Playgrounds to Ponds: When Deer Die in Strange Places

Playgrounds to Ponds: When Deer Die in Strange Places

I’m still waiting for two sticks of summer sausage from a buck that died in my driveway in November 2015. Something tells me the guy down the street forgot all about his promise to bring my reward for finding his bow kill.

Funny thing, gratitude: It’s abundant in the moment but fizzles faster than morning fog. Not only did I find that bow kill on my property, but I also found the bowhunter after backtracking the buck’s blood trail through two neighbors’ yards. He was struggling to unravel the first few yards of the buck’s death run from the previous evening and was grateful for my help. After leading him to his buck and complimenting his shot placement, I helped him load the buck into his pickup. He then drove off after a quick handshake and promise of sausage.

I smirked, realizing he left me to scrub the red rivulets and pooled blood from my driveway, and explain the bashed-in dog pen to my next-door neighbor. The buck had run headlong into the pen, bending its posts and crunching its fencing.

I suspected I’d never see that summer sausage, but I also learned firsthand that fatally shot deer don’t always seek the nearest cover. That buck’s death run gave me pause. I had long dismissed dire predictions that herd-control bowhunts in urban areas would lead to deer dying on manicured lawns, or limping past picture windows with arrows sticking from both shoulder blades.

In my experience, arrowed deer usually flee into the nearest cover to die or hide. Few die in public view.

Running Blind
My story didn’t surprise “Will Whitman” of Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia. (Whitman asked not to be identified by his real name because he gets harassed for his deer-control efforts.) Whitman, 75, has bow-killed over 150 deer the past 18 years from one-half to 3-acre suburban properties. In fact, he has bowhunted northern Virginia’s suburban woodlots for 50 years, but never logged his bow kills until SWMNV started compiling that information from its members.

“A fatally wounded deer is totally unpredictable,” Whitman said. “When it’s shot through both lungs it has about 10 seconds to live. It typically heads for cover, but it quickly loses its senses and balance, and has no clue which way it’s going or what’s in its way.”

C.J. Winand, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said it’s easy to mimic a deer’s death run by holding your breath and sprinting all-out for 10 seconds. “You’ll feel light-headed and struggle to run a straight line,” he said. “Well-hit deer do the same thing. They get dizzy, turn off, and J-hook into the ground.”

Winand lives in an outer suburb of Maryland, where he arranges about 20 crossbow hunts annually for his college-age kids, wounded warriors, and family friends. The backyard “blind” they use was once his kids’ playhouse.

“We set up for 10- to 15-yard shots, and know to get ready when the neighbor’s dog barks, or cars honk or hit the brakes,” Winand said. “We wait to double-lung the deer. I’ve dragged a few off my neighbor’s backyard, but they seldom go that far.”

A deer’s flight path is longer and more logical when shot through one lobe of the lungs or liver, or less-lethal locations. But that doesn’t make a deer’s destination predictable. “If it’s not a perfect hit, deer head downhill, follow trails, and look for water, but there’s still no guarantee where they’ll end up,” Whitman said.

Andy Bensing of Reading, Pennsylvania, agrees. Bensing, a professional dog trainer the past 35 years, started training and using dogs to blood-trail wounded deer about 20 years ago. He’s tracked 800 to 900 deer the past two decades with his dogs, often driving 75 miles one way to help fellow hunters in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey.

Heading for Home
“We find wounded deer in the darnedest places because deer live in the darnedest places, even beneath people’s porches,” Bensing said. “When deer get hit, I think they take off on the most direct route to their home area, but that’s not necessarily the nearest cover. They know where they’re headed, but you don’t.”

Even so, Whitman, Bensing, and Winand have few stories of arrowed deer dying on patios, sidewalks, driveways, or flower gardens. So does Gregg Brown, who once bow-killed four deer in one day while a member of SWMNV a decade ago.

“I killed over 100 deer in about five years in northern Virginia, and only had to knock on one door where I didn’t have permission to go,” Brown said. “I was hunting a park less than 1 acre in size. The deer didn’t go 40 yards, but it left the property. I waited until 8:30 a.m., knocked on the neighbor’s door, showed my ID, and got her permission to get the deer. You have to take smart shots that put them down quickly. Of the deer I shot, I saw 70% of them drop.”

Still, some deer die in public view. Given that fatally hit deer can run 100 yards in their initial burst, they sometimes go where no hunter wants to tread. Or swim.

Whitman, for instance, arrowed a deer in early October that covered only 15 yards before blasting headlong into a pond’s mucky shallows. It flipped head over hoofs before landing dead beyond the lily pads, just past wading depth.

“This is just outside Leesburg, Virginia, where people live in million-dollar homes on 5-acre lots,” Whitman said. “I had permission to hunt there, so I knocked on the landowner’s door, explained that my deer was in her pond, and asked how deep it was. She said it was over my head. I didn’t have my deep-sea fishing rod, so she gave me an old towel to use.”

