Just about every episode of my favorite Outdoor Channel hunting programs are recorded at my house. When I arrive home from work I often have a few minutes alone to relax and watch TV. That’s when I review the recorded programs and pick out something entertaining.
It is impressive to see how many big bucks are bagged on film these days, primarily whitetails, but mule deer are not ignored. I watch archery hunts first.
Now for my favorite peeve – leaving deer overnight to make sure they are recovered.
“The shot was a little far back so I decided to play it safe and wait till morning….” So goes the typical statement.
I’ve been there, and more than once. I left my first buck out overnight and I sure regretted it. However, I was young, naive and alone when I shot that buck at dusk in 1971. It was late in the California archery deer season and I returned to my favorite haunts to give it one more try. I’d already missed almost a dozen bucks with my Bear Grizzly recurve bow and wooden arrows, but I knew I had a chance.
I missed the buck on the first shot. I can still recall the arrow sailing over his back. The next shot connected, but I couldn’t be sure where he was hit. I followed blood for a short distance, and then decided to go for help.
When I arrived in camp, which was a half hour drive away, it was dark and my hunting partners suggested we wait to morning and they’d help track him down. It sounded like a good plan to me.
As it turns out, the buck was hit in the femoral artery and it bled out quickly, dropping while still running, only 125 yards from where I shot. The meat was so nasty tasting that most of the venison went to waste. We attempted to eat it, but it was not good.
My experience is that once you leave a deer out overnight, the intestinal gasses contaminate and ruin the meat. Maybe in really cold weather this is not the case. I haven’t archery hunted in cold weather and left an animal out overnight, so maybe there is a situation where it will be OK, but most of the time you’re giving up the venison when you decide to leave an animal out overnight without taking the hide off or at least getting the body cavity opened up to cool off.
The guys on TV are experienced hunters – or at least they lead us to believe so. In some cases they are hunting for bucks that are extremely rare trophies and that’s probably how they justify their decision.
My archery hunting experience has been fairly extensive, but I’m not the ultimate authority. I’ve concluded that most of the time, a mule deer (or whitetail) that is ultimately recovered drops within 100 yards of where it was hit. An elk may go farther.
My point is that (in most cases) failing to follow a blood trail for at least the first 100 yards is foolish. If one hits a buck at dusk, wait an hour and check out the first portion of the trail. The decision to leave the animal overnight should only be made after one is convinced that it’s gone more than the first 100 to 200 yards.
Most animals that travel 200 yards will not be recovered anyway, so you might as well wait ‘til morning and hope it beds down and dies during the night – or maybe you’ll be able to get another shot at it.
I’ve had this advise backfire on me, but it was because I didn’t wait a full hour. Hitting a bull elk in the neck, during a 1987 archery hunt, I watched the herd bull walk off at sunset. Alone and a ways from my jeep in unfamiliar country, I was reluctant to wait, but I did.
After 20 minutes or so, I took up the trail. My flashlight exposed a continuous trail of blood. I thought he was dead for sure, so I followed the trail into a patch of brush about 100 yards from the site of the shot.
I heard the big animal walk off and after a few minutes reconsidered my decision to track in the darkness. When I returned the next day, I found him laying on his side only another 100 yards down the hill. He had never stopped before dropping. If I had continued after him, I would have found him shortly after my last contact.
Although I had a great 6×6 elk rack that still hangs on my wall, the meat was inedible. A friend and I carried every piece of it a couple miles on our backs and then went to town to consult with a local butcher who was also an elk hunter. We concluded that the meat should go to the dump. On the way, I stopped along the side of the road and pulled out my camp stove. I had to fry up a piece of back strap to confirm what I already knew.
There are no guarantees, but before letting the meat spoil, I believe every hunter should make a significant effort to recover the animal before leaving it out overnight.
That’s what I did on a 2000 Eastern Sierra mule deer hunt. After making what looked like a fatal shot on a buck, I followed it until I found it still alive only about 100 yards from the site of the shot. I watched the buck get up and bed again. After a failed follow up shot, the buck ran another 100 yards and rebedded.
The next followup shot appeared to be effective, but the buck ran over a rise and out out site. I spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening searching for blood, but it was scarce as the animal had fled at great speed.
Exhausted and disheartened I headed back to camp at dark.
The next morning, with the help of my brother Rob, we found the buck laying in the middle of an ice cold creek. He had apparently crashed into the creek while running. He was dead within mintues of the second hit. The meat was fine, but what a lucky recovery.