This is what you want to see after you shoot a deer with your bow, but two nights ago it took me twenty minutes to find the blood I drew. Calm and perspective remain difficult to summon when a goal into which many hours have been sunk comes into reach.
After practicing all summer I had tentatively deemed myself ready to hunt with my longbow, and the initial days of local effort had been very encouraging. Thanks to two consecutive mild winters, a moist and mild summer, and my ever more practiced game eye I was seeing at least several deer an hour, on average, and as many as 15 during a prime littoral hour. Every outing had without exception given at least one plausible stalking opportunity, and a few had featured very near misses indeed. One afternoon I missed twice on the same deer within 3 minutes, 30 yards apart, and thanks to the stick and grass littered clearcut could not find either arrow. On another, evening, three does walked quickly to nearly ten yards. I was waiting, stock still and arrow nocked, unrealistically hoping they’d move on from my peculiar form and give me a broadside shot. Had I followed my first confident thought and taken the quartering-too opportunity the lead deer gave as it walked at me I likely would have killed it.
It’s all been a massive contrast to 2014, when I put many days into filling this same local doe tag, with my rifle, and saw exponentially fewer deer. But beyond numbers the chief contrast has been that at least half of my total sightings, which have certainly been up towards 80 total in the 10 days since the season started, were me seeing deer before they saw me. Two years ago I didn’t see any first, until those last two in the snow and dark and cold, one of whom ended up in the freezer. A big part of this contrast is in the increased number of deer this year, as well as their more relaxed demeanor during the tail end of summer, but another big part is in my improved vision. I see deer, parts of deer, faster, more often, and more instinctively. True positives, that flash of something which turns out to be a deer feeding 400 yards off in the shrubbery, have in numbers approached false positives, those deery clusters of light grass or leaves which end up being just that.
These improvements in sightings have been necessary, as getting within longbow range gives me many ways to mess up. Bowhunter lingo here is “opportunity” for “encounters” which simply means plenty of critters within walking range to screw up getting close in to. The process of seeking out and executing has been fun as hell, though as is the case every year the nagging question of “how long is this going to take?” looms. Telling myself I could fall back on the rifle come late October was not consolation, my main objective this fall, even beyond finally killing an elk or bear, was to kill a deer with my longbow, and knew the vast herd of local whitetails would provide the best chance at doing so.
So Sunday afternoon had been like any other; plenty of deer sightings, clustered in the usual spots, and lots of tracks in mud which had been smoothed by hard noon rain. The first group, two young spike bucks, had let me stalk within fifty yards easily, as they kicked and spared with each other. Unfortunately that fifty yards was a powerline cut shorn down to grass early that summer. They seemed to be moving one way, so I carefully backed deeper into the woods and moved to cut them off, only to slowly turtle my head 100 yards away and find they had walked within bow range of my previous position. A big 5×5 had streaked up the opposing hill without hesitation, and as darkness approached and I headed back towards the road and through prime habitat, my tired and defeated mind switched off and I saw no less than 14 deer run off in advance of my bow wave. The 12th, a fawn of the year seemingly alone, waiting until I saw 15 yards distant before it kicked out of the grass patch it had been feeding in, crashing away violently over deadfall. A minute later, two deer off in the field noticed me as I stood empty at 80 yards, pondering any way to get closer which would not run out of daylight. They answered my question for me, disappearing into the dark pines and standing just out of sight, snorting.
And there, 50 steps later, was another deer. Pale tan and smallish but not small, perfectly level with me and perfectly broadside in an area of the clearcut whose floor had been opened up by a controlled burn last winter. I had an arrow nocked from the previous encounters, and in a situation so similar to the 3D course I had visited so often this summer my conscious mind stepped aside and training took over. I wheeled my left foot quietly in front, turned nearly 180 degrees, drew my index finger to the corner of my mouth, and released. With one eye I saw an arrow arcing out of paradox on a perfect arc, with the other a deer whirling, and hunching slightly as it streaked off to the left. A crash echoed a few seconds after it disappeared into the gathering darkness.
