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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How a tracking dog helped recover a record book whitetail

Hunters Helping Hunters
A close friend and a new friend help track a record book whitetail

Photos and Story by Cameron McLain

I had made that shot a thousand times in my mind and had practiced the shot probably a thousand times more in my yard. I began to think that it was a shot I could make with my eyes closed, the monotony of practicing the 20-yard shot year after year began to play tricks on my mind. From time to time when I was feeling really arrogant, I secretly skipped this part of my practices. I’ll be the first to admit I let my guard down. I made the mistake that every bow hunter knows is detrimental to the mindset you must have when chasing anything with a stick and string… I began to think this shot was easy... the “easy shot” is what I called it. It would only take seconds for me to realize that I was totally wrong, and hours of waiting and searching for me to remember one simple truth… there is nothing easy in bowhunting.

Three years ago I took my first whitetail with a rifle. I was stalking a mule deer through canyons and ravines and just happened to spot a whitetail browsing about 50 yards away. It was an easy shot with a .270, I fired and he went three yards and dropped. He was a decent sized 8 point with a big body, so my wife and I got plenty of meat for the year. It was fun and we had meat, but I found that I was disappointed with the hunt. I kept wondering if there was more to it, or if it was simply point and shoot, then field dress and process. For some people rifle hunting is how they have chosen to do it, and hunting with a rifle is ethical and fair just as any legal hunting is. In fact, I will hopefully hunt a variety of big game with the “thunderstick” in the not so distant future. However, I have since found what I was longing for after taking that whitetail… the challenge of the bow hunt.

When I started shooting my first bow, I knew that it would take a lot of practice to build the confidence needed to attempt to take an animal with it. I was clearly not a natural at shooting a bow and arrow, and if my marksmanship with a rifle were any testament to my skillfulness in general, I knew I would probably have to put in a lot of practice before I ever climbed in a stand and tried to put meat in the freezer or antlers on the wall.

Every bow hunter wants a clean, ethical kill on any game he or she is hunting whether it is for the dinner table or for the trophy room. And so my practicing began, first at the bow shop and then to the range and at my house. Since I grew up hunting waterfowl and upland bird, I knew very little about bowhunting, and even less about hunting specific game like whitetail or mule deer. I started reading books, magazines, and websites and found that I was very intrigued with the mindset of this group of people known as “bow hunters”. It didn’t take long researching or shooting to realize that bowhunting is a whole new ballgame, and that bow hunters have a passion for the hunt and the game that is arguably unparalleled.

Apparently I needed more practice than I thought. Three years of practice and hunting without taking a shot will test your patience and resolve. I began to wonder if I would ever take a deer with a bow. It crossed my mind more than once to give it up and go back to gun hunting. I had passed on many bucks and does in the hopes that the herd would increase in population and the bucks I passed on would grow bigger antlers and bodies. I was intentionally being patient in hopes of getting a chance at a big trophy deer. After three years of hard work I would finally get that chance.

My close friend and hunting partner James and I decided the night before that we were going to get up earlier than usual and get in the stands long before daylight. My typical stand time is one hour before sunrise, but this particular morning we arrived almost two hours before legal shooting time. I had seen a big buck on the camera, and I wanted to be sure my scent and any noise were long gone by the time the sun came up. I could tell from the picture that the buck had at least ten points, and as you can imagine I was itching to get a shot at it.

Wind is a daily occurrence in West Texas, and as the sun rose and the wind started to pick up I was somewhat relieved. It is very difficult for me to not shift my weight in my stand from time to time, so the noise of the leaves in the breeze was a welcome distraction. Twenty minutes after sunrise, there were two bucks at my food plot. Both of them were shooters, but since I had seen a bigger one on the camera I decided to pass on them. We were still a few weeks away from the rut, so all was peaceful between the two deer. As more does and yearlings came in, the bucks were very busy between running the competition off and feeding. At one time, there were at least ten deer within seventy yards of my stand, and they never knew I was there. When there are that many deer around you, it is hard to decide if you are excited about a shot opportunity, or if you are less than excited because there are so many eyes and noses to pinpoint your location. Despite my wife’s playful sarcasm when I bought it, my Scent Lok suit was paying off!

I heard a deer running to my right, so I looked that direction and spotted another buck. I picked up my binoculars to get a better view, and counted 8 points on a fairly young buck. When I lowered my binoculars and turned to face forward again, there was the big deer that I had seen on my camera! He had approached from my left without a sound, and he was what the other deer had been looking at. He was probably the reason they moved off so nervously. He was standing in a shooting lane that I had cut in the tree limbs, right in the middle of a trail that leads to the food plot and camera.

