by Jeff Varvil
Many mornings begin in the Northern woods as this one did. The wave of little Black-Capped chickadees overtakes my tree stand set high in a spruce tree in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the surrounding forest goes from tranquil to having my own private carnival complete with high trapeze acts and death defying stunts. With the precision of a surgeon the little tuxedo laden birds diligently search every square inch of timber for a long lost treasure overlooked in the summer by their winged comrades. Unable to will insects out of their hiding spots they call in the big guns as a Downy woodpecker comes coasting in only to land upon a giant dead birch to begin an excavation project that would last the next fifteen minutes. A smile escapes through my facemask as one of my little visitor’s lands on my arrow. His little jet black eyes seem to reveal his soul and for a moment I am at complete peace with Mother Nature. Sensing I pose no danger, he bounces down the arrows shaft and continues on in his quest for food. “Good Luck lil’ buddy,” I whisper under my breath. I appreciate the visit, as my first three hours on the stand have been uneventful.
The bird battalion moves off and the woods are instantly restored to an occasional creek and crack as the ancient oaks begin to thaw from the heavy frost the night before. I tilt my head sideways, straining to hear any sound that seems out of place. I was determined to chase down the buck that I had been hunting for three years. Over the past several years the monarch buck as we called him, had slipped away on five prior occasions giving me no clear shots. I knew he was still visiting his old haunts by the size of the rubs I had discovered earlier in the fall. He would shred huge popular trees to leave his mark. I had jumped him in this feeding area frequented by does not two days ago. I smile again daydreaming, thinking it was better than algebra class I was missing anyway.
It comes from off in the distance and my back instinctively presses hard against the tree as I simultaneously tighten my grip on my Browning bow. I hear the familiar shuffle of leaves drawing closer and closer. Crunch, crunch, crunch and then there was nothing. I have walked this path before and I begin to go through the likely scenario in my mind. Here’s where he will walk in and there is where I will pull back the bow and there is where I will release. What seems like an eternity goes by and I turn my head slowly and strain to see through the heavy growth where the sound is coming from. Again it comes as a crunch, crunch, crunch and in that moment my ears and my eyes get on the same page as a magnificent white tined northern Whitetail monster buck stops amongst the dry leaves to taste the air. As he closes to 50 yards, he moves slowly but steadily and I can see he is following my doe in heat scent trail. It’s him, the Monarch Buck. With his nostrils flared, he walks five paces and licks the bushes; clearly excited he was closing in on his quarry. If he continued on his present course it would lead him into my precut shooting lane at 15 yards. I could see now he was the 8-point, 170 class buck I had been after and I strained to keep my composure. “Control your heart rate Varvil,” I say to my self. “Think after you shoot.” I think back to my grandfather’s advice as a young boy. When the monarch closed to 20 yards I pulled back the bow and held it patiently waiting for him to spring my trap. Closer, closer, close my heart beating all the while and he stopped and looked up.
The fletching disappeared behind the front shoulder and the beautiful animal leapt into the air with the high arched back of an injured animal and he took off like he had been shot out of a cannon. The shot had been a little high as he ducked the arrow when it was released. High shots don’t always bleed well and that meant tracking. It was only 11am and I waited an hour before getting down from my stand. This was a lesson my father had ground into my brother Scott and I from age 7, we learned by tracking his deer. “You spend 11 months preparing for this moment so another hour wont kill ya, sit their and be quiet” he would scold us as we impatiently wanted to rush in and find the deer.
Upon inspecting the ground with my field glasses, I could see a solid blood trail. When I did get down from the tree I marked it as I was taught with orange surveyors tape and began following the trail, being extra careful not to walk on the blood itself. Every twenty yards or so I would flag the blood to help gain a direction of the animals travel After one hundred yards I was on my hands and knees searching for specks of blood. I was reduced to guessing the animal’s travel and at one point I followed some freshly overturned leaves for twenty yards before picking up blood again. To make a long painful story short I searched for three agonizing days. As hunters we have certain obligations to the animals we hunt and no one feels worse than the ethical hunter when things go bad. Fourteen years have passed since that day and I have long forgotten many animals I have taken, but I will never forget that buck. I hope these tips help you in preventing and or recovering your wounded game.
