Putting down a wounded buck can be a risky business. When I first decided to offer my blood tracking services in Maryland, I knew that there would eventually come a time when I would track down and find a mortally wounded deer that was still alive. “Humanely dispatching” a wounded deer in Maryland is not always a simple matter.
Starting in 2002 the Maryland law allowed the use of a leash tracking dog for the recovery of wounded deer, but the law only permits the hunter to accompany the tracker, carrying the weapon of the season, during normal hunting hours. That leaves the hunter without any easy way to dispatch a deer at night or on a Sunday when hunting is not allowed. Since blood tracking is often done at night, or on Sundays, it was just a matter of time before a problem would arise.
It was 6:30 PM when we got to the hit site of my second Maryland deer call of the day. This one would be under the lights. After calling the Maryland DNR to let them know I would be in the woods tracking with my dog, we got started. Mat Fortuna was the hunter, and I had tracked a deer for his friend a few weeks before. When Mat, who is color blind and doesn’t see blood well, ran into trouble with this deer, he thought to call me right away. Mat, a very experienced and successful bowhunter, reported to me on the phone that he had arrowed a very large 8-point buck about 8:30 AM that day. It was a quartering away shot from a tree stand about 25 yards away, and he saw the deer run off with the fletching of the arrow sticking out just behind the ribs where he aimed. Mat had waited 45 minutes before looking for the deer. He easily tracked the blood trail almost 100 yards to a bed that had a “massive” amount of blood in it. The blood trail coming out of the bed was quite sparse and hard for him to follow, being color blind, so he just looped ahead another 100 yards or so to the area he thought the deer would be lying dead, It was there he saw the buck jump up and run up a hillside in the hardwoods. Knowing the deer needed more time to expire and that he would need a better set of eyes than his for the tracking, he wisely backed right off the deer to give it more time and to get a friend to help track it. Back in the woods with his friend a few hours later, they came to the end of the blood trail that could be followed. Mat realized he needed my help to find this one, and he gave me a call.
I started Arno at the hit site, and he easily followed the trail to the wound bed. I could hardly believe how much blood was in it. Hunters always seem to over-estimate the amount of blood they report to me on the phone, but this bed truly had a “massive” amount of bright red blood in it. It was puddled in the leaves 2½ feet wide and 4 feet long and even squirted up a tree. I would estimate there had to be 16 or more ounces of blood there. Piecing together what the hunter reported with the sign I observed, my best guess was that the arrow must have been deflected off a rib to travel straight forward, cutting only one lung instead of traveling through the deer at the quartering angle that would have taken out both lungs. I had learned from the experienced leashed tracking dog handlers in New York that a deer like this can present a difficult problem. When hit in one lung that lung can collapse and the heavy bleeding from it can stop quickly. These deer, shot in one lung, can go a very long way and some certainly survive.
Arno continued tracking the dwindling blood trail out from the wound bed and began to start circling back and forth. We would occasionally see blood sign to confirm we were on the deer but there was no consistent direction to the track. At one point Arno was going straight down a hill past a very unique deadfall, and Mat assured me he had seen the deer going up that hill in the opposite direction from the deadfall. I turned Arno around, which he didn’t like, and forced him up the hill in the direction that Mat indicated. After going up the hill in the direction Mat thought was right, Arno circled back a couple hundred yards to the original wound bed and re-ran the line again his way.
When Arno took me the “wrong” way past the deadfall again, I was smart enough this time to let him do the tracking. All the blood up to this point was partially dry indicating the deer had passed through this way earlier in the day. All of a sudden Arno’s body language changed, and I knew we were on a hot line. We were definitely moving a deer out in front, and a few fresh blood droplets confirmed it was the right one. The hot line continued for about ¼ mile and led us down a very steep hill to a big creek. There, to our great surprise and elation, was the big buck lying five yards up the shore on the other side about 50 yards away. There was one problem though; his head was still up, and he was clearly still alive. Well, here I was, in the situation I knew would eventually come. We had to deliver the coup de grace without a firearm or a bow because it was after legal hunting hours.
