Wednesday, November 17, 2010

After the Shot: The Rollercoaster of Blood Tracking

Could someone please tell me how, with all of my super-heightened senses in a tree stand, I can hear every falling leaf, spot a mouse hopping along at 30 yards and know instantly when the wind shifts direction by three degrees, yet a 50-pound deer can slip inside shotgun range for heaven knows how long before I finally realize it's there?

Those were my thoughts as I watched the yearling nibble peacefully at the edge of a pine stand where it met the creek bottom I was watching the first morning of last weekend's hunt in eastern North Carolina. It was to be a deer and duck hunting bonanza back on my old stomping grounds with my friends, Brian and Nate. The ducks didn't cooperate on opening day, but the deer were on the move.

Having already put a diminutive button buck in the freezer earlier in the season, I wasn't keen to shoot another. Had I stood up in my stand, I probably could have had a clear shot, but I chose to wait to see if Momma would show herself. She did; about 15 minutes after the yearling had moved away, but I only caught a glimpse of her slinking across the trail behind me before she disappeared into the pines.

The following afternoon, I thought I had it all figured out in a small opening near the edge of a bedding area. The wind was right, but the timing was wrong. With 15 minutes left of legal shooting light, it was too dark in the thicket to see anything, so I packed up my gear and eased out as quietly as I could. I knew that if I could make it out to the edge of the woods without being detected there would be enough light to shoot by on the access road and the field beyond. I came out of the woods in a crouch, looked right - nothing, looked left - a dark shape in the road. Through the scope the shape became a deer - another yearling. I throw my age and sex preferences in a potential target out the window when I'm still hunting. When I'm on the ground, it's "jungle rules."

The deer was 70 yards away and unaware. I'm comfortable with my slug gun out to 50 yards, so a stalk was in order. I crept out into the open when the deer had its head down. I shuffled a few steps and stopped when the deer raised its head. Shuffled a few more when it bent back down to feed. In less than a minute, I had closed to 50 yards and was preparing to shoot when the yearling turned broadside. Before it did, another deer lifted its head from the tall grass in the ditch along the path - Momma. I turned my attention to the doe, but her body was hidden. When both deer went back to feeding, I closed in to 40 yards. The doe stepped out into the road and I put the crosshairs on her shoulder and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, the doe jumped, took two hops and then raised her brilliant white tail in alarm as she bounded into the woods. The yearling jumped too, but only to the edge of the woods where the doe had gone in. I put another shell in the single shot Harrington Richards 20 gauge, held steady on its shoulder and fired again. The deer hunched up and ran crazily down the trail before it dove into the ditch. Then it was gone.

It is the moments after I shoot, as the darkness crashes down upon the landscape, that I fear the most. Did I hit my target? Did I hit it well? Will I find my deer tonight? It's amazing how much detail you can remember after the surge of adrenaline has run through your body after taking a shot at a big game animal. I played back the mental tape. The doe reacted as though I'd hit her, but when she put her tail up I started doubting myself. It is popular belief among hunters that a mortally wounded deer will keep its tail down as it makes its death run. A white flag bounding away indicates a miss or a non-fatal wound. I also remembered listening after I made my second shot. I could hear the doe crashing through the woods for a short while to my left, then there was silence.

The yearling, on the other hand, seemed like a no-brainer. A deer running with its tail down and in obvious distress is a dead deer. I had no doubt I had more venison to add to the freezer. I walked over to the spot where the deer had been and turned on my headlight - an embarrassingly inadequate model made by Petzel that I never seem to have the extra cash lying around to replace. There was heavy blood on the trail, from the yearling I assumed, but as I followed it a few steps, the trail went into the woods where the doe had gone in. Well, well ... I guess my first shot had been true.

Buoyed by the obvious sign of a good hit on the doe, I backed out onto the road again to pick up the trail of the yearling. I expected to find blood easily, as the deer had run 10 yards down the path before jumping into the thick stuff. There was nothing. No matter, I thought, I'll just go back to the truck, meet up with Brian, who'd been hunting another part of the property, grab my MagLite and the game cart and come back to collect my bounty.