As soon as I realized which deer was standing in front of me, I immediately looked down at my feet. I think I knew that if I stared at his rack I would get nervous, so I slowly picked up my hand to lock my release onto my string loop while I was concentrating on breathing and my shot sequence. As I picked up my bow to begin to draw, I noticed that the buck was about two yards closer to me than a fencepost I stuck in the ground at exactly twenty yards. I looked from below the deer and slowly moved my eyes up to where I wanted the arrow to connect. I knew better than to try to count points or to even look above the heart/lung area or I would start shaking!

The buck was quartering away, so I moved my aiming point back to where I thought the arrow would pass through the heart and hit the opposite shoulder. The bow surprised me as it fired, so I was confident that I had not rushed the shot or squeezed the release. I tried to concentrate on following through as I heard for the first time the arrow strike its target - a sound I will not forget. Instantly the deer was gone. He vanished as quickly and as quietly as he had come. As I quietly sat back down, I noticed two things. First, that my arrow was laying on the trail and it was tainted red, a sign that he was hit in the vitals. The second thing I noticed was that I was still not nervous. I have heard and seen many times the famous “buck fever”, so I made sure I was still connected to my safety harness and I patiently waited for my turn at the shakes.

For some reason or another, I never did get nervous or start to shake. I believe that it was due to the fact that I had waited for so long and had been over this scene in my mind so many times, that everything about it was familiar. I had merely done what I pictured myself doing thousands of times. I think more than anything I was relieved to have finally taken a deer, or any animal for that matter. All the work had paid off! Little did I know my day was just beginning, and before the end of it I would have questioned everything I knew and didn’t know about deer, my proficiency with a bow, and even my desire to hunt again!

I sent a text message to my buddy James telling him that I had a deer down, and he replied by saying he was leaving his stand and was on his way to help with the honorable duty of helping me field dress it and drag it back to the pickup. We were both in for a big surprise. Since I was very confident I put a decent shot on him, we only waited two hours before picking up the blood trail where my arrow had been laying. It was about 9:45 am when James arrived, and I had followed blood for about seventy yards. After twenty more yards, we couldn’t find any more blood! We crawled on our hands and knees until noon looking for blood, then we got on the four wheeler and started making gradually larger circles looking in the brush. There are some very large canyons and ravines in this area, so we also hiked up and down these looking for any sign of the deer. By 2:00 pm, we were beat and frustrated. We went back to the pickup to rest.

I couldn’t believe it… all this work! All this time practicing and waiting and passing on bucks! It was all for nothing! I was literally sick to my stomach. I had gone from very confident after the shot to doubting myself and my abilities with the bow and arrow. I talked myself into believing I shot too far back, that it was a terrible shot and we were never going to find the deer. I felt like I was going to be sick. It was a terrible feeling to lose not only a trophy deer and the meat that goes along with it, but on top of that my first bow kill! We started calling friends and game wardens, anyone we could think of that might have some pointers for us. We had tried everything. Well, almost everything.

I have some family in Alabama and Mississippi, and in a conversation about deer hunting several years ago the issue of tracking dogs was brought up. We discussed it for a few minutes, then went on with the usual deer language that only hunters know and share. I hadn’t thought of that conversation since then, but now it was fresh on my mind. I pulled out my cell phone and logged on to the internet to start searching. I tried several sites before I found some phone numbers for guys that own blood trailing dogs. The closest name and number was a guy who lives in Oklahoma, which is five hours away. I told James that I knew there was no way he would come that far, but it would be worth a shot to call him and see if he had any pointers for us about where to look or where the deer might have gone. I have never heard of a deer being beamed up in a space ship, but I was beginning to wonder whether or not that happens from time to time.

I called Carey Sutterfield in Yukon, Oklahoma, which is just outside Oklahoma City. Fortunately he answered, and I began to ask questions about behavioral traits of deer after they have been wounded. Believe me - it crossed my mind to ask him about the space ships! Carey was on his way to his deer lease for the weekend to hunt with his son, and as I told him more about what happened I began to realize the chances of finding this deer were very slim. I explained to him that this was a big deer (for me), and that I initially thought it was a good hit but I was beginning to doubt that it really was. For good measure and maybe for a little sympathy, I also threw into the conversation that it was in fact my first bow kill. I will never forget Carey’s next sentence. He immediately said “Well I’m turning around and I’m going to go pick up one of my dogs and I’ll be on my way to where you’re at.” He was volunteering to drive five hours to another state to walk around with a dog and find someone else’s deer! My first thought was “What’s the catch? How much does this cost?” When asked, Carey politely said that he doesn’t charge anything! He told me that he likes to work his dogs, and that he believes that it is just “hunters helping hunters”. He said that it is not fair to the animal to not be found, so he was willing to bring his dog to Texas to look for it! He also told us that we needed to stop searching and leave the area so that our scent wouldn’t contaminate any trail that may or may not be there.

