Tod and I have been deer hunting on a small lease in west-central Kansas for the past few years. We’ve had some great times there and we’ve been fortunate enough to take some nice bucks home.
Patty doesn’t get to come deer hunting so there’s been some teary goodbyes at Sundowners Kennels too.
KANSAS 2016 – SEASONS PAST
“Tod and I have had some great times in Kansas but Patty doesn’t get to come.”
Although I’ve shot a buck each year, despite best efforts, I didn’t recover the last two. With less than perfect shots and with little or no blood trail I wasn’t able to find them. I’ve been getting pretty disillusioned with bow hunting and filled with doubt over my own inability to close the deal. Disheartened? You bet.
Another disappointment was on my mind as I drove east. This year Tod and I hadn’t synchronized our tag applications and although I got drawn for a fifth time, he wasn’t as lucky.
Sitting in a tree stand waiting for a whitetail to show is by nature a solitary activity but everything else about a hunt like that is better with a friend along. The camaraderie of deer camp is a big part of that but I also find some comfort in sharing the work and responsibilities of the hunt, from hanging the stands to tracking down a shot animal to dragging him out and loading him up.
Without Tod along, this hunt would be a solo deal from start to finish. I did my best to embrace the fun new challenge of doing it all myself, starting with setting up my stand.
KANSAS 2016 – THE STAND
“My tree stand is right next to the creek so even though it’s only about 15’ above the base of the tree it is almost double that down to the dry creek bed.
“The deer travel along the creek corridor, sometimes low in the bottom, sometimes on the flood plain bench and sometimes up on the edges of the farm fields above.
“A wind from the southwest is most favorable but it can be hunted in other conditions as well.
“Tod and I like to time our hunts to the rut so rattling is an option.
“I’ve got high hopes for this stand this year!”
With the stand set up, there was time to go back to the cabin to fling a few arrows and to get ready for the first evening hunt. The bow had survived the trip intact so I geared up and headed back to the field.
KANSAS 2016 – YOUNG BUCKS
“The very first evening, two young eight point bucks came in.
“The smallest of the two followed my trail with his nose down on the drag-line scent. He stopped to sniff at the twenty-yard tree where I’d left it hanging and then walked past my stand.
“The larger of the two came along the creek bottom. He hung around long enough for me to practice drawing on him and then climbed the bank towards me and, like his little brother, walked right past my tree.
“What a great night! What a great start to my hunt! I can’t wait for tomorrow morning.”
Monday morning I was back in the stand well before daylight, excited about the previous night’s experiences and anticipating great things to come.
I love the woods and the pheasants and owls and skunks and other critters that you see from a tree stand but it had been a long time, nearly four hours, with no action at all. I was just preparing to call it quits when I heard the crunch, crunch, crunch of an approaching deer through the fallen leaves along the dry creek bottom.
When he came into view, I made a quick assessment. It was just the first morning of a weeklong hunt so I could have passed but I decided that, for me at least, he was a shooter. He had nine points total: five on his right, the side facing me, and four on the slightly smaller far side. He was clearly a mature deer and his antlers were that chocolate (dirty) color that appeals to me over the ivory white ones that you sometimes see.
Time was short. He was cruising and there was a lot to do in the few seconds before he passed me by. I needed to get turned 180 degrees, then pick up and draw my bow all without making a warning sound or a sudden movement. Then I hoped to stop him with a grunt in a small shooting lane at 23 yards out.
Everything was coming together perfectly. The buck was rutted up and had other things on his mind. If I did make any small noises, or movements that he might have caught in his peripheral vision, his focus on finding the nearest doe blocked that all out.
He woke up when he heard me grunt and then he stopped in the perfect spot. I released the arrow and in the quarter second or so between release and impact I was envisioning a perfect pass-through shot and a massive (but short) blood trail.
KANSAS 2016 – DISHEARTENED
“Well, I shot one.
“I don’t know how I keep doing this but I think I screwed it up again.
“This would be the third year in a row. If I don’t recover this deer… I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t like that at all.
“This is where I first saw him. He was coming in from the left.
“When he was here I turned and picked up my bow.
“I drew when he was about there.
“There I grunted and that’s where I took the shot.
“I know I hit him high. I could see he left… I didn’t get pass-through. I didn’t get an exit wound.
“Now the good news is the arrow’s in there far enough to do some damage but I may have got just one lung. I don’t know.
“So I’m not, I’m not elated right now.
“I hope that after I wait an hour I just find the deer and everything is fine.
“Then I can make another video where I’m excited. But for now, I don’t have it in me.”
