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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Professional Tracking

From Full Cry, May 2009
At the highest level, tracking wounded big game becomes a real profession, and there are some tracking dog handlers that make a good part of their living doing this. Dan Kendall, who wrote this account, is a retired Fire Chief from Miami Florida. He gives us a sense of the passions and pressures of working on a professional basis. There are many good tips for amateur trackers that come out of his experience.

Vars with a trophy deer find

Dan’s tracking partner is Vars, a Bavarian Mountain Bloodhound; the two had worked together for several deer seasons in Georgia before spending the 2005 season in the big buck country of Illinois. Dan worked there under contract for a big outfitter who leased the hunting rights on thousands of acres. At this time the use of tracking dogs to find lost deer for clients was still quite new. Dan Kendall begins:

“Because of the amount of deer up there in Illinois and the fact that I was also working as a guide, we decided that Vars and I would be called in after the other guides had checked to see if they could find the deer on their own. In all we went on 21 searches and found six of the deer. It was bowhunting only so we wound up with quite a few non-lethal hits. We would determine this only after long tracking jobs. We also had a problem with property line disputes, and had to call off some of our searches because of this.

At first things were tough because there are so many deer up there that it was common to have 50 to 75 deer cross the path of the wounded deer after the shot. Vars and I had worked quite a bit in areas with lots of deer, but we had never encountered anything like this. It was tough, in the case of gut shots and the less than perfect hits, to make the decision to wait and give the animal time to lie up and die. It seems that most shots were taken late in the afternoon, and therefore we would wait until morning to track the animal. I would say the average age of the tracks was 16 to 18 hours, and there would have been literally 50 to 100 deer that had passed through the area overnight. That was a lot of information and distraction for a young dog like Vars to figure out, but he did well. We both learned a lot.

Because we were able to drive relatively close to most of the starting points, at first I would just hook his tracking leash and collar on to him at the truck. I realized very quickly that this was a mistake. He would start tracking from the time that we got out of the truck and by the time we got to the actual hit site he would already have crossed at least 20 fresh tracks.

I then started hooking a short leash on to his regular collar and made up a tracking fanny pack with his long tracking leash and collar and my GPS, compass, water, knife and stuff to properly tag the deer if we found it. I was carrying my camera too but got superstitious about this after we didn't find any, so I quit taking it. Hooking him to the short leash and walking him into the hit site made a huge difference.

When we got there I would tie him to a small tree and go to the hit site with the hunter and guide to get a general idea of the hit and the direction the deer had traveled after the hit. In bowhunting the travel route of the deer after the hit is the most important piece of information you can have because they usually don't start dropping blood to the ground for 50 to 75 yards. For some reason most of these deer ran off with the arrow sticking out of them so you didn't even have that to analyze.

Another problem was that late October and November is the time when whitetail deer are breeding in that part of the country so every time a buck was shot there would be other bucks and does with him, and they would all scatter in different directions. I would say that 90% of the time I would have to work several lines before we would get onto the right one. I would have the hunter get back into the tree stand and watch as Vars and I worked a line so that he could tell us if he was headed in the same direction the injured deer had run after the hit. If for some reason (and it happened a lot) the hunter had no clue as to the direction the deer ran after the shot, I would have to work a line, and if I didn't find blood or some other signs of a hit after 75 yards, I would take Vars back to the hit site and start again. On some tracks I would re-start him five or six times before we would finally get on the right track. Boy would I get excited when we found blood and confirmed that we had the right track.

I was frustrated at first. I just didn't know how we were going to be able to work in an area where there was so many deer, but somehow Vars did it. I'm amazed at his ability. The problem was that most of these deer were either gut shot or hit in such a way that they would not die quickly. They needed time to lie up and die, but this meant that you had to cope with all the deer tracks that would be in the area. Coyotes were a real problem too.

It was a tough situation that an experienced tracker can appreciate. At first I think the owner of the place thought we would find every deer that was shot, but of course this was not the case. I feel successful if I can carry the line farther than whomever it was who started the tracking job before me. In most cases I was able to determine that the deer would live or had gone beyond property lines that made us stop.

At one point I had gone nine jobs without finding the deer. Man was I frustrated. Then I hit a streak and found three in a row, two in one night. Here's that story.

A guide had informed me at lunch that one of his hunters had gut shot a deer at nine am in the morning. I told him that we would wait until dark and then go look for it. At three o'clock the same afternoon the same guide informed me that his other hunter had shot a deer and told him "I'm afraid I hit it a little far back".

Now we had two deer shot "a little far back". Vars and I had been on a tracking job that morning where we had actually jumped a doe and watched as she bounded off out of her bed and jumped a fence onto property that we didn't have permission to track on. We had followed a bloodless track for approx. 200 yards when we jumped her. The only confirmation of a hit was the few drops of blood we found in her bed. I was confident that this deer would live.

We had 22 bowhunters in camp for this hunt, and I was praying no one else would hit one "a little far back" that evening. As it turned out the weather really went bad and we were dealing with light rain and winds of approximately 20 mph by dark. I questioned my decision to let these deer lay. But that's the nature of tracking for a large operation. The owner wants you to find the deer as soon as possible, but you know through experience that to start too early is a huge mistake. Although I was guiding, I was mainly hired as a tracker and the decision of when to start was my decision, and I always erred on the side of more time. "Time is a good thing" became my motto, but in the back of my mind I was saying to myself, "Although time is a good thing now Vars and I will have to deal with the fresh scent of dozens of other deer crossing the track of the wounded deer".

Let me add that this is a trophy bowhunting area (perhaps the finest in the world) for whitetail bucks and these are hunts of a lifetime for most of the hunters in camp You have the added pressure of finding this deer of a lifetime for them.

