Losing Deer

declining deer herd

This fall has been interesting, at least in regards to a good number of conversations I’ve had with some who have different opinions on hunting. Every conversation centered on deer. I want to thank those for being comfortable enough to discuss their true feelings about our traditional consumptive activity.

Just last week a young lady named Joannie stopped by my office to talk. “The problem I have with people hunting deer is I know some get shot and never found,” she said politely.
I began explaining how our nation’s whitetail deer are one of the most sought after and easily recognizable big game animals anywhere. Their adaptability and large numbers have garnered them a huge following. They can provide the first time hunter with instant success yet can dance a seasoned sportsman around a woodlot with ease. I also went in to great detail about the necessity of hunting as a wildlife management tool and the millions of dollars hunters provide for almost all conservation measures. But hunting is hunting and sometimes unfortunate things can and do happen.

There is no doubt some of the most memorable deer shot did not end up as venison in the freezer. There sure aren’t many but there comes a time in a hunter’s life when a deer goes unrecovered. To any ethical hunter who has had that happen, the fact still weighs on them. You relive everything over and over – shot placement, tracking skills, timing and anything else unique to the hunt. For whatever reason unfortunate things do occasionally happen in the field, as well as life itself. There are no participation trophies. But we learn from those instances and use them to improve our skills and guide us in the future.

Earlier this year I helped several friends track deer. The hunters had made good shots yet the deer ran considerable distances. In every instance, after spending a good amount of time following visible clues, the trail just vanished. More time was spent searching a grid pattern to ensure every piece of ground was covered. On two occasions the deer were recovered, one was not.

There is also an ailment that can affect those who take to the woods in search of Indiana’s premier big game animal. It’s called “buck fever” and no one is immune. From age 6 to 60 it can affect anyone. There is something about an animal as graceful as a whitetail deer that can bring excitement to a fevered pitch. For newcomers it can be the presence of a doe. For experienced hunters maybe it’s a trophy buck. There is no doubt deer can make some people come unhinged.

For example, late last month a fellow hunter called asking for help searching a large woods. He said his aim was good but after searching for the better part of the day he still came up empty. When reaching the site he was still overcome with emotion. Interesting considering he was 67 years old and had hunted deer for 50 years. “This was a good one,” he said holding his hands wide. Here was someone with decades of hunting deer under his belt and still visibly excited.

The story had a good ending as we found the big 10 point buck. It had buried itself into a growth of invasive Asian honeysuckle so thick it was hard to see into it for more than a few feet. But sometimes we may not be so lucky. Deer can run great distances crossing property lines. This can make things more difficult because now you must gain permission to search adjoining properties.

Even after dragging the deer a good distance back to the trucks I couldn’t help but compliment my friend for his buck and continued enthusiasm. “The day I quit getting excited is the day I stop hunting,” he responded, in between deep breaths. “That’s why we hunt, isn’t it?” he added

Then, one week later I joined another friend who had made what he thought was a good hit on a big eight pointer. After hours of searching we could find little in terms of visible sign. We looked until well after dark. The next morning he resumed the search, again finding nothing.

When it comes to hunting big game animals we strive to make sure we have done our homework, equipment is in perfect working order and confident in our abilities. But there will come a time in every hunter’s life when things don’t work out as we’d like. When that time comes the only advice I can give is to keep searching. Leave no stone unturned. Then, when all hope is lost, look a little longer.

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John Martino

Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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