The Art of Trailcraft
by Ben Long
In the elk woods, animal sign is everywhere. The challenge lies in putting all the pieces together.
The opportunity came suddenly. I had maneuvered a maze of Doug fir downfall and encountered a raghorn bull. The shot must have been within 50 yards because I could not see much farther than that in the dark timber. At the shot, the bull vanished like the smoke from the muzzle of my .30-06.
On hands and knees, I studied the beargrass and whortleberry. The only sign I could find in the dry, hard ground was a faint scrape mark in some duff, which could have been made by a hoof, or by a squirrel collecting mushrooms. It was not much of a clue, but it was the only clue I had. It pointed me back into the maze of fallen fir.
Cripes, I thought, I could use Sherlock Holmes for a hunting partner right now.Trailcraft, the art of interpreting the signs of animals, has long been considered a dying art, or even a lost language. Biologists today monitor wildlife by radio telemetry and global positioning satellite. Trail cameras provide hunters data by the megapixel. But for me, the best hunters are like master detectives sifting through a world of evidence.
The skill has been eroding among civilized people for centuries. Col. George A. Custer employed his Crow friend Bloody Knife to help him pursue Sitting Bull. In the Southwest, Gen. George Crook depended entirely on his Apache trackers to hound Geronimo. Both generals were repeatedly awestruck by the abilities of native trackers to see the invisible. Similarly, western hunters returning from African safaris today are still awed by the skills of native trackers, such as the Shangaan Rangers of southern Africa.
Finding elk sign is not hard once you learn to recognize the basics, cover enough ground and pay attention. But closing the gap between finding sign and making game—therein is the beauty of it.
Trailcraft is assembling clues into a story. Part of the appeal is that clues are never complete. The sum total is part data, part imagination. The reward comes when the puzzle pieces click into place and the picture takes form. Because it reveals scenes we rarely see, trailcraft adds dimension to any hunt.
In my years afield, I’ve seen only two wolverines, two lynx and four mountain lions. All totaled, those sightings probably only add up to a few minutes. But by studying tracks of those shy species, I’ve learned more than I ever could through direct observation. Like the time my wife and I stumbled across a freshly killed whitetail doe; a quick review of the sign told us the deer had been killed not only by a mountain lion, but by a mother lion giving a lesson to two cubs.
Trailcraft enhances any hunting tactic. Ambush hunters will enjoy better luck with their stands and blinds placed on active routes between bedding habitat and food and water sources. Still hunters will creep through the woods with greater confidence and efficiency when tracks and droppings confirm that they may encounter game at any moment. Those who call elk will know better when to call, such as when they are downwind of an active rutting zone, full of thrashed trees and muddy wallows. And of course, trailcraft is imperative once the shot is made, as few elk flop dead in their tracks first shot, except maybe on television.
Observant trackers learn to maintain an uncanny balance between looking underfoot for sign while looking around for the animals themselves. They walk to one side of the trail, so as not to obscure it with their own tracks, and pay attention to the wind, to avoid alerting the animals they pursue.
There are fundamental signs all elk hunters quickly learn to recognize: tracks, scat and rubbed trees. Most common are tracks. Most field guides focus too much on the footprint. Tracks are important for diagnosis but limited in functionality. Equally important is the pattern set by the tracks.
When tracking, note the difference between the first and third track in a four-track pattern. This measure (the stride) gives a good sense of the animal’s body length, a very handy clue. Distance between sets of four tracks (the gait) tells you whether an animal was sauntering, sprinting or something in between. The greater the distance, the faster the animal was moving.
The gait reflects the animal’s mood—great bounds, torn duff and broken sticks hint at a herd in panic, while long strides in a straight line demonstrate the herd moving with purpose, probably putting distance between itself and a hunter. You might catch up, but you might not.
If the tracks wander a bit though, with nipped at bushes or scraped patches of snow, slow down and look sharp. The elk are feeding and you may be gaining on them. When the tracks start to wander without feeding, zigzagging seemingly without direction, get ready. The elk are looking for a place to bed down and you may soon find yourself in their midst.
