A simple walk in the snow-covered woods last week inadvertently turned into a scouting trip for next deer season.
The three inches of white stuff made for perfect tracking conditions, and the deer left plenty of signs.
And those signs were great indicators into the role that habitat plays in deer management.
The first hint was a deer trail so heavily used that the snow had been packed down and, in spots, melted away to expose the forest floor. The trail spilled off a ridge with a nice stand of mature oaks and meandered across a stream to an opposite hillside.
I had to follow.
Very few deer tracks wandered off the narrow, worn trail as it wound through the open understory. After crossing the stream, the deer changed things up a bit.
The trail headed straight into a hillside that had been timbered approximately 15 years ago and had now transformed into a thick wall of saplings and brush. Once inside the dense cover, the trail dispersed and the deer tracks were scattered all over.
Judging by the wide-ranging tracks, I surmised that the deer felt safe inside the cover of the dense hillside, and were comfortable enough to meander away from the trail.
The cover afforded by the thick regeneration was a big reason why the trail led to the hillside, but not the only one.
The short brush and saplings held succulent buds within reach of the deer, providing a crucial mid-winter food source.
I fought my way through the dense growth, noticing deer tracks with virtually every step. Several solitary sets of tracks that were extremely large were made by bucks, I assumed, while the smaller sets accompanied by a single strand of bigger tracks were left by adult does and the fawns from the spring.
But once I made it through the timbered away, things changed.
The forest understory opened up and the deer tracks disappeared.
Aside from a set here and there, it was clear that this was an area the deer didn't frequent.
Why? Because it didn't offer much in terms of food or protection.
The acorns dropped by the mature oaks in the fall were either already consumed or concealed under the blanket of snow. The open understory – made even more barren by the snowfall – yielded no cover for the deer.
There was one exception.
In the middle of this mature forest was a thick patch of regeneration taking place where a large oak had been toppled by the wind some time ago. The fallen tree created an opening in the canopy that allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor, igniting voracious growth. Judging by the number of tracks, it was clear that deer had been congregating in this thick oasis of regeneration.
The findings simply confirmed that if you want to find deer, look for the thick stuff.
Still, there was something else that I found in the snow that was interesting.
When the deer traveled between the thick stands of regrowth, they steered away from the open forest and followed the stream in the hollow below.
Sure, it wasn't the most direct route, but the well-worn deer trails that paralleled the stream were evidence that the deer felt safer traveling in the hollow as opposed to the higher ground.
Sure, one day in the woods doesn't necessarily present an accurate record of where deer go, but it does offer a hint.
A hint that I will follow up on after the next snowfall blankets the ground.
Tom Venesky covers the outdoors for The Times Leader.