Winslow had tracked a deer to a known location on a training run before, but he got his first bona fide recovery call this evening, as my buddy Matt shot a buck with a bow. The deer ran across a big field and stopped at a fenceline not far from Matt’s truck. When he returned to the truck, the deer stood up and jumped over the fence into a patch of moderately dense woods. The track was four hours old when we got there.
We started Winslow at the bed spot at the fence line, handed him over the fence and he started on a line more or less perpendicular to the fence. Pretty thick stuff. After a while he seemed to lose it and doubled back to where we started. Then he almost ran parallel to the fence until we reached a stone wall and another fence. Jumped that and he took off parallel to that fence, so he’s now literally going in 180 degree the opposite direction that he started in, but he seems on a mission so I go with it. For like 500 yards. By the way I’ve only seen a little blood at the fence line bed spot, nothing since. I think maybe I see some deer tracks in a cow pie but at this point I think maybe he thinks we’re just going for a cool walk.
We start getting near a herd of cows and the whole thing doesn’t seem right to me, so we turn back. Matt has to go trick or treating but I really want to find this deer so I stay, and start over, this time from an earlier known spot where Matt had left his arrow, bloodied, where he saw the deer cross a path cut through the field.
Winslow smells the arrow and takes off in the opposite direction from the known fence line spot, and I think, well maybe he’s tracking it backwards to the hit spot. Which would be cool too, at least I’d know he was on the trail. Still, mind you, I have seen no blood but for the known bed.
He accelerates, excited, as we enter the woods. He’s now traveling parallel to the cow pasture track he was on earlier, only about 30 feet away on the other side of the fence/wall. But he’s not really sniffing or tracking. I’m starting to wonder again if he’s just on a walk. I ask him, “Buddy, does this seem right? This doesn’t seem right.” But then he says, “Hold my beer,” cuts left, thirty yards, then left again and kicks up a vulture feeding on the deer he’s been after the whole time.
It’s not the deer we were after, I’m afraid. And maybe it’s not such a grand accomplishment to scent track a deer in the woods that a vulture probably found from two miles away. But I feel vindicated that he was so far off track for a reason. Vultures and flies already had a good start on this poor boy, who was either poached or ran a good distance from wherever else he was shot. But he is not our deer. Still, it’s the first deer Winslow has ever found on his own, and I thank Matt for letting me take these antlers as a little trophy for him.
We’ve really walked a long way already, but I really wanted that deer. So we went back to the arrow and I pointed Winslow in the right direction. Again, he moved with purpose, confidence and speed, on a path of suspiciously, conveniently short grass to be our deer. I mean, wounded deer don’t want to trudge through four foot tall grass, but dachshunds sure as hell don’t want to either. As we approached the original fence line bed, he turned right and had tracked, with 100% accuracy, directly to my truck.
We watered down and thought about leaving, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I brought him back to the fence bed and found a specific leaf with a specific spot of blood on it and pointed to it. He seemed utterly uninterested, either because he was already aware of that bloody leaf, or he was just done. But I put him over the fence and crawl over myself, and try again.
He takes off, more methodically this time, but along the same line he originally tracked. I don’t know if he’s smelling his own track, or me, or Matt, or the deer, but I put all those in descending order of likelihood.
Low branches, brambles, thorns of course, every yard takes half a minute. We had gone maybe twenty yards and I’m about to call it and I’ll be damned if he didn’t track directly over the first bright red blood spot I’ve seen all day. But that’s it. Just one drop.
Then he just starts walking up a tree. I’m like, “Well now you’re just fucking with me.” But blood trackers do say “Trust your dog” a lot, so I do actually look into the tree for the deer. He is not there.
So for the severalth time, I declare we are done searching. Then he puts his nose down and goes again. Ten more minutes, twenty more yards, I’m pulling him back and about to text Matt that we’re done and he finds another spot. It’s on again. He’s speeding up now, and blood is visible in larger quantities and more frequently.
