Every bow-shot animal involves a very unique set of circumstances. Jumping to conclusions during its recovery after the shot will undoubtedly cloud your judgment. Be disciplined. Base your actions on actual facts of the current situation and then apply past experience to determine your next step in recovering your quarry.
The pleasant but musty stench of autumn filled my nose as the spongy tundra gave way under foot. I recounted my good fortune, as I crept along, looking for yet another rutting Sitka black-tailed buck on the rugged and unforgiving island of Kodiak, Alaska.
I'd shot hundreds of photos of these portly but attractive black-caped deer and killed three mature bucks on this solo wilderness hunt. Everything was going great when the weather turned sour like warm milk sitting out on a hot day. In fact, the weather was so bad that my bush pilot hadn't been able to pick me up—he was now 9 days overdue!
Movement from a cruising buck jolted me away from my thoughts and back to the present. The big buck approached rapidly, bringing with him the rushing darkness. The whole day's effort had boiled down to that very moment. There he was, broadside at 27 yards, totally unaware of me hiding behind a thick alder bush. The rut-crazed buck looked right through me like I didn't exist, and my confidence soared. This buck was mine for the freezer and record book, or so I thought. What happened next still boggles my mind.
A split second after releasing the arrow, I watched the orange and green fletching zip through the buck's chest. He jumped bronco-style and sprinted away at the arrow's impact. I even saw the arrow fall to the ground on the far side of the deer.
Yes, I got him! I thought excitedly. After a short sprint, the buck slowed to a walk and plopped over—legs flailing in the air. He was down in less than 40 yards.
Since I had seen the arrow pass through the deer, I planned to pace off the shot distance, pick up my arrow and then step off the short yardage the buck had traveled before collapsing. I make it a habit to record such details to further my knowledge about blood trailing and game recovery.
After taking two steps toward the arrow, my excitement and satisfaction of killing a dandy buck turned to astonishment and gut-wrenching disbelief. The buck stopped flailing and stood up!
Oh crap, he's not as hard hit as I thought! Though his body language (head held low and wobbly legs) proved he was badly hurt, he was certainly not dead.
Forget about picking up the bloody arrow; you'd better anchor this buck. Besides, you're in brown bear country and leaving him until tomorrow is not the best option.
I quickly nocked another arrow but the buck faced directly away, offering no second shot. Ah, he's dead and just doesn't know it, he'll drop any second. I know I made a good shot.
Much to my dismay, the buck walked off and bedded in the brush. With dwindling daylight, Kodiak Island's frequently mushy weather and brown bears on my mind, I scurried ahead, anxious to get another arrow into the buck.
With each step I began to doubt my recollection of the shot placement. Maybe I hit him farther back than I thought? Maybe it's a liver hit? Maybe the arrow just skimmed his brisket?
In my haste, I bumped the buck out of his bed and he ambled away through the brush, again offering no shot. After three more fruitless attempts at stalking the deer, night began to cloak the Kodiak landscape. It was now too dark to shoot and the buck was still very much alive. He'd traveled at least a quarter-mile from where I'd shot him, which is very much out of character for a mortally wounded deer.
There I was, a lone bowhunter on Kodiak Island, home of the largest brown bears in the world, with an unrecovered wounded deer, and now it was dark.
Even drenched in gloom, I located the buck with my 10X40mm binos. I could see his dark shape lying alert in the tawny grass of the open tundra—not 50 yards away.
A Sleepless Night
There was nothing to do except wait for the buck to expire. As I unwrapped an energy bar to satisfy my hunger and chew up some time, the buck heard the wrinkling of the wrapper and, miraculously, stood up again. Through my binoculars I watched the buck stroll away and vanish into the darkness.
I marked the last spot I'd seen the buck by tying a white game bag to alder branches. With the aid of a headlamp and hiking stick, I slogged 2 miles over the uneven tundra where a lonely camp awaited me and all my questions.
Where did the arrow actually hit the deer? What internal damage occurred? Why did the buck fall over dead and how did he revive himself? Should I have pushed him? Will it rain tonight and wash away the blood trail? Will a brown bear find the buck before I do? What if the bush plane finally shows up and I'm 2 miles away looking for that buck?
