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Dogs and Deer: ‘A Four-Legged Tracking Machine’

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“Now Ol’ Red, he’s the damnedest dog that I’ve ever seen. He’s got a nose that can smell a two-day trail; He’s a four-legged tracking machine…But all these years that I’ve been here, Ain’t nobody got past Red.” — Country singer Blake Shelton, “Ol’ Red,” 2001.

“Success flourishes only in perseverance — ceaseless, relentless perseverance.” — Captain Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” 1917, the top fighter ace of WWI, with 80 confirmed kills.

I’ve only been hunting whitetail deer with a crossbow for the past two years, with decidedly mixed results, as this article will explain.

In the 2019 hunting season, I had no luck at all during the archery portion, but took a nine-point buck in December with my .30-06 rifle. In mid-September 2020, however, I took a fairly big (119 pounds dressed-out), beautiful, eight-point buck, which only ran about 80 yards after I hit it. This year, that initial, positive, first impression of crossbow hunting was somewhat tempered by two very different shooting experiences. (Also, see my previous, deer-related articles in Gunpowder Magazine, “Deer Hunting for Success” on December 8, 2019, and “Deer-Hunting Lessons Learned” on May 23, 2021.)

My crossbow is a camouflaged, Barnett/Wildgame XB370 with 180 pounds of draw weight, and an arrow velocity of 370 feet per second. That’s pretty fast and respectable for a weapon of this type. It uses a 4x32mm AimSports mil-dot scope, and fires 20-inch-long, Barnett Headhunter bolts (arrows) that are .355-inch (9mm) in diameter, and weigh 315 grains, with a 100-grain, one-piece, triple-edged, stainless-steel, 1.125-inch-wide, G5 Outdoors Montec, solid-steel broadhead attached. This all sounds quite deadly and efficient for deer-hunting purposes, and it truly was, last year, but this year was entirely different.

Archery season opened on Friday, September 10th in my state, and it didn’t take long to attract an impressive, eight-point buck that I had never seen before to the feeder a mere 15 yards from my raised, wooden, hunting blind, which is 10 feet off the ground, just inside the edge of a pine forest behind my home. He was obviously spending some time with the local herds of does and fawns as mating season began, and this sighting took place about five minutes before the very last light of the day, with nightfall coming quickly. Our semi-rural region is heavily overhunted, with about 10 active hunters within a one-square-mile area, so the mere sight of such a magnificent animal was a very rare treat, as well as a golden opportunity for me.

I quietly slipped the safety off, before he could come closely enough to hear it (lesson learned from two years ago, when an eight-point buck got cleanly away: they definitely can hear it), took very careful aim as he approached the feeder from right to left, and fired. What happened next is still a matter of disappointing conjecture and uncertainty. He ran 125 yards to the nearby hillside like the wind, definitely not like a wounded animal, and disappeared over the heavily-wooded embankment in the direction of the adjacent, national park, which he probably felt was a safe area.

I recovered my spent arrow from a tree stump 45 yards away, and it was mostly quite dry, with just a tiny smear of some type of grease or fluid, and extensive, scrape marks on one side, where it had evidently ricocheted off the ground, and back up again, into the short, thick, pine stump. In no way did it resemble last year’s very bloody arrow, which had taken that superb buck on the same property, so I was puzzled.

Using a blindingly-powerful, Craftsman spotlight, I went into the woods where he had run off, and searched methodically for about 20 minutes, but there was no sign of him. So, I went inside, scratched my head, and reasoned that my arrow had somehow taken a nose dive, and slipped just below his belly. Perhaps the fletching (the vanes or plastic feathers) was bent, and the bolt went astray. In any event, it had felt like a perfect shot at a perfect buck at the time, but now I had no venison, and no antlers to show for it.

My wife and I searched the embankment, the nearby road, and the ravine and creek in the opposite direction for over an hour the next morning, but found absolutely no evidence of that buck anywhere near our home. The scope was carefully sighted-in for a direct, bullseye shot (I tested it again) at 15 to 25 yards, so that wasn’t the problem. Then, three days later, someone saw the buck lying dead, right beside the roadway at the bottom of the hill, only three feet from the asphalt, with his exquisite antlers sawn off by a passing motorist, and a flock of black, turkey vultures devouring his once-splendid carcass.

He was at the exact spot where the local deer herds cross the main road into the national park on the opposite side, and my wife and I had just walked past that very spot from both directions, and saw nothing only a few days previously. While it’s still possible that I hit him and he eventually bled out, his running speed, the dry arrow, and the lack of a body all indicate a miss, and his proximity to the main road, and his missing antlers, would seem to suggest that he was hit by a passing motorist at some point. I’ll never know for certain exactly what happened, so I was resolved to just press on and keep hunting.

When this big eight-pointer first appeared, he had a local, six-point buck at his side, traveling with him, and while the eight-pointer was now clearly dead, the six-pointer was still on the loose, and he became my next quarry.

