Last year during archery season, I was chasing my first buck. I had just received permission on a new piece of private land. It was a smaller parcel of about 20 acres. Size notwithstanding it did have a few things going for it. Essentially 16 acres of the property was dense cover. No one else was hunting it during bow season. It bordered a 200-acre working farm and neither one of the two other neighbors appeared to be hunters.
Gathering up my gear, I got out to the property as soon as possible to do some scouting. Walking through the trees, I hung my trail camera and proceeded to look for the best spot to put up my hang-on stand. I selected a spot near a bog and maybe 60 yards from the open fields of the neighboring farm. At about 4:30 I got into my stand, hauled up my gear, and proceeded to wait. It was late October and bucks had been starting to chase so I ripped some grunts from my call.
For about 30 minutes, nothing happened. Then I heard it, the faint rustling sound that can only be a deer walking through the leaves. I grabbed my bow from it’s hanger and waited. A good-sized doe came walking towards my stand. I waited—silent—still—careful not to move. The sound of more leaves rustling could be heard. Everything that happened from here on out went very fast.
A spike came busting through the trees chasing the doe. I had already decided to take any legal buck so I put him in my sights, drew back, and let the arrow go. I was shaking the whole time. The shot was rushed and the arrow flew left of the deer and made a loud crack as it hit a tree and stuck in. The sound of the arrow echoed. Instantly, a giant mature buck came busting through the trees. It was the biggest buck I’d ever seen in person. My heart was ready to jump out of my chest at this point. I steadied myself, put the sights on him and waited for him to turn.
As soon as he quartered towards me I took the shot, aiming at his front right shoulder. THAWCK. The unmistakable sound of the steel broadhead connecting with flesh. The animal staggered, reared back, and then sprinted towards the farm fields. I knew enough to wait for 30 minutes before doing anything. As the sun started to set I visually marked where I’d hit him and waited. After 30 minutes had passed, it was now dark. I turned on my headlamp and climbed down to survey the scene.
It didn’t take long to find where he had been hit. The leaves were splattered with blood and my arrow was among them and had passed through the deer. It seemed like a clean shot. I used some reflective tape to mark the scene, recorded the exact spot on my GPS, and headed back to my car. Driving home I called several different friends to come out and track this deer with me.
It was about 11pm when we arrived back in the woods. We quickly found my treestand and the spot where the buck had been hit. Cranking on our flashlights we began following the blood trail. It wound through the trees for a hundred yards and then led us into the farm field. I was nervous about entering the field without permission so I stayed on the other side of the trees while my less scrupulous friends forged ahead.
Soon, one of them yelled that he had something back on our side of the trees and we all gathered up to see what it was. About 400 yards from where the buck had been hit, there was a deep impression in the grass and pooled blood. That would be the last blood we found that night. After that the trail went cold. We searched for another hour with flashlights but could not find another drop of blood past that point. To follow the trail further would have required permission from the neighbor. As it was 1 am at this point, we called off the search for the night.
The next morning, I woke up, drove back to the property and began knocking on doors. By 1pm I had secured permission on all three of the neighboring properties to continue my search. I got back into the woods. I never found another drop of blood or a sign of the buck. I called every professional dog tracker I could find, but everyone was busy tracking other deer that week. I spent the entire day grid searching the property, but to no avail.
The next day my wife volunteered to come help me search. We walked every square inch of the 3 properties, but never found another trace of the deer. I continued to search every day for the next week. I had lost all hope of recovering any usable meat from the deer, but still felt obligated to find out what had happened. Mid-week there was a heavy rain. The next day, of course, I finally got ahold of some certified dog trackers, but was told that the rain had eliminated any chance of finding the trail.
I felt sick to my stomach. The idea of this giant, majestic deer dying in some hidden corner of the woods was almost too much to take. I didn’t feel like hunting again until the end of October when I decided it was time to get back out in the woods.
They say that if you haven’t wounded an animal you haven’t been hunting long enough. It is just that unavoidable consequence that comes with hunting. If you’re lucky, you learn from the experience and it doesn’t happen again.
I learned several things from this experience that I would apply to all future hunts. One, secure permission from the neighbors before you hunt to track a wounded animal. Two, if you’re not sure about the hit on the deer don’t start tracking that night. Come back in the morning. Three, a wounded deer can travel up to a mile or more depending on shot location so don’t shoot unless you have a good, clean shot.
A month later I did end up getting my first buck on opening morning of firearm season. I hit the 3 point with a rifle right in the shoulder and he didn’t make it 50 yards.