After a fitful night, I hoofed it out to where I'd left the game bag. Instead of barging in, I climbed a ridge to gain perspective.
Like Alice in Wonderland, things just kept getting “curiouser” and “curiouser.” At the first hint of daylight, I glassed three bucks bedded within an arrow's toss of where I'd last seen my buck the evening before. Upon closer scrutiny, I determined two of the bucks could not be “my” buck because their antlers were too small and shaped differently.
The third buck, however, looked like the one I'd hit. More questions rattled through my confused brain. Could he have survived the night? Would other healthy bucks bed close to a wounded deer? Maybe none of these deer are mine, but if my buck were dead nearby, would these three spend the night close to their dead brethren? Maybe my buck isn't close by?
I decided to sneak in on the live bucks for a closer look. At about 80 yards, I ran out of cover and the jig was up; but not before I got a thorough look at the biggest buck. There was no blood showing on either side. He ran off like any healthy deer. My buck had to be down somewhere nearby.
Sometimes, as in this case, the second hunt or blood-trailing process can be more difficult than the actual hunt. Okay, Lon, be smart, be diligent with this fog, wind and impending rain; you'll have to do your best detective work ever.
I hiked to the game-bag marker left from the night before and began the search. Within 20 yards of the marker I saw dried crimson dots in the light-colored grass. Then, I found the buck's bed from where the noise of the snack wrapper spooked him.
Had the time and weather conditions allowed, I would've returned to the original shot site and recovered the arrow. I recommend finding your arrow first and foremost in most all bow-shot circumstances because the arrow can provide many clues. For example, oxygenated blood from lungs or a large artery is pinkish and frothy, while thick, dark reddish-brown blood might indicate a liver hit. Lots of “normal” red blood might prove to be a flesh wound. The presence of fat and green rumen (stomach contents) on the arrow means a gut shot.
Even the color and texture of hair on the arrow or near the shot site provide valuable clues. Depending on the type of animal being hunted, white hair on most deer species might reveal the broadhead cut the animal's belly or brisket. On bull elk, their belly and brisket hair is nearly black. Study photos, life-sized taxidermy mounts and other specimens of your target species and learn what color and texture of hair grows on all parts of their body. This little bit of knowledge might provide enough information to make the right choice on whether to push or leave a wounded animal alone.
But in the case at hand, with rain clouds about to bawl, decreasing visibility and the fact that a bush plane and pilot were now 10 days overdue to pick me up, I needed to find my buck before the rain diluted all clues.
Shortly, the easy-to-follow blood in the yellow grass turned to ant-sized specks in the dark, moist, mossy tundra. My tracking pace slowed to a literal hands-and-knees crawl. I stayed off to one side of the trail so as not to further obliterate the scant sign.
Occasionally, I marked the buck's path with toilet paper (it biodegrades unlike surveyor's tape). When the blood trail finally petered out, I looked at the line of “TP” to get a sense of the buck's travel route. In many cases this aids in rediscovering the animal's direction of travel.
When I lost the blood trail, I slowly circled the last blood drop in ever-widening loops, all the while looking for blood on ground vegetation, brush at deer-chest height, in deer tracks and even on over-turned leaves that might have flipped from the deer's momentum. Occasionally, I found a speck or two that the moist tundra hadn't gobbled up and my hopes soared.
Once, I'd crawled 20 yards without seeing any blood. My guts tightened. Then I discovered a splash of red that luckily landed on a willow leaf. The shape of the splash held a vital clue; the buck's direction of travel.
Instantly, my mind rewound to my indoctrination as an International Bowhunter Education Program student and then as a state-certified instructor. In this course I learned that, among other things, blood splashes in the direction in which the animal is traveling. Thus, the bigger blob hits first and the smaller splashes and specks dribble the way the animal is traveling.
With this newfound evidence, I pressed on. Little by little, agonizing step after agonizing step, I made progress. Additionally, past experience gave me confidence to carry on. Just because there was very little blood on the ground didn't mean I hadn't made a vital hit.