Back at the parking area, Brian told a spine tingling tale of an encounter with a very large buck that was running several does around and around the block of woods he was stalking. He was dejected that he'd missed his opportunity at the deer of a lifetime, but glad that I'd shot twice. I told him my story with exacting detail and he chucked me on the shoulder. "Way to go buddy. Sounds like two dead deer to me."

We returned to the scene and picked up the blood trail of the doe with ease. The sign was ample and easy to follow. After 50 yards through heavy brush, we found her stone dead at the base of a tree. I dragged her out, with Brian busting a path ahead of me. Then we took up the search for the yearling.

I found a speck of blood just up the path from where the deer had been standing, but there was nothing more. We searched the road with our flashlights. Back and forth, back and forth. Brian asked me to tell him the story again and I did. "I'll bet it never made it out of the ditch. Just go in there and walk until you trip on it. I'll cross over and check the other side just to be safe." I jumped down into the wall of dog fennel and blackberry brambles and started slogging. For the most part, the vegetation was so thick there was no sense searching with the light - just keep going until I kick it with my toe. But I never did. I went far beyond the spot I'd seen the deer go in and all the way back and then some, just to be sure - nothing.

I started doubting myself. Honestly, I'd started doubting myself long before that. Maybe I'd just scratched it and it had run off with merely a flesh wound. The more we searched, the more I became convinced that my slug had missed anything vital. But I kept replaying the scene in my head; it didn't add up. "That deer is dead Brian. It has to be." "I know it is buddy. We'll find it." An hour and a half passed this way and still nothing more than that first pin prick of blood on the trail. If I'd let him, Brian would have stayed all night looking for that deer - he's like that - but I couldn't. Finally, I told him I was satisfied that we'd made a reasonable effort to find the deer. We should pack it in and go home for a late supper. Tomorrow morning, I suggested, we'd bring Brian's yellow lab, Maple, to the spot and see if she could lead us to the deer.

Brian was setting up the game cart to strap up the doe while I played my flashlight in the grass beside the road for the hundredth time. "Brian! Where's last blood? I think I've got new blood!" It was new and it led us on an excruciating search across 200 yards and another hour and a half. Just a speck every eight feet or so. Half the time we were just casting blind. Then I found another spot, but this time there was vegetal material in the blood - I'd gut shot the yearling.

A gut shot, though fatal, is undesirable for many reasons; the wound bleeds sparingly because the exit hole is often plugged with intestine; it can take more than an hour for the deer to die, during which it can travel long distances; and it often means a portion of the meat will be contaminated by digestive and intestinal fluid. The margin for error is small. Three inches further back from your aiming point behind the shoulder and you go from a routine heart and/or lung shot and recovery, to an agonizing track for a gut shot deer.

This track was every bit as difficult as anything I'd been told or read about. It was brutal. Just when we thought we'd lost the trail for good, another blood speck would gleam in the light. To be honest, we really had no business ever finding that deer. We finally came up against the wall when we were still 40 yards from the opposite tree line. There was nothing left, no matter how hard we looked. Grasping at straws, Brian lined up the direction the deer had taken with the blood we'd found and pointed his light to the trees. "I'll stay here with last blood. You go in there and see if you can't find it just inside the trees." Dubiously, I followed his suggestion. I hated leaving the blood trail we had, but there really wasn't anything left to do. A few paces inside the young pine stand, I found my deer. It felt like a miracle.

The next evening, we called Nate to come be a pawn in Brian's chess game against the big buck that had given him the slip. We took up positions on separate lanes that ran through a thick stand of regenerating pines, myrtles and turkey oaks where Brian had seen his monster. Nate and I were to remain silent - I from my climbing stand and Nate and Brian on the ground. From my perch, I could see Brian's orange hat below, just 20 yards to my right, but our areas of influence were completely different.