Anyway, lets get back to the two "a little far back" deer we needed to track that night. I decided to track the one shot in the morning first, and we went to the site. The guide had slipped into the area at around two pm just to see what he could find and to look for the arrow. He had found the arrow, and much to my dismay had brought it back to camp with him. I had already given the guides instructions to leave the arrow where they found it. I guess in his excitement he forgot. The arrow was covered with long white hair and looked like it had been dipped in a clear liquid. A gut shot for sure. He also reported that the only sign of a hit, other than the arrow, was a few hairs on the ground. From his conversation with the hunter he had a good idea of the route the deer had taken when he left the area, so we had that to go on.

When we got to the area, with Vars on the short leash, I tied him to a tree nearby and inspected the area with the guide. With nothing more to go on than a general direction the deer had gone, I told the guide we would just have to see what Vars could do. I put the long leash on Vars. The first scent line he took was up a main trail in a direction opposite the travel route of the wounded deer. As soon as I realized this was a fresh track in the wrong direction I shortened the leash and headed back to start him over. The hunter had described that the deer had taken a few leaps forward and then whirled and followed his back trail until he went out of sight approximately 50 yards from the stand. On the second try Vars hit this track and made the quick change of direction so I felt confident he was on the right track. I've learned that Vars tracks in a different matter on an old track than he does on a fresh one; he moves much more slowly with an almost sneaking along demeanor, and that's what he was doing. At about the 50 yard mark Vars made a 90 degree turn and headed into a thicket. He went right through the top of a fallen tree. I knew this was the sign of a mortally wounded deer.

It took me two or three minutes to negotiate our way through the area. The guide asked if I thought the deer had gone through such a thick spot, and I just said "you've got to believe". This deer headed for the thickest, nastiest ravine you can imagine. I was literally crawling at one point to get through. Vars was out of sight at the end of the 30 foot tracking leash, and I was just following the rope. This went on for about 50 or 60 yards and then the line went slack. I knew he was standing at the deer. I literally crawled up the rope to Vars and found him standing on a beautiful Illinois ten pointer that would easily score 150, Pope and Young.

I carry two-way radios and had issued one to the guide at the start. I had told him to stay back while I worked out the track in this thick cover. Man was he excited when I radioed the "Vars found the deer" signal. Man was I happy. The guide was familiar with the area and now knew exactly where the deer was, so we left that deer to go look for the one shot at three pm. Here's that story.

The weather was really turning nasty now, and it was raining steadily with the wind blowing at 20 mph and gusting higher. The temperature was near 40. I think Vars thought his work was done for the night as he slept en route to our next attempt, but he jumped up and got excited when the truck came to a stop; I got out my fanny pack and put my headlight back on.

Again we went through the routine of hooking him on the short leash and walking him to the hit site. I tied him to a tree and again went with the guide to where the deer had been standing when the hunter shot. This buck had run off with the arrow. He had also been with another buck and three does when the arrow was released, but we had a good description from the hunter of the route the deer had taken. Again, there was no sign of a hit at the site, and again Vars started tracking an unwounded deer. We actually tracked three of the unwounded deer before Vars hit on the wounded one and we went in the general direction the hunter described that the deer had taken. Man, deer do some crazy stuff when they get shot with an arrow, and this one didn't disappoint us. He apparently jumped across a dry creek (actually an erosion ditch) at a spot where the banks were vertical and approximately five feet high. It was only about six feet across at the crossing point, and I know that a buck in fairly good condition this early in the his escape run could easily jump across.

Well, Vars and I weren't as agile, and we wound up in the bottom of the ditch checking every crossing where you would have thought the deer might have crossed. This is where teamwork comes in. I decided to take him onto the high side just to see if he could pick up the track. At the exact spot opposite where we had tracked to the ditch he hit the trail again and off we went. He was in that "sneaking" mode so I felt good about this line. At approximately 75 yards into the track I saw a dried drop of blood on a log that crossed the trail. It hadn't rained hard enough yet to wash the sign away.

I then found blood about every 20 yards or so along the line that Vars was working. This deer had taken a path through fairly open timber, which I was thankful for, after the last track. I knew he was "locked on" this buck. We followed the line another 100 yards or so when we came to a picked corn field. Experience had already taught me that sparse blood in a corn field is nearly impossible to see so I had to "believe". Vars was definitely "locked on" this deer. We had gone about 200 yards out into the field when the guide stated that we were going to run out of property if the deer made it out of the field. We had come a long way, and I was concerned that this deer was going to get away when Vars started tracking in a zig-zag pattern and my hopes picked up. This is usually a good sign. I was shining my headlight across the field when I saw his antler sticking up. I can't express my emotions! Let's just say I was emotional about the whole thing. After going deerless over the last eight tracks we had just found two in the same night! Man was that exciting. I was really proud of Vars. I hate to put into human terms the relationship that a tracker has with his dog, but it's the only thing I can relate it to. It's like watching your child perform at a recital, play or sporting event. You just want them to do good and Vars had just "done good".

Var's status around camp was elevated to a new level that night, and I must have looked like a "proud Dad" when the other hunters were asking the two hunters and the guide if that was the "tracking dog" that had found the two deer and they would reply "yep that's ol Vars", and then they would all want to give him a pat on the head and make a friend out of him. They understood that they might need his help at some point.”

John's note: As you can see “blood tracking” with a dog involves much more than following a line of blood drops. Vars demonstrates this. Handler Dan knows how to look for sign, “read” his dog and guide him when needed. This partnership of handler and dog accomplishes more than either could achieve on their own.

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