My first thought was thanks that the sun had set clear, that the hard rains forecast for the night were nowhere to be seen. The abundant water on rocks and vegetation and anything less-than ideally permeable was not going to make blood trailing easier, if indeed I would have that fortune. My second thought was to systematically comb the area and try to find my arrow before I spent any, inevitably increasingly disorganized, energy on finding tracks and blood. I pulled out headlamp and flashlight, and 15 minutes working a grid through the many broken sticks, black dirt, and new grass yielded nothing. But I hadn’t been able to find either arrow I had shot a few days previous in an almost identical environment a half mile away, so that didn’t mean anything one way or the other. My next move was to follow what I thought were the deers tracks away from the scene of the shot, to a spot 50 yards distant where it was obliged to cross a logging road at one point or another. That was where I found that I had not followed the correct tracks, as the liberal blood trail was 20 feet back uphill.
Things looked good. Big spots were bright and regular, and coated both sides of the tall grass on the far side of the road. Yet, the deer had gone off the road down a steep hill towards a thickly wooded bottom along the road, and could if it went far enough end up in someones backyard. I took photos of the blood, a sip of tea, and to maximize reasonable patience and give the deer time to die in the first bed it made, thoroughly and slowly backtrailed the blood to the flat bit of dirt on which the doe had been standing when the arrow had hit. Interestingly, no blood was in evidence until ten feet from the spot of inevitable impact, proof I assumed that the arrow had hit either lungs, muscles, or both. Good news, regardless.
Returning to the road and plunging off into the hill, causes for optimism kept accumulating. Blood was spotted high on bark and grass, as well as low in occasional smears on logs and sticks, evidence that the deer was stumbling. Then my arrow, or at least 3/4s of it, coated nearly to the fletching in blood. I kept my head low, firmly establishing each trace of blood before moving on to the next, each piece of evidence viewed with the ultimate justifiable level of skepticism. And there she was, piled against a large tree, legs pointing uphill, triangular hole on the leading edge of her back leg, blood painted down the short, delicate fur, inches wide. The deer was dead.
As is obvious from this story and others I’m not the most ethical hunter. There is a certain level of doubt and consideration, after my gut is satisfied but before all rational and academic concerns are conclusively answered, that I have consistently declined to enter into. On that wet night my eyes saw the deer, my brain said you got this, and my arms and eyes shot an arrow. It wasn’t until well after the short but tiresome drag up to the road and then down to the truck, indeed not until a visit this afternoon to the 3D range in the bright light of a pleasant day, that deer-shaped targets at known ranges told me that young, light tan doe was easily 30 yards away, and probably a bit more. Well beyond my self-imposed limit. It’s a distance I’ve frequently, but not reliably, ten-ringed at the range. To make things more questionable, the doe had me pegged, and without question jumped the string. Rather than the perfect double-lung shot I released, by the time the arrow got to the deer it passed through an abundance of muscle and arteries. Had the deers jump been a little stronger it would have been a possibly crippling, possibly non-lethal hit to the femur, had the jump been a little weaker it would have been a surely fatal but likely non-trackable gut shot.
There’s an argument to be made that I shouldn’t have taken that shot at all, or done so only had the deer somehow not been alerted to my presence, or even that I shouldn’t have been out there at all with such a slow-shooting bow, or even a bow at all. Good arguments even, in which I see much logic, but just like any argument about the ethical necessity of a clean kill this debate is for us humans only. Deer most emphatically don’t want to die, but the imperative to try to kill one only with a certain level of certitude is as much or more about human discipline and restraint than it is about animal suffering. The most partial gut shot included, many if not most deer likely die worse deaths than any inflicted by a hunter, up to and including starvation over several months and minutes or hours trailing entrails and blood after being not quite fast enough away from wolves, coyotes, or a mountain lion. The law mandates, as it should, a reasonable attempt by each hunter to kill their quarry as quickly as possible, and that this be done in the spirit of fair chase. How far beyond fair chase becomes a moral, rather than a legal question, and I find myself perfectly comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity here. More than others? Entirely likely, though I think doubt of this sort is inherent in hunting, no matter the weapon or circumstance, and to pretend otherwise does no one any good.
Now I’m home, everything the same save for a pile of meat in the fridge waiting for final processing, and a love of bowhunting much increased. It’s quiet, and fraught with doubt, and perfectly magnifies all the best parts of the pursuit. I find myself seriously contemplating upcoming trips, and the additional possibilities a bow offers.
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