As the horizon gave way to a new day, I knew this one was unlike many others. This was opening day of deer season and I had hung my stand along a promising trail and scrape line the previous day.
The first customers showed up shortly after dawn. A doe and fawn walked casually along the trail and passed by the scrape a mere 40 yards away. They did not look back and there were no other signs of life. Then, without warning, I saw him. His nose on the ground like a bloodhound in hot pursuit, he followed the trail of the second deer. I nervously shouldered the gun and prepared to shoot as the buck turned broadside. The gun roared and the buck ran, toppling over some 60 yards away.
The ten-pointer, now hangs on my living room wall. Among other things, it is a reminder of the hot trail he traveled that day. I have located and hunted many trails since then, but that one was exceptionally productive. You see, only moments after I had shot the buck, I sat down and regained my composure, another big buck came walking by me. With my tag filled, I could only sit and watch, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
Finding deer trails and waiting in ambush nearby is nothing new for deer hunters. Many of us rely on this traditional hunting method each season. However, you could say that some trails have it while others don’t. So why do some trails seem to attract bucks while others only waste your time? The answer to that question is dictated by the season, the type of trail you locate and the purpose of the trail.
Pre-Rut vs. Rut Trails
As an avid bowhunter, as well as a firearm hunter, I commonly spend several months pursuing whitetail bucks. That includes all seasons, from the pre-rut to the post-rut periods. Deer leave sign during each of the periods, but the sign left by the bucks during the pre-rut period fools many hunters when the firearm season debuts.
In many hill country regions, the firearm season begins about the time the rut is in full swing. This is the time when breeding begins. Bucks may be on the move at any hour of the day, searching for that one doe about to come into estrus. He may also rely on scrapes and visit them consistently in hopes of attracting a doe. Once she is located, he will stay with her and breed until she is no longer receptive.
Unfortunately, many hunters find other telltale sign they depend on come opening day of the firearm season. Rub lines are probably the most noticed sign but are also the most undependable sign. Don’t get me wrong, I love finding rub lines. However, rub lines normally begin showing up during the pre-rut period. And if you are hunting a week or two later when the rut peaks, a rub line might only waste your time.
Once the breeding begins, early fall rub lines are often abandoned. Bucks turn to other trails and scrape lines, knowing they offer the best opportunity to find a willing partner.
Scrapes and scrape lines also begin showing up during the per-rut period, but fresh scrapes located near the peak rut benefit you most. The most productive scrapes are found while scouting a few days before the season opener. Hunting pressure, location of the scrapes and the number of does traveling a trail where you find scrapes will determine the likelihood of a buck showing up.
It’s no secret that bucks have little interest in feeding during the peak rut, they would much rather find and breed does. Nonetheless, this is precisely the reason why hot buck trails usually lead to food sources. In fact, food trails will sometimes become hot scrape lines because a buck knows these trails are attracting most of the deer. He walks the trail and visits the food source, scents the deer using the area and begins making scrapes. But that’s not to say all trails leading to food sources become scrape lines. Food sources change overnight, and so might the potential of a particular trail.
Many of us spend much of our time finding fresh scrape, plenty of droppings and hundreds of acorns on the ground.
I saw six deer on opening morning up until 9 a.m. before hearing the rustling of leaves behind me. I fully expected to see another doe but, to my surprise, a huge buck was coming straight at me. At no more than 15 yards, the 10-pointer turned broadside and offered a perfect shot.
When looking for trails that lead to food sources, scout for droppings. Numerous droppings will indicate deer are frequently using the trail and provide proof that the bucks will, too, if the rut is in full swing. Locating the food source at the other end of the trail will offer the most reassurance however. Droppings may still appear fresh even after deer have not used the trail for a few days, but if the food is still available at the other end of the trail, you can assume that trail will produce action.
If you hunt in oak country, pay special attention to the floor of the woods under the trees. Deer leave obvious evidence when they search for acorns. I used to refer to this sign as “pawings.” Actually, deer use their nose to move the leaves and sniff out the acorns. These rustled areas are easily recognized.
