7 Ways to Sort Out Deer Trails

By Mike Bleech

Active deer trails are the key
to hunting success — here’s how to
find them!

Buck in the woods walking on a trail

This 8-point buck is about to walk through a downed fence section. This may be a good funnel to set up at any time, and likely will be used by both bucks and does once the rut is underway. (Photo: Mike Bleech)

Any whitetail hunter — even those at the novice stage — will know heavily used deer trails are easy to recognize, and good places to wait for deer.

“Big whoop!” you say. “You’re telling me what’s obvious.” Am I? Yes, both of us know if it was that simple we would always fill our deer tags. Well-worn trails can be good places to hunt, but what you really need to know is how, why and when deer use them.

1. There’s the rub

The rub I’m talking about has nothing to do with actual rubs bucks make on trees with their antlers. The rub is that deer trails are notoriously unpredictable. That’s the first lesson in sorting out deer trails. The woods are not a static place — when something changes, deer change. It may be easy to find a deer trail, but it isn’t so easy to know when deer are using it, or if they have abandoned it. Changes in food, human intrusion, the rut, predator activity, weather or almost anything else can cause deer to switch trails. In other words, yesterday’s trail is not necessarily today’s trail. When you discover a trail, ask yourself what may have changed since it was made.

2. When the apple cart is upset

Hunters get excited with bumper crops of apples. Trails leading into apple orchards are often hot in the early season, but once apples are gobbled up deer don’t stick around. Hunters can get caught holding the bag if they rely only on trails in the vicinity of orchards. That’s also true if the apples aren’t very tasty. Deer abandon trails when food sources change, so hunters must keep up with the changes in deer activity as apples disappear, crops are harvested and acorns fall.

3. The golden funnels

Deer use funnels throughout the year, and discovering one gives you a golden opportunity. Nowhere can you learn more about the deer in any given area than at a funnel. Usually funnels are just sections of longer trails. A funnel usually has a physical barrier — water, fallen trees, steep banks, field corners or other terrain features — that forces deer to narrow their travel routes. At certain times the use of funnels by bucks may be limited. While antlers are growing bucks may avoid certain areas altogether in order to protect soft antlers — keep that in mind when you place trail cameras in the summer. In other cases, all deer might change patterns for various reasons. Perhaps land use has changed, or a favored trail may require deer to use too much energy in winter. A strategically placed trail camera can give you a handle on the number and size of bucks, especially after velvet is shed, and whether they’re coming through day or night.

A deer at the top of a slope

Trails will often run along the top of a slope. This gives deer a quick escape route if they sense any danger. (Photo: Steve Sorensen)

4. Different strokes for bucks and does

From the time antlers harden until the rut nears its peak, bucks and does generally travel different trails. Not always, but often enough that it is important to determine the difference before choosing a stand location. Usually doe trails will be much more well-worn, and therefore much more obvious than buck trails because does and fawns outnumber mature bucks. Two does, each followed dutifully by one or two fawns, can cut a deep trail if the ground is soft. Bucks tend to move along a less defined route. So, the most obvious deer trails are probably being used by does and fawns.

5. A parallel world

Those less obvious routes bucks use often run roughly parallel to doe trails. Bucks may, after all, be traveling to the same food sources or bedding areas. Buck trails will often take the prevailing wind into account — their parallel path will be downwind somewhere between 20 to 50 yards, so the bucks can use their noses to keep track of does as they anticipate them coming into heat.

6. When the rut heats up

During the pre-rut, understanding the differences between buck trails and doe trails is critical to hunters. If you are hunting specifically for a buck, then a doe trail won’t be a good place for a pre-rut stand. Instead, set up where the buck can monitor the doe trail. But once does start coming into heat, bucks seek every opportunity to scent-check does. For the last couple of weeks before the peak of the rut, stands that are close to heavily worn doe trails may be very productive.

7. Back to the funnels

During the peak of the rut, a period that may last only a few days to a week, hunting funnels makes a lot of sense because does lead bucks by the nose. Bucks won’t sleep when does are on the move and ready to breed. If you find a high-traffic funnel, head there during the rut.

Snow in the woods change the way deer move

Snow will change deer movements, funneling them to easier travel routes. They’ll move along more deliberately to feeding areas because they won’t find as much to nibble on as they travel there. (Photo: Steve Sorensen)

Always keep learning

There you have it — seven ways to sort out deer trails. Wherever you find trails, examine individual tracks. Judge how recently they were made. Consider size — big tracks with little tracks in them are does being followed by fawns. Bigger tracks, especially those that have rounded points or splayed toes, are probably bucks. The successful hunter is a student of deer trails and the deer that make them.

About Mike Bleech:

Headshot of outdoor writer Mike BleechMike Bleech has been a full-time freelance writer/photographer since 1980 with more than 5,000 articles published in more than 100 publications. He is the outdoor columnist for the Erie Times-News and the Warren Times Observer. Over the years he has become an accomplished trout fisherman and an expert at hunting the Allegheny National Forest and other public lands.

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