Whatever It Takes
I’ve been bowhunting for roughly 24 years now. In that time, I’ve lost three deer—one buck, two doe’s—each of which caused me sleepless nights and still make me cringe each and every time I relive those experiences. As experienced bowhunters, many of us have probably experienced losing a deer we’ve wounded. For those who have not, count yourselves as fortunate and pray your good fortune continues.
I consider myself an “ethical hunter”. I strongly believe in preparation—from practicing with my gear to best ensure I do my part, making sure my gear is in working order and preparing mentally for staying focused in the field. All that said, I seem to have a penchant for being “that guy”. That guy that if it can go wrong, it most likely will go wrong for me eventually. I’ve had enough “this close” encounters in the deer woods to write a novel—one filled with enough over-the-top experiences that it would appear to most to be a work of “fiction”!
Which leads me to November 2012. I had headed to deer camp a couple days ahead of a group of hunters that would be joining me for the next week—all eagerly anticipating the height of rutting action and hopeful of putting our tags on a big Illinois buck. It was a Saturday afternoon, a bit warmer than ideal, but the forecast was calling for a front to push through overnight, so I expected that deer movement might be good ahead of the front. The entire drive out to the farm, I was “brainstorming” on which stand I should hunt—factoring in firsthand experiences from previous hunts, wind direction, food sources, etc.
Once at the farm, as I was gathering my gear and throwing on my hunting gear, I decided on a stand that I had only hunted once before—the previous year (Figure 1). It was in an excellent area—at least “in theory”. In reality, though we knew deer liked to traverse the area, it was also a very “finicky” spot to set up. Basically, it’s a deep Y-shaped draw running North to South—with a steep spur splitting the main draw into two smaller draws at the South end. On the West sidehill of the main draw is hardwood timber, chock full of thick pockets of bush honey-suckle. On the adjacent East sidehill is a grown up pasture, with a brush-choked fencerow, littered with sapplings and small trees/brush of varying sizes. A finger of cut corn wraps it’s way around and above that East slope of the draw—with corn wrapping around the East, South and part of the West boundaries of that central draw.
(Figure 1) Site of treestand
Just the weekend prior, I had decided to roll the dice, and basically out of sheer “what if” curiosity—had decided to hunt from the ground on that East slope—the old grown up pasture. I tucked myself in against a small cedar as best I could, which would allow me to cover the bottom edge of the draw where the open pasture bottom met with the timberline just above the creek, the very spot where several deer had wandered through out of bow range previously. As I got to my chosen cedar tree, I decided I’d need to shoot from a kneeling position, and realized that several smaller sapplings could very likely present a problem by obstructing a potential shot. I slid down and snapped off a few branches from some of the sapplings to open up some clear lanes—then slid the 10 feet back up to my cedar, picked up my bow & nocked my arrow. I then turned to my right, where I had laid my pack just behind me. I was reaching back to grab my rangefinder from my pack, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye up the hill behind me. In a split second, just as I made eye contact, one of the largest bucks I’ve ever encountered locked up 15 yards behind me! He was heading right at me, and had caught me turning to grab my rangefinder from my pack. We had a brief staredown, just long enough for me to get a REALLY good look at the bone sitting atop his head.
So, that Saturday afternoon, I weighed that experience when ultimately deciding on my chosen set for that afternoon’s hunt. Though the buck obviously saw “something not quite right”, —per his reaction/body language, and the fact I knew the wind direction was in my favor, while the experience may have left him feeling “uncomfortable”, I doubted he was alarmed enough to avoid the area entirely. I was hoping that he was still in the area, desperately out of his mind in search of a hot doe, and might just venture back through that draw once again.
It was about 2:30pm when I finally climbed into the stand. I sat the next 2 plus hours seeing absolutely nothing! Finally, just as the sun had dropped low enough that the adjacent hillside had fallen into the shade, I looked up in the direction that the big buck had headed the previous weekend, and could just see through the limbs the silhouette of a deer dropping off toward the bottom of the draw. The deer was angling down the adjacent hillside in my direction, heading into the bottom. I lost view of it momentarily, then the deer just sort of reappeared in the bottom of the draw. At that point, the deer stopped right at the treeline, and proceeded to start toying with a scrape and overhead branch. As I got my binos on the deer, I quickly determined it was a young forkhorn buck.
As I watched him toy with the scrape, I noticed he would stop and look North down the draw. At least twice, I scanned back down the draw to the North, searching for another deer that might be drawing his attention. After about 3-4 minutes, he got bored with his scrape and started North along the bottom of the pastures edge. 10-15 yards from his scrape, I lost sight of him as the brush started to get thick. There was another gap about 15-20 yards further along the direction he was heading where an old cattle gate is located. I watched, expecting to see him as he hit that opening, yet he never materialized. Dumbfounded, I scanned the adjacent hillside pasture, assuming he had headed back up the hillside toward the cut cornfield above.
