Snow popped softly under my boot like wet popcorn as I lowered heel and then toe to the ground. I leaned forward, squinting forward, and hit the safety on my rifle. It was there, it was ready. I had to be ready.
“He could be right there,” Hal whispered to me in his thick lobster accent. “Stay close to my shoulder now. If it happens, it will happen fast.”
This was the dream that many hunters have about tracking deer. The snow and the forest and the mountain and a big deer, just ahead, at the end of the tracks.
He was here to see if he could find a cleft press in the snow, find out its age and size, and then follow it down ravines and ridges, across streams and hills, to its maker. She was here to track down a dollar. But I never imagined that it could happen on my first day.
lessons from the legend
My host and teacher on this hunt was the legendary Hal Blood, a Maine master guide and author of several widely read books on the art of tracking great woodland deer. With the Benoit family fading from mainstream media, Blood took over and has now taught thousands of eager trackers how to make money through his latest writing and exploits in movies and online podcasts.
As a kid hunting in northern Michigan, I long had a romantic vision of what it would be like to figure out a footprint in the snow and walk to the male, but I never had a mentor who could show me the ropes. Now I had one of the best in the world standing next to me on the edge of thousands of acres of Maine wilderness.
Hal stands over six feet tall and moves in a gangly yet confident manner. He wears a no-nonsense salt-and-pepper goatee, heavy on the salt, and a green plaid wool jacket pulled straight from the central foundry for early 20th-century Northeast deer camps. Finally, hinting at the fact that he knows something I don’t, he duct tapes the bottom of his fleece pants around the sole of his rubber boots.
I heard that Hal was good at what he does, but I also recognized that this style of hunting would be quite a challenge. With low densities of deer and vast tracts of ground to cover, we could hike all day and never cross a deer track. Blood reiterated this to me early on, explaining that we would cover a lot of ground and fast, not slowing down or worrying about being silent until we stumbled onto a track.
All of this made our first morning that much more amazing when, after only 30 minutes of walking up a steep snow-covered slope, we came across a track that caught Hal’s eye.
What makes a clue worth tracking down?
“Okay, you see this, this is what I call a crunchy track,” he said as he pointed to a line of footprints in the snow. The track had clearly defined edges and flurries and drifts of snow behind and in front of each track.
A crunchy footprint, he explained, was a sign that this deer had probably been through the night before, at least in the last 12 hours or so. “If it was done at some point in the night, whether it was four hours ago or 12 hours ago, it’s still a fresh track to me. And most of the time I can catch that dollar that day,” Blood said.
The straight cookie cutter edges of a new track are often paired with a not-yet-frozen pancake of snow on the bottom, something I saw Blood analyze by putting his fingers on the track and pressing down.
All of this led to my next question. How can you tell if this track was made by a male worth hunting? To this, Hal first explained that he recommends that new trackers follow just about any decent-sized deer track, especially one with spurs pressed behind the track.
Tracking any deer, even a young one, is a great achievement and even if the deer ends up being a doe, it is great practice. This, I would soon realise, is something any aspiring deer tracker badly needs. The track in front of us, while not spectacular, would be perfect for my first day of class.
But if big money is what you’re after, the criteria is stricter. “I’m looking for a track that’s ‘three by three,’ three inches long by three inches wide, although they’re never as square as that,” he said. She tossed her Chapstick onto the track for reference. “It should be longer than that.”
A large caterpillar, he would explain to me later, also has large gaps between the toe pads. “It won’t be a heart-shaped footprint, there will be a space between the two toes, it can be almost an inch of space in huge dollars,” he explained. Widespread, sometimes even perpendicular, spray claw marks are another good sign.
Finally, Blood likes a “toe draggah”. He discovered that large, heavy males often shuffle through the snow leaving long lines behind.
on the track
This seemed too good to be true. Just half an hour into my first day, amidst the postcard-perfect scene of snow drifting gently through a canopy of nearly black pine trees, and we were on a track.
Now would be the hard part, Hal told me. We had to catch up.
This is when the niceties of hoofprint detective work are replaced by the brazenness of the chase. There would be no “elmer fudding,” as Hal called it, no sneaking slowly through the woods in search of a sneaky whitetail. Rather, we would walk as fast and continuously as possible to catch up with this deer. We went out for what might charitably be called a brisk walk or, as one of my cameramen later described it, a brisk jog.
