Trackers practice unraveling trails in the snow

Gerald Scott - Contributing columnist


Gerald Scott

Contributing columnist

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When I carried my trash out to the curb early Wednesday morning, I saw two sets of rabbit tracks crossing my snow-covered driveway. They were so fresh and crisp I could clearly see each individual toe pad and nail. I enjoyed seeing them just for themselves, but they also reminded me that as long as it confines itself to reasonable limits–which I define as depths of less than four inches with no accompanying ice–I’m really quite fond of snow.

I didn’t follow those tracks. For one thing breakfast was waiting. Then too, I didn’t think the wanderings of two neighborhood rabbits would reveal anything exciting. Even so, they did cause me to remember a morning that had already been ‘exciting” before I had a chance to follow tracks in the snow.

I’d decided several days previously that I was going deer hunting on a specific morning, and I wasn’t going to be stopped by a detail like snow blowing sideways across US 50 when I headed west out of Sedalia at 4:30 a.m. The by-definition blizzard notwithstanding, except for sliding past the road I was supposed to take south and having to double back, the drive to my hunting grounds was relatively uneventful.

Once there, my storm-enforced patience was rewarded a little after 8:00 a.m. when the snow quit falling and the wind calmed like someone had flipped a switch. Half an hour later, I was still-hunting along an obvious game trail located just inside the upper edge of a mile-long, timber-lined draw bounded by crop fields.

I’d only gone a few hundred yards when bobcat tracks left a brush pile and ambled down the game trail ahead of me. I slowed my pace so as not to overtake my fellow hunter. Reading the story recorded in the snow about how the bobcat would temporarily leave the trail to check anything that might hide prey before continuing on its way was so fascinating I could have spent the whole morning following those tracks.

But then the tracks of a very large deer appeared on the trail. The bobcat immediately shifted gears and started slinking several feet forward with its belly dragging in the snow. It paused for what the condition of the snow indicated was a brief time before repeating the same slink/pause pattern over and over.

I followed as quickly as I dared, hoping to witness something very few people have ever seen. Alas, a loud snort and a brief thrashing and crashing in the brush just out of my field of view announced that the climax of the tracks’ story had just occurred.

My interpretation of the evidence left behind in the snow indicated that the deer was bedded just off of the game trail when the overly ambitious bobcat jumped on top of it. The bobcat must have kept its “spurs” down for at least a couple of jumps before being slammed against the trunk of a large tree with fur-flying force. The deer then bounded west at top speed, and the bobcat did the same going east.

It was definitely the most exciting thing I’ve ever not quite seen in all my years outdoors. The fact that I eventually cut the trail of a small herd of does and filled my last antlerless tag was anticlimactic.

I must admit it’s very difficult for me to get very far off the sidewalk unarmed when any hunting season is open, which, in Missouri, is almost all of the time. That said, I’d also like to point out that tracking is a wonderful hobby for any nonhunter who’s seriously interested in how the natural world operates.

Obviously, the more you know about the wild animals in your area and the “signs” each species leaves of its passage, the better tracker you’ll be, but every tracker, no matter how skilled, had to try to unravel his or her first trail. Having a human mentor is, of course, the surest and fastest route to success, but the Internet is absolutely loaded with links to information on this subject.

I hope it’s needless to say, but while some of this information is excellent, some of it, to be kind, isn’t. This is especially true of blogs. With all due apologies to the many trustworthy bloggers roaming through the cloud, never forget that the only thing a blogger needs to do to become an “expert” on any subject is to say he or she is one. Writers of old fashioned print books at least have to withstand the scrutiny of an editor and a publisher before foisting their thoughts off on an unsuspecting public. Besides, you can take a printed field guide with illustrations of animal tracks with you wherever you go.

Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]

Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]

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