It’s one of the most heart-breaking scenarios a hunter will ever have to face. But, give it enough time and it’s likely to happen to every one of us. That scenario is wounding and failing to recover an animal.
Myriad questions arise from a situation like this. But the one I want to address today is whether, after not being able to recover an animal, you should still notch your tag.
While I can’t answer this question with any kind of definitive or regulatory authority, I can speak to it from personal experience. I’ve found myself in scenarios like this twice over the past five years and subsequently have had to give this quandary a good amount of thought.
The scenario happened in 2014. I’d been hunting a specific whitetail buck in Ohio for two years and, on a cool mid-October evening, I got my shot. He appeared out of nowhere at the end of the evening and was quickly passing through my shooting lane. It was a chaotic moment and, despite getting a shot at him within 30 yards, the hit was less than ideal. I saw that he was hit back and low. Two and a half days of searching later, and after having recruited the help of three different friends and two different tracking dogs, I was not able to recover him. The five hour drive home that night was filled with self-loathing and serious thoughts of ending my hunting season right then and there. At 2:00 a.m., almost home, I got pulled over for speeding. My mind had obviously been elsewhere.
After not hunting for a week and a half, I was encouraged by friends to get back out there and keep hunting. The only way to get over this awful feeling was to learn from it and “get back in the saddle.” I hadn’t punched my tag at that point and was still holding on to hope that the buck had survived the hit because the shot might of been low enough to avoid any major vitals. At the two week mark, I decided it was time to pick up the bow again and see if I could find redemption.
Checking cameras back in Ohio for the first time, I clicked through to a picture of a tall-tined, heavy-antlered buck. He’d made it. The sense of relief was astonishing and I charged back in the next morning before daylight to hunt tight to the buck’s core area. Just an hour into that hunt, here came the same buck and moments later my shot hit its mark. Before noon that day I approached the buck which represented the completion of one of my most trying experiences as a hunter. But when I arrived at his side, I was shocked to find that all of my assumptions had been wrong. This was a different deer.
Fast forward several months and I was back on the same property to shed hunt. Five minutes into my walk I spotted a tall-tined, heavy-antlered rack. And then a carcass. There he was, the original buck. He’d died right there, within just a few hundred yards of that the fateful mid-October encounter.
That experience haunted me for years after. It was on my mind again this past September on a public land hunt in Montana. On the fourth day of the trip I got a shot at a beautiful 11-point buck and the hit looked true. But after hours of searching that evening I couldn’t find a single drop of blood. I went to bed that night in the back of my pickup truck eaten alive with worry.
The next morning I returned, eventually found and lost blood again, and then began to grid search. I couldn’t believe this deer had gone so far and bled so little, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was a lethal hit. He was somewhere, I just needed to find him. On my hands and knees, crawling around and under and through a nearly impenetrable swath of Russian olive bushes, I decided that I was done with my hunt no matter what. I would walk and crawl and search every day I had left on this trip until I either found this buck or had to return home. Either way, my tag would be punched. I did not want a repeat of what happened in Ohio.
Fortunately, not more than an hour later, I saw the miracle of a white belly and ivory tines.
Was one decision or the other right or wrong? I’m honestly not sure.
Does it even matter? That’s a reasonable question too. From a herd management perspective, it’s likely irrelevant. Unfortunately, a large number of deer are wounded and lost each year, many of which are never accounted for via punched tags. And yet, deer populations are still thriving and, in many cases, growing across much of the country. Management agencies are surely taking this “loss” into account when formulating their population objectives and tag allocations. But while punching your tag may not matter on a macro scale, it very well might on the micro.
The longer I hunt, the more I find myself thinking long and hard about why I do it and how I can justify my actions. I imagine many other hunters do the same, each at their own pace and in their own way. As hunters, each time we pull the trigger we take something from the natural world. The more I take, the more I feel a need to balance the scales. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula explaining for us exactly how to do that. All of this plays heavily in my mind when choosing how to handle a situation like the ones described above.
Five years ago I shot a buck, did not recover it, and chose to not punch my tag, hoping that he was still alive. This year, knowing survival seemed impossible, I chose differently, deciding to punch my tag no matter the final outcome. Each decision was a product of where I was at in that moment of my hunting journey and the specific circumstances at hand. If I find myself in a similar situation again, I know once more I’ll have to face the difficult decision with nothing more than the information at hand and a well-meaning heart.
The Final Verdict
There may not be any one right answer to this question, as the situations and variables will always vary so widely. But what does seem important, in my eyes at least, is for a certain sense of thoughtfulness and responsibility to be applied while working it over in our own unique ways.
All of this is to say that when taking an animal’s life, it’s good to keep in mind the words of Thomas McGuane: “This is goddamned serious and you had better always remember that.”
Feature image by Captured Creative.