The art of reading sign

Finding deer sign like this big buck rub is a boots-on-the-ground deal; no amount of technology can substitute.

Have technology, gadgets, gear dulled hunters’ sign senses?

In the movie, The Last of the Mohicans, we find our three heroes in the opening scene reading the sign of an elk that they are chasing through the mountain forest. The chase ends when Hawkeye, aka Natty Bumppo, fires and drops the elk in its tracks.

Reading sign is as old as hunting. Sign is simply the evidence that game animals and birds leave on the landscape that shows they’ve been around. The type of sign varies with species; with deer, it could include tracks, trails, scrapes, rubs, droppings, browsing and acorn caps. With wild turkeys, it could be tracks, droppings, dusting sites, calls and feathers. Some wildlife species leave a lot of sign, some very little.

Learning about the outdoors

Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, discussed reading sign in his book A Sand County Almanac. He praised those hunters who do the work of reading sign and use it to try and connect with the quarry. He doesn’t have much praise for those hunters who take short cuts and make use of technology, gadgets and gears. Of course, Leopold was an old-school hunter who found more satisfaction in the pursuit than the kill. Generally, as hunters mature and age, the adventure and the opportunity to just be in the outdoors become more important than shooting an animal.

Turkey sign includes tracks, scratchings, droppings, dusting areas and feathers.

Most Baby Boomer hunters started out in the era of old-school of hunting, where scouting and reading sign before the hunt was a must. This art was taught to us by fathers, grandfathers, uncles and mentors who had grown up reading sign. The technology that is available today simply was not around in the 1960s.

Most boomer hunters probably remember finding their first deer track or deer crossing. I can remember my first Pearl River buck; I read scrape sign for three weeks before I was able to go make a hunt. What a thrilling moment it was when a buck walked to the scrape at daylight and then dropped in its tracks when I squeezed the trigger.

Hunting regulations on Wildlife Management Areas are different from private lands, and public-land hunters must still use the art of reading sign to have success — and that is just fine with me.

Skip old school

Technology has changed the game of hunting. Today, a hunter does not really have to scout the woods for deer sign. Simply set up a feeder, attach a camera to a tree, and voila, an instant set-up that requires no person to be out and about looking for deer sign. In fact, the hunter does not even have to go out to check the feeder; he or she simply sets the camera up with his phone, and he can watch the game and the feeder at the same time.

So is this bad, making use of modern technology to do the scouting? Not really; it’s simply taking advantage of technology in a society where time is limited. I use cameras all the time; mine are somewhat low-tech, I can’t afford the super-tech gadgets, plus, I am technology challenged.

Cameras save time and energy when trying to determine the population status of deer and turkey on a landscape. These pictures, however, don’t often tell the whole story, unless you simply are looking at killing a deer. Then, they will certainly show you what you need to know. Quite often, the pictures provide a starting point for the hunter, then the hunter has to do some leg work, reading the sign, to connect with the quarry.

Of course, technology will not help with all species. If you like to squirrel hunt, reading sign is a must. Squirrel sign for the most part is finding the cuttings of squirrels as they feed on mast such as pine cones, acorns, hickory nuts, cypress balls and the like.

Added info

As the rut intensifies, the number of rubs in the woods increases, providing visible evidence for deer hunters.

Actually scouting the woods before the season will provide the hunter with information concerning acorn availability. When mast is limited, this information is most useful for the deer hunter. Knowing where an oak tree is that is dropping acorns is always an opportunity for a set-up. This may be one of those years where such information is important. It appears that some oak trees have plenty of acorns, while others have few.

Rabbits leave tracks and droppings on the landscape, but most hunters don’t go around looking for this rabbit sign before hunting. Actually seeing rabbits early in the morning or late in the evening, either around the deer stand in a field or while traveling to and from the stand, will give the hunter an idea of rabbit numbers and where they are.

Likewise, dove hunters don’t do a lot of looking for dove sign. Actual observation of birds around fields is generally the way hunters determine where to hunt. Unfortunately, some hunters prefer to take the short cuts that Leopold wrote about and place grain out in the field to attract the doves. The news release that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries put out after the opening weekend of the first dove split indicated that many hunters decided this short cut was the way to go.

Regulations are different for public and private land. Regulations are different on state and federal public lands so it is important that hunters read the regulations book. Reading this sign could help keep you out of trouble this season.

H4H success

Hunters for the Hungry had its freezer day clean-out during September, and it was a success, with more than 20,000 pounds of meat collected statewide. Such food items really supplement and help local food banks around the state, providing needy persons with high-quality protein. Don’t forget that H4H has locations around Louisiana where hunters can donate a deer or two during the season. The motto of this organization is “Hunters who care, share.” Check into this program and do your part. I have a saying, too; hungry hunters make good hunters. Hunt hard, but be safe and enjoy the harvest that you have been blessed with.

Dave Moreland
About Dave Moreland 209 Articles
David Moreland is a former wildlife biologist with LDWF, having served as the State Deer Biologist for 13 years and as Chief of the Wildlife Division for three years. He and his wife Prudy live in Baton Rouge and own property in East Feliciana Parish.

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