By: Adrian Zarantonello.
Despite the favorable conditions, opening day didn’t yield any activity for me. My father-in-law Jeff shot a nice 8-point on opening day, his first deer in 5 years. Jeff could care less about antler points and would equally have someone else have success as himself, so as he regaled us with the story, of his first 8-point, I was glad that someone so selfless had found some personal success.
With the wind changing to the southeast the next day, a location change was in order. The morning of the 16th, we were greeted with -6° temperature readings when we turned over the truck. The fluffy snow on the ground sounded like Styrofoam underfoot as we hiked into the new spot. Deer would have to be on their feet and moving today. The blind was situated on a ridge facing southeast with a 15-20-yard-wide shooting lane that evaporated into thick pines, marking the end of the ridge some 75 yards directly in front of me. I had another narrow shooting lane to my 8 o’clock looking down the backside of the ridge facing northwest. Despite the wind pushing my scent in this general direction, I kept the side window of the blind open in the hopes that a buck would look to revisit a fresh scrape at the bottom of the ridge.
The frigid morning stretched on with no activity and I found myself focusing on the mysterious clicking sounds in the trees around me as creatures unknown communicated with one another. My hands were numb for some time, but as pulsing pain began in my extremities, I decided that I had to quietly turn on the little propane heater in the blind.
I think over time, as a species, we have lost our mental fortitude and ability to endure unfavorable conditions. It’s no one’s fault, more a product of technological advancements and convenience that don’t force us to push through that uncomfortable feeling. I sat motionless for long as I could, holding in my pee and resisting the urge to scratch the ever-present nose itch. When I hunt, I almost feel the need to be uncomfortable to test my mental resolve (and maybe also a sick part of me wants to suffer). Pushing through that uncomfortable feeling, even just enduring a little cold, makes me appreciate the hunting experience and the deer that much more. It’s not that holding the pee longer has ever resulted in seeing more deer. It’s more of a point of personal pride and a feeling like I owe it to the deer and myself to be as in the moment in nature as possible. These UP deer endure harsh UP winters for their whole lives, so I almost feel like I owe it to our quarry to sit in the cold for as long as possible. Because of this slightly misguided mindset, I usually hold out as long as possible before turning on the heater.
On this cold morning, I couldn’t resist. I took my focus away from my shooting lane as I began to warm my hands. Eventually, I looked up and on the left fringe of my shooting lane stood a large brown mass some 50 yards away. Adrenaline shot through my veins and suddenly, I couldn’t care less about how cold my hands were. As my eyes focused on the animal that had quietly snuck up on me, I was able to make out a crown of horns as he began to step further into my shooting lane. Having been successful in the earlier bow season, I had to be sure this deer met the antler requirements of my last remaining 2019 deer tag. While he contorted his head and neck to focus on an unknown sound in the direction of the path he took into the small clearing, I quietly brought my scope to eye level. When he turned his head back perpendicular to the blind I almost said aloud, “Whoa, that’s a good one.” He quietly moved further into the shooting lane, rooting around in the snow with his snout; never fully stopping. As he started to reach the right side of the clearing, I began to get nervous and my normal patient mantra of waiting for the right shot quickly evaporated. Any foreign sound could potentially spook the deer and I felt he’d bolt off the ridge and out of sight before I could even get a shot. As if on cue, his momentum stopped, and he presented me with a hard quartering away shot. As I slowly flicked my safety off, I put my crosshairs slightly closer to his front right shoulder and squeezed the trigger. My ears rang as the large animal lurched forward and fell to the ground, thrashing and throwing snow and dirt into the air. A tree and exposed roots obscured my view momentarily but after a few seconds he got to his feet began to run directly away from me. I racked another shell, but he fell to the ground again in a tangle of pine boughs and brush some 10 yards further at the edge of the ridge. The brown mass lay motionless as I studied him through my scope and after a few seconds I flicked my safety back on and exhaled heavily, trying to regulate my heart rate. After taking a few minutes to enjoy the moment and let it sink in, I texted our hunting group, letting them (prematurely) know about my encounter. After putting down my phone, adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I looked up only to see the deer get to its feet, with a surprising quickness. I reached for my rifle, which was in the corner of the blind, but the deer vanished over the edge of the ridge. Instead of pursuing immediately I decided to wait a while longer to give the deer a chance to expire. I organized my gear and emerged from the blind 45 minutes later to survey the scene. I found tufts of hair by the impact site, a trail of ripped up snow and dirt leading to a good amount of darker blood below the pine boughs where the beast initially lay.
Instead of a bright light red, indicating a lung or heart hit, the blood I saw told me I had primarily a muscle hit. Despite the color of the blood found I half expected to find the deer at the bottom of the ridge. Instead, what I found was a few pin pricks of blood dispersed 25-50 yards apart and a trail of three hoof prints in the snow with the upper right hoof replaced with a swipe.
