And The Deer Season Progresses – In Praise Of A Tracking Dog
November 21, 2013
So I thought maybe an update on the Hillside Manor Ranch deer season would be in order.
My deer season has been going reasonably well, despite a couple of setbacks during the archery segment. Seems like I am still a victim of target panic, and as a result I missed shots that I should have made… in two cases due to stupid range estimates and overcompensating for shooting angle, and in a third case due to a massive bicep cramp during my draw. Ouch. Fortunately, all of the misses resulted in clean arrows and no damage to the deer (excepting of course the brief panic caused by the sound of my bow and the crack of $12 worth of carbon arrow shattering on the rocky ground).
I’ve seen a lot of deer, and as I wrote in previous posts, I have “walked” a few for various reasons. As rifle season came on, it was accompanied by a huge drop of acorns, especially from the local live oaks. We also had a pretty wet season so far, and browse has been in awesome shape. Deer that had been rolling in to the feeder became more scattered, as they definitely prefer acorns and natural browse to the nearly empty calories of corn. This means we’ll have some fat, healthy deer around… and fat and healthy deer means good venison! It also means they’ll, hopefully, be less concentrated over feeders, which means less risk of disease. Anthrax is always a consideration out in this part of the country, and I’ve already heard about outbreaks in a couple of nearby herds of exotics.
At any rate, a week or so into rifle season, I decided to add a ground blind to “Kat’s stand”. Kat’s stand is out at the edge of the pasture, looking back up into the edge of the woods. I’d created it by putting in place a portable shooting bench, and then building a “nest” out of cedar trimmings. It works pretty well, but it was a little exposed. It’s hard to find a place that isn’t on an active deer trail… yes, that’s how many whitetails we have here… so it’s not uncommon to have a deer walk right up on the stand. The ground blind resolves that, and adds a level of protection from the weather as well.
Since I’d done all that work to set up the ground blind, and Kat was off in town for the day, I decided to take Iggy and sit in the blind for an evening “hunt”. I had low expectations, what with the brand new blind and the panting dog laying by my feet, so I was mildly surprised when a single doe meandered out along the edge of the trees. She would browse a bit and walk, hidden most of the time by the tall grass (did I mention we had a wet fall?). Finally, at about 75 yards, she stopped and raised her head for a look around. I leveled the crosshairs over the white patch on her neck, put my finger on the trigger, and let the Savage do the rest. The 165gr Barnes TTSX dropped her straight to the ground, so fast I almost thought I’d missed.
I led Iggy up the hill, but the deer was laying in the blood trail. I let him sniff around, to remind him what we were about, and then dragged her down to the barn to do the heavy work.
With meat in the freezer, I hung up the bow and rifle and put my attention to other things for a couple of weeks. With rifle season coming into full swing, I’ve been busy down at the smokehouse again, skinning deer for the processors. Kat and I also made a trip into Sabinal to look at some furniture (she picked out an entertainment center). I did some stuff around the place. But the hunting bug crept up on me, and as my work day wound down yesterday I couldn’t stand it. I had to be in the woods.
I grabbed the bow and headed up the hill. I’d been cutting the understory on the hillside, clearing out the cedar to open things up a little bit in hopes of creating some new hunting spots. As I made new paths, I noted the most heavily used deer trails, and decided that I’d set up to watch one of those trails for the evening. Honestly, I really just wanted to be in the woods and enjoy the end of the day. But I had an arrow nocked, and a sharp broadhead… you know, just in case.
And “just in case” happened. I was reclining on the hillside, listening to the squirrels and jays and enjoying the evening breeze when I heard another sound. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the ground here is rocky and rough, and it’s almost impossible for anything to walk quietly on it. The gravel crunches, and the rocks roll, and even the tiny feet of whitetail deer are audible from a hundred yards away on a quiet, autumn evening. I sat up slowly and picked up the bow.
I’ll be honest. At this point, I still hadn’t decided if I’d shoot. Of course, on the off chance that this was a big, mature buck, I’d take the shot. But more likely this was that little group of does and yearlings I’d been seeing all season. The youngsters are all weaned, of course, but I still didn’t really feel like killing one of the big does out of this group. I guess I’m a little more sentimental than I think sometimes. Regardless, if the approaching footsteps turned out to be this group, then I’d pass the shot. Likewise, I decided not to shoot the cowhorn or the little four-pointer that I’d been seeing on camera.
It had been a few minutes since I first heard the sound, and things were pretty quiet. I relaxed my posture a bit, and was considering leaning back again when a doe appeared in the path, about 20 yards down the trail from me. She was crossing, mostly broadside, following one of the deer highways that leads along an old fenceline. I looked and listened, and in a moment realized she was alone. She wasn’t an old deer, but she was mature… and pretty fat.
Almost unconsciously, I’d clipped the release to the bowstring as I watched her and debated the shot. I had cleared about a 15 yard opening and she was almost halfway across when I decided to take her. She raised her head as I came to full draw, but apparently didn’t see me behind my screen of branches, and when she turned her head to look off in the other direction, I let the arrow fly.
I heard the “thwack” of impact, but it didn’t sound like I thought it should. As the doe bolted, I could see half of my arrow hanging from her side, well back from where I’d aimed and at a strange angle. I didn’t like the looks of this at all, and my heart thudded into the bottom of my chest. Still, as I listened, she only ran a short distance through the thick brush before the noise stopped. Either she’d stopped to lie down, or she had run out of the woods and into my barn pasture. I couldn’t imagine a frightened, wounded deer intentionally running across hundreds of yards of open ground when there was so much thick cover available, so I was fairly sure she was still close.
