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Monday, January 16, 2012


Today was a bittersweet day.  We brought home some venison...but we left some too.  A good friend of mine hit a deer this morning with a shot that was a bit off.  He said he knew it when he saw the hit and asked that we come help track it.  No problem...if a deer leaves blood we do a very thorough job of finding it...we owe it to the animal to make sure we don't waste it's life.

My 12 year old son was along on this trip too.  He has been hunting with me since he was 3...and hunting with his own rifle (and me by his side) since he was 8.  He's spent a good deal of time in the field and I'm very proud of, and impressed by his skills.  Today's tracking job would be one more lesson that he could use to build his base of knowledge.

We had a three-man tracking party and we assigned my son the duty of being a marker...when I found blood I had him stand next to it while I moved up the trail until I found the next bit...then I'd call him up to stand next to the new find...and so it would go.  This would ensure that I could always go back to the last known "good blood" if I lost the trail.

While I was tracking and my son was marking, my friend would ride the rifle.  As the tracker, my whole world would lie at my feet.  I'd be bent over searching for clues the whole time and if a wounded deer jumped up to run I'd have no hope of getting a shot off at it...this would be his job.  He would scan forward with the rifle at the ready.  With the duties so assigned it was time to get started.

We began in an area that is a basically two small hills containing a mix of thorn thickets, a low draw in between them and "islands" of trees separated by long thin curvy food plots.  Imagine a small hilly golf course where the "rough" was thorns, thickets, and trees, and the "fairways" and "greens" were turnip patches and strips of winter wheat.

The deer was shot on the top of a hill that quickly gave way to a slight downhill run into increasingly thick vegetation that ultimately hit an almost impenetrable wall of thorns.  Imagine the Great Wall of China if it were made of thorn vines as thick as your little finger and you'll start to get an idea of this thicket.

From my perspective it was all down in the weeds and focusing on finding the next drop to solve this puzzle.  From my buddies perspective it was staying on constant alert and scanning ahead for an opportunity to end this goose chase.  And from my sons perspective he got to watch two dedicated hunters deliver a seminar on tracking.  He had a front row seat on how to track a wounded animal and I'm certain the lessons will be with him forever.   Before it was done I'd learn a few myself.

After we left the hilltop we descended into a jumbled mix of pine and hardwoods.  This is an old cutover section so it's a mix of saplings and mature trees with a heavy dose of southern undergrowth thrown in just to keep things frustrating.  The forest floor is lined with dead leaves, fallen branches, and game trails.  From drop to drop we went with my son eagerly stepping up every time he was called and me wandering around in front of him bent over and carrying a pointing stick and looking very much like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

It was painstaking work as this deer left a very faint blood trail.  Compounding the challenge was the fact that the sun was at our backs, meaning that what little blood was available to us would be cast directly in our shadows.  I commented that if this deer had an ounce of courtesy it would have run to the south as this would have given us better light for tracking.  But given the circumstances of our initial introduction it should come as no surprise that it decided to be evasive.  Many times the only  blood we had was equivalent to the dot that might be left from a single tine on a dinner fork.  One dot of blood the size of the tip of a dinner fork tine that was hidden in the middle of a curled up dark-brown leaf...this was hands and knees tracking at times.  

In a way I'm still surprised by how long we were able to track this faint trail.  At times it seems like your brain just makes an adjustment and allows you to pick up the smallest details once it knows that's the game you're playing.  Ordinarily you'd never notice any of's almost invisible.  But once you're on the trail and have something riding on the outcome you can get really tuned in...seeing blood almost unconsciously.  Many times I'd just look out in front of me along the trail and my brain "triggered" that there was blood in the scene I was looking at...and I'd be drawn to a general area of the forest floor where there was blood that my brain had seen but my eyes hadn't locked on to yet.  Every time I got that signal from my brain I found blood when I looked closer.  Focus is terribly important in this game.  If you lose focus you might step on the one leaf in the next 10 yards that held any blood, pushing it deeper into the compost scattered on the ground and losing it forever.  This is essentially one long crime scene where every clue no matter how small must be preserved.  

The clues all add up to tell us the story.  The story might be that this deer was poorly hit and will live a long time.  Alternately it may tell us this deer is losing a lot of blood and could be just around the next tree.