I never located him again. I settled back in, at this point figuring I had about 10-15 minutes of “good shooting light” left—and hopeful that that young forkhorn was the “signal” that the deer were on their feet, and it would just be a matter of time before I spotted the next. A few minutes went by, and it seemed to be getting darker much faster than I expected. With what I figured was “maybe” 5 minutes of good shooting light left, I heard something back in the direction where I had watched the young forkhorn working his scrape. It was dark enough now, that the brushy creekbed below me was starting to look like a black hole. Just as I started to think I was most likely hearing a squirrel—I caught just a slight glint of movement, and then noticed a rack moving in the brush. I quickly grabbed my binoculars and locked in on the deer. As best I could tell it appeared to be a pretty good buck, though the thick brush and fading light down in the creekbed made it difficult to tell just what “caliber” of buck I was looking at.
I don’t know in hindsight how—but I can only assume I was so focused on the buck across the creek in my bino’s—that I completely blocked out the fact that another deer had literally dropped in right below my stand from behind. I lowered my bino’s and turned ever so slightly to look below me. At that, a young forkhorn took two bounds out in front of me down into the creekbed, then turned and looked back up at me. I immediately got that knot in my throat, knowing that the gig was up, and it would be just a matter of seconds before the forkhorn would tip me off—surely setting the buck across the creek into “flight mode”.
To my surprise, the forkhorn just stood looking at me for a few moments, then turned and dropped off the bank and crossed the creek. I immediately turned my attention back to the larger buck across the creek, which was now locked in on the forkhorn crossing to his side. I watched the larger buck closely, and a couple of times, fully expected he was going to engage the smaller buck, as the forkhorn just stood there, twenty yards away, looking right back at the larger buck. After what seemed like forever, the larger buck apparently lost interest in his smaller foe, and finally committed to dropping off into the creek in my direction. At that point, I was in scramble mode. I hadn’t actually had a chance to really “study” him through my binoculars, both due to the thick brush and darkness of the creek bottom as well as the unexpected party-crashing forkhorn making his sudden entrance.
The buck didn’t really allow me much time to regroup, and I ultimately decided to just set the bino’s aside, and see how this last minute encounter played out. Once the buck hit the creek, he briefly looked as if he might turn to his right and walk straight down the creek to the North where the fork horn had crossed. No sooner did he look right, when he turned slightly left and continued across the creek. The buck was by no means in a hurry, seemingly studying each step in what was from my vantage point a painfully slow process, and by this point, I was trying to honestly judge whether I had enough light to make the shot!
Finally, he committed to a direction that was going to bring him right up a small, but steep, creek bank that would put him right in front of me at roughly 20 yards!
Just as he topped the bank, I got my first “better” look at his antlers. It was too dark and playing out too quickly to take time to “study” his rack, but I saw enough to decide I would take the shot if/when it was presented. In that moment that he topped the bank, he had to turn slightly to his left to start up the trail toward the top of the ridge. I had made up my mind, and was already moving to full draw.
Due to that slight but sudden left turn as he topped the bank, I had—at best—a 3-4 yard window before he would be safely behind a large cedar tree! As he cleared the top of the bank, he turned into a “seemingly” perfect quartering away angle (Figure 2). I immediately mouthed a feint “murp”, which instantly stopped him—and my arrow was on the way. The arrow impact, and corresponding “smack” actually caught me off guard, as the arrow covered the distance faster than I had expected!
(Figure 2) Location deer was standing for initial shot
At the sound of the impact, I watched the buck lunge forward and immediately out of sight behind the cedar. I scanned up the side of the ridge above me, and caught just a couple glimpses of him in some gaps between several additional small cedars as he raced toward the top of the ridge. Though it seemed like forever, in only seconds, everything went silent! I fully expected that he’d make the top of the ridge, which was yet another grown up pasture that dropped off into a brushy draw on the other side that filtered down to a pond on the West end.
I waited a few minutes, slowly packed up my gear, then climbed down from the stand. Not until I hit the ground and unhooked my bow from the pull rope did I realize that I may very well be handicapped in any effort to bloodtrail the buck! By choice, I do not typically use a flashlight! Call it paranoia maybe, but I’ve grown more and more uncomfortable over the years with using “light” when entering and exiting my stands. The flipside of that choice is that I do from time to time, unintentionally of course, come to find that I have failed to “pack” a light. Just so happened on that evening, as I searched through my pack, this turned out to be one of those times ...
I was able to find my arrow about 3-4 yards from where the buck stood when I took the shot, but in the dark, couldn’t really study it for “sign”—but did realize that my broadhead and insert were missing from the business end of the shaft! I headed back to my truck to get a flashlight, figuring the time it would take to do so would not only help settle my nerves, but also allow a little extra time for the buck to possibly expire. Upon returning to my truck and locating my flashlight, I took the time to study my arrow, and immediately realized it was “not good”. The business end of the arrow was missing, and there was blood only about 4-5 inches down the shaft! At that point, those previous experiences having lost deer quickly came rushing back. Clearly, I did not get a pass-thru, worse yet, I had no idea why the end of my arrow (broadhead included) would be missing ... ?
I decided to leave everything but my flashlight at the truck. I headed straight back to the point of impact. Before I dropped off the ridge headed back to the spot where the buck stood when I took the shot, I found a bright red pool of blood in the grown up pasture just below the top of the ridge—about 50-60 yards from the point of impact. From there, I decided to ease on up to the top of the ridge, and see what other blood sign I might find at the top. I ended up following blood across the top into the grown up pasture, and could actually see blood further ahead as the buck had crossed the backbone of the pastured ridge and dropped off the other side heading down into the brushy draw that led to the pond.