As September wore on, and I hunted virtually every morning and every evening (40 times, totaling about 60 hours), with better sightings of does and fawns in the evenings, I stopped the morning hunts on October 1st. One week later, I was climbing down from my hunting blind at 7:20 PM, when it became too dark to distinguish a buck from a doe with the naked eye. Upon reaching the bottom of the ladder, I discerned a familiar shape in the tall grass adjoining my back yard, about 80 yards away. Stepping slowly and silently forward, halfway across the open yard, I stopped when I was absolutely certain that it was a deer, and through the scope, I could make out lightly-colored antlers, almost straight up, like a gazelle’s, so I clicked the safety off at 40 yards.

Just then, he looked up from feeding in the tall grass, spotted me, and turned head-on toward me, presenting a very narrow, frontal shot under terrible lighting conditions, and he was beyond the accurate range of my weapon. I tucked the crossbow into my shoulder, sorely tempted to aim just a little high and try the shot anyway, but he turned and darted swiftly into the nearby forest. It was a close call, and no venison yet, but at least I knew that he was still alive after nearly a month of detecting no bucks while I hunted.

On Monday, October 11th, he showed up again in the evening, at my neighbor’s deer feeder, about 70 yards from my hunting blind. I had a very clear look at him under daylight conditions finally, and he wasn’t huge, but he was the only buck in the neighborhood at the time. Still, he was on my neighbor’s property, not mine, and he was well outside of crossbow range. He stepped away from the feeder at last, and literally stared me down for the next five minutes, knowing that I was up there in that hunting blind, and seeming to know just as well that he was safe and out of range. Then nightfall came, and he had eluded me yet again.

The very next morning, Tuesday, October 12th, I was out for my usual, early-morning walk on the local road before sunrise, when I just had one of those intuitive, instinctive feelings to “hunt this morning.” So I did, and the same six-pointer showed up again at my neighbor’s feeder at about 6:30 AM. For the next 45 very frustrating minutes, he wandered back and forth out of range, eating corn and chasing does, and I began to think that I was wasting my morning for nothing. Then, at 7:15 AM, he abruptly trotted straight toward my feeder, crossing the property line, and well into firing range.

I slipped the safety off again, took very careful aim, and fired just as he reached my feeder. Once again, it felt like an absolutely perfect shot. He jumped about a foot into the air, and bolted away toward the north like greased lightning, vanishing into the forest in that direction in the blink of an eye. My wife and I searched every square foot of our northern neighbor’s grassy and forested property, full of young, pine and cedar trees, lots of dense underbrush, and sticky, raspberry vines, for the next hour, but there were no tracks, no blood trail, and no dead buck to be found anywhere.

Next, I tried our downhill neighbor’s house toward the west, across the main road and directly beside the park. After a slightly awkward and unsettling introduction, with two barking dogs near my feet, I eventually gained permission to search his property for my missing buck, which wasn’t there, after all.

My wife and I checked out two more adjacent properties, and drove our SUV down the main road and back again, searching every conceivable location where that deer may have traveled, but there was simply no luck whatsoever. Hunting is like that sometimes. There are close calls, misses, lost opportunities, and a tremendous amount of patience is required, but when things go right, the rewards are definitely worth all of the trouble. I surely didn’t want to lose another fine buck, though, and was considering every possible method for recovering that delicious venison before it had a chance to spoil.

Finally, after two hours of fruitless searching, I had an inspired idea, and called our friend and neighbor Vince Strosnider, a certified firearms instructor and NRA Life Member, who lives up the street. Vince and his wife, Carolyn, have three dogs, and I felt that it was worth a try to see if any of them could possibly track down this elusive buck, who was certain to be dead by now.

Vince arrived a half-hour later with Winter, a 10-year-old, white, female, American Pit Bull/Terrier mix, standing about two feet tall at the shoulders, and weighing in at 60 pounds. She’s a very friendly, outgoing dog, with a history of chasing rabbits, opossum, squirrels, snakes (her specialty), and even deer, away from their back yard, which is next to a deep forest.

I remember reading that poisonous, copperhead snakes smell exactly like freshly-cut cucumbers when they’re about to strike, and if you can smell cucumbers, you’re way too close. That turned out to be very true one day last year as my wife and I were hiking our neighborhood road near a local horse farm. There was no mistaking that distinctive smell in the tall grass beside the road, and we scurried away without hesitation.

As soon as Vince and Winter arrived, I let her sniff the bloody arrow that I’d pulled out of the ground where I shot the buck two and a half hours previously, and led her in the direction where I’d last seen the deer fleeing. Vince told her to “Seek,” and the dog went into full, tracking action.

