At around 4 p.m. Friday, my brother-in-law, Jay, put on an orange coat, slipped a rifle over his shoulder and walked to the deer blind set up on the edge of the woods overlooking a harvested sugar beet field.
An hour later, Jay walked into the kitchen, where we were all munching pizza and milling around, and he announced, “I shot at a deer!” The adults all stopped and looked at each other, and spontaneously broke into laughter.
As we were wiping our eyes and getting out our last few chuckles, Jay said: “Seriously, I shot at a deer.”
“Did you hit it?” asked my brother-in-law, Rudy.
“What happened when you shot at it?” asked Tom, my father-in-law.
“It ran into the woods,” Jay said.
“Was it a buck?”
“I saw horns.”
“Are you sure?”
“We’d better go check and see if you hit it.”
Rudy found a couple of working flashlights in the garage. Dusk was settling as the four of us piled into Tom’s truck. Jay handed me a bright orange cap and I whipped it on my head.
As we drove out to the spot of the alleged shooting, Tom told us the story of a hunter shooting a deer last year in that same spot; and, after retrieving a flashlight from his truck, coyotes had eaten half the deer. I distinctly remember him telling that story last year, but the coyotes had only eaten one leg.
We got out of the truck, leaving the lights on and the doors open. We were all expecting a short search, but much to our surprise, Rudy found a spot of blood about the size of a pea on a leaf at the edge of the woods.
The entrance to the woods was dense, but we bent down and fought our way through the briars until we were in a clearing. Another spot of blood. Then another.
“Dude, you hit it,” Rudy said to Jay. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
I’d never tracked a deer before, but I’d heard stories of guys tracking deer for hours and even days. Sometimes they find it; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they merely find a gut pile because another hunter found it first, and sometimes it gets eaten by coyotes before it’s found.
Rudy and Jay were leading our tracking party, scanning the ground with the only two flashlights. Tom was behind them and I was in the rear — coyote bait. I pictured myself being snatched and dragged off by the coyotes — with one clutching my throat with his sharp, white teeth; while the others nibbled on my haunches.
I stayed as close to Tom as I could without touching him. If it wasn’t unmanly, I would have clutched the back of his coat the entire time.
We tediously, meticulously zig-zagged through the woods following minuscule drops of blood. We could no longer see the lights from the pickup truck.
Finally, we found a large spot of blood about a foot long where the deer must have laid down. After that, Rudy struggled to pick up the trail again.
Jay lost patience and went on ahead. “I’m finding this deer right now!” he declared.
I stayed back with Rudy and Tom. There’s safety in numbers, I theorized.
The beam from Jay’s flashlight darted wildly to the north, south, east and west. It even blasted the treetops. He must have been checking to be sure the deer hadn’t climbed a tree.
When he made his way back to us — disappointed, out of breath, and with a dimming flashlight — we all realized how ill-equipped we were.
If we had found the deer alive, we didn’t have a gun to finish it off. If we found it dead, we didn’t have a knife to gut it. We had forgotten to bring the tag along to tag it with.
The truck was still running and probably getting low on gas. We were so deep into the woods that none of us knew the way out. I swear I heard coyotes licking their lips.
We gave up the search and followed Tom’s lead out of the woods until we came to a river. Since we didn’t cross a river before, we followed Rudy in the other direction and eventually spied the lights from the truck. We ducked down and battled the picker vines once more and headed back to the farm.
The whole incident lasted about three hours. The next morning, Rudy and Jay continued the search for an hour and gave it up.
The next day, Uncle Mike stopped over. I overheard Jay retelling the story of how he knew right away that he hit the six-point buck with his shot, and how he tracked it for two days, and how he was perfectly equipped to find it — dead or alive — and how he crawled on his hands and knees patiently searching for a blood trail.
From now on, whenever I hear a hunter telling the dramatic story of how he tracked a deer for days through thick woods with nothing more than a flashlight, I’m pretty sure I know the real story.
— By Grant Berry, Tribune community columnist