The woods are your teacher and each hunt is an exam. Have you done enough homework to pass?
My shot on this Pennsylvania buck hit the bull's-eye, and he ran only 50 yards before piling up. Grade A!
THE SHOT LOOKED GOOD. My arrow hit high behind the deer's shoulder, passing completely through with a loud pop! and fell into the grass as the spike buck ran to a tree line 40 yards away. As he walked out of sight, head down and tail limp, I was thinking, Dead deer.
Waiting an hour, I made plans to get him to a check station, decided how to butcher the meat, and wondered if I would use his antlers for knife handles or put them up in the garage.
When I finally climbed down, I first checked the arrow. Tissue, fat, and hair covered the front half; bright blood coated the vanes. Following the deer's path to the trees, I found no other sign.
In the widely spaced trees, I could see the ground for 50 yards in all directions. A carcass would be easy to see. But as I crouched on the soggy leaves to scan ahead, I saw nothing.
Stepping carefully along the deer trail, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, I inspected branches, the undersides of leaves, and tree trunks for blood smears. I stood at different angles to the trail to look for kick marks, skid marks -- anything. Creeping all the way to the far side of the timber strip, I did not find a single clue.
Wait a second, I thought. This isn't right. I retraced my steps and did it again, walking in expanding circles, walking a grid, moving farther away from where I'd started, walking around and through wheat fields on each side of the woods. With each pass I grew more frustrated, worried, and angry.
Finally I called the landowner and he helped me look into the night, and then we agreed to meet the next morning to continue. Returning to my camp, I did not sleep a wink. I kept replaying the shot, kicking myself for not taking one more second to line it up better, to remember that the arrow would hit a little high because of the angle, and on and on.
The next day the landowner and I searched in a drizzling rain, combing back and forth, wider and wider. I stayed until I absolutely had to leave to make the eight-hour drive home for work the next day. I apologized to the landowner and gave him my contact information. He was understanding and suggested the deer wasn't injured as badly as I thought.
Maybe he was right, but I didn't know what to think at that point. I was disappointed with myself, both for not making a better shot and for not being able to find the deer. But mostly, I was sad that the animal I'd arrowed would not be tagged and recovered. I felt as if I'd failed the test that bowhunters take each fall.
I'd never lost an animal before, and the heartbreaking experience reminded me of a story my neighbor had told me. He'd shot an elk, and when he could not find it, he hung up his camo for a few seasons but continued to search the woods relentlessly until he eventually found the skeleton. Then he dusted off his bow and started hunting again.
I understand why he might react that way, but I knew I would not give up bowhunting. However, I needed to regroup, look at what went wrong, and prevent its happening again. It was time for me to go back to school to relearn a few things.
Several times per week I set up a 3-D target in a vacant field on the edge of town. Practicing from an elevated shooting position remedied my point of aim problem and boosted my confidence.
TO START, I REVIEWED some articles on blood trailing in past issues of Bowhunter, as well as a few books that live on my shelf. I also did a bit of research about shot placement; I'm still not sure whether my arrow punctured a lung. Above all, I analyzed my shot execution. I just plain didn't do it right, and I needed to fix that.
For several months leading up to that hunt, I'd been shooting once or twice per week on a flat range. I live in an urban area, so practicing from a treestand is challenging at best. I would get some warm-up arrows at my hunting location from garage roofs, ladders, or practice stands, but I obviously needed more than that.
I found a vacant field on the edge of town that had a high retaining wall on one side. At least twice per week, and usually three or four, I hiked a 3-D deer target into the field and set it up at the bottom of the wall. I shot six or eight rounds of arrows each time, changing the position and range of the target periodically between rounds and making sure I had plenty of steep shots where I had to adjust my point of aim. I spent twice as much time setting up and taking down my range as I did shooting, but the practice was noticeably improving my shots, and boosting my confidence.
I continued this practice for several weeks before my annual whitetail hunt in Pennsylvania. I felt well prepared, better than I'd ever been in fact, but I was still nagged by a little voice in my head telling me not to mess up another shot. My next test would come soon.
THE MORNING OF MY SECOND DAY hunting was chilly and clear, the rising sun cutting ribbons of yellow through the tangle of bare limbs around my treestand. The woods were silent and the forest floor was covered with big, crunchy leaves; every 10 or 15 minutes they would rustle loudly as deer walked up the shallow creek bottom to my right. A few were quality bucks, but none came within bow range.
I was pleased to see a strong blood trail after my shot.
Finally, at about 10 a.m., I saw a buck that had walked by earlier as he returned from checking scrapes nearby. Now he worked his way down through the hickory and cherry trees toward my stand as I shifted my body to prepare for a possible shot. When he stopped at 30 yards, I was able to confirm he was a legal buck by clearly seeing four points on his right antler, a requirement in that area. This put me on autopilot and I began a process of slowly drawing while the buck nosed through the brush. As he walked into my shooting lane, I lined up the shot and took a deep breath. One quiet grunt stopped him in his tracks broadside at 20 yards. I carefully adjusted my point of aim, took an extra moment
to make sure it was right, and squeezed the release.
The arrow disappeared into the pocket behind the front shoulder and the buck jumped forward. After a few wobbly steps, the deer put his head down and charged, crashing to the ground in a heap. I kept my eyes on him for a long time, my heart telling me to make sure the deer wouldn't sneak off and disappear while my brain told me he was down for good. I realized I was holding my breath and finally let it out slowly in a big cloud of water vapor, smiling to the sky and feeling like a big weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
I didn't need to follow a blood trail to find the deer but I did it anyway, satisfied to see the liberal dispersal of red droplets on the leaves. Fifty yards from my stand tree I walked up to my buck, a nice seven-point for that area, and said my thanks. I sat down beside the deer and let the moment linger, enjoying the clear blue sky and warm morning sun, smelling the damp earth and the dead leaves, admiring the antlers and reliving the shot many times in my mind, so pleased that it happened the way it did. That's how you do it, I told myself. Now don't forget.
I like bowhunting because it challenges me physically, mentally, and emotionally. And those challenges can sometimes bring gut-wrenching situations and decisions, as well as some very difficult lessons. Accepting the lessons I've received has been, at times, disappointing, painful, and downright humbling. Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is costly -- that's one of my favorite quotes, and it sums up many of my experiences in the woods. But in the woods I will always be a student, continuing to learn, showing respect to my teacher, and working hard to pass the next test.
The author is our "Survival" columnist. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but he loves to hunt whitetail deer with family back in PA.
Author's Notes: I used a Browning Mirage set at 58 lbs., Gold Tip arrows, Slick Trick broadheads, Vapor Trail Limb Driver rest, and Trophy Ridge sight.