The art of tracking game

by Dick Eussen

While we don’t do it intentionally, sometimes it happens ‑ an animal is wounded and rushes into cover. I have had it happen to me, though it’s rare. Recently, I had a big mud-encrusted boar take off after I hit him with a well-placed 90-grain Speer bullet from my Tikka Lite .243. Normally, such a shot drops a big boar like a brick – normally…

But this one humped his back and took off into thick rubber vine on the bottom of a dam. This stuff forms vine thickets that are almost impossible to see under let alone make your way through. I waited on the high dam wall for him to break cover and head into the bush on the other side but he stayed put, no doubt grinding his tusks to razor sharpness as he prepared to take me on. I picked up his tracks from where he had fled in a cloud of dust and noted some specks of blood on the left side of the tracks where he had brushed against the grass.

The spoor vanished into the undergrowth on the bottom of the wall. I hunkered down and peered under the first stand – nothing, only shadows. He had gone on further into the vines. I walked around the first vine patch and picked up his tracks on the other side. There was more blood where he had gone into deep cover. I looked hard and thought I saw movement. It was the boar and he was coming rapidly, crashing through the tangle of vines in an attempt to reach me. I retreated to a somewhat open space – fast. I dropped on my knee and fired at the animal as he came out at speed. Luckily I had turned the scope to 3X before entering the jungle and was able to pick up his bulk when he burst out looking for me.

The head shot brought him down for good. I turned him over and noted that the first shot had caused a deep but not fatal wound because the bullet had expanded too rapidly when it contacted the dried mud. It was almost spent when it entered the shoulder’s thick fighting shield. Lesson learned – use a heavier and better constructed bullet like the 100-grain Speer that I normally use. But my dealer only had 90-grain projectiles when I wanted reloads prior to the hunting trip.

However, there is another lesson here that is even more important – being able to track an adversary to its lair. Had I just stumbled about the vine tickets and not tracked him, he could have surprised me, charged out from anywhere and turned the tables. Knowing where he was and where he was coming from made all the difference.

Tracking game is an art that every hunter should practise. This example is tracking a wounded animal that leaves blood on the ground, grass, trunks or leaves. To the expert eye this is simple tracking providing you pay attention to the lay of the land and don’t be ambushed when your eyes are focused on the tracks and not the danger ahead.

Finding whether there is game about is another form of tracking and by far the easiest one. It boils down to finding obvious fresh signs about watering places, where tracks in the mud, sand or dirt, indicate that game is active. Other signs are disturbances like turned over or displaced rocks, broken twigs, fresh dung droppings, tree rubbings, rest impressions on the ground and settling mud in wallows and footprints in water.

Rocks and stones that have been overturned or shifted leave scuff marks and impressions where they originally were located. Scuffed tree trunks and leaves that are bent or broken are other signs while the tell-tale direction that bent grass leaves indicates which way the prey is travelling. Another very good sign, especially early in the morning when dew is present, are broken spider webs. Generally, tracks are clear in the disturbed wet grass. When there is moisture on the ground from dew or a shower, footprints are very clear in soft soil but not on hard, rocky ground.

When an agitated animal absconds from water it leaves behind wet drips, feet marks and often settling mud in the tracks or wallow at the water’s edge, which marks the direction it has fled. Unless it is aware that you are hunting, it won’t go far and many animals like deer and dingoes stop and look back to see what unnerved them.

There are other signs, sometimes even smell. It’s not hard to work out if a herd of pigs or deer have recently watered and left in a hurry as splashes will be widespread ranging away from the water’s edge. It is often easy to track animals by following their spoor, but if they are aware that you are behind them they will just keep on moving ahead and you may never even make it close enough to put in a shot, especially in thick cover.

If you have a hunting companion keep conversation to a low murmur and use what Aboriginal people call ‘finger talk’ – meaning hand signals. Use local bird calls to alert your mate. Never converse too loudly or, worse still, whisper – as it sounds further than a murmur. Be alert to where you place your feet down as stepping on a stick and breaking it, rustling dry leaves or slapping mosquitoes, will alert the prey to flee. Don’t smoke, as the smell spreads far and wide and don’t wear an aromatic after-shave or insect repellent. Above all, don’t make any metallic noise with your gun, like working the bolt or checking to see if the magazine is loaded.

Clothing is very important. There is no excuse for not wearing proper camouflage clothing these days. If you think camo does not work, you have not been hunting long, my friend. If you use proper camo for the region’s coloration you will be invisible to animals. Animals are alerted by movement; by slowing down when moving from cover to cover, they are not unduly disturbed but if you move quickly they flee.

Another tip is to not stare intently for any length of time at an animal as it will show signs of wariness. Just look at it and look away. I have hunted with Aborigines in Arnhem Land and on the Cape York Peninsula, true bush people. They never look hard at animals they track because they say it alerts them, something I totally agree with.

Most Indigenous mates I hunted with were amazing trackers, whose ability far exceeded that of my own. Nothing escaped them. A good tracker would point out where a grasshopper had landed on the spoor or where a lizard had walked across it. He could tell if a turned leaf had been disturbed by wind or game and how far it was ahead. They were very adept at tracking small game like lizards and goannas and excelled at large game like bovines and wild pigs. I have never seen such proficiency in white hunters and I have hunted with some of the best throughout the years. Every step they took was slow and deliberate.

No matter how good the tracker is, sometimes a spoor is lost, even though animals do not intentionally attempt to hide it. When this happens you need to mark where the last contact was and then circle 30m to 40m ahead in a wide sweep in the hope of picking it up again. One old mate and I once tracked a wounded buffalo bull across a muddy swamp that had a million buffalo tracks already in it. The only way we kept on course was by circling about and picking up the odd splash or droplet of blood from the lung-shot animal. We caught up to it in dense pandanus thickets, some 7km from where he was wounded by my old mate, who was using a .338 W rifle. The bull came out with a rush from about 10m away. I dropped him almost at my feet with my .458 Winchester Magnum Ruger rifle. His momentum was such that his horn brushed my shin as he plowed on his nose towards me, dead as, though the contact left me with a painful bruise.

A hunter owes it to the game to despatch it as humanely and quickly as possible, but sometime unforeseen things happen, mostly when too light a calibre is used – or the wrong bullet for the job. Knowing how to track game should be on every hunter’s skill list. It’s never easy but you can practise it when hunting by constantly checking the terrain in front of you for fresh tracks, circling watering places to see from which direction the game is coming and heading out and walking about thick cover to find whether your prey is in it or has departed unseen to a safer place. And more importantly, by checking the ground ahead for tracks, even if you don’t see any, means that it will help to stop you from stepping on a brown snake.

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