Up in New York my leashed tracking dog license allows me to carry a firearm day or night, but in Maryland the regulations are different. Mat was not allowed to have his bow along for the track, and I could not carry a weapon either. I had talked this potential situation over many times with a good blood tracking friend of mine, Larry Gohlke from Wisconsin. In Wisconsin the hunter or tracker is never allowed to carry a bow or firearm, so Larry has gotten a lot of experience over the years finishing things off.
My first instinct was to just sit tight for a while and hope the buck would expire on his own. We sat anxiously for awhile, kept the light on the deer and hoped for it to end. The hunter made a few cell phone calls to his friends announcing “we got him”. I think that was just about the time “Murphy’s Law” started to come into action. I warned the hunter, “We don’t have him yet.” knowing that Murphy might be lurking near by. After 15 minutes it became apparent that we couldn’t just leave the buck there to suffer; we would have to try and finish it.
Plan “A” was for me to wade across the three foot deep creek, tie my dog off to a tree downstream, and make my way up to the buck from behind him, jump on him keeping his legs and feet underneath the deer and deliver the fatal blow with my knife while the hunter waded straight across the creek keeping the buck’s attention on him. Plan “A” was going great until I got within about 30 yards of the massive 200 pound, high-racked buck. When I got a good look at him, common sense, and I am not ashamed to say, fear, got the better of me and plan “A” went right out the window. It was time for Plan “B”.
Plan “B”, learned from my Wisconsin friend, was to lasso the deer with the 30 foot tracking line, pull him to a tree and kind of tie him up from a distance by snubbing him around a tree. I figured that this would be a safer way to approach the deer and dispatch him. That all sounded good in my head, as I had thought it over many times in the past, but there was one problem. I had never practiced this.
I quickly tied a makeshift lariat out of my tracking line and cautiously eased along side of the buck, sort of hiding behind the big tree that was next to him. Here I was, standing maybe 8-10 feet away from this big boy, hiding behind a tree, hoping he wouldn’t get up and come after me and not having a clue how to throw the rope so that it would lasso him. No other options were available so I just gave it a toss like a frisbee and the whole mess landed on his rack. The leash looked like a garland hastily thrown on a Christmas tree at the last minute. When the rope hit the deer I was surprised he did not even move; it was as if he were frozen stiff. I carefully reeled the slack in on the line and was disappointed to see that all I had lassoed was one tine on the horn closest to me. I knew it would never hold, so I began to kind of the flip the leash around hoping to better entangle it so I could pull him into a tree. I was surprised how much jerking around the buck tolerated, but after my third attempt to jiggle the leash the buck had had enough and adrenaline pushed him through his shocked state. He got up, pulled free of the leash, and took off. He ran down the streambed, passing within 10 feet of Arno tied to a tree and was gone.
Mat was understandably disappointed, but I assured him we would eventually get this buck. The fact that he allowed us to approach so closely and tolerated so much once we got there clearly showed he was mortally wounded. No deer would have allowed us to approach so closely if he were not mortally wounded. Our goal now was to stay on this deer and track him down and finish him as quickly as possible. I switched my long line from “lariat” mode back to “tracking leash” mode, untied Arno from the tree where he was going nuts, and away we went after the deer.
Fog was coming in as we looped across a field and through the hardwoods again. Then Arno barked; there was the buck, not 20 feet away, lying down head up. I tied Arno to a tree with the short leash, but the buck took off before I could get another lasso throw.
The buck led us across the big creek again, this time a hundred yards farther down stream where the current was much faster. Arno swam out into the current, which swept him down stream. I didn’t want to let go of the leash and have him swept away. As I reeled Arno in, the current pulled him under. This didn’t please him very much.
I was carrying Arno the rest of the way across the creek when I saw the buck lying down 30 yards up on a steep hill at the far side. Arno must have gotten a good whiff of him too because he started to squirm in arms, trying to jump into the water again and swim toward the buck.
I tried to climb the hill to get above the buck, but he slipped away through the briars. Again we tracked him; the buck was weak, but his instincts were still sharp. Eventually Arno seemed to indicate that he had crossed the creek again but he did not seem sure. I wasn’t sure either. We could see eyes on the far side, but in the fog we could not be sure it was the right deer. We had been seeing live deer all over the place all night long. No one, including Arno, was very eager to cross that creek again. Arno had never been a big fan of water even as a puppy and in his first tracking season he had taken a good dunking after becoming tangled up in hemlock roots in a swamp while tracking a bear. But that’s another story.