I had a decision to make. Go by the poor sign from my arrow and back out, or continue to follow a surprisingly “better than expected” bloodtrail? Experience made the call pretty easy actually ... I backed out. Without actually seeing the arrow hit the deer, combined with the the “troubling” condition of my arrow—I fully assumed that the initial shot resulted in a less than “ideal” hit. I reasoned that even in the event I actually managed to track the wounded buck down, there was simply no way I would have the opportunity to take a “finishing shot” under darkness. So the only “right option” was to back out and return the next morning to take up the trail.
I ended up joining up with a couple other friends from Georgia that evening, retold the tale—discussed all the “possibilities”—and decided I would head out early the next morning to take up the trail as they headed out for their morning hunt. A late night and a lot of tossing and turning followed, and I eventually woke up around 4:30 the next morning, grabbed a quick bite, and headed out ahead of sunrise back to the farm. I arrived before daylight, and spent the time waiting in my truck replaying everything in my head.
Finally, I climbed out of the truck, and started anxiously gearing up for the track. I decided to pack only the “essentials”—or so I thought. The forecasted front had in fact passed through overnight, and the air had a welcome cold bite to it—with the ground now covered with a heavy frost! I was hopeful that the buck had laid down for the night, and if not expired, had at least stiffened up in the cold, and would lay tight for the morning. After gearing up, I quickly headed back to the last spot of blood I had found the previous evening, just atop the ridge in the grown up pasture. Upon getting back to the last blood from the night before, I quickly realized the heavy frost was NOT an ideal situation. Not only was the frost heavy enough that the blood had more or less crystalized, making it harder to locate in the tall grass in the grown up pasture, but I also realized that as the morning warmed with the climbing sun, that frost would likely quickly melt, leaving me in a situation very similar to trying to bloodtrail a deer in rainy/wet conditions!
I quickly refocused, and pushed forward. Surprisingly enough, I was still finding good blood another 20-30 yards down the grassy hillside heading for the brushy draw. There was a lone tree ahead, just above the “line” where the old pasture turned to a thick, nasty, brush-choked draw. That tree would prove to be the point where the trail would get much more difficult, and much more interesting. As I was following the blood, I momentarily glanced up, and realized the buck was heading right at the tree. At that point, I stopped, and stood up, grabbed my bino’s, and stepped aside far enough to see around and past the tree down into the brush below. I was hoping that maybe I’d catch the telltale “white flash” of the belly, throat or rear of the buck in the draw below. No luck.
I put my eyes back down, and decided to take up the trail again. I took about two more steps from the “last spot” and suddenly found myself searching for any sign of additional blood! Nothing. So, I sort of stood in place and scanned the ground all around me for any sign of another “next drop” of blood. For what seemed like forever, I just stood there, taking one step at a time one way, then one step the other, constantly scanning the ground—every blade of frost-covered grass—for ANY sign of blood.
After what was likely 4-5 minutes of scanning a 10-15 foot radius around the last confirmed drop of blood, I had been hunched over for long enough that my lower back was stiff to the point of discomfort. I straightened up, and just sort of scanned on down the length of the old pastured hillside down toward the bottom where the pond was located, hoping that I’d luck up and spot the buck laying ahead of me.
No luck, again. I took a few deep breaths, and just sort of studied my surroundings. I had no real reason to believe the buck would have turned to double back up the hillside and across the top of the ridge, as he had by this point gone approximately 100 or so yards in a fairly straight line from the point of impact. My gut instinct was that he had continued around that lone scrub tree and down into the brushy draw. With that in mind, I went ahead and eased around the tree on the right side, back in a slumped over “stalk”, and eased one step at a time down toward the brushy draw ... slowly studying and scanning each blade of grass around me as I went.
I went another 20-25 yards past that small tree without ever finding another drop of blood! I was at this point not far from entering the thick and nasty brush that would continue down the length of the draw til just before opening up again at the pond on the West end. I honestly can’t recall why, but something was just nagging at me that I had missed something, and now contrasting my initial gut reaction, I just didn’t feel confident that the buck had in fact continued straight down into the brush! The one most likely factor was that I had gone from a surprisingly good bloodtrail, to a point where I had covered a fair distance in the same heading without finding even one single additional drop of blood!
I turned and went back up the hill to the last spot of blood. I then went with “gut instinct #2”, and decided to slowly start off to the right, which would lead down the grassy hillside toward the pond. I figured the “final destination” pretty well had to be the pond, so under the cover of darkness and/or with the push of adrenaline from the shot, maybe the buck decided on the path of least resistance, and rather than have to make his way through the brushy draw below, instead side-hilled it directly down toward the pond. Sure enough, roughly 10-15 yards “hard right” from the last blood, I found the tiniest droplet of blood—almost unrecognizable due to the heavy frost—on a single blade of grass!
