By Dr. Bernd BlosseyAssociate Professor
Department of Natural Resources
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
The making of a team
I have been bow hunting in New York (and occasionally elsewhere) for over 20 years. Over this time, I have gone from taking a few deer to dozens each year. This is explained, in part, by the fact that I have been involved with implementing and executing suburban deer management programs using archery equipment in the Ithaca, NY area. These often involve Deer Depredation Permits (colloquially called nuisance permits) that allow shooting outside of regular hunting seasons, over bait, and at night with the help of artificial lights. The goal is to reduce deer populations that are threatening crops or forest regeneration, and other species. My season currently stretches over 6 months, typically from late September to the end of March. Having a slight red-green blindness (I can see individual colors just fine, but when red and green dots are interspersed, I am unable to pick up the red), following blood trails is not an easy task for me since blood drops do not “light up” as they do for others. Consequently, I have honed my skills over the years due to patience, slow approaches, reading signs like hoof prints, and asking for help from others (my wife Vicki and other landowners included). This has helped greatly but I also had my fair share of grid searches and long hours after dark, or the next morning to locate deer. And not always have they been successful, particularly not in tall goldenrods or cattail swamps, or dense thickets of honeysuckle, privet, buckthorn and multiflora rose that are common in suburban areas. Sometimes it was the vultures that needed to tell me where I walked by a dead deer at 5 or 10 yards, or I found only bones the next morning as bears, coyotes, bobcats and foxes have helped themselves to a welcome late dinner.
Over the years I called in and observed several dachshunds do their tracking searches and I had become more and more interested in developing this approach for myself, and in helping other hunters. It seemed the right thing to do, but there was a lot of homework that needed to be done, including convincing my wife that a dog in the house and in the family would be a good idea. It took several years of reading and background work, and some planning for the right time to train a puppy before this last year finally saw it all come together. I had settled on obtaining a Deutsch Drahthaar (a Schwarzschimmel) because I had fallen in love with the breed after seeing a six-month old “trainee” at the Rhode Island airport. I wanted a medium sized dog, and a versatile hunting dog, although I rarely, if ever, venture out for upland or waterfowl hunting. But I am an ecologist and conservationist in my professional life and I wanted to maintain a potential option for the dog to be trained as a conservation dog in finding rare critters, scat or even plants.
Having grown up in Germany I pursued options to obtain a puppy both in the US and in Germany, where I worked with a breed warden. And this connection paid off when a breeder had a litter of 10 puppies born on New Years Eve, eight of which were Schwarzschimmel, with a good blood tracking pedigree and other physical features my wife and I were favoring. We picked up Sylvie (the name is an inspirational combination of the date, known as Sylvester in Germany and over much of Europe in honor of an early pope, and the Latin Sylva for forest where the dog will spend a major portion of her time) in late February, spent a week with relatives to help socialize her, and then returned in early March with her in the cabin to New York. And I have been training her ever since through late spring, summer, and fall on artificial lines, always looking forward to the start of the season. It did not always go as desired, she failed miserably on her first overnight track, and the hot and dry summer of 2016 made tracking conditions difficult. But she always was eager to work and dog and handler are trying to learn each other’s approaches. Most of the time I try to slow her down as speed appears to be the enemy number one when she overshoots and then loses the track. But she has learned to circle back and around to pick up where she lost the trail. Over this time she has grown from an adorable little puppy to nearly her full size as a 10 month old teenager.
The first call
One of the recommendations is to have practice runs for dog apprentices, i.e having the dog find a dead deer, even if a dog is not necessary. Just for good practice on the real thing. But the first call that came in on October 3rd was the real thing. A hunter had shot a deer in a suburban area surrounded by houses, lawns and roads. There was a reasonable blood trail that the hunter was able to follow for maybe 200 yards to two large blotches of blood and then nothing. After not being able to find any more blood that evening the hunter backed out. I took the tracking opportunity after the report of a high hit but out of a treestand with a downward trajectory, and good lung blood on the arrow. We started the track in the early afternoon, some 15 hours after the hit. Sylvie took right to the track, and she was much slower and more deliberate than on the artificial tracks, something I immediately noticed. My artificial lines may have been too easy, even though I thought I was making it more and more difficult. The area of brush and woods was crisscrossed by deer trails but Sylvie followed the trail down the path the hunter had marked to the spot with the abundant blood and then further towards the edge of the woods ending on a lawn. She lost the track twice during this time, but only briefly and circled right back without me needing to correct her. But at the edge of the lawn she was unsure and then appeared to follow other interesting scents. I walked her back around in the thicket and we started over, all the while discussing with the hunter what could have happened. The second path was almost identical to the first, without her getting lost, and we ended up at the same spot.
