allows us to prepare to stand sites well before scraping occurs. This enables the hunter to take full advantage of the entire brief peak pre-rut period. When scrape hunting, being reactive, rather than proactive, is generally the kiss of death. Identifying primary scrapes is also fairly easy in the spring. They generally occur in areas of high deer concentrations, such as the edge of a heavily used food source, along logging roads, within funnels or at trail crossings. Besides this, the pawed area tends to be relatively large and has a “bowl” shape appearance due to the heavy use it received. The licking branch also shows signs of heavy use as well.


Reading signs and seeing the “Big picture” is often as much of an art as it is a science. With time, practice and training your eyes to see things that would normally be ignored, anyone of us can become better at interpreting what is there to see. We can take that a step further by studying photos and quads, documenting our findings and analyzing the lay of the land to fill in the gaps. Once all this information is combined and analyzed, only then can we truly begin to anticipate the deer movement.

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