I stood back up, and looked straight ahead and did a quick study of the view ahead. This new line was in fact leading straight toward the pond at the mouth of the draw. I could see several feint “trails” through the grassy pasture, though because much of the grass was laid over, the trails were not initially obvious. Worse yet, there were multiple trails, criss-crossing every so often. As well, the tiny blood droplet I had just found was not actually on any of those trails. But, I decided to simply focus on the nearest trail that headed in the direction of the pond, assuming from previous experiences that the buck would eventually work onto one of those trails and hopefully follow it down to the pond. I decided to move straight ahead, angling ever so slightly toward the nearest trail ahead that would ultimately lead me down to the pond. I had gone another 5 feet or so before I found more “frosted blood” smeared on a couple blades of grass.
About 10 yards further, I had finally intersected the nearest trail heading down along the side of the hill in the direction of the pond. I found a few more spots of blood, then found a heavy pool about a little further up the trail, which I assumed was where the buck had momentarily stopped. Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate any more blood sign over the next 10 yards or so following that trail. Rather than follow the trail forward, I went back to the “pool”. From there, I once again crouched over and scanned all around me. Finally, I spotted a few very small spots of blood about 5 feet up the hill from the pool of blood—off the right side of the trail. Rather than follow the trail leading to the pond, the buck had apparently veered to the right, and had started heading back uphill angling toward the top of the ridge. I didn’t find this to be too comforting to be honest. I looked ahead, and saw a few more drops of blood ahead, still continuing back uphill. I knew that if he continued along this new line of direction, he’d only need to go another 80 or so yards before he’d top the hill, and hit the treeline into the offside hillside that was completely choked with bush honeysuckle! At that point, it would be nearly impossible to locate and/or follow such a feint bloodtrail through the bush honeysuckle … much less do so in anything resembling a “quiet” manner.
As I slowly stepped off the next 5-10 feet, constantly scanning the ground for any sign of blood ahead, I quickly realized I had once again “gone cold”. I could not see any sign of blood ahead of me along the new line the buck had taken. I once again started scanning all around me, and noticed a very feint low spot ... sort of a drainage running from the top of the hill down into the brushy draw. I could just make out a feint trail where the deer were crossing that low spot, which was the only sign I’d noticed that there was another trail that paralleled the previous trail I “thought” the buck was going to follow down to the pond. I eased on over to the little drainage, and sure enough, found blood. The buck had gone back uphill for all of maybe fifteen yards before cutting to his left and heading back West.
I looked back toward the “last blood” I’d left the night before. I was maybe 100 yards from that spot, though it felt like I had already gone a half mile in a crouched position. I then dug my phone out of my pocket, and looked at the clock, only to realize it had taken just over an hour to cover that short distance! I took a couple of deep breaths, and then refocused on this new “trail” leading ahead of the blood I found at that shallow drainage crossing. I hadn’t gone another 10 yards when I found pretty good blood again. Another 5-10 yards further, and I realized that the blood sign was actually starting to improve, however unlikely that might seem considering the previous roller coaster of a bloodtrail. A few yards further and I was actually on a fairly steady bloodtrail. Not the “red carpet treatment” by any means, but at that point, I was finding blood every step or so rather than every 5-10 yards. Things were starting to look a lot better, and I was actually able to follow the trail without having to crouch over.
As I got close to a small gap in a narrow “line” of trees, I suddenly heard brush busting to my left down in the brushy draw. I knew at this point I was likely within 80 yards of the pond ahead, though I couldn’t actually see it due to the line of trees and thick brush between myself and the pond. Upon hearing the movement in the draw to my left, I stopped and looked across the draw and saw two deer come to a stop on the adjacent side. I could instantly tell one was a small deer. Then I spotted the second, a mature doe, standing just across the other side of the draw looking back at me. At that point, though I never feel great about busting deer, I was relieved to be able to confirm it was not the buck I was trailing. I waited a few moments, and allowed the deer to move on up the adjacent hillside before taking back up the trail.
I finally reached the small gap in the treeline just above the pond. I had still been on a fairly steady “line” of blood, so I stopped as I reached the gap, and did a quick scan of the pond, and listened for any sign of movement in the brush and timber around me. Not seeing anything obvious around the pond, and not hearing anything that sounded like deer in the immediate area, I put my head back down and started looking for the next spot of blood. I assumed by this point that the buck would simply walk right through the gap and continue on down to the pond below. I was standing maybe 40 yards from the edge of the pond at that point. Surprisingly, I did not find any blood ahead as I started to ease through the gap. I stopped after about 10 feet of not seeing any more blood, and then did the ever so familiar scan in the immediate radius around me. Nothing. I then eased back to relocate the last blood, then repeated my slow scan from there. To my surprise, the next spot of blood I found was not only “heavy”, but was 10 feet to the right of the trail passing through the gap in the treeline!
The buck had for some reason veered sharply to the right again and headed straight toward the brush rather than continue through the gap toward the pond! The blood was another “pool”. I was honestly surprised by the amount of blood in that spot. By this point, the frost had started to melt, and this particular pool of blood was the first that I would describe as “fresh” blood, rather than the frosted/crystalized “bloodtrail” I had been following all morning down through the old pasture.