Master Trails vs. Secondary Trails
One of the easiest trails to locate is a master trail. Because they have been there for years, master trails are usually carved deeply into the ground. Unfortunately, they also attract many hunters and seldom become a hot buck trail. I have wasted plenty of time sitting along these trails, but today I make it a point to recognize a master trail and move on to areas that are more promising.
An easy way to determine if you have located a master trail is to follow it. Normally, they seem to go on forever. They could run for miles in a vast area or perhaps only a few hundred yards. But any master trail, short or long, seems to connect point A to point B. In other words, it may lead to a field on one end and a field on the other end, or it may travel the entire distance of a ridge and continue across a road. They are simply old trails that deer rely on but never for long distances. In fact, most whitetails travel master trails only a short distance before veering off on a secondary trail.
You’ll seldom find droppings and tracks along a master trail, even though the trail is highly visible. Secondary trails that connect to the master trail come and go; they may be hot one year and not another. In one of my favorite turkey huntings spots, I often use a master deer trail to get through the area quietly. It is never riddled with deer sign, even though secondary trails in the area often look good.
I commonly walk master trails though because they offer the best method of finding secondary trails. Bucks often travel master trails a short distance before taking a secondary trail, or they may simply cross over a master trail while following a secondary trail.
Secondary trails are never as easy to see as master trails. They usually lead to food sources and bedding areas – master trails just seem to be the link between them. I usually walk master trails cautiously and search for any connecting trails. Once I find a secondary trail, I follow it to check for fresh signs and determine its purpose. Secondary trails can be hot or cold, so it is best to look them over carefully to determine if they will attract bucks. They usually wind through denser areas than do master trails.
Bucks have a way of disappearing as the firearm season progresses. To find them, you will probably need to forget about the hot buck trails you hunted earlier. The rut may bring a few bucks out of hiding, but your best bet may be to hunt escape routes – trails that lead to areas where the bucks are hiding.
Understanding a buck’s habits when hunting pressure increases is the best way to locate escape trails. First don’t always assume that bucks will become totally nocturnal. It may appear that they have, but you can bet that the first 30 minutes after dawn breaks and the last 30 minutes before dusk are prime times to intercept a wary buck – provided you are hunting a trail close to a buck’s hideout.
When the shooting intensifies and human presence is scattered about the countryside, bucks will go where conditions are favorable. These are areas where few or no people venture, thick locations such as cut-over areas and those with dense thickets.
Many firearm hunters prefer not to hunt thickets because visibility is limited. Most sportsmen want to see a long way and have the opportunity to shoot as far as possible. I would just as soon limit my visibility and hope for a close shot than risk sitting in an open stand that the bucks won’t get to until the dark hours.
On one occasion, I set up a stand along a fence line overlooking a two-acre field. I was attracted to the spot after locating large fresh tracks leading to the field. I’d not seen bucks before that time on any of the area’s food trails and scrape lines. Just before dusk on the first evening on stand, I caught a glimpse of a buck’s headgear as he meandered through the tall weeds. The ten-pointer intended to leave the field only at dark – when he thought all was well.
Escape trails can be difficult to locate because they do not show up as readily as other trails. It is also possible that you will not locate a distinct trail. You may find only tracks, such as I did after locating the field I just mentioned. A buck may or may not use an area consistently, and the amount of sign you find depends on how often he has been there.
After putting in the effort to find a hot buck trail, the last thing you want to do is spoil a hunting opportunity. Wear rubber boots when scouting because they leave less human scent than do leather boots, and always walk to the sides of a trail to avoid brushing against limbs and debris. Finally, plan approach and departure routes from your selected ambush site that are not likely to spook deer.
I am not sure that a true buck trail exists in any area; there is probably no trail that is used exclusively by bucks. However, a hot buck trail is any trail that will attract a buck on the day you are there.
Good Luck & Good Hunting!