I spend a lot of time in high stress situations. It’s part of my job and my training. This was different. I tried to hang my bow back up, but missed the branch several times because my hands were shaking. I felt weak. I was straining to listen for the buck to crash, but I couldn’t hear anything but the sound of my own heartbeat. I sat down and tried to gather my thoughts. It was around 5:30, so I still had an hour of light. I knew I had made a fatal shot on him, but I wanted to give him time. I checked my watch again, and began pulling up the paracord rope to lower my bow. I figured by the time I got down , I’d be good to take up the trail. That’s when it hit me. It was one of those moments where stark realization just crushes you flat. “What trail?”, I said aloud. I collapsed with my back against the tree. After a few moments with my head between my knees, I raised me head and stared up towards where I had shot the buck. The deer was dead, but my chances of finding him were slim. The entrance wound was high on his back, and with no low exit wound, it was likely there would be no blood trail. I lowered my head again, asking for help from the only source I knew could aid me at this point. I finished my prayer, grabbed my pack and my bow, and set off with long strides towards the creek below me.
I’ve always kind of prided myself on my ability to find animals. Over the years, I’d recovered a lot of deer my friends, and hunt club buddies couldn’t find. I’m no master tracker by a long shot, but I was confident that if there was any sign, I had the skills and experience to find this deer. At least, that’s what I told myself as I walked towards where I’d seen him disappear into the trees. It was easy to see where he’d crossed the creek and scrambled up the bank, but after that my fears were quickly affirmed. The easiest path was an old logging road that wound around the hill up towards the pines where he’d been bedding this summer. I was losing light now. I grabbed my phone and text my long time friend Chad. Lucky for me he wasn’t working, and agreed to meet me and help me look. I met him at the Forrest service road, and he opened the back of his truck to reveal a pelican case containing an infrared camera. We exchanged greetings and I told him what had happened. He patted my shoulder and assured me that this camera could see him through the brush, and he was sure we could find him. Hours later, we stood in the same spot at his truck, cold, tired, and defeated. The only thing we had found was an armadillo.
Six weeks later, after an uneventful morning hunt, I was showing my friend Nathan where all of this had taken place. We were walking down through the drain, scouting as we went along, and recounting stories from our youth. These were the same woods we had learned to hunt together in as teenagers. I pushed back the canes along the edge of the creek, and that's when I found him. I was elated, and horrified all in he same moment. I looked up, and about 100 yards away, through the now thinning leaves, I could see my hillside pine tree that I had been in that day. I turned to Nathan and said, "It's him....". "He died within sight of my tree," my voice trailed off. I reached down and wrapped my hand around the tall, dark antlers. I was deeply saddened that I'd taken his life, and his body had gone to waste. Not in the sense that he had been wasted, as nothing in nature truly goes to waste, but that I hadn't gotten to feed my family with my kill. I realized then, that the buck had taken a trail to the right of the old logging road, and down into the thick canes next to the creek. I had simply turned the wrong way when trailing him. I thought about doing a skull mount of my buck. In the end, I decided I didn't deserve it. I chose instead to fashion things from his antlers that would remind me of his story. I made a file handle for sharpening broadheads, that I might remember that they always needed to be razor sharp. I made limb bolts from his antler bases for my bow, so he would be with me when I hunted, reminding to make the best shot I'm capable of. Finally, I plan to make a knife with an antler handle to carry, in hopes that my future hunts may have a better outcome.