Hang Your Hat
by Joe Rarey
This is not so much the story of a hunt as it is about the end of one, the unglamorous interlude between the shot and the recovery. These are usually short affairs; at least that’s what we prefer. Yet sometimes circumstance and choice conspire to make this part of the adventure the overwhelming theme of the story. It’s wise to take notice when it does, because that’s where lessons can be learned.
On Friday, November 16th, 2013 I was hunting on an old clear-cut in the mountains of northeastern Washington, a mile and a half from the truck at an elevation of 2,700 feet. Action had been decent and there were good bucks on camera, so I felt confident I would have an opportunity that day. About 6-inches of old, crusty snow covered the ground and the skies threatened to dump more.
It was the peak of the rut in Washington and I had been in my stand since first light. Now, it was 3:30 PM and I sat frozen, literally, as two does milled around on the edge of the clear-cut, near my stand. They were in the area for 20-minutes or so before disappearing into the timber.
As light started to fade, the snow began absorbing its bluish glow and the details started to wash out, leaving behind heavy, black silhouettes. I heard what I assumed to be the two does again; their steps crunching in the snow near where they’d vanished; now moving deeper in the clear-cut and crossing from right to left. When the “lead doe” broke into the clear, my heart jumped and I quickly reached for my bow. This was no doe.
I tried to count points, but gave up. He was big and I was going to take him. The buck was above the trail my stand was on and that made a wide arc through the clear-cut. I had taken ranges around the area and had a pretty good read on the distance—50 yards.
I’m comfortable with my set up, and depending on the conditions, I find 50 yards to be well within my capability. I watched the buck as he passed behind big and small trees in the cut, and then picked my gap. He stopped frequently; pausing several minutes at one point, completely hidden from view just in front of the spot I had decided would offer the best opportunity for the careful placement of my arrow.
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally stepped into the gap. I drew my bow. In my peripheral vision I saw that my lighted nock was already on. The buck apparently noticed this as well; his head snapped around and he froze, staring at the tree that I was in. I settled my 50-yard pin tight in the pocket and the arrow leapt from the bow. The trail of the lighted nock through the air told me I hit the buck right where I had aimed. As the arrow passed through, the buck exploded and ran back the way he had come; then, there was silence. I knocked another arrow, my senses on full alert.
There he was, standing perfectly still, facing directly away from me. I drew again, my mind quickly estimating distance, clearances, etc. I settled my pin just as he stepped from view. With a slow and determined head-low walk he disappeared into the thick timber outside of the clear-cut. I let down and listened. The occasional twig snap convinced me he was heading to my left, paralleling the steep hill that marked the southern boundary of the clear-cut, and then all was quiet.
Fifteen minutes later, it started to snow. I climbed down from my stand and made my way quietly to the point of impact. I found my arrow in the snow, which had a good deal of blood on it. The arrow showed good sign; no stomach contents or odd smells were evident. It wasn’t yet, pitch black, but in the snow, it was impossible to determine whether it was lung blood or not. I trailed quietly, without a light, to where he had stood. There was a small pool of blood in the snow.
I continued to trail slowly, following his tracks and the occasional drop of blood. His trail led parallel to the hill just as sound had suggested, but not for as long as I expected. After 30-yards, he’d turned right and went straight uphill from the clear-cut and into the timber. I stood on the edge of the clear-cut, peering into the dark of the standing pines. Considering the situation, and history, I hung my hat on a branch to mark the spot, collected my gear, and headed back to the truck as the snow fell steadily in the darkness.
Five years ago, I would’ve given this buck one-to-three hours before trailing, depending on snowfall. I know this because five years ago, that’s exactly what I did with my wife’s first buck. It had snowed all day, depositing 5-inches of fresh powder. Ann Marie’s buck came in at 1:00 PM to a can call; she shot him at 22-yards. The hit looked good and he bounded about 40-yards and stopped. As he stood there, I waited for him to tip over, but he didn’t. After perhaps a minute, he walked out the way he had come in—head low, legs stiff, slow and determined.
