Three Adirondacks Trackers, Three Late-Season Bucks

Northern New York's vast Adirondack Park is one of the toughest places to hunt whitetail deer in the country. Much of the park is rugged, remote and roadless, and in many areas there are no more than five to seven deer per square mile. Hunter success rates are poor, but for hardcore hunters the opportunities are great. The park has 3 million acres of "forever wild" state land where bucks can grow old if they survive the long winters, bears and coyotes, and the gun season stretches from late October to early December.
For a select group of deep-woods hunters, the biggest attraction of the Adirondacks is it's almost always blanketed with snow at some point during deer season. It's then that the ancient art of tracking is possible, and a small corps of determined deer trackers defy the odds by bagging big, mature bucks year after year.
The dean of Adirondack deer trackers is Jim Massett. The 73-year-old Chittenango, N.Y., man is an inspiration to hunters one-third his age.
Massett has been tracking deer for more than five decades. Hardly a year has gone by during that span when he hasn't tied his tag to a trophy Adirondack buck.
In his younger days, Massett was famous for carrying his deer out.
Tough as carrying a buck might be, even more remarkable is that Massett routinely covers more than 100 miles of rugged back-country over the course of several days before he has a chance to even pull the trigger.
Leading the next generation of Adirondack deer trackers is Joe DiNitto of Marcy, N.Y.
DiNitto is one of the best deep-woods hunters in the country. Over the last 16 years, he has tracked down 15 bucks in the Adirondacks alone that have averaged more than 5 years old. When conditions are right, he usually doesn't need more than two or three days to fill his tag.
Tracking is all DiNitto does. "Put snow on the ground and drop me off anywhere in the Adirondacks and 80 percent of the time I'm within 100 yards of a mature buck by the end of the day," he says. "I don't always get them, but I can't think of another way to hunt that consistently gets more and more exciting as the day goes on and gets me that close to a big buck that fast."
Then there are hunters like Steve Grabowski of Prospect, N.Y., who only 10 years ago grew tired of long, boring days in tree stands. Since he began tracking, he has shot five Adirondack bucks, two of which came in the last two years. He's had excellent teachers. "I do everything Jim and Joe tell me," he says. "It's really beginning to pay off."
Blaze orange is not required in the Adirondacks. Massett, DiNitto and Grabowski all wear quiet, breathable fleece garments in snow camo. To track down and then shoot a buck, you have to spot it before it spots you. "One of you is going to see the other move first," DiNitto says. To be successful, you have to "make sure it's the buck that makes the mistake."
In the Adirondacks, old signpost rubs indicate that an area has traditionally been home to one or more big bucks.
Bark on top of the snow is proof that a good buck is nearby.
Grabowski likes to place a trail camera on a signpost rub while waiting for the snow to fall. It gives him a sense of what kind of bucks are in the area and boosts his confidence.
Take a good look at this buck's 7-point rack. You will see it again later.
When the snow flies, however, these hunters are not searching for rubs or even deer. They focus solely on covering ground until they find the right track.
The right track should have a large print and a wide, toe-dragging gait that indicates it was made by an big, barrel-chested buck. If the track follows a straight course, DiNitto follows it as quickly as possible in order to catch up with the buck. Only once the track starts meandering and the buck begins feeding does he slow way down and begin looking for the deer. Nine out of 10 times, DiNitto says, the buck is now within 200 yards and is probably bedded down.
Skilled Adirondack trackers can also size up a buck's rack before they even see it. When a buck stops to feed, it often leaves antler impressions in the snow. This buck stopped to browse on hobblebush buds. It left a clear impression of its right beam.
This buck stopped to paw for beechnuts, in the process showing that it carried a wide rack. (The tines on its left beam are visible in the snow in the upper left-hand corner.)
Snow was late in coming to the Adirondacks last fall, not arriving in earnest until the end of November. Going into the last week of the season, Massett, DiNitto and Grabowski all still had their tags.
Massett was the first to score on Friday, Dec. 3. He began tracking the 8-pointer three days earlier, but lost its track when it jumped in a lake and swam out to a large island. Only years of experience and dogged determination allowed him to kill this buck. Did I mention that he's 73?
The next day it was DiNitto's turn. He had tracked down two bucks in the previous five days, passing up one and unable to get a shot at the other. The buck he killed on Dec. 4 carried a wide, heavy 8-point rack - a typical Adirondack buck for DiNitto.
On Sunday, Dec. 5, the last day of the season, Grabowski cut the fresh track of the 7-point buck he photographed with his trail camera one month earlier. His shot was less than perfect though, and he did not find the buck until the following morning.
Massett, DiNitto and Grabowski pose with their 2010 bucks before heading back to civilization. For these guys, it was just another successful Adirondack deer season.

For a select group of deep-woods hunters, the biggest attraction of the Adirondacks is it's almost always blanketed with snow at some point during deer season. It's then that the ancient art of tracking is possible, and a small corps of determined deer trackers defy the odds by bagging big, mature bucks year after year.