Deer Trackers

The following information on deer trackers comes from Practical Rifle Shooting by Walter Winans. Practical Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.

The choice of a dog for tracking wounded deer is rather a difficult matter. In the olden days in Scotland, as shown by Landseer’s and Ansdale’s pictures, it was the custom to use deerhounds and slip them on wounded deer. This was, primarily, necessary since the inaccuracy of the old-fashioned rifle, as compared with modern ones, often caused deer to go away wounded. With modern rifles not only is this much more rarely the case, but also it would be very inadvisable, (even if the lease of many forests did not forbid it,) to let dogs loose in a deer forest. They disturb a large district when chasing a wounded deer, and deer hate the smell of dogs’ tracks.

The usual plan, nowadays, is to have a dog to track the wounded deer silently; if not quite under control, he is led by a lead.

The best plan, if a deer is hit and cannot for any reason be shot again before he gets out of range, is to watch him through your glass, see how he is hit, and lie perfectly quiet till he has gone out of sight or lain down. He will generally take a last look back before disappearing. If he is “very sick,” hit in the middle of the body, it is best to leave him alone for half an hour, and then by a careful stalk, and avoiding, if possible, an approach from the line on which he left you, you can generally get another shot at him before he rises. If he has a broken leg, especially a fore one, or, as I have mentioned elsewhere, the very unfortunate wound of a broken jaw, he may go for many miles. If, therefore, he is not found when stalking up to the last point at which he was seen, or is not found lying down in the nearest water, the only thing is to lay the dog on his track. By passing the hand through the heather or grass one can sometimes find blood, or his tracks can be discovered by the broken stalks, &c.

I once had a good dog who would not only track slowly in front of one without needing a lead, but would, if he saw the deer, crouch down almost on a “point” and wait for me. He was bought from a poacher, who, when the dog was caught, begged for his life, as he said he was the best tracker in the country. This dog was an ugly little red mongrel with a broken tail.

One never knows what dog will make a good tracker. He ought not to be too big or of a conspicuous colour; a mute running hound might make a good tracker if it were not for his white markings, but generally a led hound will not hunt. I have had one or two good mongrels, a cross between a retriever and a hound, but they are usually too black; this cross is sometimes brindle.

The best sort of a lead is a harness lead. If led by the collar a dog gets wrong in the wind, besides making a choking noise when dragging at his lead.

Of course when you get a sight of the wounded deer, the tracker should be taken up and the deer stalked in the usual way; never slip the dog at the deer.


I personally, do not care for riding the Scotch forest ponies; they are very good for carrying deer, but, if you can train him to do the work, a better bred pony is much pleasanter to ride than the upright-shouldered, stumbling pony usually got in Scotland, It is also so much more pleasant to have something on which one can canter home instead of stumping along at a cow-like walk.

There are deer saddles made which whilst carrying a deer well, are not too uncomfortable for riding. Don’t get one with a join down the middle, unless you are a cyclist who enjoys riding on a rail.

A deer should always be packed with his legs and horns slanting back, so that they do not catch against rocks, branches, &c., the head being put well on the middle of the saddle.

Telescopes and Binoculars.

This section is not strictly appropriate to a book on rifle shooting, but will be found useful to deerstalkers.

It is important to have a good “glass” of some sort. An ordinary binocular or field glass is very little use; a man with normally good long-sight can see almost as well with his naked eyes. What is wanted is a good telescope or a Zeiss binocular, or another binocular made on the same principle. Personally, I suppose because I have used one during so many years, I prefer a telescope.

The three things to consider in choosing a telescope (or, in fact, a binocular) are, good definition, lightness and compactness. Many telescopes are made of too high power, which means loss of “light.” What you want is as high a power as can be had, compatible with a large aperture; in using a glass with a small aperture it is impossible to see well in a bad light.

By holding the eyepiece some distance from the eye one can judge the size of the “stop,” or aperture, without unscrewing the lenses. The telescope should have several “draws,” so as to shut up in a small compass. I prefer an aluminium telescope, with brass in the places where the lenses and slides screw on. This latter point is very important, and I believe is my own idea, as I have never seen one brass in any one else’s telescope. Having the “screw rings” of brass adds very little to the weight, and enables one to screw and unscrew the various parts for cleaning and wiping, (as when the glass gets fogged in wet or misty weather,) without the danger of stripping off the thread of the screws. I find aluminium screw rings are a constant source of worry; the metal is so soft that, if you screw it up in a hurry and do not engage the screw correctly, the screw strips, and then either jams or cuts itself so that the joint will not hold. This also applies to binoculars, which, in my opinion, should have all parts which screw made of some tougher metal than aluminium. Another advantage of having the brass rings on a telescope is that it prevents the telescope “sagging ” at the joints of the various slides.