With experience and patience on our side we began making a good deal of progress on a very difficult track.  Ultimately we hit the mother-of-all-briar-patches.  This is a southern briar patch at it's finest.  The fiercest barbed wire made by man is no match for what Mother Nature had laid down in front of us.

These were big thick dark colored vines covered end to end with evil needle-sharp thorns that are shaped like shark teeth.  Nothing was immune from the tearing and stabbing action of these thorns.  Clothes were caught and skin was ripped and thorns were buried under any skin they could find.  The further you pushed the more of them grabbed you and they eventually pulled so hard on your clothing that you'd begin to wonder if you might become trapped here to die in the most frustrating of fashions...stabbed to death by a million tiny thorns.  At times it seemed as though merely looking at a vine would cause it to catch on you.

When we got to the thicker portion of this briar patch I watched with a sinking feeling as the blood trail ran straight into the heart of it.  The game trail essentially became a tunnel for lack of a better word...a tunnel of thorns.  If you were shaped roughly like a short smooth cylinder you might be able to get through this path...but anything else would get hopelessly tangled and slowly bled to death by the thorns.  This was exactly the place you should run to if you were a wounded deer.  This evil, thorny briar patch was made to keep predators at bay.  I imagine that a coyote might even balk at going in after an easy meal.  At the least this thicket would mean you'd only have to deal with one coyote at a time...they couldn't surround you...they'd have to come one at a time into the funnel.

As I studied the problem it was easy to see that this thicket was a big egg shaped area perhaps 60 yards across and 100 yards wide.  We took a bearing on a tree on the far side of the thicket where we thought this blood trail would emerge, then put our marker on the last "good blood" and told him to help steer us to the spot we'd picked out once we emerged on the other side.

We plotted a course around the left side of the egg that looked to hold the least amount of pain, and then we pushed ahead.  When we popped out on the other side our marker began calling a few directions for us.  We quickly realized that the far side of the thicket was bordered by a deep creek.  In this part of Mississippi a creek is generally a deep gouge in the red clay earth that has very steep sides and a small trickle of water flowing through it most of the year.  In the rainy season it can swell until it overflows it's banks but for most of the year it is a muddy clay ditch with walls from 3 to 10 feet deep, bordered by vines and littered with branches and logs.  It is WONDERFUL snake habitat.

As I studied this creek and measured the considerable distance we'd covered so far I commented that if we find sign that this deer entered the creek...and we didn't see it lying at the bottom of it...then I'd have to consider that this tracking job was over.  If it had the strength to cover the preceding 200 yards, and still be able to clear an obstacle as formidable as the thicket and then the creek...then that deer would not be found.

My partner agreed and we got back to looking for blood.  As I scanned the thicket floor I made a point to continually scan as deep into the thicket as I could...hoping beyond hope that I might catch a flash of white hair that would signify a dead deer lying there.  As I scanned to my right something caught my eye.  Perhaps 15 yards away, deep in the thicket something looked different.  Looking this deep into a thicket means you are peering through a maze of jumbled vines that criss-cross each other in every conceivable  direction.  In a way it's like looking at a kaleidoscope whose only colors are earth tones like tan and green and black.  Well here I saw what looked like small patch of dark gray.  It almost looked like a piece of a squirrels hide.  As my eyes adjusted focus to really determine what I was seeing my spirits began to lift.

I quickly called out to my partners that I had found our deer!  I called up our marker, my buddy came over and peered in at it...and then we realized that we have to go into that hell-hole of a thicket to drag her out.  He handed me the gun and said it was his job to go in since he had shot the deer.  I understood completely and watched as he began to enter.

I looked to my right to say something to my spotter and the whole thicket exploded with noise.  We had been hunting for 4 hours and now tracking for almost another hour and all conversation over this time period had been in quiet tones and whispers for fear of giving away our position.  So this explosion of noise could not have been more shocking nor bewildering.  I looked up just in time to see a deer rocketing out of the thicket in front of me.  It was running to my left, away from my buddy who was standing in the thicket just a few feet in front of me.

I threw the gun up to my shoulder as quickly as my shocked brain would allow.  I could see the outline of this deers back and head blowing through these thorns like they weren't even there.  I couldn't find it in the scope and it was gone in a heartbeat.