Obligations do not take large animals cleanly but being patient does. I believe the number one cause of wounded game is pulling shots early due to impatience. The patient hunter understands you may not get a second chance and is ok with that. Live for the moment you are in and remember the one that got away is always larger than the one you collect anyway. Many times animals will come back around or present a different angle if you just wait them out. We all have memories of waiting out an animal and having it all turn out well. Regrettably, we as humans learn the hard way and I know I’m not the only guy to blow a shot due to anxiety.
Not hitting where you aim can ruin what was meant to be a great moment. Shot placement is still critical. Understand the vitals of the animal you are hunting, as it is vital in making a clean kill shot the first time around. Most vital organs on most big game animals can be found directly below a shoulder in the mid chest region. My father used to call it the “Boiler Room”. Although definitely the highest percentage kill shot, this is not always the best place to make a clean kill. A big moose or elk can go a long way unless you take out a shoulder and anchor him in place. Packing a thousand pounds of meat an extra mile is a tough lesson when you could have made a shoulder shot and anchored them the first time. Many factors come into place when deciding where to shoot. Is there tracking snow available if I hit him in the lungs and he quits bleeding? If the animal runs can I get him out? Am I or any other human in danger if I make a boiler room shot? A brown or black bear can take a long time to bleed out giving them time to turn the tables on you when they are hit in the lungs and even the heart. A low chest shot will bleed out well providing excellent tracking as the lungs fill up with blood. A high chest shot will not bleed well in most cases and will require painstaking hours of tracking. A headshot is definitely a kill shot on a most species. Bears on the other hand are notorious for deflecting even large calibers off their heads when the wrong head angle shot is taken. If you miss you usually miss clean. I don’t like to miss so I play the odds and the odds are in the boiler room or shoulder. Again all animals are different so research the animals you’re hunting.
Practicing with your weapon is also critical to hunter success. From archery to firearms, hunter’s success is measured on a stick made up of thousands of practice shots. Try different calibers at different yardage and at different targets. I go into the field and shoot at different angles with my bow. I then take several shots from my stand into the ground to make sure I am hitting consistently. I can tell you I have killed more apples than deer in twenty years of hunting. Range Finders have made the shooting world much easier.
Nikon has combined legendary optics with state-of-the-art laser technology to produce a hunter's dream - a rangefinder accurate within two yards - all the way to half mile. This compact unit features exceptionally clear eight-power optics, (the most powerful on the market), allowing you to easily pick out game, even at the laser's maximum range. I also pre mark the area surrounding my stands with set distance markers. It may be a slash on a tree and it may be a small bread tie tied to a bush. The bottom line is I know How far 15 yards is when the animal is standing there. It works great for baiting bears or deer. For spot and stalk the game finder is the only way to go. When stand hunting I also cut small spruce branches to help aid concealment. I usually weave these branches in over my head. I leave the spot next to and behind me against the tree empty allowing me to see animals coming and going. Then I weave a branch or two overhead and forward of that position allowing me a chance to pull back my bow without being detected. My feet are generally protected from woven branches on either side. I prefer spruce or cedar trees as it help aid in scent control.
An experienced hunter knows that ethics are an important part of hunting. The problem is we did not all have great teachers like my father. We hunters are products of our environment. What happens when you wound an animal and cannot retrieve it? Should it count against your license? The problem lies in the interpretation of those ethics. We don’t all agree. Hell, even the individual state hunting regulations are not always sure how to word things correctly. It basically comes down to your personal view of the law and how you feel about what you have done. For the State it comes down to not being able to enforce a law where there is no victim, as there was no game recovered and no proof you ever shot anything in the first place. What I do believe is that every hunter owes it to the game he is hunting to make every effort to retrieve the animal. They also should not attempt a shot that they are not willing to follow up with. I once hunted with a guy who shot a black bear. He made a bad shot. We all occasionally do. If you haven’t, you haven’t hunted long enough. When we got down from the stand he walked over to the tag alders and said “Well, I don’t see any blood so he must be Ok” and proceeded to walk off. After a heated ethics debate which he lost because I was driving, he spent the next two hours with me searching for his bear. I was in the tag alders on my hands and knees searching and circling until I finally found blood. About half way through the evening it occurred to me the guy was not a bad guy; he just didn’t have anyone to teach him what the correct way to do things was. He did not have any experience in the woods. Always feel free to lend someone your ethics and hunting knowledge when they seem to have lost theirs. We found his bear under a log pile two hours later. The bear had been hit high and the blood matted in the thick fur. These people are in need of educating.