Even though Blood was almost the age of my retired father, he sprinted up and down the landscape like a man half his age. We jumped over streams, scrambled over muddy banks, and scrambled over and around fallen trees, rocks, and alder thickets.
I was told that this is where many first time trackers drop the ball. Too many hunters feel compelled to slowly make their way through the woods, their ambush hunting habits hard to break, and they never end up getting close to the deer that could be many miles ahead of them. Hal, and I now, would have no such problem. We walked and walked and walked and only slowed down when the evidence suggested that our quarry was doing the same thing.
We came across our first such evidence about four miles away, when the deer track turned on itself and then approached a steep cliff below a rocky outcrop. The trail receded uphill, a telltale sign, Hal said, of a deer headed for a higher-elevation bedding location. This, in addition to any other signs of snaking or visibly vegetation-fed travel, signals a new phase of the hunt.
It was time to go into “slow mode”.
“If it happens, it will happen fast,” he whispered.
Here, at the top of the point, we slowed down to a crawl. Every bit of ground was surveyed before a boot was dropped, every branch in the path slowly parted as we passed, and every gap in the pines and oaks scrutinized for a snub-back, a black nose, or a white tail. .
I held my rifle high and tight, imagining how I would stop and scope if a deer materialized up ahead. I must be prepared for the shortest of opportunities, they told me. The dollars in this situation run away quickly, if you have even a moment of stillness, you should take advantage of it. Many trackers, Blood too, even advocate shooting deer on the move. “It might be the only chance you’ll ever get,” he said. Unfortunately, that would be one chance he wouldn’t take. The chances of success were even slimmer.
We took another step. I looked past the outline of Blood in front of me hoping and wishing and wishing there was a deer. But none appeared.
The sandwich break
“I think we hit it,” he said. And here would be my last Hal Blood-style lesson: “The Sandwich Break.”
Upon bumping into a dollar, either visibly or upon encountering a fresh bed, Blood will sit down, eat a sandwich, and wait 30 minutes. Our “chicken dinner sandwich” was to die for.
Many other hunters, he lamented between bites of leftover chicken and stuffing, will simply keep chasing a startled deer and destroy their chances of success in the process. But by giving that beaten deer enough time to look behind him and not see the danger, he will eventually calm down and resume his routine. It is at this point, after the first bump, that Blood enjoys his greatest success. He now knows that he is a relatively short distance from the deer and that the deer is standing. If the conditions are right, that is, with a little wind and not too crispy snow, now his confidence skyrockets.
From here, Blood’s recommendation was to move on, albeit a bit less haphazard than his previous cover mode. We started our trail run again and covered another four or five miles. But we never caught up with that dollar.
out on my own
The next day I set out on my own and began a three-day search through the white rolling hills of Maine. Along the way, I was able to experience each phase of the game and work through each individual challenge myself.
I found deer tracks, played Sherlock Holmes and chased after them. I hit dollars, enjoyed a meatloaf sandwich, and even at one point, actually thought I was about to see the dollar at the end of the road. And through all this and more I discovered that some things are true.
I learned that tracking whitetails is, no surprises here, difficult. Very difficult. It requires incredible physical stamina: I ended up hiking some 40 miles over four days, while demanding sharp mental focus along the way as well. My feet blistered and peeled. My knees snapped and exploded. My head ached after hours of staring at the ground, racking my brain to translate the stories indiscriminately written in the snow.
But I also learned that it’s fun. Quite fun. In no other form of hunting that you have experienced can you be sure that your prey is actually present and right in front of you. Once you get to that track, one way or another, hope abounds. Your dream is there in front of you, you just need to keep walking.
To my surprise, the excitement present after discovering a hunting trail or finding it again after losing it among the dry leaves was palpable. It was not unlike the thrill I felt so many other times when a deer appeared in the distance and turned towards my post.
The physical challenge, the detective work, and the slow-drip tension of the eventual creep made for a wildly diverse and engaging adventure. “You either hate it or you love it, there’s usually not much in between,” Hal often reminded me. And he was right.
Stay tuned for this hunt to be featured on MeatEater’s newest whitetail show, coming to MeatEater’s YouTube channel later this year.