Where moments before, with the buck standing proud before us, there had been no greater honor, the hunt, however hard, however long and filled with adventure, had been nearly over. All those weeks of anticipation, those years of practice and days of desire, all that hope...closure had been so close. And then, even with fingers tightening around the goal, all was lost. In a heartbeat, great honor became great responsibility.
It was Samuel Donaldson who penned, "Hope is only for those who also despair" and for the muzzleloader hunter, never a more poignant line exists. Hope and despair, life and death, success and failure, the hunter
cannot know one without knowing the other. This is balance. This is hunting. Without one there is no other, both sides must exist. Maybe, in a dichotomized sort of way, it is a perfect world. But that is a discussion better left for the philosophers and theologians, for the hunter there is only the reality of a wounded animal to find
and a hunt to finish.
Feeling remorse, after a bad shot that has resulted in a wounded animal, is unavoidable, every hunter must feel it or that person is not a hunter, but the feeling cannot rule the hunter's reactions. What the hunter does, in the seconds, minutes, hours and days following an errant shot, will often determine whether they must re-live the remorse every time they remember the hunt or whether they will find the animal.
First School Of Thought
The shot was bad for whatever reason, but now is not the time to rue this fact, there will be time enough for second guessing later, instead, in the moments right after the shot, the hunter must react. But what to do? There are two schools of thought on the proper course of action immediately following a bad shot; the first is to do nothing. The reasoning, according to folklore and tradition, is to let the animal "stiffen up" and then follow the blood trail and/or tracks to the immobilized beast.
If only it was that simple.
Unfortunately it is not. Yes there are times when the animal should be left to "stiffen up" but such action is dependent upon where the animal was hit. If the animal was hit in the paunch, then yes, it should be left to "stiffen up". Likely the animal will not travel far before bedding up. Peritonitis will set in and after several hours and the animal will become too incapacitated to move.
Animals wounded in this way are in charge of their faculties and are entirely capable of eluding a hunter for several hours after the shot, besides this, they leave little in the way of sign. The hunter taking the track immediately after the shot, will follow the tracks to bed after bed but will seldom ever come up on the animal close enough to finish it off. In this case, the animal should be left for several hours and will "stiffen up" and be unable to leave its first bed.
Second School Of Thought
There is another school of thought that says to follow the wounded animal right away. Certainly this is a hunter's natural reaction. And in fact, speaking from my years of experience with a muzzleloader, this is most often the correct course to follow. I have found that animals hit poorly are most susceptible in the first minutes after the shot. Perhaps it is shock, I don't know, but I do know that in the vast majority of cases where I have a wounded animal to deal with, the animal is recovered more often if I follow immediately.
Often when following up on bears in thick cover, I literally run to the sight of the hit and stop there to listen. A wounded animal tends to be less able to move silently and will break branches and twigs, giving away its position. When I place the animal's location and line of travel, nearly as possible, I follow, gun-first. It's called "sound tracking" and it works well in extremely thick cover. If I can hear the bear ahead
of me, I know, absolutely for sure, it isn't behind me.
Dangerous game will head away from the sight of the injury and then hole up to await the following thing that hurt it. If I'm right there on its tail following by sound, I'll have a very good idea where the wounded bear has stopped and won't be in nearly as much danger as I would be if I waited a few hours and then headed in on a very angry waiting and well-prepared problem bear.
The "pucker factor" is high of course, especially when the bear stops and doesn't make any more sound. Several times, when I've had to follow a wounded bear by sound, as I continue to work my way closer to where I last heard the bear, the next sound I'll hear is the bear breathing. It can be worse though, much worse, at least I know approximately where the bear is. Following hours later, I'd be in significantly more danger assuming the bear is still alive.
Bears don't leave much of a blood trail, their fattiness and heavily-haired hides quickly staunch blood
flow from a wound. Members of the deer family don't have this natural poultice to stop up the blood flow but
they, like all wild animals, have blood with a tremendous ability to coagulate. Wounds quickly stop bleeding if
the animal is left to rest and recuperate.
Again the follow quickly school of thought applies. If a buck is hit hard, say above the hock on a back
leg, the blood flow will be high and the animal trackable, but only until its blood coagulates. At that point,
"POOF" the blood trail disappears and the animal is lost. For the coagulation mechanism to take effect however,
the buck needs to stop, bed up and let this non-life threatening wound begin its healing process.
Obviously then, the hunter who waits for several hours before following, will do well for the first few
hundred yards and will eventually find the buck's first bed. But that's all that hunter will find. The buck will
be long gone and there won't be a spot of blood to be found beyond that bed. The buck is lost.
The hunter who follows right away, dogging the buck from the moment it is hit, will keep the wound open
and bleeding. The buck will try and bed, likely several times but the determined hunter will keep catching up
and chasing it away. Certainly the buck will hear the hunter approach and won't show itself, but eventually, the
length of time determined by the severity of the wound, the buck will make a mistake and the hunter will have a
second chance to right the wrong.
Deer Don't Fly
There will be times when to the hunter following a blood trail, all seems lost, both the deer and the trail. Likely there will have been a good blood trail to follow and nothing beyond. Many hunters give up at this
point, believing that there is no chance of finding the wounded animal if there is no trail to follow. Nothing
could be further from the truth, as far as "no trail to follow" goes that is. There is always a trail. Deer
don't fly, they have to step on the ground just like you or I. They have to leave a trail.
Once the hunter realizes this, the problem becomes solvable; not easily solvable mind, but solvable
none-the-less. I followed a buck track one time for several hundred yards, it was simple and didn't take much
more than an occasional two or three minute search for another spot of blood. Then suddenly, nothing. No blood,
no tracks, nothing. It was as if the buck (walking to that point) took to the air.
I swear I looked for an hour for a spot of blood and was ready to quit when I made one more circle around the
last sign. It was on this circle, one of nearly 50 yards in radius that I found a faint track that looked like
it was made by a running deer. Another 30 feet beyond that track was another and 30 feet beyond that another.
The tracks were 90 degrees to the buck's original direction. I followed those running tracks for at least 300
yards without seeing a single spot of blood. But then I didn't need blood, the buck was piled up, dead as a
doornail right on the running trail.
Hunters would do well to remember the words of the illustrious detective Sherlock Holmes, "When you have
eliminated all the possibilities, that which remains is the answer." He was right. When there doesn't seem to be
any possibilities left, the answer, while it may be improbable, is obviously the only choice left. Wounded
animals have a few hundred million years of evolution behind them, they've been trailed by far better predators
then us humans and they can nearly work miracles to keep us off their trails but the fact remains, deer don't
fly. They have to leave some sort of sign.
Don't give up. The responsibility to find the animal demands this.