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Part 1 – The Bad Shot
As hunters, we strive for a quick, clean kill so the animal doesn’t suffer and we are able to recover it quickly. But unfortunately this doesn’t always happen. Making mistakes is part of the learning process — and as painful as these lessons can be, they make us better hunters.
This December, I made a bad shot. Two young does were crossing the field fast, not quite running but definitely not planning to linger. They were about to be out of sight in the cedars when the first one stopped to urinate. I hesitated, not sure if I should shoot. I would have waited for her to stand back up, but I was sure she’d keep moving once she did and then she’d be gone. So I took aim at her vitals and fired.
I knew I’d hit her and that I should take some time before trying to find her. So I calmed down, reloading my muzzleloader in my blind. About fifteen minutes later, I walked out to where the does had entered the brush and was immediately startled by a deer blowing at me. She ran deeper into the woods and I returned to the field’s edge, finding dark red blood.
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I followed the sparse blood trail and saw the deer curled up in a clearing. Her eyes were half-closed and her head was still raised. I could have ended her misery then, but she got up, blew at me again, and retreated with a stiff gait. Now I could see what I’d done. On her left side, near her belly, there was a gruesome wound.
It was sickening to see her so hurt. I felt terrible for interrupting what should have been her last moments, and for missing my chance to put her down. But somehow, I found the doe again. This time she was standing on a ridge, staring at me, completely motionless.
Again, I contemplated a second shot, but now she was beyond the property where I was allowed to hunt, and a house was behind her. She blew and took off again, and through the winter-bare trees I saw her go downhill.
I knew she was mortally injured and thought she’d soon die on the adjacent property. I didn’t want to bump her again, so I gave her a wide berth as I came out of the woods. I returned to my car and called my unofficial hunting mentor.
“Sometimes the hardest part of hunting is knowing when to walk away,” he said, cautioning me not to pursue the doe any further. He advised me to leave and come back. She would die. But if I blundered after her again, I might never find her. I wasn’t about to give up on this deer, but I had to accept that she may have already been lost to my ignorance.
I took a deep breath, started the car, and left.
Part 2 – Redemption
I was gone for a couple hours, in which I choked down an uneasy breakfast. I chatted with another hunter and got in touch with the farmer whose land I hunted, telling him I was worried she’d run off his property. I returned to the field feeling much more clear-headed and confident. I went back to where her blood had first spilled, eventually tracking it to where she’d lain the first and second time I’d bumped her.
Then I lost the blood as suddenly as I’d found it. I couldn’t find the place where I last saw her. All I had was the direction she’d gone in and desperate hope that was dwindling by the second. I was walking around in circles, disgusted with myself as the morning turned to afternoon.
What felt like an eternity later, I spotted a tuft of white hair hanging from a thorny cane. Nearby was more hair that had snagged as she passed through the brambles. I hung my orange hat there and started tracking her again. I found new blood and a flicker of hope stirred in me once again. I moved very slowly, concentrating so hard my jaw hurt. The blood drops were getting closer and closer together. There was some fresh scat as well. Every time I found a sign, I cut a strip of orange fabric and tied it to a twig nearby.
But then the trail simply stopped. Where could she have gone? By now I’d crossed a small creek, picked through a dense bamboo thicket, wandered around the adjacent property, and retraced my steps countless times. I walked past my car and gazed forlornly across the road and across the river on the other side. That’s when I saw a round brown and white form with a spot of red on it, partially in the water on the opposite bank.
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought as I crossed to the river’s edge, trying to see from a different angle what could well have been a boulder with a red leaf stuck to it. Had she really swum the river and died there? Had I actually found her, after hours of searching? I had to get a closer look, but I didn’t have my binoculars. Instead, I looked through the scope of my unloaded rifle and sure enough, it was the doe.
I had no cell phone service to call for help, and there was no accessing the property on the other side of the river. I had no choice but to go into the frigid water to get to her. At this point I had changed into a cotton t-shirt, but I still had on my thermal socks and rubber winter hunting boots. They filled with water as I waded in up to my groin and prayed I wouldn’t fall. I was thankful that fly fishing had given me some practice with thick silt and slippery rocks.
My legs were throbbing long before I reached her, but I made it across. The shot was much worse than I thought. The bullet had entered the liver and exited through the gut. It was a terrible sight and smell. But I found the deer at last, and I was taking her home.
I floated her back across the water and hauled her over the twisted tree roots on the bank onto the roadside. As I stood in the golden sunshine, watching it sparkle on the gently flowing river, I felt a peace hit me like a quiet thunderbolt. It was redemption. I felt my guilt ebb away with the current, as though my perseverance made up for the one I never found and the one I found too late, back during my first season of hunting.
I found out later that the people living on the other side of the river are against hunting, and if that deer had ventured up onto their property, they would not have let me search for her. It was a miracle that she fell just where she did, that I spotted her, and that the river was low enough to cross. I was thankful for the cold weather and for the expertise of the processor up the road, who turned the mess I’d made into food. The meat was fine.
The ride home was filled with relief and remorse. Writing this nearly a month later hasn’t been easy. I now suspect that the shot hit low and far back because she’d been squatting, and the way her body was positioned, her vitals were angled differently than if she’d been standing up.
I shouldn’t have taken that shot. I should have waited longer to search, or kept my distance after I bumped her the first time. But I learned what to do and what not to do if you make a bad shot. Give the animal time and space. Note every detail, and make use of any and all information you have, however small. Recognize when to pursue and when to back out. You owe it to yourself, your quarry, and your future hunts to learn from your mistakes as well as your triumphs.