I looked around, and noticed more blood just inside the brush on the ground. This concerned me. Not only was this new course NOT following my “gut instinct” that the buck would continue down to the pond—but he had now entered the brush, which would lead into the thick nasty mess of bush honeysuckle! If you’ve never had the privelege of trying to traverse through a thicket consisting of bush honeysuckle, there’s likely no good way for me to describe it that would do it justice! Quite frankly, it’s a loud, thick, tangly mess of pure torture to try to traverse through ... or even “visually scan” through for that matter!
I had just gone from “things are looking up”, very quickly into “this is NOT good” mode!
I literally had to kneel down, and peer under and through the bush honeysuckle mess in the direction the buck appeared to be now heading. Sure enough, up ahead, I could see more blood in the leaf litter. I eased my way through, and once again was surprised to see more blood than I expected. At this point, there was blood on the ground, as well as smeared all over the leaves of the bush honeysuckle!
I eased my way through the tangled mess, keeping my eyes focused intently on the ground, limbs and leaves ahead. I would guess I covered another 10-15 yards, practically crawling at that point, before I finally hit a spot where I realized the thicket had opened up a bit. I glanced up, and realized the buck had taken a small loop back toward the pond, and could see that I was just behind a small line of bush honeysuckle right above the edge of the pond. As I got my bearings, I immediately looked back down for the next sign of blood, and was relieved to see he’d veered back toward the pond!
I cleared that last little line of bush honeysuckle and stepped out into the opening and was standing just above the North edge of the pond. I stopped just long enough to scan the area around the pond, hoping to see him laying there in the open. No luck. I then looked ahead, and located the next spot of blood. I was back in “grass”, which was now wet from the melted frost. The next few spots of blood I located in the wet grass had the buck heading for the corner in the direction of the ponds levy—just ahead of me and slightly to my right. Right before I got to that corner of the levy, I realized I was no longer seeing any blood ahead! I stopped and started to scan carefully ahead, fully realizing the now “wet” grass/conditions were not working in my favor! Standing there for maybe 5-10 seconds scanning the grass ahead for any sign of blood, I suddenly heard something right behind me, turned around ... and there was the buck!!! (Figure 3)
(Figure 3) Location where the buck had bedded down at the edge of the pond
He was maybe 15 feet from me. He jumped up, and was now running the opposite direction!
I had stood in the wide open twice and looked around that pond! Just seconds before I had done so while standing no more than 10-15 yards from where he had been laying—and never saw any hint of the buck!
In hindsight, it actually made sense. Due to a brutal dry spell (drought even) this past Summer, that pond had dropped down to being maybe a 1-2 feet deep. This had resulted in a “ledge” dropping off about 2-3 feet into what used to be water, but was now a muddy flat that met the new “waters edge”. Due to that, I can safely assume the buck was laying right at or even in the edge of the water, most likely with his head down—which kept him out of my line of sight due to the ledge blocking him from view initially. Amazing creatures! He had laid there for probably 30 minutes or more, most definitely within hearing distance of me—and easily within sight of me as I thrashed around in the surrounding thicket, making all the racket of a raging bull in the process. I would imagine he very likely had seen me as well, yet he had still laid there as I walked within 15 feet of him without having any clue he was there!
Not until I stopped at the corner of the levy did he finally decide he was simply too uncomfortable with our close quarter’s game of “hide and seek”! So, as I spun around, I watched him run straight away, then just round the end of the pond, and come to a dead stop not 40 yards away. He was standing in some tall weeds in a shallow point of the pond just looking at me.
I quickly regained my composure, and immediately went to my quiver to grab an arrow. That’s all the movement he needed to see to decide to put more distance between us. So, as I was loading the arrow onto my rest and nocking it, he continued around the bend of the pond, then stopped across from me, just off the point of the pond. There he was, standing perfectly broadside at what I estimated to be 65-70 yards. (Figure 4)
(Figure 4) Location where the buck stopped and offered a follow-up shot
Here is where that previous comment comes into play about me being “that guy”. I had been clear of mind enough the night before to back out, with one of the strongest arguments to that point being the reality that I would not be able to get off a “finishing shot” if in fact I located the wounded buck in the dark. Yet, with a full night to sit around and rehash the scenario with two hunting buddies, and all morning to prepare and “gear up” for the task, there I find myself within view of the buck, only to realize I left one very important “tool” back in the pack at my truck. My rangefinder!
So, I now have an arrow nocked, and a wounded buck standing in the wide open staring at me—yet in all the excitement of this sudden “second encounter”—I’m having a hard time quite frankly making a confident estimation of the yardage, while having to accept the fact that my rangefinder somehow didn’t register on my mental checklist of important “gear” to take along for the track ...
So, with a 60-yard pin, and “best guess” estimate of a 65-70 yard shot, I pulled the bow up, pulled to full draw, eased in and “tried” to be mindful to pull that bottom pin up a touch high. Amazingly, for what seemed like “way too long”, the buck stood there stone still while I fumbled through the process of nocking my arrow, pulling back to full draw, settle in, and tripping the release.
He never moved until right as my arrow sailed within milimeters of his belly-line.
At that, the buck lunged forward, then went a whole 15-20 yards further, and simply slowed to a limping walk! He limped another 10 yards, then—and I’m being absolutely serious—simply laid down (Figure 5) ...