By this time it was 11:30 PM, five hours after we had started the ordeal. Arno, Mat, and I were all exhausted. Mat asked if I would come back in the morning and continue. I said I would have to think about it and would call him at 6 AM the next morning to tell him if I were coming or not. I had to work on Sunday starting at 10 AM, and I wanted to digest all that had happened that night with regard to the deer’s condition. The buck seemed to be tolerating our close approach less and less. Could it be possible he was gaining strength and not weakening? Should we call off the pursuit completely? Might he recover if left alone? These were all questions I wanted to sleep on.
I thought about all this on the 1½ hour drive home. Oh, did I mention I live in PA where the use of leashed tracking dogs is not legal yet, and I can’t work my dog? That’s another story too. When I got home and to bed it was 1:30 AM. Even though I was really beat, I still woke up twice during the night thinking if I should go back on this deer or not. My alarm went off at 5:55 AM, and while I was lying in bed struggling with the decision, Mat called begging me to come back. I told him if I came back the first thing we would do was wade across the creek again and put Arno down on the “eyes” we had seen the night before. Mat said he was game for that, and I agreed to go. I woke up my loving and tolerant wife at that point, asked her to start calling my appointments for the day to clear and reschedule them so I could go get back on this deer.
She happily agreed to make the calls. Thank goodness for me. As all hunters know, life is so much better when you have an understanding wife. I know my wife hates making those kinds of calls, but she does it for me all the time because she understands how important blood tracking is to me. But that’s another story too.
I was back in Maryland with Mat by 9 AM Sunday morning. Sunday is a no hunting day for Maryland, which meant that again no bows or firearms were allowed, even in daylight. We waded across the creek, and I put Arno down on the stream bank, right where we had seen eyes the night before. The bank was covered with deer tracks, and
Arno immediately started putting his nose down into all of them and sorting them out. He remembered exactly why we were there; he picked out the largest ones and started cold tracking down the creek bank, slowly and methodically following the scent left behind by the big hooves. At this point I had no way of being sure we were on the correct deer, but my gut told me we were right. We tracked downstream several hundred yards crossing both places our buck had crossed the stream at night. Then Arno carefully made a left turn and started tracking away from the stream.
As Arno crawled through some branches, the forest floor exploded. The massive buck leaped from his bed, three feet in front of Arno, and ran off again. I never saw him lying there just 20 feet in front of me. I excitedly called to Mat, who was trailing about 50 yards behind me looking for sign. Mat could hardly believe that we had jumped him again. There was not one drop of blood in the buck’s night-long bed, and we had not seen more than five or six drops of blood the whole way since the hunter’s point of loss the previous afternoon; this little dog has now found our buck 26 hours after he initially arrowed it. Mat was astonished, and I was glowing with pride over Arno’s work.
We got back on the buck’s trail. Things were coming to a head now. A fast 150 yards later, there he lay, 30 yards out in a cut bean field, still alive but with his chin on the ground this time. I tied Arno off once again to a tree; Mat and I started our approach to the buck. Mat wanted to just jump on him, but I convinced him, for his own safety, to give me another try at lassoing him. The buck was lying with his legs under him and his chin on the ground like a cat waiting in ambush. Arno was tied off in the woods to the side; Mat and I approached the buck quietly from behind.
We got closer; I had my rope in hand, and Mat had his knife drawn and ready, I could see the buck breathing slow, labored breaths. His ears twitched each time Arno, off to his right, barked extra hard. This time I planned to throw the rope like a minnow net, with two hands, to maximize the chance of capture. Mat was poised to jump on him should the rope miss its mark. I got within a few feet of the buck’s tail and my instincts told me to throw the rope. The instant the rope touched the buck, before the rope has even finished falling, the great buck jumped to his feet, turned around and faced us in the barren bean field. I pulled the slack out of the rope as quickly as I could to get tension on it.
I hoped that this tension toward me would cause the buck to instinctively pull away rather than try to attack us. To my great elation the lasso closed down around the base of both huge horns. I was amazed at the good fortune of the toss. I also caught one of his front legs in the rope, but even with one hoof pulled up between his antlers, the buck managed to come to his feet. At this point I know my job was to get him over to the woods where I could snub him around a tree with the rope.
