November 17th was a blustery day in the hardwood hills of northern New Jersey. Good conditions to hide my noise and movement by the rustling leaves. However, it was getting a little late into the rut to have an un-punched tag in my pocket. Not only does the rut activity start to wane, more importantly, I have usually cashed in my allotted spousal brownie points by then.
My sister Katy and I got in the woods well before sunrise. I set up on the apex of a favorite ridge in a split trunk tree, which I prefer for breaking up my silhouette. But I just couldn’t get the tree stand to settle correctly, and as light crested the horizon, I quickly moved my set up down the ridge a few yards to a single tree and settled in.
A couple of hours later, we still had not seen anything other than an unusually beautiful sunrise. It was time to make something happen. When the wind let up for a minute I rattled as long and loud as possible. Katy, within sight of me, later said an unidentified deer came into the rattle straight down wind within 60 yards away but I never saw it. A half hour later another break in the wind gave me the opportunity to rattle again. I smashed my rattle bag against the tree to create the loudest crack possibly and continued to make as much noise as my frigid hands could muster. I had just finished and was putting the bag into my pack when a flash caught my eye.
A huge buck was charging in, paralleling the ridge top I was on. In the time it took me to grab my bow and swivel, he was within range and about to get up ridge from me and catch my wind. I simply yelled, not a deer grunt, or turkey yelp, or squirrel chatter, a good old from the gut…HEY. The deer threw on the brakes and ground to a stop broadside at 16 yards.
In one motion I raised, swung and drew my Osage recurve and reminded myself to pick a spot and reach anchor. My subconscious brain declared all systems were a go and the arrow set sail through the air with a slight kick to its tail as its bright orange four fletching wrestled with the wind. It arched through the air with a solid impact low in the crease of the deer’s giant shoulder. He swirled and ran directly away slowing as he topped over the adjacent ridge to the south.
As I sat anxiously after the shot I couldn’t help but stare at the split trunk tree a few yards up ridge of my location. If I had been in the initial tree what was a shot on the edge of my self bow range would have trimmed down to within 10 yards, a very high percentage shot even in windy conditions.
After a gut wrenching 45 minutes spent alone in my head reliving the shot and the what-ifs, I climbed down slowly and tiptoed over to my sister’s location. A full hour after the shot we went to investigate the scene. It was easy to pinpoint where the buck stood by the slide marks created by his oversized hooves as he screeched to a halt. I found the back half of the arrow 20 yards from the shot. It had some blood on it, and from the length of arrow missing it seemed there was plenty of penetration.
We followed sporadic drops of blood for 50 yards to where I last saw the deer as he slowed his pace and topped over the ridge. From there blood was everywhere. I became relieved and even started to get excited as I ran along where the blood sprayed copiously on the fallen foliage. We had gone down that ridge through the next valley and over the following ridge. As we got closer to the edge of a thick swamp that lie in the next valley I slowed, and to my surprise the huge buck rose from his bed 15 yards away at the edge of the swamp and bounded away up and over the ridge seemingly unharmed.
My heart sank. As I stood—baffled how an animal could lose so much blood and have the energy to make such an exit—I realized the likeliness of finding this deer just went way down. Getting a good second look at the deer confirmed what I had initially thought, but had second guessed since the shot… this deer was easily the largest at which I have ever loosed an arrow. The antlers were disproportional to its body. It resembled a bobble head as it ran away.
We hiked back to my sister’s house where I tried to take a nap, but I just laid on the couch looking at the wall for four hours. We, along with her boyfriend Eric, went back in after lunch and picked up the trail. We followed it for several hours covering over a mile of not great blood dispersal but enough to track consistently. As dark overtook us there was still blood, but the trail seemed to be going in circles.
We pulled the plug on the search for the night. Before heading home I stopped by the farm who owned the land below where the deer seemed to be headed. The land manager was very understanding and granted me permission to track the deer on the property the next morning.
I knew the farm property pretty well. My father had permission to hunt it when I was young. I spent the first few years of my hunting career within its gates. I shot my first deer there when I was eleven. There were a lot of acres to potentially look over, but I knew there were a few high percentage areas the deer would funnel and bed.
The next morning found us circling blood at daybreak, finally sorting out a line the buck had traveled, which indeed crossed onto the private farm property, and led to a spot he bedded in a blowdown. From there the blood thinned out and eventually was lost. As I began to lose hope I topped out over a ridge and chaos ensued. Several sizeable bucks were chasing a young, obviously hot doe all through this valley. Three bucks pushed the doe right past us not 15 yards from my sister. None showed sign of being hurt.
I felt confident I had seen a fourth deer that had gone the other way so I followed that direction for a few hundred yards. In a tight pinch point in a steep ravine between a pond and cattail swamp there was a highway of deer tracks coming down the steep slopes. This had been one of the funnels I knew from my childhood. At the bottom, near where a trickle of water fed the swamp, a single drop of dried blood gave me direction and hope.
From that spot Katy and I tracked consistent blood several hundred more yards through briar thickets, ending up on the far side of the cattail swamp where we lost the blood and I began to grid search. After a few laps I passed by a well-used deer trail with an old debarked log across it. I had crossed it several times in my search, so when I passed it again the scarlet drop shimmering in the sunlight on its grey weathered surface caught my eye.
This fresh blood confirmed I had again jumped the buck. Katy and I reconvened at the spot and we followed consistent blood for several hundred yards back into the ridges toward the public land where I shot the deer. When we got into the large valley where the public and the private land meet we lost blood for a final time.
It was becoming clear that the shot had been non-fatal. All the blood was the result of a low hit with a razor sharp broadhead. I called the search off at 1 pm. On our way out I told Katy that I wanted to show her a tree our father used to perch in. She is still learning this area since she moved back to New Jersey a couple years ago.
We hiked up the ridge and found the rail road spiked oak. I told her Dad liked this spot because the deer preferred to bed among the boulders 20 yards up the ridge after spending the night feeding in the crop fields on the farm below. We walked ten yards in that direction when movement caught our eyes and jerked our heads up just in time to see the deer’s huge set of antlers swivel and rise from the rocks and bound down the hill.
I had the closure I needed. This deer was going to be fine. He was bedded only a couple hundred yards from where I had shot him, perhaps in the same bed he rose from to respond to my rattling the day before.
We tracked that buck for very close to three circuitous miles over 30 hours from the shot. The shot was a good one. That is to say I would take it every time. It simply was within the margin of error for bow hunting. If I were an inch higher it would have severed the heart, or an inch lower would have just shaved some hair. This is the fine line we all accept as bow hunters.
I cannot be positive but I believe I saw that deer chasing a doe two weeks later in the same valley. He stayed at a distance on the private side of the valley. That deer had surely made it through several gun seasons. All I can do is hope he made it through one more and if so, perhaps this greatest of chases isn’t over yet.
Equipment Note: The author used a sinew-backed Osage recurve and Douglas fir shaft tipped with a Zwickey broadhead on this hunt. His bow building and hunting related adventures can be followed at Harvesterbowworks on Instagram.