(Figure 5) Location where the buck bedded back down on opposite side of the pond
Yes. I said he LAID DOWN! So, now he’s just been jumped up, shot at a second time, and is now directly across from me, LAYING down on the other side of the pond! And he’s laying there just watching me as I stand there in disbelief!
It may have been 15 minutes—or 15 seconds—but whatever it was, at some point it occurred to me that I should probably nock another arrow! At which point, “that guy” then recalled yet another brainfart I had committed. I don’t know why, but for some reason, I left my truck with only one arrow in my quiver. It’s a 4-arrow quiver! One of those arrows of course was broken the previous night from the initial shot. A second one I had taken out of the quiver the previous night when I realized that one of my broadheads had at some point been in contact with mud, and was caked over with a nice, hard coating of dirt/mud. So I had taken it out of the quiver with the intention of cleaning that head up before reloading it—of course, I somehow managed to forget to reload it in my quiver. The third arrow was now laying about 70-ish yards away from me across the end of the pond. The fourth arrow, I honestly have no clue where it was or how or when it found it’s way out of my quiver to begin with!?
What I did know is that I was now standing across the pond from a bedded buck I had wounded the evening before, with an empty quiver!
At that point, I realized I needed to take a deep breath, slow down and think through my options. I took the time to actually put my bino’s on the buck as he was laying there looking at me. Due to him laying down, I couldn’t see his body. I was pretty well certain I had shot under him just a few minutes earlier, but in all the chaos prior to that shot—and right after—I honestly hadn’t taken the time to study him to try and locate where my shot hit him the evening before. What was apparent was that he was clearly hurt, and even in a clearly dire situation, with a hunter right on top of him, he was laboring enough from that first shot that even if he wanted to—his body was apparently telling him it couldn’t carry him as far away from danger as he might prefer!
This was the ultimate catch-22. On the bright side, I had in fact found the buck, and was furthermore standing within plain sight of him “right now”. On the “less than glorious” side, I was within plain sight of a buck that was clearly suffering, yet now found myself in a position where I had no “easy” solution at hand to bring the whole ordeal to a close. At that point, I had two options. Try to slip back out the way I had come, backtrack my way back to my truck to reload my quiver and grab my rangefinder, then work my way back, hoping he’d stay put ... or ... ease my way around the pond to try and recover my arrow from the previous shot, and hope the broadhead was still in working order—then try to put a finishing shot on the buck from there.
From where my arrow laid to where he was now bedded down was maybe 30-40 yards. I stood there for who knows how long weighing those two options over and over. All the while, we stood there just staring at one another.
Finally, having now given him every opportunity and every reason to high tail it out of the county, the buck just didn’t seem to have it in him to move any further than absolutely necessary. With that in mind, I decided to at least try to slip over to my arrow and see if I could get a finishing shot in him without drawing the whole ordeal out any further. I had taken maybe two steps when the buck decided he had seen enough, stood up, and hobbled the remaining 40 yards past the far corner of the pond levy, and headed into the timber. I stopped and watched, making note of where he entered the treeline, and watched him until he crested the point of a small ridge and went out of sight.
A few things became instantly obvious to me right then. First, from where he entered the timber, he would have only been 100-150 yards from the property line! I didn’t want to push him any further in that direction, so I knew I needed to come up with a plan B for how to try to get on top of him before he left the property. Unfortunately, as with much of the farm, the tract of timber he had just entered was completely choked out with bush honeysuckle, so I knew it was going to be extremely challenging even trying to sneak through the thick brush to locate him without him busting out at the first hint of me attempting to ease through the that thick mess, much less actually get close enough to hope to get a finishing shot on him.
I’ll be honest, as he got out of sight into the brush, it occurred to me that the odds of me finishing the task were extremely slim! Fortunately, I’m stubborn enough, and had seen enough of him suffering from his condition, there was little thought of giving up. I knew I had to at least try to locate him again and finish this!
I went and retrieved my stray arrow. The KillZone was fine, though it was covered in dirt. I decided to head back to my truck and reload a “full” quiver. I also decided to call a friend that was coming into camp sometime that morning to see what his ETA was. If he were close, I figured it likely best to simply wait for him to show up, and then devise a plan to have us approach the area from two sides in an effort to either pin him down, or at the least, turn him back from a direction that would have him crossing onto the neighboring property. Once at the truck, I loaded up the quiver, then made the call. Mike had actually just left his house, which meant it’d be at least two hours before he’d arrive. I still considered waiting for him to arrive, but questioned whether the buck would stay put that long with all the commotion I’d caused in the previous two hours.
The end decision was that I would try to slip into the woodlot where he’d gone from the top of the ridge. I was hoping that by coming in above him, as unlikely as it might be due to the thick tangle of bush honeysuckle, I might be able to spot him bedded as I slipped down the ridge. I knew I’d have to move slow, take my time, be as quiet as possible, while keeping my eyes scanning slowly every possible opening for any hint of the bedded buck. After a short walk, I arrived at the edge of the woodlot on the South end. I eased just inside the treeline, right to where the ridge broke over and started descending. Just off the top of the ridge was a large tree that had fallen. I eased up, and stepped up on top of the fallen tree, hoping a little extra elevation might allow me to peer over some of the bush honeysuckle to get a better look at the ridge and draws below.