He moves faster and faster and now I’m starting to think, maybe we’re going to find this thing! We get to another fence with a smear of blood and what looks like a small tuft of white fur on the barbed wire. He definitely passed through this space. It’s a cool thing, to have no idea where this deer went, and then work really hard to get to one very specific place where he absolutely has been.
But we cross over and all traces vanish. Not a single drop on the far side of the fence. We really looked, but unfortunately finally had to call the search.
But I’m thankful to my friend who gave us a chance. And I’m proud of my boy who found a deer we didn’t know was missing, and after walking four miles on short little legs, and after having lost interest long since, continued to find traces of blood along this track that were very few and far between.
I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.
And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.
Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.
Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.
Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.
Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.
A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.
I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.
I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.
So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.
Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.
As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.
Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!
I stood quietly, waiting for enough light to see and already feeling like it wasn’t going to happen today. I wanted this to be the year that I finally get my first real buck, and with a late rut and a favorable weather pattern, this, the first day of rifle season, was as good an opportunity as I could have hoped for. But at first light I already found myself emotionally throwing in the towel. Maybe I was talking myself out of wanting it so much.
The first time I ever entered the woods with a rifle, after waiting all morning I watched a large buck walk towards me, a hundred yards out but in heavy brush. I lined up the sights on my Dad’s Model 94, but didn’t have a clear path. I waited for a better shot, but a better one never came. The deer either sensed my presence or smelled my fear, and turned and swiftly went back the way he came. Ever since that day I’ve been a little bit haunted by my decision. Should I have taken the shot when I had it? Would I feel better if I had taken the shot and missed? Will I ever look at a buck over a rifle barrel again? I would forget all about it for months at a time, but when deer season rolls around I’m haunted, just a little, all over again. And as the sky brightened I could talk myself out of it no more: I did want it.
From my position I had two areas to watch: A creek bed in a wooded area to my left, and a hillside off to the right where deer may come up from a ravine largely hidden from my view. Before dawn, I heard movement from the creek bed so that area was getting most of my attention. Two friends, Ken and Chris, were hunting with me, set up near an adjacent field. Chris had just taken a shot and we were texting back and forth when I looked up and saw a deer on my hillside. I raised my rifle to get a look through the scope and saw a nice rack, maybe eight points. But he had already passed the first perfect backstop unnoticed and was now too near the crest of the hill for a safe shot. My heart was pounding just having him in my scope.
He approached a lone pear tree at the horizon and I watched him, magnified 7X, as he stood on his hind legs and rattled the low branches with his antlers. He then got to work scraping the ground around the trunk. After a few minutes of buck stuff, he did exactly what I needed him to do. He slowly moved left, down the hill, giving me a good backstop. So, heart pounding, arms shaking from excitement, nerves and fatigue from watching him through the scope for several minutes, I pushed the safety forward and tried to breathe.
A hundred and forty yards, I would later pace off, is ninety yards farther than my Winchester Model 70 was sighted in for. I steadied the rifle, put the crosshairs on his heart, let out a breath I had been holding for an unknown span of time, and squeezed the trigger.
The round left my muzzle traveling at about 2,850 feet per second and reached him in a blink. It first took about a pea-sized nick out of the fleshy part of the back of his front leg, then passed about two inches below his chest and buried harmlessly into the soft earth. I cycled the bolt and heard the metallic ting of the spent round ejecting as the next round found the chamber. When I reacquired my target in the scope, he had run back up to his pear tree. He was looking back at where he was standing when I first shot at him, occasionally picking up his nicked leg and shaking it. He was putting weight on it, and I have no doubt he was perfectly capable of running away. If he had run to freedom, we both would have deserved that outcome.
Again he was too high up the hill for a safe shot, there was nothing I could do but wait. As I waited, I watched him through the scope and thought about him. Probably three and a half years old, most likely born not far from where he now stood. He has avoided hunters and motor vehicles and illness. And now his life hinged on which direction he would step next. Up the hill to freedom, or down.
