Riddles in the Snow: Buck or Doe?

One track tells little, but a trail speaks volumes.

In his classic tome, Hunting Trophy Deer, John Wootters writes, "Nobody-except possibly Jesus-can reliably tell a buck from a big doe track."

However difficult it may be to discern sex by a single track, a deer trail does leave clues to its maker's identity. With a little experience, a hunter can make an educated guess about sex if he is able to follow a set of tracks for several hundred yards. Size is the obvious indicator, and in fact Wootters himself amended his statement with the clause, "until you find yourself looking at a really big buck track." Allowing for regional differences, a fully mature (31/2-year-old or older) buck will leave a track measuring 51/2 to 61/2 inches from toe tip to the back of the dewclaw (hoof length, from 3 to 31/4 inches). Adult does and immature bucks seldom leave a track more than 4 inches in total length. Width is even a better giveaway; if you can lay a .30/06 cartridge crosswise inside the hoofprint or dewclaw spread, the deer that left it is fit for the wall. Other clues to look for include:

  • ** Larger droppings** (more than 5/8 inch) indicate a buck. Bucks also tend to drop their pellets in clumps more often than does.
  • Does hunch down and urinate in the center of their tracks. The lance of a buck's urine wobbles a bit and he is more likely to dribble as he walks.
  • Large bucks often drag their feet through leaf litter or light snow-all deer leave drag marks in snow more than 3 inches deep-and are more likely to show the imprints of their dewclaws than smaller deer.
  • When walking, the rear hooves of all deer overlap the front hooves. But due to differences in pelvic structure, the rear tracks of a buck often land slightly inside the front hoofprints and sometimes fall a little short of them. A doe places her hind hooves on top of the front hoofprints and slightly outside them. The toes of a heavy buck also may splay out a little to each side, whereas a doe's tend to point where she's going.
  • Whenever you observe small tracks in company with larger ones, bet that it's a doe and fawn.
  • ** By mid-November**, bucks have a purposeful stride-a widely spaced, slightly staggered track that gets where it's going. A meandering pattern of dainty tracks usually means a doe.
  • A rutting buck will stop and sniff at crossing deer tracks or turn to follow, and may leave the impressions of his antler tips in the snow. Also look for antler impressions where he drops his head to feed.
  • The farther you follow a buck, the more likely you are to find where he has visited a scrape or rub.
  • Remember that a buck minds his rack. If you find tracks that duck under low brush or pass between closely set trees, chances are its maker doesn't have much headgear to worry about.

Although few of these indicators are foolproof when taken alone, the more clues you pick up along the trail, the more likely you are of correctly predicting the sex of your quarry.