Didn’t take long for reality to set in. Even from the higher vantage point, my max range of visibility was at best 30 yards. As I stood there just slowly scanning what few openings I could find in the brush below, I suddenly hung up on a spot about 25 yards ahead and just slightly to my left. It was one of those moments where you just catch a glimpse of “something” that makes you stop and take a little closer look. Sure enough, I made out the back end of a bedded deer! For a moment, the heart started ticking a little faster. Though I wouldn’t have expected the buck to climb the ridge that far in his condition, I certainly hoped I was wrong, and that the deer I had now located would in fact be “my buck”.
A second or so later, and I was able to make out the outline of the ears. The deer had me pegged, and was obviously looking right at me. Didn’t take but a split second longer before I was able to determine it was NOT my buck, but rather a lone doe. We had a brief staredown before she finally had had enough, and busted up out of her bed, and headed straight away from me down the spine of the ridge. The amount of racket she made busting through the bush honeysuckle was not at all a favorable sound. The thought hit me immediately … “well, if he WAS bedded below … chances are he won’t be for much longer” …
To say my heart sank would be an understatement. Whether the wounded buck necessarily “wanted” to move was a moot point I figured, with the sudden chaos of that doe busting down the ridge, I didn’t figure he’d be too keen on the idea of waiting around to see just what it was that had startled her. At that point, I decided my chances were pretty much slim to none that I was going to be able to slip through all that brush without alerting the buck to my presence—even IF by some slim chance he hadn’t already vacated the area upon the doe signaling the alert.
I took a few deep breaths, then decided I’d ease my way on down, and basically just work my way over to where I had seen the buck enter the woodlot earlier. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was simply no way I could slip through the thicket of bush honeysuckle in any manner that anyone would try to describe as "quiet".
I ultimately worked my way down to the last spot where I thought I’d seen the buck before he crested the ridge. I then turned West and headed back toward the pond. I went all the way over to where the buck had been bedded after the previous “follow up shot” attempt. Where he had laid, there was quite a bit of blood. I turned back, and followed the trail he had taken back over to where he’d entered the treelike. I could not locate any additional blood there. I went ahead and eased on back into the timber, scanning the leaf litter, hoping I’d find some hint of blood left behind. Finally, about 15 yards into the woodlot, I found a lone, tiny speck of blood! At that point, I was pretty well resigned to the reality, that short of a miracle, it was highly unlikely I’d actually locate the buck again. But, I decided I’d at least try to find some hint of where he had gone, in hopes of maybe finding where he’d crossed the fence onto the other property.
I painstakingly eased ahead, at that point, literally having to crouch over as far as I physically could to squeeze my way through (below might be more accurate) the bush honeysuckle. I went another 10 yards past where I’d found that lone speck of blood, and found a spot where the leaves had been kicked up revealing fresh dirt underneath. I figured it was 50/50 as to whether the doe had kicked those leaves up as she bailed down the ridge—or it was sign of the direction the buck had taken. He was laboring heavily on his right front leg, so I figured it was just as likely that he might have stumbled while trying to gain ground to get over the ridge as it was the doe had turned those leaves over. I stopped there, slumped over, and just scanned the leaves all around me hoping to find any hint of blood. Sure enough, I managed to locate what appeared to be some blood ahead of me through two small bush honeysuckle bushes. I eased ahead, and confirmed it, i had actually managed to get back on his bloodtrail!
Once again, it was just a few spots of blood, but by simply going with my gut that he’d continue along a straight line as much as possible, I looked ahead and saw yet more leaves turned over, indicating his likely direction of travel. I eased on through the thicket towards the turned up leaves, and found a fairly good amount of blood just past the turned up leaves. I was now on the backbone of the ridge, and assumed that this was likely where the buck had stopped momentarily upon reaching the high point of the ridge. I looked ahead again, and though I could only see about 10-15 yards ahead through the thicket, I once again noticed a line of leaves turned up just ahead of me. I slipped through the thick brush toward that “next sign”, and just past it, I got tangled in some briars. I was hunched over as far as I could get without basically falling on my face, trying to work my way loose of the briars I’d become entangled in. After a few seconds, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to just ease out of the briars, so I just decided to burst forward and essentially rip my way loose. Just as I broke free, I stood up and realized I was in a small clearing. Just as I decided to take advantage of a bit of free space to stretch out and stand up fully, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and looked in the direction of the movement—and “what the …”—there, not 10 yards ahead laid the wounded buck!!! He was just laying there, facing straight away from me, looking over his back dead at me … (Figure 6)
(Figure 6) Location of bedded buck next to fence. Final shot taken here.
To say it caught me entirely off guard would be a major understatement. I just froze. I don’t know how long I stood there in yet another staredown with him, but I finally got my bearings back, did a quick survey of the situation, and realized that I had stumbled upon a true “miracle” situation!
At that point of the ridge, for whatever reason, someone had decided at some point to run a length of “grid panels” across the ridge rather than a standard barbed wire fence. The buck had unknowingly run himself into a roadblock, as the grid panels were quite a bit taller than the average “fence”—and laboring as he was, and undoubtedly exhausted—I can only conclude that as he reached that grid-fencing … he just didn’t have the strength or energy to jump it. Instead, he apparently just chose to bed down and hope for the best.