I sat tight for another 30 or 45 minutes as the sun began to set, replaying the shot and the deer’s reaction. As it got darker, impatience got the better of me. Even though I knew better than to try to trail the doe so soon, I wanted to see the arrow, and the spot where the deer was standing when I shot. Maybe there’d be some answers there. I crept down the hill to the fenceline. I could clearly see the disturbance where she’d bolted after the shot. She was closer to the fence than I’d thought. Maybe the arrow clipped the wire, which would account for the strange angle.
There was no blood obvious from where I stood, but to see better I’d have to climb the fence or go around. I didn’t want to do that, though, because I was pretty sure the deer had gone to ground close by. I stood scanning for sign, and then noticed the back half of my arrow lying in the trail about ten yards away. That meant that at least half of the arrow had penetrated, which was a good sign. I took a step closer, and that was a mistake. With a wheeze and a crash, the doe, who had been only about 30 yards away, broke cover and took off.
Mentally kicking myself, I walked the trail back out of the woods and into the pasture. Down near the road, the horses were all stock still, staring at something. I followed their gaze and then caught my breath. The doe was at the fence, almost to the road. She was obviously weakened, but I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to cross the fence or not. I hoped she would bed down in a brush pile instead of crossing, but from where I was standing, there was little else I could do but hope.
I considered sprinting the 200 yards or so the barn to get a rifle, but I knew I couldn’t shoot at her with a rifle from there, since there is a house and a hunting camp across the canyon. If I chased her, I ran the very real risk of losing her on a neighboring property where I was not welcome. The only right choice was to go to the house, sit down, and give her time to expire. Since I wasn’t sure of the hit, it looked like it was too far back and that meant I’d be sitting for several hours.
Tom Petty has a song titled, The Waiting is the Hardest Part. He must have been a bowhunter.
To anyone who has never had to sit it out, waiting for an animal to expire, it’s difficult to describe the experience. Hell, there’s probably an entire blog post about this topic all in itself. I can’t speak for everyone, but the thought of the animal laid up, bleeding out and maybe in pain… or worse, wandering off to some place I can’t follow… well, it’s tough. Everything in you wants to jump up and take on the trail. You want the animal to be dead, and if it’s dead, then why not go ahead and go collect it? Circular, spiraling thoughts cloud reason.
So I went to the house. I made a short shot of whiskey and sat down to Facebook. I watched a couple of TV shows. I made the preparations for dinner. I paced. I stared out the window. It was probably around 5:00pm when I shot the doe. By 8:00, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Logic and reason told me it was too soon, but as so often happens, logic and reason lost out to emotion and impatience. I grabbed a headlamp and my SureFire tactical light, called Iggy, and headed out.
Last year, I had Iggy with me when I shot a buck. I saw the buck run into the woods and drop, and was confident he was dead. I figured this was a learning opportunity, and introduced Iggy to his first blood trail. He took to it like a seasoned veteran! Unfortunately, the dog got away from me, got there before I did, and jumped the deer (rumors of his death had been
greatly slightly exaggerated). The buck ended up crossing the pasture, tumbling over the fence (with Iggy at his heels), and disappearing into the thick creek bed on the neighbor’s place. Stymied by the fence, the dog finally responded to my yells. In this case, the deer was hit hard and I knew it wouldn’t go far, so I put the shock collar on Iggy (no more running off) and took him around the fence where he immediately picked up the trail and led me right to the buck.
I was counting on Iggy to remember those lessons.
We got to where I’d last seen the doe. While it took me a few minutes to find the first, sparse blood, it only took Iggy only seconds to realize we were on a hot trail. If you’ve ever watched a dog go from goofy, play mode to serious business, you’ll know what happened when he hit the first scent. He ran up and down the trail once, then went straight to the fence crossing and stuck his head through. I swear he was pointing the deer.
Fortunately, we’re friendly with the neighbors across the road so I wasn’t too concerned about trailing over onto their place. There’s a deep ravine there where the deer tend to bed, and it was an obvious place to expect her to go to ground. Still, it’s thick as hell in there, and the ravine runs over onto another property that is owned by another neighbor who jealously guards his privacy (and is a law enforcement official as well).
I took Iggy around to the road, and as soon as we hit the spot where the deer crossed, he went back to work. I couldn’t see a single speck of blood, even where the deer had jumped the fence. The road is caliche, which is a light-colored limestone, and blood shows up very well against it… but there was nothing. I began to think the dog was lying to me, but he was determined to prove me wrong. In a matter of minutes, he’d led me to my deer.
Without Iggy, I don’t know if I could have found that doe. Due to the scant blood trail she left, I’d probably have decided to wait until daylight to track her. When I woke up this morning, it was raining. What blood there was would have washed away, which means I’d have had to rely on little more than intuition and luck… or wait a couple of days and follow the buzzards.
You don’t hear much about blood tracking dogs in big game hunting. There aren’t many articles in the hook-n-bullet mags, and they don’t get much mention on outdoors television either (even though I expect they’re used more than we’re led to believe). But I have a new and growing appreciation for the whole idea.
And Iggy… he’ll be getting a little something extra when I butcher this doe tonight.