My heart sank. I’m no expert tracker, but the trail told me that the shot was too far forward and didn’t hit as much of the vitals area as I had hoped. While I was bent over the tracks down the ridge, I heard some movement and brush breaking and decided to pull back to not push the deer even further. Gary arrived shortly after to aid in the recovery and we picked up the track. Shortly beyond the ridge, the woods turned from pretty open brush and fallen trees to heavy dense pines. About 150 yards into the track we found a circle of blood-stained melted snow by the edge of the pines. Thinking that the animal was down not far away, we pushed on but were once again greeted by a crashing sound moving away from us deeper into the pines. We paused for a second and my chest started vibrating. My father-in-law Jeff had shot another 8-point and had tagged out. Gary and I decided to pull back, to not bump the deer anymore and help drag Jeff’s second deer out of the woods. It was a nice distraction and fun to be a part of Jeff’s second deer of the trip. After getting back to the cabin and hanging the deer, we took a minute to change clothes before returning to the woods to resume the track with a few hours of daylight remaining. We followed the unique track and intermittent blood through thick pines and brush to another circle of melted snow. The deer had sat here for at least an hour, based on the degree of melt and had had some company, as evidenced by the multiple sets of tracks leaving the communal bed. With night quickly closing in, we decided to again back out and resume the track in the morning. As we left the woods, I couldn’t help but hang my head. I did not think we would recover the wounded deer.
Countless thoughts went through my mind that night as I wrestled with the possibility of injuring and not being able to recover the deer.
Why didn’t I take my time?
I overthought shot placement and put it too far forward.
I should’ve put the shot further back.
I should’ve waited until he was broadside.
I will never forgive myself for not quickly and ethically harvesting the buck.
This was the lowest of lows. The disappointment of waiting all year for that moment, constantly visualizing success, only to have it go differently than planned and in a way that caused unneeded additional pain for the animal, made for a restless night.
Despite my mind constantly telling me to get up early and bring the endless second-guessing to an end, letting the deer time to bed down and probably expire overnight was the best chance we had at recovery. So we headed out in the late morning to pick up the trail again. Jeff, Gary, and I quickly found the last location he had laid down and we each picked a set of tracks to follow out of the bedding area in different directions. Luckily, our intrusion into the area the previous evening helped limit the amount of overnight movement and extra tracks in the area. Gary’s and my assigned tracks were dead ends while Jeff’s lead to a clearing and eventually across a creek. After an hour of following tracks out of the last confirmed location, confidence was not particularly high, and without any blood present, following the track across the creek was our best bet. The deer that made this track also bumped into a few small trees on its way to the creek. We couldn’t be sure if this was from the hobbled deer we were pursuing, or another deer we startled during our trailing efforts. We all talked and determined that if we didn’t find anything on the opposite side of the creek we would call off the search. After getting the feet wet and cutting what we thought was most likely track, we walked it back to the creek looking for any indication we were on the right track (pun intended). Within about 15 yards of the river, we found a small pool of blood where the deer had momentarily stopped after crossing the creek. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and adrenaline again began to course through my veins. The realization that we were on the right track and maybe recovering the deer slowly sank in. We continued this track, finding a pinprick of blood every 10-20 feet as we followed the track through a frozen bog of tall wispy, not particularly thick trees that had long lost their leaves. The excitement reached a climax when the track took us to a grove of pines perched a bit higher than the surrounding bog. Underneath the pine boughs we found his overnight bedding location, as evidenced by multiple large circles of melted snow 10-15 feet apart, with a sizable portion of blood in each location. I can only assume he switched his bedding orientation due to overnight wind changes, other animal movement, or the hindrance of having only three functioning limbs.
We pushed farther and followed the tracks through thicker brush and pines, sometimes having to crawl to get through tight spaces that the deer we were trailing probably moved through more quickly and effortlessly. Eventually we followed the deer over railroad tracks, through one clearing and to an edge of another clearing. When we approached the clearing, I could hear something startle on the far side and the distinct clacking of antlers on small tree limbs as a deer struggled to get to its feet. The group agreed it’d be best if I quietly crept forward alone to keep from bumping the deer again and to hopefully end the chase. I crossed the open clearing slowly and methodically, keeping my vision forward on where the tracks eventually exited the clearing. When I reached this point, the tracks took a wide turn around a brush pile on a small hill. to cut the distance I slowly crept up to the brush pile. I took a second to zoom out my scope and then tucked the rifle in the crook of my shoulder, just in case. As I approached the entanglement, dead trees and brush, my eyes adjusted to a large brown mass lying in the snow 25 yards past my location. The deer was face down in the snow and I thought was it expired. I couldn’t believe it! After 26 hours, we were able to lay eyes on him again! In my excitement I let my guard drop and pointed the muzzle back toward the ground.
As I took another step forward, the deer lurched to life, turned its head in my direction, and tried to get to its feet. As it stumbled to its feet, I flipped the safety off, drew my scope on him, and squeezed the trigger in one motion. The quick draw gunslinger routine is not something I’m accustomed to with deer. I don’t spot and stalk or still-hunt often, so most of the deer I’ve harvested I’ve been able to take my time to ensure the shot was true from a concealed tree stand or ground blind. Despite my inexperience in this area, my aim was true, and the deer again dropped to the snow. I didn’t then, and still really don’t, have words for the journey that we had just gone on. The emotional turmoil, the beautiful country explored, the knowledge gained, and all of it experienced with great people. Part of me was suddenly glad that I hadn’t made a perfect shot, or else I wouldn’t have had this amazing experience. Jeff and I completed the three-mile drag out on the railroad tracks with joy, the whole while reflecting on the journey in disbelief.
I still find it interesting that on the journeys when things break, plans go awry, you are physical exhausted or put through emotional turmoil, are the most memorable. The 2019 UP trip was a perfect example.