Judging the freshness of sign is as much an art as science. Moisture is key—the longer scat is exposed to the elements, the drier and cooler it becomes. Tracks erode either from wind or precipitation, but the rate depends on local conditions. (Some dinosaur tracks, after all, are around after 100 million years.) A track that is free of debris such as larch needles or snowflakes is probably fresher than one nearby that is full of such debris. But in the end, judging tracks is like judging trophies: the big racks look big, and the hot tracks look hot.
The best tracking conditions are an inch or two of fresh snow over a firm base. Tracking is usually ideal roughly three days after a snowfall, when animals have had plenty of time to move about, but not so long that the snow melts or the tracks become buried under windblown snow.
During or shortly after a snowfall, you might not see as many tracks (because animals will not have time to have left many trails), but those you do see will certainly be fresh. Wetter snow holds details more sharply; powdery snow shows trail patterns but often hides footprint details.
Occasionally, tracking conditions are so good you don’t even have to look at the ground. One of my most enjoyable hunts was through a lodgepole pine forest cloaked in heavy hoarfrost. The herd I pursued had knocked all the frost off the lower boughs as it passed, so I simply followed a tunnel of green through an otherwise white forest. I could tell where the herd bull had passed, because his tall antlers had knocked frost off higher branches.
One never knows exactly how long the time will be between first cutting a track and encountering the target animal. The first few times I ever trailed elk in the snow they led me on cross-country marathons, up and down over mountain ranges before barely offering a glimpse of my prey. Then, I cut the track of a lone bull. I steeled my reserve, threw my rifle over my shoulder and took off, anticipating a lengthy trek. I’d proceeded perhaps 50 yards, nose to the snow, when I was stunned to see a mature bull erupt nearby. If I had been on alert from the start I would likely have had a crack at him.
To hunt is to be aware. Every turn of the blade of grass may matter. Or hairs, for instance. Strands of hair on barbwire show where elk cross a fenceline, perhaps a good spot for an ambush.
One problem often arises in soft snow where I hunt. Without being able to see a sharp hoofprint, it can be difficult to distinguish a lone moose from a lone elk track. Several times I have followed lone tracks, marched myself into exhaustion, imagining a trophy 6x6, only to find myself staring at the big, dark eyes of a moose.
Until I noticed that moose hairs are longer and looser than elk hairs. If you find a bed in the snow, and are puzzled as to whether a moose or an elk made it, look for hairs. If it’s a moose bed, there will be hair in it and it will be long and dark. That little clue has saved me many days of fruitless bushwhacking.
Sometimes, the telling trifles are microscopic. Elk have a pleasant, distinctive smell, like a Jersey calf on a fresh pasture. More than any other game I know of, one can locate elk by their smell. When conditions are right, I’ve literally smelled elk herds a mile away.
If you can smell the elk, it’s a fair bet they cannot smell you. When you lose that scent suddenly, watch out. The wind may have betrayed you.
I often use my binoculars when tracking game, even in dark timber with very limited visibility. I study tracks and rubs at a distance through my glass. This conserves energy and helps limit my motion and the amount of scent I spread around.
In a lot of elk country, tracking snow is unreliable at best. In snowless conditions, take pains to study sandy creek bottoms, soft forest duff or muddy segments of game trails. It’s also time to look for sign other than hoof prints, particularly scat, scent and signs of feeding. If the Shangaan Rangers can trail kudu in the sunburnt grasslands of southern Africa, I figure I can track elk without snow. It just takes me longer.
That’s how it was when that bull pulled the dark-timber disappearing act. Try as I might, I never found any more sign than the smudge in the duff. Not a cut hair. Not a drop of blood.
I carefully marked the smudge with a piece of logging tape. I took a bearing off the line between the ribbon and the place where I had stood to shoot. I crept on, carefully scanning the forest ahead with binoculars.
It was getting late. Panicky beads of sweat were beginning to emerge on my forehead when I noticed something out of place. A club-shaped root stuck out of a root wad at the base of a windblown fir. My binoculars revealed it was not a root at all, but the leg of an elk, pointing skyward.
The bull had fallen headfirst into the pit left by the uprooted tree and expired there. Except for the rear leg, it was entirely invisible. The one clue I had found was enough. I could almost hear Sherlock chime in: Elementary, my dear Watson.
Ben Long lives in Kalispell, Montana. He is a frequent contributor to Bugle.