Soon after, Whitman’s son stripped to his underwear, swam to the deer, grabbed a hoof, and dragged it ashore. “He about half-drowned in the lily pads, and started shivering real bad when he climbed out,” Whitman said. “The air temperature was in the 50s. He took off his underwear and toweled off right there in the yard. We told the woman he had no choice, and apologized for the indecent exposures. She burst out laughing.”

On another occasion Whitman arrowed a young doe that died on land he didn’t have permission to hunt. He had his heavy fishing tackle handy, so he cast from the property line, snagged the little deer, and walked backward to drag it into reach.

“I only had to move it 10 to 15 yards, and figured I had at least 50-pound line on the reel, so I thought it was worth a try,” he said. “That wouldn’t have worked on a bigger deer.”

Contested Recoveries
Not all such cases go so smoothly. Bensing estimates about one-third to half of his dogs’ tracking jobs occur in suburban settings. Before loading his dogs for the trip, he learns which properties the hunter has permission to enter. Even that doesn’t guarantee a helpful landowner.

In one case, a New Jersey hunter called at about 11 p.m. after tracking his deer to a neighbor’s mowed picnic area. Bensing advised the hunter to phone the neighbor early the next morning to seek access. The hunter did so, then summoned Bensing. They went to the site where the hunter stopped the previous night, and Bensing put his dogs to work.

“The dogs went about 100 yards and stopped on a tractor trail where it crossed a foot-wide stream,” Bensing said. “The dogs kept crossing the stream and stopping. I saw tire tracks heading into the stream, but none on the opposite side. I told the hunter that someone picked up his deer. I finally let the dogs follow the tractor trail a couple-hundred yards. When we were about 40 yards from the landowner’s house, I was pretty sure he took the deer. I told my hunter to go knock and ask.”

Bensing waited with his dogs while the hunter went to the house. “About 10 minutes later he came back with the buck’s head,” Bensing said. “The landowner found the deer the previous night before my hunter even began tracking it. He had already cut, wrapped, and frozen it. He had given my hunter permission to track the deer, knowing he’d never find it. He didn’t count on my dogs leading us to his garage. My hunter told the landowner he had technically poached the deer because he hadn’t tagged it or called it in. So, the guy gave him back the head and we left.”

A similar case required even more help. Bensing’s dog was tracking a deer arrowed through one lung. As the dog tracked the deer through a CRP field, it suddenly took off on a hot trail straight toward a house. Bensing and his hunter stopped at the property boundary, and Bensing called in his dog. He sent the hunter to the house 75 yards away to get permission to cross the property.

“As soon as he knocked, the woman in the house started screaming at him,” Bensing said. “She had two golden retrievers, and they were wearing matching red and blue neckerchiefs. She’s yelling, ‘Sic him! Sic him!’ but her dogs are just bouncing around, all happy and excited, and basically welcoming him in.

“The woman finally told my hunter that she and her husband found his buck earlier, and gave it to their neighbor. Well, my hunter knew the local game warden, who was a high-school friend. The warden showed up and told the neighbor to give back the buck’s head or he’d cite him for poaching.”

Confrontations are Rare
Most suburban tracking jobs aren’t so dramatic, especially those involving nuisance-level deer herds. “I could shoot a lot more deer around our home, and hunt other places besides our old playhouse,” Winand said. “My neighbors want to pay me to kill their deer, but I already have a full-time job.”

Larry Gohlke, a Wisconsin hunter who’s owned and trained deer-trailing dogs for over 30 years, said it’s vital to respect surrounding lands and landowners. “If you don’t build relationships with your neighbors, you’re screwed at the property line,” he said. “If you trespass, you risk never building a relationship. And if you quit the trail and leave a dead deer 40 yards onto their property, you risk the same thing. If you treat them right, they’ll usually let you on.”

And what if they don’t? “I explain their choices,” Gohlke said. “If I can’t take my dog and help the hunter get his deer, he might go back out and wound another deer. He might even sneak onto their property to look for it. But if I find the deer we’re now trailing, he’s done hunting for the year. Most people tell us to go find it and get him out of the woods.”

Josh Martinez, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, issues nuisance deer permits for Green Bay’s metro bowhunt. The city’s deer-control program usually attracts 75 to 85 bowhunters, who kill 75 to 125 deer annually. Martinez said he’s yet to receive a complaint about deer dying on private property.

“When I hear from landowners, they’re usually mad that bowhunters aren’t shooting enough deer,” Martinez said. “They’re still seeing deer but no bowhunters, so I explain that bowhunters are discreet; they wear camouflage. The more common complaint is from bowhunters who deal with people who consider deer their pets. They don’t want someone shooting their backyard pet.”

Martinez said hunters in nearby farm country generate far more conflicts. “It’s the typical stuff,” he said. “Neighbor A shot the big buck that Neighbor B was hunting. ‘You shot the 10-pointer I had on camera!’ So, now they’re fighting over it, and accusing each other of trespassing or other violations. We just don’t have many conflicts in urban bowhunts.”

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