I was confident we’d find him dead after a short trail; I’d seen the arrow take him—3 o’clock in the 10-ring. We drove back to camp and came back three hours later, at last light. The fresh snow made trailing easy; his were the only tracks; the single drop of blood every 20-yards or so, confirmed we were on the right trail. After 400-yards, we found a blood-covered bed, and then another. Shortly after finding a third, my heart sank. We spotted the buck as he ran off into the darkness, not looking all that unhealthy.
Suffice it to say, we got lucky. The next morning dawned with single digit temps and no new snowfall. We trailed the only set of deer tracks present for another 500-yards before recovering him. Our post-mortem showed that the arrow had taken him through the back of the left lung and center-punched the liver, exiting low in the paunch. When we field dressed him 16-hours after the shot, he was still warm.
That experience is why I left a weak blood trail, with fresh snow falling to obscure blood and tracks. I wasn’t thrilled; no one wants a less than perfect shot. Still, I was reasonably confident that I would recover this buck if I didn’t push him.
I had a hypothesis, and that’s all it is—a possible interpretation for a group of facts.
My observations being limited to two events—my wife’s and now this yet unfinished one—left a lot of blanks in the puzzle. Yet, these two events had striking similarities.
First, both bucks exploded at impact as most bucks do, but then stopped after covering perhaps 40-yards, at which point their behavior changed. It’s as if they were no longer panicked, but deliberating on what to do. I watched both bucks turn and sniff the wound, look around, sniff again, drop their heads and walk off.
Given my experience with Ann Marie’s buck, I had to assume that I had hit mine in the liver as well. Regardless of what other organs were hit, the liver represented two certainties—he will die, and that it may take up to 10 hours. The falling snow was obscuring an already limited blood trail, and there were tracks everywhere. The only variable I could control was when I went after him, and I knew my odds would be much higher if I waited until I was sure he was dead.
The second similarity is what I literally hung my hat on. At the time I left the trail, this notion was truly theoretical. With Ann Marie’s buck, after pausing he picked his way for 40- or 50-yards and then lined out. His trail from there to his first bedding area was, for all intents and purposes, a straight line and about 400-yards from the point of impact. The hypothesis took form in my head while following my buck’s trail and noting each similarity between the behaviors of these two bucks. The time the bucks spent standing still after the shot seemed to me to be invested in two things: assessing the gravity of the situation, and then deciding on precisely what bed would be both secure and far enough away to be safe.
As I stood at the edge of the clear-cut, my eyes trying to penetrate the dark of the timber, I could tell that my buck had lined out. He was making for a bed, his bed, where he knew he would be safe. I hung my hat and left him to die in peace.
The next morning an inch and a half of fresh snow filled my tracks from the previous evening’s exit. My hunting partner and I retraced the trail through the clear-cut and in places we located pitifully-small, washed-out spots of blood that had been obvious the night before.
We got to my hat and stood looking up at one of the steeper inclines in the area. Anyone who says a hard-hit whitetail won’t travel uphill doesn’t hunt whitetails in the mountains. We started looking for blood, and after hard searching, found a few very small drops under the new snow. It was enough to test my hypothesis. I drew a straight line from my hat to this new blood about 60-yards away and squaring my back to this line, looked up the hill. It was the least likely place I would think a deer would go. I made some mental notes on landmarks and started up the hill, crisscrossing due to both the steepness and the search for more blood.
I had gone about 350-yards with no blood or sign that a deer had passed this way in the last 20 years when I jumped a doe. She came out of her bed as I crested the top of the hill, almost 250-feet above the elevation of my tree stand. At the top, I decided to grid the area. I cut to my right, pushing through some heavy brush, and was stopped in my tracks just on the other side. I was standing in a deer bed with blood in it. Thirty-yards to the south, I saw antlers sticking out of the snow.
After the shot, the buck had seemed to understand the grave nature of its wound and sought out a place that would provide security and safety. And that’s where he died, unmolested, 500-yards from the shot. The post-mortem confirmed my hunch that I had delivered a single lung/liver hit. When I field dressed him at 9:30 AM that morning, he was still warm.
The next time you’re on a similar trail, hang your hat where the trail lines out and leave him be. Chances are pretty good you’ll find him on a fairly straight line from that point in the bed he went to die in.