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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What is your success (recovery) rate?

by John Jeanneney

Full Cry, December 2008

What’s your success rate? This question is so simple… and so complicated. I hear it a lot, and I know that the people who ask expect to hear a high figure like 90%. Some tracking dog/handler teams, in some parts of the country, may get close to this figure, but usually the percentage will be far lower. Let me explain.

If I really wanted to impress the Guinness Record Book folks, I would move to a part of Texas west of the Piney Woods, to a county where it is legal to use up to two dogs, off lead, to track, locate and possibly bay up the wounded deer. I would want a big dog, like those used by Roy Hindes in South Texas, who can stop and bay a deer, even if it has a potential for many miles of travel. Some of these bayed, wounded deer might otherwise survive, but the management objective is to satisfy the hunter and keep alive only the healthiest deer.

By contrast in the North most state regulations require that the tracking dog be worked on a long leash at all times. The majority of northern deer hunters clearly want it this way. And because of small properties, numerous highways, and big, dog-hungry coyotes, I personally wouldn’t want to do it any other way.

Getting back to Texas, most of it is dry country with tough tracking conditions. To avoid messing up the dogs, and to avoid pushing the wounded deer too far, hunters are discouraged from trying to eye-track on their own. “Easy deer” that might be found by the hunter, according to the “do it yourself tradition” of the North, end up being found by the dog in the Texas. This makes for better success ratios. This difference is a factor in many of the Gulf states as well.

It’s pointless to argue that the Texas dogs, for example, are better than the northern dogs because the Texas numbers are better. Traditions and conditions are very different around our country. To each his own.

Both North and South, recovery percentages can be manipulated to improve recovery rates. Every handler has to turn down a few deer calls because it’s extremely unlikely that the deer is seriously injured. For example I had a hunter call me because “his” buck snorted after the shot. Another showed me the white tail that he had shot off.

The magic of the dog only goes so far! Personally, I turn down the high back hit cases in which the deer went down instantly, and then, while the hunter was congratulating himself, took off. “He couldn’t have gone far. I hit him hard!”

But in between the low percentage calls and the dead certain calls there’s a broad range of requests that you just can’t be sure about. The wind was blowing so hard that the hunter couldn’t find any hair, white or brown, at the hit site. It could be purely a muscle shot, non-fatal, or a stomach shot certain to kill the deer. The handler, himself, might be able to evaluate the hit in the first 200 yards, but he has to make his decision to take the call on what the hunter tells him over the phone.

If the tracker plays it safe and takes only the sure kill cases, he will have an impressive success ratio. But he will find fewer deer overall than the tracker who takes most calls that come in. Somehow, I think that this problem is easier to handle in states where the handler gets paid, no matter what the outcome. In New York State the bankers get paid pretty well, no matter what happens, but tracking dog handlers are forbidden by state regulations from charging a fee. In New York we track for love… and don’t misinterpret me. In a good season we find a third of the deer we track. But we are proud of this because we are also accomplishing other things.

We did not recover a deer on this call, but we were quite certain at the end of the call that it was not mortally wounded.

Another Way of Evaluating a Tracking Sortie

If an experienced handler tracks a deer a half mile, he usually has a pretty good idea of how it is hit and how likely it is to survive. He has inspected the hit site much more carefully than most hunters, and he may have found bone fragments of even broken teeth. Interpreting hair at the site is a fine art which he has mastered. As he starts out on the line his dog shows him sign that the hunter may have missed: smears on weeds and brush that indicate how high the wound is on the deer; only one blood drop in twenty may show the watery consistency and dark color of a stomach shot, but the close working tracking dog points it all out. The team tracks far beyond the hunter’s point of loss or where he quit. If the dog finds a cold bed with only a few drops of blood, this strongly suggests that the deer is going to make it. If the deer jumps fences 12 hours after being hit, this is also a sign that the deer is in pretty good shape.

It rarely does happen that a deer shot far back in the large bowel is both mortally wounded and unobtainable. The handler can follow it with his leashed tracking dog, but it will not die for days. A jaw-shot deer is in a similar situation. Then he will wish he were in Texas or one of the Gulf states where the dog could be released.

In any case the tracking dog that follows the line perfectly, but fails to find the unfindable deer, is not a failure. This dog did his job, yet the handler can’t claim a find. His recovery rate/success rate actually goes down a few percentage points. Still the experienced handler, with his professional attitude, believes that his dog was a success.

How does the hunter feel about it? After 890 deer calls, I find that the hunter feels much better for knowing what happened, even if he did not tag that deer. Of course he wanted the trophy and venison, but knowing that the deer did not die a lingering death and then feed the coyotes is the next best thing.

For the large landowner managing his property for quality deer, it is also important to know what happened. What was the real deer harvest on his acreage as opposed to the guesstimates of his hunters? What actually happened to the quality bucks? Will they be available for future seasons as breeders and trophies?

I was never very good at numbers. I can add and subtract all right, but I would prefer to avoid the higher math of calculating success rate percentages. The important thing is tracking and finding as many deer as you can!

John and Billy recovered this buck in 2007.

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