Still, the fact that he had laid there the entire time I was “brush busting” my way through the bush honeysuckle, to the point where I ended up less than 10 yards from him was simply amazing to me. I know for a fact he had to have heard me coming. I would assume without any reasonable doubt that he likely saw me well before I saw him. Yet, for whatever reason, even despite not attempting to jump the grid-panel barricade in front of him, he still could have easily just turned and followed it to the West, and would have eventually reached the barbed wire fence that marked the property line. At that point, he could have simply crawled under the fence …
For whatever reason, he chose not to do so, and rather just stayed bedded despite the fact that I was slowly … and noisily … moving right at him.
Upon sizing up the situation, and realizing that it was very unlikely he was going to attempt to jump the fence, I quickly realized I needed to prepare to take a shot before desperation set in … and the buck simply had to react and attempt to flee. I actually composed myself enough to realize I needed to turn and get in the “ideal” stance, nocked my arrow, and clipped onto my D-loop. All the while, I’m watching the buck while he’s watching me! I stood there, ready to hit full draw, and quickly ran through my options. Wait him out? Whistle or hoot at him in hopes of getting him to stand up? I honestly wasn’t quite sure of exactly what to do, I just knew I didn’t want to take the only shot that was being presented to me “as is”. There was simply no way I was even going to consider taking a shot at him bedded, facing straight away from me!
Just as I was about to whistle at him in an attempt to coax him to stand, he turned and looked away from me briefly, looking back toward the pond. No sooner did he turn and look toward the pond, and he turned right back and looked at me. He stared at me briefly, then turned straight away from me. I instantly realized then, that we’d reached that stage where it was likely a matter of seconds before the “flight” instinct more or less forced the buck to attempt to evade.
Then, it happened, he turned back and looked at me for probably less than two seconds, then turned away again as he started to stand up.
It took much more effort than I expected, and he struggled to stand up. I honestly had expected that he might take advantage of one last burst of adrenaline, if only by way of instinct, and come up out of his bed unhinged. Rather, he painstakingly struggled to his feet … then as if to say, “I’ve had enough” … he turned perfectly broadside to me and just stared right back at me. Instinct took hold, and without even thinking, the sound of my bow literally jolted me! I immediately saw a large wound open up just behind the buck’s shoulder as the KillZone® hit its mark. The buck whirled, and amazingly busted forward in an attempt to jump the grid-panel fencing. He came up short of enough height to clear it, and his front legs caught the top of the fencing, causing him to flip over the fence.
I just stood there almost frozen watching it all play out—as if I were watching a scene straight out of some action flick. The buck flipped fully in mid-air and landed about 8 feet on the other side of the fencing, jumped back to his feet, and then tore out away from me down the point of the ridge. No sooner did he get to the bottom of the ridge, he turned to the left, took 2-3 more steps and stopped. I saw his tail end drop, he staggered side to side, and then just fell over. He kicked and thrashed for a second or two—then settled and laid motionless … (Figure 7)
(Figure 7) Finally, after 3 plus hours of "trailing", the finishing shot put the buck down here
I just stood there, looked skyward and said “thank you” out loud.
I honestly could not believe that I had just succeeded in finishing what had appeared to have all the makings of yet another personal horror story—a wounded deer—never claimed! Instead, I got a break this time. Whether by determination or sheer stubbornness, I finally managed to close the deal on “my buck”. There he laid, no more than 60 yards away.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and looked at the time. In what ultimately came out to a distance of somewhere around 300 yards from where I picked up “last blood” from the previous evening to where I took that final and fatal finishing shot—there were just over 3 hours of multiple high’s and lows gone by!
As I finally made my way down to the fallen buck, I took the time to roll him over and look at the wound from the initial shot the previous evening. I had caught a glimpse of it earlier that morning, just before he hobbled into that woodlot. What I found was that the arrow had somehow hit the buck in front of his shoulder, penetrated just briefly and exited at the front of his neck … ? I stood there for quite some time replaying the whole “moment of truth” from the previous evening over and over in my head, and simply could not figure out exactly how my arrow could have possibly hit the buck in front of his shoulder.
My best guess is that at the shot, the buck must have tried to wheel around, and spun just enough back toward me in doing so, that the arrow hit him as he attempted to turn—hitting him in front of the shoulder. No matter how many times I replay the shot in my mind, I simply cannot find any other rational possibility as to how my arrow could have hit the buck where it did without him having turned into the shot.
Either way, after having lost 3 deer in years past—once it was all said and done—it didn’t matter much as far as the “how” or “why” of that first shot. I was simply grateful and relieved that I had been fortunate enough to find myself in a position to finish the task.
The KillZone® D6™ head put the buck down clean and fast
There were many lessons to take from such a challenging experience. But, of them all, the one thing that stands out most in my mind is simple … no matter how slim the odds may be … now matter how hopeless such a situation might seem at first—or a half dozen times after—never give up! Follow the trail. Slow down, breath, take a break if you need. But focus, and stay with it!
If you hunt long enough, chances are you will eventually find yourself on a bloodtrail that may seem hopeless—but the most important thing is to learn from those less than perfect experiences—and walk away from them being able to honestly say to yourself that you gave it your absolute best effort!