Scientists at the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University estimate that a dog’s nose is somewhere between 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than a human nose. Dogs have 50 times as many scent receptors as people do, and the area of their brain devoted to smell is 40 times larger than ours. Dogs can breathe in and out at the same time, creating a continuous circulation of air for sniffing different scents, and they can smell separately with each nostril, combining two slightly different scents to form a 3-D picture of odor profiles, in order to determine exactly where certain objects are located. They also have a vomeronasal organ to help them detect pheromones, which are chemicals released by animals. Dogs can even detect very tiny reductions in the concentrations of odor molecules that occur over short periods of time, enabling them to determine which direction a person or animal has gone simply by sniffing the ground.

Police departments, the Armed Forces, and many other organizations worldwide already know this, and have utilized dogs to track fugitives, smell illegal drugs, locate explosives, detect cancerous lesions in people, and for countless other purposes.

In July 2017, National Geographic magazine sent four border-collie, sniffer dogs to Nikumaroro Island in the Central Pacific Ocean, together with an expedition by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), checking the area where 12 human bones and a skull, believed to possibly be those of lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart, were recovered beneath a tropical ren tree in 1940. These dogs can smell human bones as deeply as nine feet below the ground, and up to 1,500 years old.

National Geographic later wrote that, “Within moments of beginning to work the site, Berkeley, a curly, red male, lay down at the base of a ren tree, eyes locked on his handler...The dog was ‘alerting,’ indicating...that he had detected the scent of human remains. Next up was Kayle, a fluffy, eager-to-please female. She also alerted on the same spot. The next day, Marcy and Piper, two black-and-white collies, were brought to the site.  Both dogs alerted. The signals were clear: Someone, perhaps Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, had died beneath the ren tree.” There’s a whole lot more to the Earhart story, but suffice it to say that sniffer dogs played a vital part in determining that someone did, in fact, die beneath that tree, at a time (July 1937) when the island was totally uninhabited.

This was by far the smallest, antlered buck that I’ve ever taken, but also the hardest-earned, with 52 hunting sessions totaling approximately 78 hours, and a lost, eight-point buck along the way. I only wish that I’d thought of seeking Vince and Winter’s assistance after I shot the eight-pointer in September, but oh, well! It was pitch-dark soon afterward, and that search would have been much more difficult, anyway.

Winter was on-point right away, weaving her way in and out of the virgin forest next door, through the tight, deer passageways in the underbrush, in a slightly-zigzagging pattern through the tall grass and raspberry vines. I told Vince that the trail was just fine, since the narrow route was frequently used by local deer herds, and this buck had been in the area for quite some time already. Winter kept sniffing the ground, and moving in a predictable direction, exactly where my wife and I had very briefly spotted the same buck moving quickly away from us about two weeks prior.

We descended the low hillside on a neighbor’s property down to my long driveway, where it intersected the asphalt road about 230 yards from my hunting blind. Winter crossed to the north side, and stopped at the head of a heavily-wooded ravine about 45 feet deep (per GoogleEarth), with a small creek running along the bottom. The buck was headed due north, away from the houses and into the deep woods in that direction. After a brief pause, Winter led us down into the ravine, and Vince began spotting a blood trail near the bottom, confirming that we were moving in the right direction.

There were a few well-worn, deer trails down in the shady ravine, so we split up for just a few minutes, and I took the lower trail while Vince and Winter traversed a parallel trail a little higher up the slope. I found more blood in the bottom, near the creek, so we moved together again, and finally came upon the deer’s body roughly 250 yards back into the forest, lying upon some tall grass, where he had fallen. Winter sniffed the buck, quite excited that she had found what she was looking for.

The deer was fully a quarter-mile from where I’d shot it, which seemed like an impossible distance for an animal shot cleanly through the chest cavity, but GoogleEarth later verified the exact distance. There’s just no way that anyone thought it was capable of running that fast and that far, but it did, so there’s another deer-hunting lesson learned. You just never know what’s going to happen once you pull that trigger. Only two of the 11 deer  (eight bucks and three does) that I’ve harvested in the past six years went straight down on the spot, both shot with powerful firearms. All of the rest ran, usually no more than 100 yards, but this one broke all the records for speed and distance.

Vince and I dragged it by the antlers for about 170 yards, and then I walked home from there, returned with my Honda ATV to the bottom of the ravine, and worked my way in to the creek. We tied the buck behind the ATV and dragged it along 350 yards of asphalt roadway to my side yard to be photographed and field-dressed. At the meat processor’s barn later, it weighed 95 pounds dressed-out, or about 105 to 110 pounds in the wild. This yielded 52 pounds of actual, very savory venison from the processor one week later. Amazingly enough, the large gut pile in my yard was totally gone when we came home after only two hours. Nature takes care of itself pretty quickly. The local vultures, crows, and foxes evidently had a field day at high noon.

The most astounding part of this whole deer-hunting process was also the shortest (just 15 minutes) and most-efficient phase, watching Winter expertly track that missing buck with unerring precision, thereby saving the precious venison before it spoiled. We hear about the incredible, tracking capabilities of dogs all the time, but seeing it in person is an entirely different experience. Winter’s an ordinary, family pet, not a specialized, hunting or tracking dog, but you’d never know that from her stellar performance in the field this past month.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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