A Methodical Deer Tracking Effort Can Minimize Mistakes

Jim KushnerBucks n Bears, Friends of ELO

By:  Jim Kushner.

I want to share this story because even after several decades of deer hunting I learned a little something from the experience.

It was opening day, Nov. 15, 2022. I had not seen a deer all morning and it was nearing noon. Suddenly, a deer popped out of thick cover and walked across the back of the field I was watching. I brought the gun up and looked through the scope and determined it was a doe.  A few seconds later another deer stepped out from behind the same doe I was already ‘scoping’.  Through the scope I determined this was an odd-looking buck.  I decided I’d take the shot if it presented itself. 

The doe had already walked out of sight and it was obvious the buck was about to do the same. I stopped him with a loud bleat a few yards before he got into the trees. I quickly put the scope’s crosshairs just behind his shoulder & squeezed the trigger. As soon as the gun went off I knew I had rushed the shot just a little but I could already tell by the deer’s reaction he was hit. He did the classic jump straight up and kicked his back feet before touching down and leaping into the trees.

There was a thick layer of snow on the ground, except where the buck had been when shot. I found blood, though and followed it into the trees. Then I made my first mistake. Just beyond the row of pine trees is a short hill and since it faces north the snow hadn’t yet melted. I assumed there would be a nice blood trail going down that hill so that’s where I went. I not only did not find a blood trail, I didn’t even see a deer track. I knew that two deer had just gone this way and since I could see the pine row for quite a ways from my stand I was certain the deer had to have gone that way.

I decided to make a short circle from the bottom of the hill in the direction the deer likely ran, then I circled back up the hill to the pine row. Still nothing so I started over at ‘last blood’. As hard as I looked I could not find any more blood and the lack of snow in the pines kept me from following any tracks. I walked along the top of the hill a ways and then back down to the bottom thinking I’d somehow missed the tracks. Still nothing. 

That nagging feeling was starting to grow in my head. Maybe I wasn’t going to find him. It was opening day so I really didn’t want to call anyone for help. The only people I could call were both hunting about 20 miles away. I finally decided he was hit good so I was missing something.

At the bottom of the hill is what I call a creek bed but it’s really more of a ditch. Deer travel along this to the northwest. I had thought about crossing the ditch and walking the north side of it to the property line. Instead I stayed on the south side of the ditch and walked in the same direction. I watched the ground and I watched up ahead in case I jumped the deer. Again, I didn’t find anything so I went to the top of the hill and walked inside the pine row hoping to find the buck laying inside the trees. No deer and no blood. He had to have gone through here somewhere I told myself. Finally I decided to go back to last blood and start over.

That’s when I crossed a narrow break in the pine row where there was snow. Just as I took my first step into the opening I looked down and there were tracks of a running deer. The deer had followed the edge of the pines where there was no snow. I took a step or two along the tracks and saw two red spots under the new snow. Yes, it started to snow right after I shot. Now that snow was covering the blood too. Luckily it had soaked through right here. I followed the running tracks as the deer angled down that hill toward the ditch I had just walked beside. 

The buck had crossed the ditch and I found where I had walked right past without seeing the track. The snow wasn’t very deep and there were a lot of leaves, ferns etc. sticking up through it. From different angles the tracks were all but invisible. (excuses)

I crossed the ditch and walked up the other side into the fairly open hardwoods. I still had not found any more blood but I was sure I was on the right track. Now I was going real slow and watching far ahead of me. I was kicking myself because I had hurried the shot. Wherever I’d hit him I was sure that I had messed up in classic fashion.

When I looked back down at the tracks ahead of me I noticed that the leaves & snow seemed to be torn up a little. When I got to that spot it looked like the deer had stumbled or fallen and had then made a turn to the right. I started looking way out front again, he could be just up ahead. My thinking was partially correct.

I had scanned all around out in front of me and had seen nothing so I looked back down at the tracks in front of me. I followed them further to my right and less than 20 yards away was my buck. Laying dead in a small depression beside a couple of stumps. He was invisible from the ditch where I had walked a few minutes ago. Had I walked the other side of the ditch when I had first thought of it (but didn’t) I would have likely walked right up to him. No matter, I was relieved.

It wasn’t until after I dressed him out that I found where I had even hit him. I had hit a little further back than I should have and he was quartered more toward me than I realized so the exit wound was a few inches behind the ribs. The problem had not been with the 300 Savage round or the bullet, one lung and the liver were solidly hit. For whatever reason neither wound had bled much and a few poor decisions on my part had created the delay in finding him. As I stood there covered in wet snow I realized that he hadn’t gone more than 100 yards total.  It would have been easier tracking if there had been a little more snow but I have tracked a lot of deer during the bow season without the benefit of snow.

What did I learn (re-learn)? 

Don’t rush the shot if you can help it. This shot was taken at about 135 yards from a very solid rest. A second more to steady my aim probably would have made all the difference.

Don’t get ahead of yourself. I knew which way the deer had run and I assumed they had run straight down the hill. If I had stayed at the top of the hill I probably would have crossed his track much sooner.

 Don’t be in a hurry to second guess the shot. While a thorough search of the area would hopefully have located this deer. Had there been no snow at all I can see how someone could have concluded that it was a minor wound and given up on the search.

What did I remember?

If you lose the trail, start over from the beginning.

If all else fails, act on a hunch, your suspicions might be correct. I had thought about walking on the north side of the ditch,  but didn’t. 

There were a few things working in my favor, too.  I knew this property and how it is ‘laid-out’.  There was no reason to rush my tracking efforts.  Have a plan and stick to it.  Listen to that voice inside your head.  For me, I could hear my Dad’s voice during this tracking job…reminding me of all the positive reasons to finish the job and locate the harvested animal.  Just because you don’t find a good blood trail doesn’t mean the shot was a miss or a minor wound.  Keep looking!

I have always been stubborn that way, always one more cast or stay a few more minutes.

Jim Kushner