Wisdom about shot selection and blood trailing is a product of experience. I’ve made a lot of bone-headed mistakes which more than qualifies me to tell folks what not to do. The problem is I thought all my bad judgments, in regard to archery shots and trailing deer, were behind me. But no, I made a series of bad decisions a few autumns ago and was bailed out only by a stroke of luck… sort of. Here’s how it all went down.
A nice 8-point whitetail chased a doe within 12 yards of my stand one warm autumn morning. A couple of bleats didn’t stop the buck and I had to make a quick decision: Pass the shot now and hope for the amorous dude to come back later or take a shot at a trotting buck.
I filtered the decision through past successes, which were anomalies. Shooting a moving deer with a bow is a skill that takes lots of specific practice to develop and is generally not a good idea for most of us. It was never a good idea for me. I was just very lucky in the past. But the decision teetered on that triangular point where the lines between confidence, arrogance and stupidity blur together. I picked a spot halfway between vitals and the front edge of his neck and lo and behold — I hit the buck. Johnny had done it again! He’s so awesome. But wait a minute…the buck ran off a few yards and assumed the classic hunched-up-tail-clamped posture of a gut-shot deer.
I made the shot at 7:33 a.m. Forecast temperature for that day was bumping 80 degrees so instead of the usual 8-10 hour wait, I decided to halve that and try to creep within range for a killing shot — another confidence/arrogance/ stupidity moment. Long story short, five hours later I jump the buck. He’s definitely hurting; I’m able close within 30 yards before he spooks. Had I been looking up instead of for blood I probably could have ended it with a well-placed arrow. He bounds off with labored breathing –- a good sign –- and stops in a thicket 50 yards away, hunches up, walking slowly, blending into the saplings and briars. I sit next to a log and decide to wait him out.
After another hour and a half in the heat I can’t take it anymore and ease over to where I last saw him. No blood. Another hour of searching produces one quarter-sized crimson splotch. I decide to go home, planning to start my search again the next morning.
My buddy saves the day
A couple of friends, Sherman and his son Kendall Goates, were hunting the property on the evening of this debacle and I informed Sherman of my poor shot and blood trailing efforts. I told the Goates boys the deer was dead, and I’d be back in the morning to get him. At this point, nearly ten hours after the shot, I was confident in this claim. Boy, was I wrong.
About an hour after my last text conversation with Sherman, I get a call from Kendall who just dropped a nice 8-point with his muzzleloader. But the deer had four holes in him and Kendall had fired only one bullet. The buck fell within 50 yards of my last blood sign.
Eight ain’t always enough
Eleven hours after an arrow had gone through the deer’s body he was still on his feet and surprisingly vigorous. Kendall said the buck grabbed a mouthful of clover just prior to being shot. Postmortem revealed that my arrow clipped the back edge of one lung, somehow missed the liver and went straight into the stomach exiting in front of the genitalia. Arrow placement would have been perfect if the deer had been standing broadside, and he may well have been when I squeezed the trigger. But that’s why you shouldn’t take a bow shot at a moving target. Angles can change dramatically by the time an arrow arrives even at short range.
I’m still amazed the buck was on his feet. A gut-shot deer is a dead deer. It just takes more time, and in my experience eight hours is plenty. The lesson here is that every situation is different. Wild critters don’t always do what we think they should do.
Now about the decision to take that shot, my first mistake. It was a poor decision, the kind of decision and shot I have privately and publicly condemned. After 30 years of bowhunting and 100-plus archery killed whitetails I should be beyond this kind of bad judgment. But a combination of adrenaline and over-confidence led me to believe I could turn a non-shooting situation into a filled tag.
Mistake number two can also be attributed to overconfidence based on experience. I’ve tasted still-hunting success with my bow (it’s delicious, by the way) and the confidence from that success led to another bad judgement. The fact that the whitetail was wounded bolstered that confidence, and it almost paid off. But you know what they say about almost.
Native American lore says that the hunter doesn’t take the deer, but rather the deer gives itself to the hunter. This is a profound thought. Only take the shot given to you by the deer and recognize what that shot is, same for post-shot wait time. Always let the deer dictate your shot and your actions afterward.