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One of the sportsman’s most useful tools can’t be purchased in any store, online or at even the most exclusive outdoor catalogs. Ubiquitous, abundant and free wherever wildlife can be found, every hunter is attracted to it, fascinated by it and recognizes it as the greatest source of current information on and proof of the existence of any and all critters that come in contact with it.
The big mystery, of course, is mud. Some states have more mud than others but if it rains where you live, you will have mud somewhere in swaths, patches, puddles and paths. Maine is a wet state and so mud is a constant; we even have “mud season,” which, truth be told exists from ice-out to ice-in. Mothers, housekeepers, business owners and auto polishers hate the stuff, but hunters are especially fond of a good mud puddle, especially when all the water is gone and there’s nothing left but a thin skim of soft, goopy silt. Nothing can come in contact with mud without leaving a trace of its passing. I have seen butterflies land in mud to sip whatever water may be left on the surface and found their tracks and wing imprints in the surface sheen. Worms, frogs, mice, shrews, grouse and turkeys also leave their tracks behind, fascinating evidence of what goes on in muddy places when no one is looking.
Of course, hunters are mostly concerned with the bigger critters including deer, bear, moose, coyotes, foxes and other large animals, but the average mud puddle is a nifty chronicle of recent history of wildlife wanderings that tell veteran mud watchers all they need to know about what and when critters of interest passed this way since the last rainstorm.
There are no less than a dozen major mud holes along my routine hiking path, and I pause to study each one whenever I pass because, aside from live sightings, tracks are the most exciting evidence that proves these animals were here – and not that long ago.
Believe it or not, the location of a mud puddle often determines which species’ tracks will be found within it. For example, on high ground it’s likely that you’ll see deer, bear, moose, coyote, turkey and grouse imprints, while in swampy areas the selection includes these species plus muskrats, mink, fisher, raccoon, otter and turtle tracks – maybe even snake and frog prints.
It is a rarity to find rabbit or bobcat tracks in mud mostly because these animals do not like having mud on their feet, or so it seems. I’ve watched both species spend a great deal of time dodging wet spots just to keep their feet dry, even though in a pinch both are excellent swimmers. Each will gladly leave tracks on snow-covered ice, but mud – they just don’t care for it!
Back in my guiding days I would stop and visit major stream crossings where I knew deer routinely crossed. In some places the tracks were abundant, frequent and traveling in both directions, which is as exciting as it gets in the mud-reading business. When tracks in the mud reveal a well-used travel lane, that’s the place to put a hunter and tell him to stay put – all week if necessary. It’s also good for the hunter to see the plethora of tracks because it gives him incentive to remain vigilant even when nothing seems to be moving for days on end. Be as patient as the mud you are watching and you will see a deer – at least that’s what I told my clients! Those who stuck with it were successful – good mud never lies!
While mud certainly reveals where and occasionally when wild things have passed by there is one drawback to mud watching that can fool some observers. For example, one September I found the track of a huge buck in a secluded mud hole that was well protected from the sun and wind. It was a dry fall that year with little rain – the mud in this spot was formed by a constant spring seep that kept the soil black, wet and pliable well into October, when Maine’s archery deer season is in full swing.
I never thought that much about tracks in the mud because I monitored them daily and knew which tracks were which, but I was surprised when I brought a bowhunter out there to check out the tracks about six weeks later. This guy was in his 50s and considered himself well learned in the ways of deer hunting. He knelt down, poked around in the tracks and announced that they had been made, “This morning or late last night. He’s close!”
Hmmm . . . what is a good guide to do? I decided to tell the truth and let him know that those particular tracks had been there since mid-September, but he wouldn’t hear about it. “I’ve been hunting long enough to know a fresh track when I see one. What are you trying to do, save him for another client?”
I hadn’t even thought of that! I did my best to convince the guy that those tracks were weeks old but he insisted on hunting over that mud hole for his entire week, and of course he never saw that buck – or any other deer, come to think of it. But, he was motivated, enthusiastic and determined, which is all one can ask of a hunter. I wanted him to hunt a small apple orchard a few hundred yards away where mud puddles there indicated daily deer activity but he wanted the big buck – and most hunters can tell you what happens when you won’t settle for less than a monster buck. You eat beans all winter!
Lately I have been using trail cameras to supplement my scouting for deer and bear and quite naturally have them set up over mud holes that show the most tracks. One thing mud won’t tell you is the exact time or day that an animal left its tracks, but trail cams do! I have captured images of several nice bucks ranging from six to 12 points, and every one of them passes the mud between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., which means they are long gone by legal shooting time. That, of course, explains why they get big in the first place!
You don’t have to be a hunter to enjoy a good read of mud. Squat down, take a closer look and see what interesting tracks you can find. The woods around you may appear empty and lifeless, but the mud will tell you otherwise!
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