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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Classic Deer Behavior from a Classic Poor Shot Selection

by Andy Bensing
November 13, 2011

Here is the story of a track I had that encompassed many valuable lessons about blood tracking with a dog and hunting whitetail deer in general.  When the call came in the hunter reported having arrowed a mature buck from 20 feet up and at the close distance of only 5 to 8 yards.  When I got to the hit sit the distance was actually even worse.  It was only 4 yards at best.  To make matters even worse than that, the buck was facing directly towards the hunter when he shot.  In that configuration, there is absolutely no chance of double lunging the animal and only an extremely very low chance of hitting the heart.  This is a shot that never should be taken with a bow.  The hunter did not see the arrow hit the deer but he reported a bright red blood soaked arrow with short gray or white hairs on it. 

At the shot, the deer barely reacted and walked away 10 yards and stood wobbling for 20 seconds then walked another 15 yards away and lay down behind a tree in some brush.  The deer laid there, with no window for a second shot, for 45 minutes with its mouth wide open panting.  After 45 minutes the hunter reported the deer staggered to his feet and wobbled away out of sight without offering another shot opportunity.  The deer left a solid 2 inch wide strip of bright red blood from a few yards past the hit site to the place it laid for 45 minutes.  After it got up from the 45 minute bed there was not a single drop of blood found by the hunter or my dog the next day over the course of the whole track as seen below.

After hearing the hunter's account of the deer's behavior after the shot, I assumed he had hit back farther than he had aimed and gut-shot the deer.  When I got to the hit sight I quickly discovered that the deer had been single lunged, not gut shot.  There were 2 oak leaves in the 45 minute bed filled with coagulated blood still showing the typical hundreds of bird shot sized bubbles often seen in blood gurgling out of a deer from a lung shot.  From that point forward there was not a drop of blood found.

In retrospect, what likely happened was the razor sharp arrow cleanly slipped between the ribs and pierced one lung without touching any bone and the deer barely knew anything happened other than a sudden shortness of breath and sick feeling.  He walked over, laid down to rest, the lung collapsed and therefore stopped bleeding as Mother Nature had planned.  Mature bucks are masters of conserving energy.  They rarely panic.  That's how they get to be mature bucks.  Once the bleeding stops and the deer has been lucky enough to not go into shock (as a result of not panicking and running off all crazed and losing too much blood too fast) now all you have is a tired anemic deer with one lung.  No different than a person who just came out of surgery after having one of his two lungs removed.

When I started my dog Eibe on the 24 hour old track she had a bit of difficulty getting going.  I am guessing that with all the massive blood the first 30 yards the area was flooded with scent and she had a hard time figuring out what the deer himself smelled like.  We knew what direction the deer had walked out of the bed but I let Eibe take 4 or 5 trial runs in several directions for 30 or 40 meters each until she finally locked into the deer's individual scent.  There was no blood to be seen and she started poking her nose down into the fluffy oak leaves and checking hoof prints in the soft underlying ground.  Once locked into the correct buck we tracked bloodlessly for 1000 meters through open forest and field and up a steep hill to a briar and laurel thicket.  The trail went about 100 meters into the thicket on the top of the hill and then began to hook back. 

At that point I said to the hunter that I believed we were about to find a dead deer or jump him still alive. This deer had shown typical wounded deer behavior.  He had rested till he got his wits about himself and then headed efficiently back to a safe bedding area to hold up.  Deer will often make a button hook, as indicated on the map above, before bedding down.  This allows them to watch their back trail and see predators coming and slip away before the predator is right up on them.  And that is exactly what this buck did.  After hooking back 100 meters and laying on the edge of a bench 70 meters off to the side of his back trail, this buck saw/heard us coming and slipped away before we saw him.  Eibe got stuck for about 5 minutes at his bed in the button hook I assume because of the abundance of scent there from being there all night.  Once she got that worked out she shot off like a rocket and I suspected then we were on the buck's hot trail but could not be sure as there was no sign except for the classic pattern the track had been taking. 

After 500 meters on the hot trail with no confirming sign I was starting to worry that maybe we were not on the correct deer's trail.  Most of the hot trail showed no hoof prints or sign at all except I had seen some small fresh tracks that went with some very small, warm to the touch droppings.  Not a good sign as these could not possibly have been from our buck.  The small prints eventually disappeared and the trail then began to curve around to begin to make a circle and large prints from a running deer appeared on the line.  I believe the buck initially just walked away from his button hook bed but we eventually got closer and he began to run and therefore started making easily visible tracks. 

I still wasn't absolutely sure Eibe was on the correct deer but when I saw the path of the deer on my GPS circling back to his original trail from the day before my confidence level began to rise.  What are the odds that some other random other deer would take this course?  Not very high in my estimation.  I told the hunter that if the deer we were following continued to loop back towards the button hook bed then we could be pretty darn sure it was the buck we were after.  Deer, just like rabbits and other prey animals make circles back over their previous course of escape to confuse their pursuers. 

Well this buck did not use that strategy but used another strategy that I have seen before.  When he got to the place I expected him to circle back to the button hook, he instead ran right through an overgrown field filled with deer paths everywhere but took the exact course through the field that he had gone the day before but in the opposite direction for 250 meters.  Clearly no coincidence.  If I had had any doubts, they were gone.  This was the correct buck that had been shot the day before through one lung.  The other thing I was pretty sure of was that he was too strong to catch up to with a tracking dog on a leash.  I forgot to mention the other strong, evasive maneuver he used that worked pretty well for him. 

I am sitting here typing this out with my arm in a sling because at one point when he started the 250 meter retrace in the field, it appeared he purposely avoided an easy crossing of a 7 foot deep by 4 foot wide ravine and jumped across the ravine at an awkward spot.  Well, his pursuer, me, fell into that ravine when a log he used as a bridge broke!  But I am pretty tough too so I handed the leash to the hunter for awhile and hobbled along till I got my wind and could take the reins again.  The buck continued back right past the original hit sight and eventually got on the back trail of the trail he had followed before he was shot.  At this point I considered all the following information I knew about the deer:

1.    One lung hit that collapsed and stopped bleeding.
2.    Hole out bottom of chest but not really that much blood likely lost.
3.    Was willing to go up a very steep hill within one or two hours of being shot the day before.
4.    Never let us get close enough to see or hear him even in some very open hardwoods after chasing him
1½ miles after the button hook bed.
5.    Appeared to be able to run through the forest at will without struggling 24 hours after the shot.
6.    Made a very large 500m circle and had enough wits about him to throw in a 250 meter back track.
7.    Tried to kill his pursuers (and almost did) by setting up a booby trap at the ravine :-)

I decided to give up the trail.  As long as this deer can fight off any ensuing infection, this deer has a good chance to recover from his wounds.  I hope my shoulder heels as quickly!


Anonymous said...

Hey Andy,

Great story. Sorry about your shoulder, hope it's just a "flesh wound" not to keep you down.

I'll be giving you a call to tell you a few stories of nice finds and enlist your opinion on those I feel Gerti and I should have done better with.

Take care,

Chris and Gerti...and Oscar.

Samantha said...

Great tracking post! I learn alot from your posts and the maps you attach to them, I can then refer back to them when I have a similar track. Hope your shoulder heals soon! I will have to watch out for those booby trap setting bucks!!