"What in the world?!?!"  I exclaimed.  When things happen quickly confusion typically sets in.  My buddy said he thought it was a buck.  "Wow" I thought...that's pretty crazy odds that this buck was bedded down just a few feet to the left of our dead doe.  I went back to peer in to see our doe...and she was gone.  I figured I had peered into the wrong spot so I looked deer.

It took a moment for me to grasp that the deer that just exploded out of the thicket is the same one that we had just tracked 200 yards into this mess.  We had indeed seen it laying low in the thicket...but we had assumed it was dead.  This was a costly assumption.  When my partner got within 5 yards of the deer it took off like a rocket sled.  BOOM...gone.  And gone with it was our only chance of recovery.

My son learned some very solid tracking skills today.  I learned a lesson as well.  If we had put another bullet in that deer when we saw it laying in the thicket 10 yards away from us we'd have recovered it.  As it was we thought it was laying dead and didn't need another shot.  We had watched that deer lay perfectly still in the movement at appeared to be stone cold dead.  But it was merely playing dead and hoping we'd pass right on by.

Complicating matters also is the fact that if we'd have taken another shot we might have shot another deer...there is the very real possibility that we could have stalked up on another deer that just happened to be bedded down in the area.  This is after all the perfect bedding area.  I had a friend from out west tell me one time of a customer who had a similar experience.  This customer had wounded an elk and when he was tracking it he jumped it up, then shot it again and killed it.  As it turns out the elk he jumped was a completely different animal....and they ultimately found both animals dead....and he was charged for killing both.  This essentially doubled the cost of his already very expensive hunt.

So at this point I'm leaning toward our new tactic being just putting another bullet in the animal at the first available opportunity...whether we think it's dead or alive.  I'm saddened that this animal wasn't recovered, but confident that the lessons learned by all of us will lead to successful outcomes in the future.

Friday, January 13, 2012


Like many other winter nights I find myself leaving the woods alone, long after darkness has enveloped the forest.  As I walk with quiet strides it soothes my soul to hear the coyotes and owls begin their nightly routines.  Their sounds are like the voices of old friends as they carry far through the timber on the cold thin night air.  My breath appears before me in the dark as millions of foggy crystals visible only by the moonlight that washes over this field.

My lungs savor the fall air.  On the frosty breeze I catch wind of a distant fireplace burning.  It stops me in my tracks and instinctively I inhale deeply and purposefully.  The mixture of the cold air, the smell of a wood burning fire, and the scent of the woods filling my lungs invigorates me and generates a new bit of energy that quickens my pulse as I stand perfectly still taking it all in.

As I walk across these woods, fields, and dirt roads that lead me back to my truck I wonder with some small bit of sadness how long this will last.  Every year I see the crops planted.  I walk through high beans on summer scouting trips.   Then during hunting season, after the crops have been harvested, I walk unhindered across those same fields that are now bare.  The yearly cycle of harvest has been completed.  It is a stark reminder to me that time indeed marches on.

The deer I hunt know these same fields.  They use them for sustenance.  They watch the same cycle as I do year after year, growth and harvest.  I too rely on these fields for sustenance and if I'm lucky I'll take a deer from these fields; a deer that will feed my family.  A deer that will have completed its own cycle of growth and harvest.  

So here I am, stopped in my tracks on a chilly autumn bean field remembering hunts from my past.  Captivated by my surroundings I reflect on friends and family that I've hunted with and the wonderful times we've had pursuing game over these very fields.  Frozen in the moonlight the memories rush through my mind as fluidly as the air into my lungs.  The tree line in the distance is nothing more than a jumble of dark shapeless shadows, black upon black set against a clear dark-blue sky...but my memories run in color and I can recall every detail of every animal we've taken here as if it happened only moments ago.

I catch wind of that fireplace again, it snaps me back to reality and I realize that I've grown old hunting these fields...and that eventually my own cycle will be completed.  Yes indeed it saddens me to think that eventually I will no longer wander these woods feeling very much alive and free.  The thought of death itself doesn't bother's the thought of losing this feeling of peace...of freedom...of solitude...of life.

Ultimately I decide it's just part of the grand scheme of things.  So I start my walk back to the truck feeling strangely reassured as I shrug off the cold.  I'll go home to my family tonight and thank God for the life I've been given.  I'll also cherish every day that I get to spend in these woods for I know that will end.