He stepped down the hill three or four steps, and the second shot hit him in the ribs. A bit farther back than I would have liked, but good enough to hit a lung and put him down. My heart was racing still as I took the scope away from my eye and slung my rifle on my shoulder. The distance between us felt like a mile now. As I walked toward him, I felt a flood of emotions all at once. Grateful for the opportunity, and to live where I live, and for my friends who were now driving up the hill to meet me. While part of me is saddened at the taking of a beautiful animal, I am so thankful for this deer that will not only provide food for the table, but will also put to rest some internal doubt. I will honor and respect him the best way I know how, by remembering him at the meals he provides, and by being careful to continue to take the very best shots I can take whenever I’m hunting. They won’t always hit their mark, but I owe it to these animals to try my hardest.
Speaking of respect, two hundred miles south, my good friend Josh Williams was having a special day in the woods as well. Three weeks ago, Josh was hunting on a friend’s land during archery season when he encountered a spectacular beast of a buck, but he, too, decided not to take the shot. His respect for the animal and care to do the right thing was repaid when he returned for opening day of rifle season. He hunted the early morning with no luck, and was calling it a day when he saw the buck again. Less than an hour after I got mine, Josh brought down this beauty. My sincere congratulations to Josh on this well deserved buck. Read more about his outing here, and while you’re at it, sign up to follow Josh’s great blog.
NOTE: This post contains graphic hunting content. If you are offended by deer hunting, hunting in general, car accidents, blood, humor or amazing feats of manliness, consider yourself warned. Click here to leave this page.
So, this happened.
My wife called from the car this morning on her way to a horse show. A buck, she said, had run into her car about 20 minutes away, across the river in Maryland. She was fine, but the car had fairly extensive damage on the driver’s side. Her biggest concern, however, was the deer. She could see in her mirror after it happened that he had injured a hind leg. He was up, though, and appeared to have limped into the woods on the far side of the road he was crossing.
Since she had to continue on her way, she had me contact our friend Chris, who lives near where the accident occurred, to ask if he was available to see if the deer was along the roadside injured or dead. Chris answered my text right away. I asked him to call me and he replied to give him ten minutes.
He needed a few minutes because he was dealing with a deer encounter of his own and needed time to climb out of a tree stand he was hunting out of. Moments before I texted, he had taken a shot at a buck with his crossbow. He knew he hit the deer (he later found the arrow, broken and bloodied), but it kept running. It ran to the edge of the field, through a tree line, halfway across the highway and straight into the side of a car. My wife’s car.
We briefly discussed the astronomical odds of a person shooting a deer and then having that deer run into the car of someone they know whose first reaction is to then call that very same person. But then we had things to do. Chris said he would investigate the scene and look for the buck, while I was heading to the horse show to switch vehicles with Sandy. Immediately following the impact she got a signal indicating low air pressure in her left rear tire. If there was a slow leak, I’d rather she have a flat tire in the comfort of our garage than in a field in Maryland.
As I approached the scene I saw Chris and his wife, Anna, on either side of the road. I pulled alongside Chris, who handed me the tail light assembly from Sandy’s car and reported that there was no sign of the deer. But the woods there are extremely dense, you can’t see more than a few yards in. We decided we owed it to the deer to search the woods as best we could.
Even with a couple deer trails as entry points to choose from, entering the woods here was daunting. Dense, thorny brush intertwined with heavy vines blocked progress in every direction. Early in the search Anna decided she needed to turn back and change into more durable clothing, meanwhile Chris and I pressed on slowly and with no real plan. Instead of searching where we knew the deer entered the woods, we were limited to looking where the brambles and thickets opened up and allowed easier passage. Like the old joke about the drunk looking for his keys under a lamppost, not because that’s where he dropped them but because the light was better there. We were not optimistic about finding him.
I finally reached a bit of a clearing and was able to work my way back toward the road near the entry point, when something caught my eye through the brush about twenty yards away. Lying down, head up, still as a statue, eyes trained squarely on me, was our buck. I called Chris over and we weighed our options, which were limited. We were on private property, so he couldn’t bring the crossbow over and reshoot it. Here is the view from the “clearing.” The buck is in the red square, enlarged in the following image.
