DSI: Deer Sign Investigation | Great Days Outdoors

Tracks, droppings and rubs indicate that deer are nearby—or do they? Think fresh.

With each trip afield, signs are left behind by certain critters or even hunters. To the observant hunter, these signs can divulge a lot of information. Various signs such as tracks, droppings, rubs and scrapes are all part of the daily life of deer. Investigating and understanding what these signs mean can lead a hunter to fill out his buck tag this season.

All animals leave or deposit some type of sign. Some animal signs are more obvious than others. Since deer are large ground-dwelling animals, they leave plenty of sign in the fields and on the forest floor. Hunters need only to deploy their investigation tactics and learn from the evidence.


Making tracks

Deer tracks can be found almost anywhere along a trail, field edge, creek crossing or mud hole. A good-looking track doesn’t always mean the track is fresh. If there has been no rain in the past few days, the track may look new, like a deer had just walked along the area. Certain details can determine if the track is indeed fresh.


“Fresh tracks are sharp,” advises Donnie Maddox of Munford, Ala. “Look at the ridges and the depression for clear, sharp edges and firmness in the bottom.”

Maddox goes on to say that fresh tracks should not have any type of debris such as leaves, bits of dirt or other objects in the print. A larger track doesn’t always indicate it was made by a buck. Big-bodied does running or jumping can make large tracks. Also, if the soil is soft or muddy, the type of deer that left the track can be misleading.

“Buck tracks will generally have dewclaw marks behind the toe tracks,” Maddox explains. “Doe tracks are smaller and the rear hoof tracks will be outside the front tracks.”

The front foot tracks of bucks will be more rounded. Bucks pawing the ground to make scrapes will wear off the points of their front hoofs. Also, a buck track is spread out a little wider than a doe track. Generally, a buck track will be about three to four inches in length.


Dropping evidence

Deer droppings can prove to be a reliable sign for knowing where the deer are feeding and bedding. Droppings or pellets can indicate how long ago a deer was in the area. Deer defecate approximately 13 times a day. So there should be plenty of deer pellets in your hunting area, if the deer have been visiting. Food types and availability can affect the deer pellet rates.


Some hunters may say that the sex of the deer cannot be determined by the droppings, but there are some guidelines that differ with that opinion. Generally, pellets clumped together in a cylindrical shape are that of a buck. Also, the overall size of the individual pellet is larger for bucks. This lumping is from the deer’s diet of grasses, forbs and soft mast. Occasionally, there could be clumping of doe pellets in older, more mature does.

Droppings less than one-half-inch long are those from a fawn or doe. Individual pellet lengths longer than three-quarters of an inch are usually from a buck. Also, pellet count can be a factor as well. Bucks will usually average 75 pellets per dropping pile. The doe and fawn count is lower.

“There is a color difference in fresh and old droppings,” explains Gene Irvin of Talladega, Ala. “Fresh deer droppings will be dark and wet-looking.”

Hunters need to use the location of the droppings in determining their freshness. Deer pellets located in a field or food plot may have been deposited under the cover of darkness. Droppings that are soft and moist are usually fresh and only a few hours old. Keep in mind weather conditions. Warm weather will dry out the pellets faster than cooler temperatures.



Mention deer rubs and watch a hunter’s ears perk up. Deer hunters like to see rubs in their hunting area. Rubs are marks on small-diameter trees and limbs where the bark has been rubbed away. It was once thought by hunters that bucks rubbed the trees to get the velvet off of their antlers. But recent research has shown that rubs are sign and scent posts for the deer herd in a particular area.

Bucks rub trees for various reasons. One is they must strengthen their neck muscles for the impending rut. Another reason is they are depositing scent from their forehead gland. Also, a rub is a signpost to other deer in the area to check the scent. More research is being done on how this scent tells other deer who is who.

An old sage known for hunting once said, “Large bucks will rub big and small trees, but only small bucks will rub small trees.” So how is a hunter to know if the rub is from a mature buck? One way is to be observant. If the rub is on a tree around three-and-one-half inches diameter, then it’s most likely a mature buck.

“Fresh rubs will have loose bark and the sap will be running out,” Maddox comments. “The rub will look clean and shavings will be on top of the leaves.”

Hunters should look for tine marks above the rub. Sometime these scratches in the bark will be on the backside of the tree. These scratches or cuts are from the sharp tines of a racked buck. Also, rubs around waist-high on a tree will signal a mature buck has left his mark.


Scraping by

Deer scrapes are another type of deer sign for hunters. Oftentimes, scrapes are close to a rub. Scrapes are generally made by bucks and can range from about the size of a dinner plate to that of a truck hood. Bucks will paw out an area down to the loose earth, step over the scrape and urinate down over their tarsal gland to deposit scent.

Hunters should look for moist soil in the bare dirt indicating very recent activity. Also, look for recent deer tracks of any size. Does will often visit a scrape and leave her scent as well. When the buck makes his rounds, he will be able to tell if the doe is in heat.

“Scrapes will not have any leaves and the dirt will look like it has been tilled up,” Maddox explains. “The dirt is also fluffy looking.”

Old scrapes will have leaves, twigs or other debris on top of the soil. Also, older scrapes will be flat with a worn- down appearance. Look for fresh scraping activity immediately after a heavy rain.

Deer research has indicated that around 70 percent of scrapes are made by bucks at night. A deer hunter’s best approach is to locate trails leading to or from bedding and feeding areas adjacent to the scraping areas. Scrapes do provide information the rut is in progress.

Hunters should be observant and use rational thinking in their investigation of deer sign. Evaluate and let the evidence speak.


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