When the arrow hit my 2016 Kansas buck, my pre-release vision vanished. Once again I had hit him high and he left the scene with my arrow protruding; no pass through and therefore no easy-to-follow blood trail. I went from elated about the opportunity to devastated at the result in an instant. Disheartened? Oh yeah. Instead of fist pumping elation I was horrified.
I waited two hours before even following up the shot. When I did, my worst fears were substantiated. There was no obvious blood trail. I had no one to blame but myself and no one but me to try to make it right. I wasn’t concerned about anything else, just about the possibility of losing another deer and, perhaps, losing my desire to ever bowhunt again. I was sick and dreaded the job ahead.
On hands and knees I searched the spot where he’d been standing. It seemed like a very long time before I found a single tiny drop on a leaf on the creek bottom. That generated a strange mixed feeling that I’d get quite familiar with over the next few hours; a little bit of satisfaction that I’d found a needle in this particular haystack and a lot of apprehension about the implications.
I had, of course, been able to see my deer for a few seconds through the trees so I knew the direction he’d taken for the first few tens of yards and a creek bottom offers a limited set of possible paths, much different than a big wood. I tried moving more quickly further ahead but found nothing and had to slowly work my way back until I found another drop, maybe 10 yards from the first.
That pattern repeated itself over and over. Even the narrow creek bottom seemed to offer innumerable possible paths after all and on hands and knees it seemed to take forever to cover them all. But each time I would eventually find another tiny drop on the ground or a small smear on a path-side weed. I used a couple of arrows as markers so I could always look back and see where the last drops had been found and I’d have a line to work from. Once I found a slightly bigger splotch and my hopes rose accordingly but it was never repeated.
Then the trail went impossibly cold. I tried every conceivable side trail and went 20 or 30 yards down each scouring every inch for sign but found nothing. I was increasing the radius of my search in all possible directions and was considering what other options there might be when I saw, to my amazement, the arrow laying out on some flattened grass, like a formal presentation, as plain as day.
Again, I felt that conflicting mix of rising optimism with a healthy dose of realism stomping it back down. The find, of course, was another location on the blood trail and gave me a new direction and revived the will to carry on. But with the arrow backed out, there was no longer even the smallest chance of further internal damage or of the blood trail suddenly getting thicker and more obvious.
I picked it up. The arrow was whole and was covered with blood from broadhead to nock. In fact, it was shockingly scarlet and seemed gratuitously obvious after the tiny red spots and smears that I’d been searching for so carefully. Then I realized that although the blood had dried in the hours since I’d taken the shot, it had dried with bubbles in it, a sure sign that a lung had been hit. Now I was confident that he was dead. The challenge remaining was to find him.
After finding the arrow I was, once again, reduced to wandering potential trails forward, head down, peering at the ground looking for the tiniest clues and finding nothing. At one point I stopped, frustrated and stiff necked. I stood up and stretched and then, just like in an episode of your favorite hunting show, there he was! The antlers caught my eye first and then his grey-brown body finally took shape against the winter grasses, bushes and fallen leaves.
He was mostly lying right out in the open. He’d died, not crawling into a last hiding hole, but still running just seconds after the shot, as intended. He’d gone maybe two hundred yards in those seconds; two hundred yards that had taken me about two hours of tracking to cover.
I made up for all of the self-pity, wallowing, judging and criticizing in the hours since the shot with plenty of fist pumping, some rebel yells and real joy when I found him! I won’t say there was complete absolution for the sin of bad shot placement, there will be plenty of penance to pay on the practice range between now and next season, but there was a sense of relief that I hadn’t lost another one, and that felt pretty close to forgiveness.
There was still a lot of work to be done. While cleaning him, I confirmed that my shot had indeed hit the far side lung. He’d bled out quickly enough but without that exit wound there was no easy blood trail to follow.
KANSAS 2016 – SUCCESS!
“A test shot shows the vertical angle of entry.
“It was just steep enough to catch the far side lung.
“After tracking for a couple of hours, I found him in the open on a trail. “Dragging him out alone and loading him into my truck was a chore but one I wouldn’t have traded away. I was just so glad I’d found him.
“I couldn’t be happier.
So what of my state of self-doubt and disillusionment with bow hunting? If it was easy it would be a sure thing and that is called grocery shopping. It’s not easy and it’s not a sure thing. It demands commitment, dedication and a bit of good luck too. I was lucky to have hit that far side lung even after making a marginal shot. Going forward I need to keep working on all aspects of the hunt and especially on shot placement. I’ve got a tree stand set up in my back yard and eleven months to practice those high angle shots before next fall.
Disheartened? No way! Let the penance begin.