With an aluminium telescope you must be careful, however, not to step on it. I remember one deer drive when I had been looking with my telescope at the approaching herd, in order to see which were the best stags. As the deer got within shot I put the telescope down beside me. After a few shots fired in the sitting position, what were left of the herd rushed past close, compelling me to stand up, keep turning to get several shots, my gun-loader moving about also. When the shooting was over I found that he and I had trampled all over my telescope and stamped it flat, so that it was of no more use till it had been to the makers. An ordinary telescope would have stood the buffeting and been little the worse for it. The lightness compensates, however, for the little extra care required in use, and now that aluminium is so cheap it does not matter much if one does occasionally get smashed.

Draw the telescope out to its full length; then sit down and focus it on some object at average “spying” distance, say 800 to 1,000 yards. When you have found your right focus, make a scratch with a pin round the eyepiece draw-tube where it enters the first ring. This will leave a silvery line, and saves time in future “spying,” as when you draw your telescope you can at once adjust the eyepiece draw-tube to your focus, and so avoid fumbling with it after the telescope is to your eye.

The leather case is preferably made with a “bayonet” catch, as that is quicker to close than if you have a buckle and tongue; it is apt to make a noise, though, when closed rapidly. Some foresters will buckle and unbuckle the telescope case endlessly, and it is very fidgeting as well as a waste of time. With my telescope, I have cut off the buckle and tongue and strung the case reversed way on the shoulder strap—that is to say, the strap goes under the case instead of above it; this prevents it opening unless pulled, and obviates the necessity of fastening. If you want to be extra particular in point of material, grey leather is best; but either brown or black leather, when well stained or faded respectively by the weather, is invisible enough for all practical purposes. The telescope itself is apt to flash in the sun—in fact, I have signalled to the men by flashing the telescope. I do not quite see how this can be avoided. If it is painted grey with a dead grey, it will not slide properly—in fact, polish, which in other words is glitter, seems unavoidable. In sunny weather it is best, therefore, to be very careful to only move a telescope, when out of its case, straight towards deer; if it is put at any angle it will flash and be seen at great distances. I have known men take off their coats and put the telescope through the sleeve for “spying,” and others who use a bag made of grey material over the telescope.

In wet weather a telescope, if often drawn, gets almost like a squirt, and the glasses get so fogged as to become almost useless. There is a substance sold by some opticians which, rubbed on the glasses and then wiped off as much as possible, leaving a very thin film, prevents wet forming on the glass, it is called “Lasin.” Rubbing with vaseline is also fairly effective. In Russia salt is placed in receptacles of paper between double windows in winter to prevent moisture fogging the glass, as salt absorbs the moisture; perhaps something of the sort could be done for telescopes. After a wet day it is as well to unscrew the telescope and leave the various parts all night near a fire so as to get thoroughly dry, but not anywhere where a housemaid may sweep up the “litter.” Do not rub the lenses with anything likely to scratch them. Use a thin silk handkerchief, or thin cambric one; I prefer the latter. I know a man who carries a piece of chamois leather in a little tin box for wiping the lenses, but there is danger of scratching them, as the leather will sometimes pick up grit.

In looking through a telescope it is well to use neither eye too long at a time, especially if holding the other one shut. With a little practice you can learn to keep both eyes open and use the telescope with alternate eyes. Also I do not like, (if it can possibly be avoided,) to use a telescope immediately before shooting, as it tires the eyes. There are several ways of holding a telescope steadily. (By the way, it is curious that not one artist in a hundred draws a man holding a telescope to his eye properly. They represent it held with both hands away from the face with the eyepiece to the eye in a way that would make the user of the glass poke his own eye out.) The proper way is to put the first and second fingers of the nearer hand round the eyepiece, and put the thumb along the cheek, the little finger against the mouth, and the tips of the other fingers touching the nose. In this way you shut out external light and avoid poking out your eye.

The lying-down position is the steadiest and least conspicuous, and if the glass is drawn and slowly pushed forward, taking care to hold it always as nearly horizontal as possible and pointing in the direction of the deer, it can be used even in full sunlight without betraying your presence to ·the deer by flashing in the sun. Resting against the side of a partly raised knee, when lying on the back, is also good, especially for watching moving deer.

A way of “spying” which can only be adopted when there is no fear of sun, and when there is no danger of deer seeing you, or when they are already alarmed and further concealment is useless, is to stand up, rest your stick, crook downwards, in the sling of your telescope, (the empty case being drawn forward), and grasp the end of the telescope and top of the stick at the same time with the outstretched hand.