We decided to follow the edge of the woods, look into some hedgerows, go across two of the roads that separated the piece of woods where the hit occurred from a larger forested area and allow Sylvie to see if she could pick up the scent trail once again. She picked up all kinds of interesting scents, apparently, but we never found another sign of the deer or any blood. We returned to the pocket of woods, made another circle through it in hope the deer may not have left the woods if mortally wounded but ended up tired and without the deer. After further discussing the hit once more, it was my opinion that the hunter likely hit too high to get a double lung, and that the big blotches of blood were not from the deer bleeding out of both sides but probably standing in the same spot, bleeding out of his nose with his head lowered until the hunter following the track pushed him out. I thought this deer may still be alive, since these are amazing and resilient animals. The hunter had a trail camera in the woods and 4 days later the buck he shot walked by the camera with the entry wound clearly visible. The entry wound is too high to have hit lung on the deer’s left side and on the right side the broadhead probably hit one of the small back lung lobes, not sufficient for a mortal hit. This made me feel much better about the tracking job Sylvie did. Who knows if an experienced dog would have been able to follow the track across the hard surfaces, and it would have ended at a live deer.
Three in a row
The next weekend came quickly and with it another practice opportunity, this time in a suburban community shooting over bait. As for the previous weekend, the agreement was that if one of us would shoot a deer, we would allow Sylvie to find it for good practice. Little did we know that she would get both an easy practice and then two real searches. I was able to shoot a fawn coming to bait and it ran 40 yards and collapsed (see yellow arrow in picture below showing bait and the dead deer next to the tree in the background). After waiting for dark and the potential for another shot, I put Sylvie on the track. I was not able to locate the arrow in the dense grass after the pass through, so I was not entirely sure of the exact hit location. Sylvie was clearly confused by all the hot deer scent coming and going to bait and she was eager to investigate it. I allowed Sylvie to find the arrow and once she had it she picked up the trail and we were at the dead fawn in no time. It was interesting to see her investigate the deer with caution – this was, after all, the first real deer she found. She walked around it investigating the wound and the leg glands and the muzzle. It looked as if she was not quite sure what to make of it. At home, the end of a line was usually some old piece of deer hide, so this was different. But she eagerly consumed the deer treats that I had brought for her.
So far so good – good practice! Let’s call it a night I thought. But not so fast. One of my fellow hunters had shot two deer, neither one of which he was able to locate. So we went to the next property, just about a mile away. The hunter had located one of the arrows but not the second. I determined that there was clear sign of gut on the arrow and the description of the deer behavior after the hit (jumped up and then slowly walking off) suggested a potential hit of the liver as well. It was about 2.5 hours after the hunter shot this deer, so I decided to track the second animal first to give the gut shot animal more time. The location was in a small cattail swamp, surrounded by old fields, gardens and lawns. Sylvie picked up a trail, but the hunter indicated to me that the deer took a different path, so I called her off after 10 yards. I should have known better, but I am an apprentice, as is my dog, in learning the skills of collaborating with each other. So off we went on a wild ride through brush, thickets, trash and myriad deer trails criss-crossing the area. I could tell after a while that Sylvie was not on the track but I allowed her to search for about 20 minutes before calling it off and returning to the site of the hit.
I then decided to track the gut shot deer. After allowing Sylvie to sniff the arrow she slowly followed this deer track through the cattails, over a lawn, back into a hedgerow, out onto a lawn and then towards two houses. This time I trusted the dog, although I was surprised about the travel directions. Knowing that it was only about 3 hours after the gut shut, I constantly checked into the distance to see if I could locate a deer, potentially still alive. There was no possibility for me to return to the location the next morning so this was the best option. Sure enough after about 200 yards of tracking I saw the eyes of the deer about 60 yards away right next to the house looking at us. It had bedded down next to a compost pile. We immediately backed out, praised Sylvie and left the area. There was no possibility for a follow-up shot given the deer’s location. I advised the hunter to pick up the deer in the morning as it would likely be in the same spot, or only slightly away. This he did and the deer had not moved and it died right there. Without Sylvie, we would have never ventured toward the two houses and into a wide open area.
Then it was back to the first track. This time I said I trust the dog and Sylvie went onto the same path that she took the first time. We did not make it beyond 50 yards after coming out of the cattail swamp. There the button buck had collapsed. A happy hunter and a happy handler – probably a happy dog as well as there was half a deer heart as reward. An easy practice session was anticipated, and that she got with the first deer I shot and then 2 real ones, all in the same night.
Sometimes it is not the distance that counts
A few days later I took out one of my students to observe a hunt. I went to one of my favorite places that has been incredibly productive over the years, but it is also the place where the brush “eats” the dead deer. I had lost numerous deer that I thought were perfect hits in the brushy wetlands and I have spent countless hours with the landowner in the dark, or during the day trying our luck on grid searches. Often we were successful, but occasionally we were not. A big motivation to obtain and train Sylvie. This evening turned out to be just like so many others but with a much better final outcome. So we got into the tree overlooking bait for the first outing of the season at this location with Sylvie patiently awaiting her time in the car. A button buck approached the bait soon thereafter and a 25 yard shot killed him after a short 40 yard dash. We heard him fall. An hour later two fawns approached the bait from the same direction and this time my shot hit a doe fawn that made it 30 yards and she fell close to the button buck.