Standing on only three legs, with the fourth caught in the rope, he fell twice as I played tug of war, pulling him toward the woods. He jumped to his feet both times after falling and the second time his entangled front leg came free. Now he had all four feet to resist with, and the battle became tougher. Mat wanted to jump in for the kill, but I told him to wait and he complied. I told Mat to distract the buck from behind so that he wouldn’t try to charge me. In this open field there was nowhere to hide if he came at me. I remember thinking, if the buck charges, I will just grab for his horns, close my eyes, and hope for the best. Mat did a great job yelling and kicking dirt at the buck as I struggled to drag him to the trees. At one point the buck tried to turn towards Mat, but I yanked harder to keep him moving towards the woods. At this point the buck, Mat, and I were all working on instinct, figuring things out as we went. I could hardly believe I was standing eyeball to eyeball with a 200 pound buck, 20 feet away on the end of a rope in an open field. Finally I got a few feet of rope past the first tree; I locked the rope around the tree.
I think the buck sensed the end was near and he really dug in; I couldn’t budge him any closer to the tree to tie him up as I had planned. At that point, unable to tie him any better, Mat cautiously lunged in a few times, delivering the finishing blows with his knife. The scene reminded me of a film I watched once showing wolves finishing off an old elk.
The buck quickly toppled and it was finally over. I stood quietly over the now still buck, admiring his size, his structure and his will to survive. We then dragged the buck over to the nearby creek to use it as a background for picture taking. I finally untied Arno; he dragged me over to the buck, and I gave him his just reward. Arno dove into the rear end of the deer, and I allowed him a few minutes of joy pulling the buck’s tail.
Upon closer examination the buck turned out to be a ten pointer, not an eight pointer. We also discovered what had actually happened when Mat released his arrow. Mat’s arrow had been a few inches farther left than he realized, and at the hard quartering angle he was shooting, the arrow did not hit behind the ribs as he had thought but instead, had actually struck the deer at the base of the ear. Mat did see the fletching back at the ribs as the deer ran off, but in the excitement of the moment what Mat didn’t see was that the rest of the arrow was outside the deer, not embedded inside. The fixed blade broad head had skidded along the skull at the base of the ear, penetrating only about six inches. When I slipped my finger into the hole made by the broadhead, I could feel small bone chips, most likely from the mastoid process and the back of the jawbone. But the skull itself had obviously not been penetrated. Apparently a small artery had been cut in this area, resulting in the initial massive blood loss that mortally weakened the deer. The blood flow clotted off before the buck could expire. I am sure this deer would have eventually died from the combination of the initial blood loss and the difficulty of eating and drinking with a busted-up jawbone. Still, it’s anyone’s guess how long that might have taken.
I have deep respect for the strength of character displayed by this great buck. Arno and I are grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of his inevitable demise at the end of his natural cycle of life. It is an experience that we will never forget.
Andy Bensing, who wrote this feature story, represents the sort of people now being drawn into blood tracking. His commitment is overwhelming.
Andy comes to blood tracking with a background as a professional dog trainer; he is also a serious bowhunter. Andy has led the struggle to legalize the use of leashed tracking dogs in his home state through Deer Recovery of Pennsylvania (DRP), which he founded. He is also President of United Blood Trackers, a national organization promoting the use of tracking dogs to find wounded big game.
Since Pennsylvania has not yet legalized tracking dogs, Andy fulfills his passion for tracking in the neighboring states of New York and Maryland.
Those of us with experience realize that Andy took some big risks in finishing off the Maryland buck as he did. In a sense this is part of hunting, but certainly it would have been better for everyone, including the deer, if Andy had been permitted to use some sort of firearm.
In many states, especially in the Midwest, the wildlife officials drafting regulations for leash tracking dog handlers had little sense of reality in this aspect of hunting. It seemed simpler to keep weapons out of the picture, and to assume that all wounded deer tracked would be dead or docile as sheep. As someone who has had a dog torn up, and who has been knocked down by a buck, I can empathize with Andy. Adrenaline carries us forward, as it does the deer, but unnecessary risk is senseless.