Clothing and Boots.

This is a most important matter, and means all the difference between getting a benefit to health from your shooting, or getting ill.

The main point is to wear nothing but flannel, and (if not much walking is to be done, leather,) but no linen of any description.

Besides, linen, even a white collar or cuffs, is very conspicuous. Always have your shirt of a neutral colour, so that if you have to take off your coat for any reason, such as gralloching or climbing when it is hot, you will not be conspicuous.

It is curious how some people do not understand this. I remember a man some years ago, (an artist too, who ought to have understood colour “values,”) who came deer-stalking where I was. He had shot small game all his life, but never deer. He had a dark-green velvet jacket with brass buttons, a big piece of leather over each shoulder pipeclayed white, and white fox-hunting breeches.

When the forester who had charge of him had got him out of sight of the house he said—

“We may as well stop at home as try to get you within shot of deer with all that white about you. I will either have to rub you with peat till you get a good colour, or take you home.”

The “gun” preferred the former alternative!

The tint used by the British troops in India and Africa, called khaki, I do not consider a good colour for stalking. It is much too light in colour for ordinary scenery; it may perhaps do in deserts, but I know on the tan of the arena at the Military Tournament in London it was very conspicuous.

Most beginners get their clothes too light in colour, generally a very light grey, which shows a mile off, but the wearer is never tired of explaining to you how invisible it makes him.

There is a grey-green called the Lovat mixture which is very good. I like my clothes to be the prevailing tint of the season, getting more yellow and red in it as the autumn advance. Of course white is best in snow.

I also find it is better not to be dressed entirely in one colour. It is more invisible, for instance, to have the jacket grey-green, the knickerbockers or breeches grey, the waistcoat heather colour (if in Scotland), than to have all of one uniform colour.

In the latter case you look a mass of one colour and your outline shows, but in the former case your colour is more “broken up,” as we artists say; one part of you represents a rock, another a tuft of heather growing on it with a patch of grass beside it, &c., and it is more difficult to separate you from the surrounding objects when you are stationary. Nature always does this in animal colouring.

In this way I have found brown, or even black leather gaiters, (representing peat or black stumps), quite inconspicuous as long as the wearer did not move. This, in fact, is the real secret of being invisible, keeping still.

Deer will stand, if the wind is right, within a few yards and never notice you, but if you make the least movement they are off at once.

I prefer all-wool underwear, varying in thickness according to the weather and time of year. A jacket hanging straight down, not fitting to the figure and not too long, merely covering the lower parts of one’s body sufficiently, which buttons close up to the neck and has a collar which can turn up and fasten with a tag, is the right kind to wear. The sleeves should turn over with a cuff, which cuff can be turned over the hands if cold and cover them to the end of the fingers.

For the legs I prefer knickerbocker-breeches, as giving more freedom to the legs when climbing, but they should not button very tight below the knee (knickerbockers, if worn, need not buckle below the knee at all), or, if you do not catch cold easily and there are not many thorns about, breeches cut off just above the knee, as worn by Swiss peasants, leaving the knee bare, are still better for climbing, and I think less apt to give rheumatism, as the knee dries as soon as it gets wet, instead of having a clammy bit of cloth against it all day.

The waistcoat should also button close up to the throat, and the jacket should button all the way down over it.

The pockets should all have button flaps to prevent things falling out of them. I have on the right shoulder a sort of epaulette strap, which buttons on, under which my telescope strap goes, so that the strap does not slip down when I am crawling, or when the weight of the telescope is not resting on the strap.

Cloth for these things can now be had which is semi-waterproof, like fox-hunting cloths, and will throw off a good shower.

For the legs I prefer woollen stockings fastened with a bit of tape some four feet long, which I wind round the leg below the knee and turn down the top of the stocking over this. If you wear a garter to keep up the stocking it cuts the leg and is apt to give varicose veins. By having the tape some three or more feet long you can wind it spirally round the leg, so that it gets a wider bearing surface and holds the stocking up without having to be as tight as a narrow garter. Some stockings have the turn-down top very elastic; this, if properly fitted, will almost keep up the stocking by itself. A pattern of neutral colours will be less conspicuous than one plain tint; if you do not mind the oddity, the stockings of different colours will be still more invisible.

For boots I prefer wide-soled shooting boots studded with aluminium or copper nails, as they are less liable to slip than steel ones; and I have a loop at the back, through which I pass the laces before fastening them, so as to prevent their slipping up and cutting your ankles. If you have to stalk over “noisy” ground, such as rocks, it is as well to have a pair of galoshes, or mocassins to put on when doing so.

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Deer Trackers - Practical Rifle Shooting - Walter Winans

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