Using sign to your advantage
Whether you are elk hunting in September, rifle hunting mule deer in November or shed hunting in the spring, finding and using animal sign to your advantage will make you more successful. Learning to identify fresh droppings, tracks, beds, rubs and wallows will tell you more about animal habitat during that time of year than any e-scouting or planning ever will. Animals are creatures of habit and, year after year, will wallow in similar areas, feed in certain places and bed in specific spots during different times of year. Pay attention to animal sign and make adjustments accordingly in order to find more animals.
What should you look for?
When looking for animal sign, concentrate on the big three: scat, tracks and bedding. Scat (or animal poop) is a sign that there was an animal there at one point. The more scat present indicates that an animal spends a lot of time there or that there are numerous animals there. When it comes to herd animals, like deer and elk, it is hard to determine how many animals are present or if one animal is always there based upon scat. However, when it comes to a solitary animal like a moose, a lot of scat in one area shows that he or she frequents that spot. Take time to look up different animal scat in order to know what you are looking at when you see it.
Tracks are another really important sign to look for when out scouting or hunting. The first thing you should be able to do after a little research is to determine what animal track you are looking at. The next thing you should notice is the size of the track. Being able to tell the difference between a cow and bull track or buck and doe is easy if you understand what you are looking at and have seen a few tracks in your life to compare. A mature bull or buck track is significantly larger, deeper and different looking than a young cow or doe. The challenge is a little more difficult when trying to tell the difference between a young bull or buck and a mature cow or doe. However, if you notice the size difference and how many other animals are moving with it, you can make a pretty good guess.
Last, but not least: look for where a deer, elk or moose beds. Often, these areas are important to mark on your GPS since animals like to bed in the same or similar areas year after year.
Why is sign so important?
Animals in the West tend to have a homerange of sorts depending on the season. During early seasons in September, many elk, deer, moose and other animals are still living and staying in their summer range. They are feeding in similar meadows, traveling similar corridors and bedding in similar areas day after day. Finding these areas can be difficult to do; however, after a few days in the mountains, you should be able to pinpoint areas they are or are not feeding, traveling and bedding based upon sign. If there is a lack of sign, then you can determine that the animals are not there. Throughout the day and night, elk, deer and moose walk, which creates tracks and trails. They eat, which creates poop, and they rub trees or wallow, which creates visible signs of their presence. When they bed for the day, they compress areas or melt snow, showing that they were there resting during the day or night. Sign is so important because besides physically seeing animals, it is our best indicator of where they are during any given part of the year. If an area is lacking sign it is because animals are not there so you shouldn’t be either
Fresh is king
When searching for deer, elk or moose sign in the mountains, fresh sign is most important. With the dry arid climate of the West, it only takes days for animal scat to dry out and even crack or discolor. When you are walking along, do not be afraid to pick up a ball of poop and check it for its moisture level by squeezing it. If it is soft and mushy you are probably close to a place animals are still living at or were just recently living at. If you only find old, dry and cracked scat, then it can be concluded that they are not there anymore.
When it comes to tracks, it can be difficult to tell how old they are in dirt or mud. Track freshness can be determined more easily in snow. The presence of fresh tracks or dirt on top of snow can be a good indicator of new activity. This becomes even more important right after a fresh snowfall when you can get on tracks and follow animals to their destination.
The most important thing to look at when it comes to beds is the freshness of the bed. When an elk or deer bed down, they compress almost everything they lay on. After a few days or more without them laying there, debri, leaves and sticks can fall in the area, showing it as an older bed. When looking at wallows, search for muddy water; when looking at rubs, look at the sapling. If the tree is dead or dying, then the rub is probably dated. Any sign can be important, but fresh sign is the most important indicator of being in a good spot at the right time.
After some time in the mountains, you should be very good at determining fresh or dated sign and have an idea of what to do next. The point of sign is that if there is no fresh sign, you would be better off hunting somewhere else — unless you are on a travel corridor or know through experience that animals eventually make it there during your hunting season. Sign is our best indicator of where animals are and shouldn’t be ignored. The next time you are in the mountains, pay special attention to scat, track, beds and other indicators of animal presence.