James and I did exactly what Carey said to do. We left the area and went to grab lunch while we waited for Carey to make the five hour drive to our part of the state. He arrived just as the sun was setting, but informed us that this was a good thing because the scent of the blood would begin to rise from the soil as the temperature dropped, making it easier for him and “Otto”, his Wirehaired Dachshund, to find which direction the deer went. Otto immediately picked up the trail, but lost it after about 100 yards. Carey restarted him at the trail where my arrow was laying, and he was off again. As he approached the last spot where James and I had found blood, he turned at a right angle and picked up a trail. That’s why we lost it! We had continued in the initial direction, but the deer had turned into thick grass and gradually turned to go in the opposite direction. We hadn’t even considered looking in the direction that Otto was headed. Carey wanted us to follow him and Otto to look for blood and confirm that he was in fact on a trail, so that is what James and I did.

Otto lost the scent three times, but as the darkness settled in and the temperature dropped, the scent began to rise, and he was able to follow it further each time he picked it up. The deer had made its way into very steep and dangerous ravines, especially difficult to walk through at night with only a flashlight. At the bottom of one of these canyons, Otto lost the scent and was wandering sniffing the ground. By this time it was almost 8:30 pm, and all of us were exhausted. It wasn’t long before Otto hit the trail again, this time literally pulling the 50 foot lead rope tight in Carey’s hand. He was on to something! I was about a hundred yards behind Carey and Otto on my hands and knees trying to find a spot of blood to confirm we were on something, when I heard Carey yell through the darkness, “We found it!”. I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg or not, so I yelled back for him to repeat himself, and he said “Otto found the deer!”. I’m not sure how fast I covered that hundred yards, but considering me being out of shape and in very rough terrain in the pitch dark, I think I made it there in about two seconds!

James was also there in short time, and there was definitely no ground shrinkage on this deer! I was ecstatic, and I felt the exhaustion and soreness from the day-long search rush away with relief and gratitude. We took pictures and congratulated each other and Otto. It had been over twelve hours since I had fired the shot, but the waiting and worrying was gone. Otto had done the impossible!

Carey Sutterfield with his tracking dog Otto and Cameron's trophy buck

There are many predators in this area, and they had already begun to do their work on recycling the meat, so I was disappointed to find that the meat could not be used. Being the unselfish friend that he is, James field dressed the buck while I walked with Carey back to the vehicles. When I returned, we dragged the deer up the side of one of the steep ravines, which was a very difficult task, and thanks to James’ help we got it up without breaking any points off of the rack.

The next day we arrived at the taxidermist to have the buck measured and mounted. He quickly gross scored the 13 points to be 162”, and informed me that there would be some deduction, but that he thought it would still go into the Pope & Young Record Book. Paying the taxidermist that day was the happiest money I’ve spent in a long time!

Thanks to close friends like James and new friends like Carey and Otto, my passion for the sport of bowhunting is ever increasing. Despite what I told James in my frustration throughout that day, and said to myself under my breath, I wouldn’t trade time in the outdoors in fellowship with others for anything. I learned a lot about myself and my patience in the past few years, and a lot about the good men that surround me in this sport. Carey got a late start on his weekend of hunting with his son to trail a deer for somebody who he had never met that lived five hours away. I was reminded by what James and Carey and Otto did that there are people who do things because they want to be a blessing to other people, and they expect nothing in return.

Cameron and his friend James with the record book whitetail

Carey and I have been in touch since then, and he has told me a little about what he does. It is actually illegal to trail a wounded deer in Oklahoma, so Carey is trying to rally the troops in support of this cause. There are many deer that are lost in the thick woods of Oklahoma every year, and Carey has made it his mission that these hunters are given every opportunity to find the game that they have made an effort to pursue. So far this year he has found 5 of 11 tracks, but he has to travel out of the state to do it. That is five animals that were taken by legal hunters that would have never been found if it weren’t for Carey and his well trained dog Otto.

For those of us who believe in the fair chase, it stands to reason that fairness does not end at the shot, but that if a game animal deserves enough respect to be hunted legally, then they deserve enough respect to be found legally. It is a hunter’s responsibility to sharpen his skills to a point where an ethical, humane, and lethal shot can be taken. It is also our responsibility to use any means necessary to find an animal when a shot has been taken but the game does not immediately fall. To be honest, the deer that I took will probably be the biggest deer I ever take. I know what it means to me, and I also know how close I was to not finding it, and I truly regret that the hunters in Oklahoma do not have the same opportunity to pursue game in a fair, ethical manner, and they have undoubtedly wasted many trophy and meat deer because of it. I am blessed to live in a state where tracking is legal, otherwise I would be in the same position. If you know of anything you can do to help, please contact your legislative members, or get in touch with a tracker like Carey who can point you in the right direction! I owe the deepest gratitude to James, Carey, and Otto for their help. I would have never found the deer, and this story would have turned out much differently. I will never again take for granted that anything in bowhunting is easy!

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