My plan, which seemed pretty solid, was for the two of us to spread out a bit and approach the deer. If he had anything left, our presence would force him back through the brush to the road, where he would either get hit again, or, ideally, cross the highway where Chris could legally put it down with the crossbow.
Chris countered with an alternate plan: “I’m going to run over there and jump on him.”
“Um, that’s not a good idea,” I said.
“Oh I don’t know, wounded animal with antlers and all that. He could really hurt you.”
We discussed, briefly, Phase II of the plan: What To Do Once You’re On Top Of The Injured Wild Animal. Chris said, “Once I get there, it’s over.” Hindsight being what it is, I should have asked for a more detailed outline of Phase II. But to be honest, it never really occurred to me that Phase I would be successful. So after an admittedly flawed review process, Chris’s plan was adopted.
Anna arrived back at the road and we called to her to stay put. If the buck ran across the road she could keep an eye out on where he went. Chris readied himself to put his plan into action.
He chose his line, dug his feet in like a runner in a track meet, and paused. Then without warning he lunged forward, reaching top speed in two or three strides, a camouflaged blur thundering through the brush, closing the distance between man and beast before the deer could react. Almost. Chris stumbled as he reached the deer, allowing enough time and space for the buck to jump clear. But his escape was short lived as Chris righted himself and lunged again, grabbing antler on his way down. Now completely out of view, I could only hear their meeting. And the sound was not pleasant.
There was a thud, like a tree falling to a forest floor of fallen leaves, immediately followed by, well, I’ve heard bucks make noises before, but this could only be described as a growl. Not a whitetail deer growl, but like a Grendel from Beowulf growl. When I reached the pair, Chris was lying on top of the struggling deer, grappling both antlers.
Chris then asked me a question that made me further question the soundness of his Plan: “Hey, um, you wouldn’t happen to have a pocketknife on you, would you?”
I didn’t. But I did have my phone, so I offered assistance in the form of taking a picture.
We communicated the details of the situation to Anna waiting on the side of the road. She was probably only fifteen yards or so away, but there was a wall of brush so thick you couldn’t see through it. She could only hear us talking and Grendel growling, I can only imagine what bizarre images came to mind. Come to think of it, her mental images couldn’t possibly be more bizarre than the scenes actually playing out in those woods. Anyway, she would have to run back to the house and retrieve a knife while Chris held down the fort and I found a navigable path out to the road. Some more ungodly grunts came from the area of Chris and the deer, though I can’t say for sure which of the two was making them. Later, Chris told me that during his extended wrestling bout, the buck looked like this to him:
Anna quickly returned and the deer, after a decidedly unpleasant day, was finally dispatched. Only then did we have a chance to piece together all the details. The arrow, aimed at the buck’s body, must have deflected off a branch before striking him in the forehead. He ran thirty yards or so before the arrow shaft snapped off on a tree. He then ran into the road where his day got much worse very quickly. The impact with Sandy’s car shattered his left hind leg and most certainly caused extensive internal damage. While he was not long for this world after that, I feel strongly that dispatching him there saved him a long day, and possibly more, of suffering.
Back across the road, holding the souvenir of one hell of a deer story in hand, Chris made a most generous offer. He held out the buck’s head to me. “I want you to have it,” he said.
While I appreciated the gesture, and yes it was a team effort of sorts – Chris shot it in the face, Sandy further disabled it with her Chevy Cruz, I found it in the woods and Anna delivered the tool both Chris and I should have had with us – I of course had to decline. Those antlers belong on Chris’s wall. I’m not sure anyone has ever earned a deer as much as he earned that one.
My deer season began about a week ago when, while hunting on my property I slipped, fell and slid on my ass down an embankment of jagged shale. The slide, which took place as I was stealthily working my way down to a well traveled deer path behind my house, took long enough for me to go through every curse word in my extensive list and part way through the list a second time. When gravity was done with me, I sat on the ground amid crumbles of shale trickling down the embankment around me, and had two immediate concerns: My rifle, and my ass. The rifle, a Winchester Model 70 I purchased after last season and had brought into the woods for the very first time, was slung over my shoulder behind me when I fell. Miraculously, it was not scratched (although the scope was scuffed pretty badly). My ass, I could tell by the excruciating, take-your-breath-away pain, was not as lucky.