Recovery of a poorly hit animal is as much technique as luck sometimes. I do however think practice makes close to perfect. Remember never begin tracking an animal unless you have the correct gear with you to finish the job and that may mean being out all night. Break it down in the order it happens. You do every thing correctly accept you’re all Swedish and no Finnish and you miss high like I did on the monarch. Any shmuck can trail an animal in the snow. Tracking a lightly hit animal in red wet leaves in the dark is another thing entirely. It is your responsibility to give the animal adequate time to expire. Most big game animals will travel a short distance and bed down. They will bed up, stiffen up and bleed to death if left un-harassed. There is nothing worse than pushing a wounded animal. If you come across a “blood bed”, call off your search and give the animal at least three hours before going back in after him. I always start by hanging orange surveyors tape and I also GPS the spot I find first blood. Note the texture and color of the blood. Dark red blood with texture chunks will be either a low lung hit or an artery hit. These animals normally do not go far. Light blood will indicate a superficial hit in most cases although light blood with bubbles will indicate a high lung hit. These can be hard to track as the chest cavity fills up from the bottom first giving you very little blood. Give them more time than usual before tracking. Dark blood with a foul smell can mean an intestine hit. This spells trouble. A gut shot animal can travel miles before dieing but will generally lie down if left undisturbed. Always look for hairs mixed in the blood. Certain animals like bears and deer will have different color hair that will give away where they are hit. Never stand directly on the blood trail when following the animals and hang ribbon every twenty yards. Looking back will give you a general direction of travel for the animal. It will also help regain the trail when inclement weather is a factor.
Pay close attention to bushes and trees where the animal may rub against them. This will tell you which side they are bleeding on and how high they are hit. When you run out of blood pay close attention to overturned leaves and tracks, this will give away an animals direction. If you run out of blood, mark the area with a long ribbon that can be seen from far away. I begin by circling the area in larger and larger loops until I regain the blood trail. If you come across a blood bed stop immediately and give the animal at least three undisturbed hours to die. This means you have spooked him off his bed and he now knows you’re on him. This can be very dangerous with bears. Call in friends to help you. Sometimes they may see things your missing and that can come in very handy when you’re talking about an 800 lb animal with a bad attitude. When archery hunting bears or other big game in wet conditions I use Game Tracker's Professional 2500 Tracker, it increases the recovery rate of game. About 2,500 feet of ultra-light, 17-pound nylon line is attached to the arrow and trails out of a canister mounted to the bow. The wide-mouth canister prevents line drag and reduces noise. When properly mounted, the tracking unit will not reduce arrow trajectory for at least 25 yds.
The use of dogs for game recovery has been legalized in many states recently. I have no experience with this but it would seem to be a huge advantage to aid a hunter in need. There are also new blood hound electronic devices such Game Finder Pro Illuminator sold by Cabelas. The Blood Tracking Light System lets you use four LEDs (one red and three white) as individual red- or white-light flashlights or combined to illuminate blood trails in the dark. There are also many new Aerosol sprays that turn blood bright purple and make it bubble that can aid the new-age hunter.
Choosing to practice makes perfect. We have all heard it a million times. There is no substitute for practical experience in the field. We owe it to our fathers to teach our youth and fellow hunters the correct ways to do things. My son shot a beautiful eight-point buck with his bow last year in Upper Michigan. Upon discovering a good blood trail we high tailed it back to camp and told grandpa of the great news.
There was no feeling in the world for me, which can match my father teaching my son how to track an animal. He painstakingly pointed out each step I have described and let Josh make his mistakes only to have him correct them through trial and error. Like a beagle Josh followed the clues his deer had left behind. He was so intent on having his nose to the trail he failed to see the deer until it was five feet in front of him. My father and I had spotted it at around twenty-five yards and exchanged a silent glance agreeing to remain quiet without exchanging a word. This was Josh’s moment not ours and with that glance we understood that. What about the Monarch you ask? I did find the monarch buck two weeks later that same fall. The ravens pointed me in the right direction. He had jumped and swam a creek. He doubled back and then crawled under a deadfall spruce tree and I had walked by him at least six times. It made me feel sick when I found him. The meat was obviously inedible. This is why they call it hunting and not gathering. I did tag him with my only game tag and he remains a special trophy for me on my wall. Yet, when I look upon him to this day I still have an empty feeling that I could have done it better. Alas, this is why I hunt. This is but one story in which we all as hunters have thousands. Good luck and God Bless.
Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is
currently the Manager for West Marine
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