Through the years, I've learned to expect the unexpected. Once I shot a mule deer doe in the midsection. I would've sworn she was perfectly broadside, and I'd hit her too far back. However, there were two 3-foot-wide swaths of pink, frothy blood on either side of her tracks in the snow.
Upon recovery, I determined she was actually slightly quartering away and thus the arrow hit the back, top lobe of one lung. Furthermore, the broadhead had sliced an artery in the lung and most of the blood loss was external. On another occasion, I double-lunged a fat young Sitka buck. Due to his healthy condition (fat clogging the arrow channel) very little blood left the deer's body. Fortunately, this deer expired in view and no blood trailing was necessary.
Additionally, I've shot animals in nearly identical scenarios and had one dash 100 yards spraying “life juice” everywhere and another only lift their head and walk a few paces before expiring.
The point is, every bow-shot animal involves a very unique set of circumstances. Jumping to conclusions will undoubtedly cloud your judgment. Be disciplined. Base your actions on actual facts of the current situation and then apply past experience to determine your next step in recovering your quarry.
Since the blood trailing of my deer was going so slowly, I had plenty of time to review the clues. One, the buck humped up like a heart-shot animal. Two, I saw the arrow impact low and tight to the shoulder crease. Three, the buck went only 40 yards before flopping over like a well-hit deer. Four, he stood back up and was able to walk but held his head low and bedded frequently (the signs of a mortally wounded deer). Five, he'd traveled several hundred yards, which is not indicative of a heart or double-lung hit. Six, very little blood escaped his body cavity.
These clues did not jive, particularly where the arrow hit and the distance he'd walked after the shot. Most of the clues indicated a good hit, but those last two factors led me to believe I hit him farther back than it appeared. This would explain why he covered more distance than usual. However, through experience, I've learned to fairly and accurately “call the shot” and mentally record the animal's body position (i.e., broadside, slightly rear-quartering, and so on). And, on this buck I was quite certain he was almost perfectly broadside and the arrow passed through his chest about where the heart is located.
Regardless of whether I had hit heart, lower lungs or liver on this buck, it was now 19 hours after the fact. I was certain he was now dead, and I just had to find him.
Unfortunately, the blood trail didn't get any easier to follow. Actually, I'd made only 100 yards of total progress from the game-bag marker, and my overdue pilot finally circled his plane over my camp numerous times. The weather worsened. The wind howled with a vengeance and ocean waves crashed and frothed way up the beach. When the plane didn't land, I thought I was stuck another day.
The pilot and his blue bush plane flying off without me was good and bad. Good because it gave me more time to recover my deer. Bad because God only knew what the weather would bring or how much longer my involuntarily extended trip would last.
These details distracted me from the task at hand. Also, it began to spit rain—as if the gusting wind and patchy fog weren't enough to contend with. Eventually, the sky opened the floodgate and washed the blood trail completely away. No matter how diligently I looked, no more blood could be found. There was only one thing left to do: search the ground for the deer's body.
I carefully marked the last blood spot, made a best-guess estimate of which way the buck was headed based on the path of least resistance and began walking in grids. About an hour later, I literally stumbled over my buck. He was stiff and cold and had probably died just minutes after I'd seen him vanish into darkness the night before.
Oddly, I found him 163 paces from the last drop of blood I'd found. Upon closer examination, some of the mystery was cleared. The broadhead had sliced through the bottom lobes of both lungs about 1 inch behind his heart. Loose skin and fat had clogged both entrance and exit wounds, which explained the scarce blood trail.
I'm not a veterinarian or a coroner, but this is what I think happened: When the arrow blew through the buck, his lungs collapsed causing temporary, massive cardiothoracic failure (lack of oxygen-rich blood getting to the brain), thus causing the deer to topple over. However, and this is just a guess, when the buck landed on his back, gravity pulled blood back into his lungs and brain. This gave the deer enough life to right himself and walk a couple hundred yards before expiring.
Regardless, this buck with two lives was a valuable lesson in recovering a big game animal. He now hangs in my office as a prideful reminder of what it sometimes takes to recover game.
Because my pilot couldn't land on the beach with such heavily crashing waves, he called in a Coast Guard helicopter, and they picked me up at camp later that day. It was a wild ending to my 23-day solo hunt.