We continued to wait for another hour in anticipation of deer movement right at dusk or shortly thereafter. Soon enough, a very cautious doe approached the bait and circled around right after dark. With a half moon, I could easily spot her. My shot found its mark, we heard ribs breaking, then a very short mad dash, brush breaking twice indicating a collapsing deer and then silence. This sounded all perfect. After waiting 20 minutes we climbed out of the tree and located the first two arrows. I got Sylvie and put her on the first deer. She was so excited to be out of the car and with all the scent around (we had seen a grey fox, a raccoon and plenty squirrels) that she ventured off track immediately. After I calmed her down and she found the track, she took a very short time to walk up to the button buck, not paying any attention to the second deer that was just 5 yards away from the track she followed. Good practice success and time for another photo opportunity with a proud handler and his dog.
I decided to forgo tracking the 2nd deer since it was laying just right there and the track would have been 25 yards. It did not seem worthwhile and there was one more deer to track – an easy practice track I thought given what we had heard. Little did I know what this turned out to be. We found the arrow and blood on the grass and goldenrod and Sylvie took up the track. She got into very thick honeysuckles and walked around some brush trying to get through the thickest parts but was unable to do so. We tried to see what she was trying to get to but other than some trash we could not see anything in the dark. So I called her out of it (I should have walked her around more, but that is with hindsight) and allowed her to follow whatever she thought was right. I tried putting her onto the same trail 3 times and she always followed the same path for about 20 yards and then veered off to the left.
I was getting confused and worried about what went down with the deer. All indications were that it was a good hit, maybe a slight bit low, but the crashing indicated that there was a dead deer very close to where it got shot. But we could not locate the deer after almost 2 hours of searching and allowing Sylvie to explore close to the hit locations and way beyond. I finally called it a night, rather disappointed and questioning myself and the shot location, my interpretation of the sounds of and after the hit, and Sylvie’s ability to track this deer. But I had two deer to process and occasionally such things happen. I thought with the help of a dog this would be kept to a minimum, but I also recognized that even with a good and experienced dog, not all deer are found.
The next morning, while taking Sylvie on our usual morning walk, I could not get this deer and the scenario out of my head. I felt I owed it the deer and myself to go back and check one more time during daylight. I also decided to allow Sylvie another crack at it after a good night’s sleep, and some early exercise. So off we went. When I put her onto the track, she did the same as every time the night before: 20 yards through tall grass and goldenrod, then veering to the left and then clearly getting lost in other scents. I decided to just break through the dense brush, following deer trails, following the sounds of a group of crows calling from their perch 100 yards away, basically doing nearly a grid search with my dog. Nothing materialized, other than stumbling through the brush and getting scratched by multiflora rose. I made the decision to allow her one last time to follow the trail after having burned off some of the energy over the past hour, and then I would put her into the car and try a real grid search one last time before giving up.
And this time, for reasons I am not able to explain, it went quite different. We came onto the track she had followed and for some reason she picked up the scent. She slowed to nearly a crawl and instead of veering off to the left after getting out of the tall grass, she stayed straight and crawled under a honeysuckle bush overgrown itself by vines. I could barely see her, but she was investigating something, which turned out to be the dead doe. I have illustrated the path the deer and Sylvie took with the yellow arrows in the 3 pictures below. The total length of path the deer ran with a perfect heart shot was 30 yards, if that far. The deer had crashed into the brush and lodged itself on its belly so no white was visible. Even as I was standing a few feet away from the deer, I could not see it. I saw something white, that the sun lit up, which turned out to be white on a hind leg. I only investigated this further because Sylvie was under the bush, quiet, not pulling any longer, clearly having found something. I had to get onto my belly and crawl into the brush to finally convince myself that she had in fact located the dead doe. I took a few extra pictures to show how difficult and camouflaged the entire situation was for a hunter without a dog.
Above: Travel direction of heart shot deer from hit locations. Total length of travel is 30 yards. Pictures are taking consecutively closer to collapsed deer under honeysuckle bush
Above: Deer located under honeysuckle bush, barely visible, if at all. Yellow arrow indicates sunlight hitting hind leg.
Above: Collapsed doe under honeysuckle bush. Yellow arrow points to head. Picture taken lying on the ground to visualize the deer.
With the help of Sylvie, and with being persistent, I was able to locate this dead deer. After a perfect shot, after a mad dash of only 30 yards, this deer eluded 2 people and a dog for many hours. It is not always the distance that the deer are able to travel or the lack of blood. I would have never been able to see the deer – in a few days we would have smelled it. We stood a few feet away from it and walked by it many times. But this time the brush did not “eat” the deer; it went to the venison donation program feeding the hungry as did the two fawns from the night before. It is satisfying to end this search on such a high note. It confirms to me the value of having a tracking dog – even if she still gets confused by all the scents at a baited location, or in suburbia.
To be continued.