I gingerly limped around the woods until dark, but there were no deer to be found. I’m sure my earlier ‘stealth’ sent any deer in the area into the next county. I tried again the next day, and the next, and was starting to feel like that nice deer wasn’t going to come this season. But I have venison recipes I want to try. I bought two extra trays for my dehydrator and ordered four new flavors of jerky seasoning. I needed a deer.
Every evening this time of year, like clockwork right before dusk, between 7 and 12 small deer enter our front paddock nearest our barn, and work their way down the hill where they graze until dark. I’ve watched them for weeks and rarely have seen a medium sized deer, let alone a large one. But I wanted meat in the freezer, so I decided to take out the biggest of the small ones. Last night I took the Model 70 to the far corner of the paddock, hid behind a pine tree and waited.
Right on schedule, they arrived. A few about the size of my dog, Finn, came first. Then some others followed. Darkness was falling, but there were a few still on the far side of the fence I couldn’t get a good look at, even through the scope. I thought one might be larger than the others, so I put the scope on her and waited till I could get a good look. I had just about decided she was the one, when I heard a truck coming down our driveway. Hay delivery. It was almost dark so I had to either take the shot, or wait for another day. I took the shot.
The hay arrived, the deer left, and after an extensive search for any sign of a hit, I determined I just plain missed. As I put the Model 70 back in the safe I looked at that scuffed scope and wondered if maybe the fall knocked it out of alignment. I would have to sight that in before I brought it out again.
This morning, I reluctantly took a backward glance in the mirror to ass-ess the damage from the other day. A shocking, dark, multi-colored bruise had taken over the entire surface of my butt cheek. And every time I sit down I am reminded of my less than successful attempts to stock my freezer with venison. So when I got home from work this evening and saw a couple good sized doe in the paddock, I went to the safe, reached past the Model 70 with the suspect scope, and grabbed my Winchester Model 94. My father’s rifle. Short and thin and heavy, this rifle feels good in my hands. I fed two 30-30 rounds into the loading gate, eased the hammer down and walked outside to the paddock. Five deer had worked their way down the hill, about 75 yards away. They saw me and heard the dogs in the yard but they see people and hear dogs all the time. They were far enough away they were not concerned with me.
Seventy five yards out, with dusk rapidly thickening, I chose the largest deer at the base of the hill. I pulled the hammer back, leveled the sights on her front shoulder, breathed, and squeezed the trigger. With a flash of orange from the end of the muzzle the shot rang out, echoed and faded. As the smoke cleared, the four non target deer bolted toward the woods beyond the fence, and my doe just stood there.
Have you seen movies where someone gets shot and stands there for a moment, before crumpling to the ground in a delayed heap? Yeah, me too. Anyway, after a few seconds, the doe, unscathed, turned to follow the others. But they don’t call it Winchester Repeating Arms for nothing. Sights still leveled on the doe, I pushed the lever forward and heard the hollow, metallic ting as the spent shell ejected and flipped end over end past my right ear. The second round slipped into the chamber as I brought the lever back and my finger found the trigger again with ease. Swinging right to left, the gun felt light and comfortable in my hands. This is a fun rifle to shoot. I squeezed the trigger again. I felt certain this shot was on target.
I didn’t have to wait for the smoke to clear this time. In the dark shadows of the treeline I saw her healthy, white tail bounding innocently through the dense brush. Three shots at two deer in two days, each bullet whistling by their target by a safe and unknown margin. My freezer remains empty, but as I wiped down the Winchester tonight I had to smile. I’ll be glad to get that scope on the bolt action Model 70 sighted in again, Lord knows my eyes need a scope. But it was fun as hell to shoot that old ’94 tonight.