Necropsy is a fancy term for digging into a corpse in order to, in most cases, figure out the cause of death. For deer hunters who are elbow-deep in a dead buck, it might seem like the cause of death is pretty easy to pin down. You shot it with an arrow or a bullet, and that’s that.
It’s not always quite so simple, however. You might have shot it with an arrow and then recovered it 400 yards away after a six-hour search. Upon inspection, you see an entrance that’s close to where you thought, but the exit is eight inches farther back. Your guaranteed double-lung shot obviously wasn’t. So, what was it?
This is where you should start digging in to figure out what happened, because the lessons a dead deer can teach us are many—and they are important.
You Suck as an Eye Witness Ask any whitetail guide out there how often his clients are wrong about their shot placement, and you’ll get more stories than you care to hear. This isn’t specific to hunters who hire outfitters to put them on deer; it’s ubiquitous across our ranks. We see what we think we see, and we often fill in the blanks to make the shot story make sense.
Pennsylvania bowhunter Clint Campbell knows this all too well. “Rarely does my recollection match reality when it comes to shot placement,” Campbell said. “It’s a good reminder that the slightest change in body positioning can have a drastic impact on shot placement, length of the blood trail, and likelihood of finding your deer.”
When you are fortunate to shoot a deer and recover it, pay attention to this. Was your entrance where you thought it would be? How about the exit? If not, what happened?
Dig In, Look Around It’s not enough to figure out whether your eyewitness skills are spot-on or not, because you’ve got an opportunity to really understand what happened with your shot once you recover your deer.
Field dress slowly and pay attention. Now that you have an exact entrance, and possibly an exit, you’ve got one or two points of reference. Finding out what happened in between those can inform future shot selection as well as recovery strategies, so take a look at the organs as you remove them. Campbell, who hosts The Truth from the Stand Podcast, is adamant about this.
“Seeing the path of my arrow and then its relationship to the vital organs helps to reinforce the space and shape of a whitetail’s anatomy,” Campbell said. “It is a solid reminder on why I choose to take certain shots while passing others.”
As you take the insides out, look at the liver. Look at the heart. If the lungs are intact, check them out as well. Think about what path your arrow or bullet followed and whether there was a better shot for you to take. This helps us to think about the body in 3D terms, which is not really how we go about many of our target practice sessions—which can be detrimental to newer hunters.
The constant drumbeat of halfway up and right behind the shoulder is fine for a perfectly broadside deer, but perfectly broadside shots don’t always materialize. Understanding point-of-impact and the path of your projectile is the key to taking ethical shots and engaging in high odds recovery missions.
One Step Further My post-mortem isn’t finished once I’ve got a gut pile slowly cooling on the ground next to my deer. I also pay close attention while I’m butchering my deer, which is a part of the hunt that I absolutely love. Sure, it’s nice to take care of your own meat and own that whole process, but every layer I break down with each deer I shoot reveals further clues to what happened during the shot.
For example, I spine-shot a buck while filming our One Week in November series. I hate spine shots, but they happen. When I broke down that buck I got to see that my broadhead split his scapula and hit the spine where it dips down lower behind the shoulder. I knew that happened because I watched it, but I didn’t really understand the scope of damage the broadhead did until I started breaking down the deer.
It was an eye opener, just as it’s always an eye opener to skin a deer and look at the standard path through the ribs (if you hit it in the ribs) that your arrow or bullet took. Seeing that or seeing how you broke the offside shoulder, or something else, is vital information worth having.
Necropsies are always interesting and will often show that you’re wrong about something you’re sure of. They’re also one of the best ways I know to grow as a hunter, because performing a necropsy with every recovered whitetail provides a little glimpse into how we can become more efficient and ethical with every passing season.