My true worst nightmare occured: lost a wounded deer

Decades ago, the state management strategy limited harvest to only antlered deer resulting in a rarity of mature males and leaving the does to be impregnated by yearling bucks that do not yet possess antlers. The resulting gene pool was wildly unpredictable. As the population recovered, does were once again legally harvestable. With better quality meat devoid of testosterone, more bucks survived into their second and third years of life. Now with populations surpassing pre-european settlement of North America, the state management requires does to be harvested before a second buck can be harvested in a season (and 3 of the 5 annual bag limit must be antlerless).

Since the deer population is reaching unhealthy levels, I’ve changed my personal harvest strategy to culling the less genetically desirable males in hopes that in the near future, all mature males will possess antlers that could proudly adorn walls or form knife handles. Before this season, I had seen 2 eight point thus mature males in 14 years of hunting. I’ve seen 4 different mature males this season alone including a massively antlered alpha male.

So for the first time ever, I’ve reneged on my self-imposed rule of not harvesting a genetically desirable male before November so he has a chance to pass his genes along. Thus I sent an arrow at the buck that was (hopefully still is) 2nd in hierarchy. Confirmed directly, I witnessed for the first time an antler-crashing battle for dominance with the alpha male. The loser of that battle is the subject of this post.

Everything about the shot was perfect. He walked into a shooting lane I had previously measured at 15 yards. I waited for him to step forward so his shoulder was not protecting the targeted vital organs. I aimed a bit high to compensate for the vertical angle produced by my treestand. The arrow struck high on the lung penetrating over a foot and should have reached the opposite lung which in turn should have produced as quick and humane of a kill that can be achieved during archery season. The sound of impact indicated a lung or heart shot as did the reaction of the deer: a twisting kick resembling that of a mule. It was a perfect shot confirmed by the video I captured. If I could do everything over again, I would not change a single thing except for not taking the shot at all considering the end result.

Finding the arrow 25 yards away, it was covered in bits of tissue that indicated the shot should be lethal. As it was dropping into the 30’s (Fahrenheit), the track was postponed in case the animal laid down to expire. Turning a 100 yard track into a half mile or more serves no party involved.

After a sleepless night, I set out as soon as the sun came up flagging sign like tracks and blood with trail markers then articles of clothing when the markers were exhausted. At about noon, the trail simply vanished and I turned to my maps to work in a grid pattern canvassing the woods in the direction that the last sign pointed. At about 3 PM when shadows compromised good sunlight, I started to get concerned but kept checking my grid patterns until 9 pm. Finally, I called off the search and ate for the first time that day before collapsing into bed where I sought help on a hunting message board.

At their suggestion, I searched for large game tracking dogs only to find none even remotely close to my area (on a side note, I WILL be training my future herding dog to track so both myself and others in the area don’t have to suffer this same experience). Strangely enough, using dogs in any degree in deer hunting was banned in Virginia until 2013 where they amended the law to allow for use of leashed tracking dogs in large game recovery. Following another tip from the hunting forum I sought any dog, even untrained. After all, dogs have an incredible sense of smell and instinctually love blood. After contacting the local dog agility training facility, to my surprise a lady and her lab were extremely excited to help despite no one knowing of any specific tracking dogs.

Both the dog and the handler were fantastic. The dog took to the trail immediately at the spot where my arrow first hit the deer. Following the flight path that I visually observed at the time of the initial shot gave me confidence the dog was effective. Once we got to the spot where I lost the trail, the dog kept on tracking finding a new spot of blood 50 yards beyond the last I had found. However shortly after, the dog started to get confused and started following the converging and diverging deer trails. Before long, it was clear that the dog was no longer locked into the individual deer I had wounded.

We never found it.

It could have been that I trampled the scent in my grid searching efforts. Over the 36 hours that passed before I brought in the dog, the scent could have dissipated. The deer could have stopped bleeding which I hope is the case as it could bode for the survival of the wounded animal. Other deer could have trampled the sent of the one I wounded. Any combination of the above factors could have contributed.

The handler would not accept any money for her time. However she did say they facility would take organ meats from deer as they plan to use them in training the dogs to track. She explained that dragging and varying the time the meat is in contact with the ground progresses the training.

Its times like these I need to explore why I hunt in the first place. From a previous post of mine:

Finally, If I had to pick a singular activity as my favorite, there is not a shred of doubt that it is deer hunting. Sourcing healthy and clean meat in a humane, sustainable manner is very important to me. Last year I reached 85% of my meat consumption sourced from white tailed deer. That figure of wild game consumption would be 100% if American Buffalo [and Elk] had not been extirpated from the region. Since that is the case, my cattle will fulfil the ecological niche of the extirpated Bison while chickens fill the niche of Buffalo Birds, now called cowbirds since there are no more buffalo. I personally fill the niche of controlling population numbers to ensure species survival/health formerly held by wolves and mountain lions; both of which have also been extirpated.

Even if I killed the deer that I could not recover, it still died with much less suffering than a natural death after leading a much better life, ecologically amongst other factors, than a factory farmed animal. An oft omitted fact is that natural predators eat their prey from the hind end first leaving the prey alive with functioning organs but incapacitated, thus preserving the meat to be consumed over days or even weeks all while the prey is alive.

Animal populations need controlling so diseases like chronic wasting don’t spread through the herd across the country. In addition to the money generated by my hunting, wildlife management agencies don’t need to spend resources culling the animals in a manner that preserves the health of the species. While performing that service for them, I get to harvest clean, healthy meat. In fact, it is the only way I can be 100% confident that the animals I consume lived a healthy life as part of a healthy ecosystem. Barring situations like this, it is also the only way I can assure animals suffered as little as possible in their death. So I will continue to hunt.

If I could take that shot back with the result known, I would immediately. Full confidence that I would not change a single thing about the shot itself is only minorly comforting. It’s hard to accept that the emotional toll this process has taken on me in the last few days is miniscule in the grand scheme of managing the animals in the best interest of the species. Writing this has certainly helped work through those feelings so thank you for reading.



2 thoughts on “My true worst nightmare occured: lost a wounded deer

  1. Sadly it’s something every bow hunter will likely suffer through. Myself included. I have temporarily stopped bow hunting myself mainly because of time constraints with a family, and more than full time job doesn’t allow for ample practice. I won’t bow hunt if I can’t practice enough. I do get out with a muzzleloader and I’ll stick with that until a time when I have more time. Sorry to read about your experience but you are far from alone with the result.


    • Thanks for the kind words! I still hunted through the bow season hoping somehow that the buck miraculously survived and even more miraculously, gave me a second chance. I took the last week off and will hunt more next week when muzzleloader comes into season. Looking back over my hunting career (dad let me start hunting with my own gun at 14 and I’m now 26), I’ve killed one deer with a rifle, 1 deer with a bow and 8 with a muzzleloader!


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