At about 5 p.m., Brian pulled out his grunt tube to try to draw the big boy into the open. Within seconds, I heard footsteps approaching on the deer trail to my left. It seemed like hours, but probably was only a couple of minutes before I saw white antlers moving through the heavy cover. I couldn't believe it - old mossy horns himself was coming my way. The buck was cautious, and I had plenty of time to raise my binoculars to get a better look. It obviously wasn't Brian's buck. I could count three points on one side of his rack and the other side seemed puny, deformed. I thought about what I'd do if he stepped into my lane. The range would be just 30 yards. Before the hunt, we had discussed what we'd do if a lesser buck or a doe presented itself for a shot. This was Brian's show and he gave Nate and I the green light to shoot anything we wanted, regardless of the fact that it would undoubtedly ruin our chances of seeing the big one.

As the buck stepped closer, I decided I'd take him if I could. The boys would be disappointed if I didn't. Meat is meat. You can't eat antlers no matter how big they are. When his shoulder came clear, I shattered the silence and any chance we had at the buck of our dreams with a shot that drilled the deer in the shoulder. I saw him hump up and dive into the cover across the lane. A good hit, I was sure. Five minutes later,  legal shooting light ticked away and I climbed down from my tree, still shaking from the excitement that never seems to get any better, no matter how many kills I make. I'm not sure I ever want it to. Brian came over all smiles. He said that in the stillness, he heard me pull the hammer back and managed to stick his finger in his ear right before I shot. We waited for Nate and then I told my story. Brian had covered the trail he was watching immediately after I shot to make sure the deer didn't make it across - it hadn't. In fact, Brian had heard the buck crash down in the scant distance between us. It was just a matter of picking up the trail and following it to him.

Ah, but the trail ... Even though I knew my shot had been true and even though we knew the deer was dead, less than 30 yards away, the trail was sparse. Specks of blood again; not the type you'd expect from a perfectly placed slug. The track was widely spaced and difficult. After the trials of the previous night, I was dejected thinking about another gut shot. If it hadn't been for the boys there to help me across the tough spots, I might have just sat down in disgust. But life on the blood trail can turn for the better with every step. After making it 25 yards with very little loss of blood, the buck's wound finally opened up and we followed a scarlet swath the final few steps to my prize. He wasn't a big buck - that I already knew. He ended up being a 1-1/2 year old, basket-racked 7-point; four classic points on his right and three gnarly ones on his left. He probably weighed around 115 pounds.

Three deer down in three days; a great trip wouldn't you say? I would too, but the lessons I learned on the trail were just as important as the venison I brought home. Trust your instinct. If you think you made a good shot, you probably did. There's blood, or hair or fresh dirt turned up somewhere out there that will tell the tale. Persistence, persistence, persistence. Have a powerful light with you whenever you take to the woods. A crappy headlamp is a disservice to you and the deer. Most importantly, get help from friends who will stick it out to the end. Encouraging words alone can make all the difference when you're searching for that one, tiny drop that will lead you out of despair and into euphoria. Happy hunting.


  1. This is a brilliant blog, found it through a comment you left on Agrariansta. I have put a link to you on my blog so others can enjoy it too.

  2. Glad you found those deer, man! Always makes my stomach turn when i can't see where they fall. You Easterners need to be pretty good blodd trackers. Out West we just watch with binoculars. There are advantages to hunting in chaparral...


  3. Thanks Hippo! Very cool to connect with someone from so far away. Likewise, I am enjoying getting to know your work.
    Hank - You said it brother. Of course, a well-placed shot can do wonders for your blood tracking skills (or lack thereof).

  4. Jamie,
    Thanks for stopping by at the Chronicles! Your blog looks great, and fine writing too. Nice job recovering all your game, it takes lots of perseverence!

    Best Regards,
    Albert A Rasch
    Back Home from the Afghan Front

  5. Thanks Albert. Your comment has made my day. Stay safe.