One Good Assumption

By T.W. Batzel, Jr.

A blinding flash and then a hot poker through my lungs. Run! Run! Can't breath, pain, getting sleepy, must keep running . . . darkness.

I'm a hunter. Or at least I try to be. I spend most of my hunting time and passion chasing whitetail deer. In the last five or six years I have become somewhat proficient at it. I am, however, never surprised when I learn something from other hunters, scientists, writers or the deer themselves. Just for the record, I am not a trophy hunter, although I do admire trophy deer. I just can't devote that much time to hunting; if I did I wouldn't have food to eat or have a place to shed the rain.

Something I learned this last year stuck with me and I haven't seen much written on the subject. A lot of folks write about how to rattle deer, how to beat their uncanny sense of smell, what weapon is the best, where to hang tree stands and a thousand other things I love to read about in magazines. Most people usually glance off the subject of ethics, which I guess is the bottom line of this piece.

Let's face facts: we kill animals. It's violent. It's sometimes messy. It sometimes leaves us with a feeling of melancholy found nowhere else. But it's also a very basic and satisfying act that is only one part of the hunting experience. I have friends and colleagues that would love to do a doctoral thesis on those statements. I don't really care what they think. But I know that I should.

Every animal that is wounded by a hunter and runs off to die a miserable death is ammunition for the anti-hunting campaign, not to mention a bit uncomfortable for the animal. Never mind that birds and other animals will eat the carcass and what is left will enrich the soil. Never mind that the only reason that we have any game animals left is because of sportsmen like you and me. Those friends of mine don't see these things, because their argument is based on emotions rather than facts.

Having said that, I will state that it is our responsibility as hunters to make a quick humane kill. We shoulder that responsibility the moment we take to the field with a weapon in search of game. We owe it to ourselves, those friends of mine, and most of all, to the majestic animals we pursue.

This rambling story is about following up the shot, each and every shot that leaves our barrel or bow. Most archers follow up their shot simply because they want to recover their arrow, which is expensive to throw away. That is not to say that 99% of them don't follow up their shot because it is the ethical thing to do, but what I'm really talking about is a shot from a firearm.

How many times has your hunting partner taken a shot and told you afterward "I missed," and you know they didn't walk over and look? How many times have you done it yourself? I have done it, regrettably, and I have heard it a hundred times. I have heard it from people I didn't think would say it.

Now remember, I admitted that I have done it myself, so I don't hold it against anyone. I'm merely trying to make a pitch for doing the right thing in the future.

I heard it this year from a good friend and hunting partner who is an experienced and ethical hunter. What he lacked was confidence in his ability. He shot. He saw no evidence of a hit and concluded that he had missed. How we found out that he hit, and hit very well, is the rest of the story.

It was late in the first week of the Pennsylvania deer season and we were conducting a drive through a piece of woods that we have driven about a hundred times since I started hunting there almost twenty years ago. I left my friend at my tree stand, which was on a hillside overlooking a thicket of hemlocks that blocked the view of a small lake. We had other hunters on stands down the side of the hill to the lake, and we would drive the hillside the length of the lake. I would drive the top piece and would come out at my friend's stand at the end of the drive. We were in the traditional PA deer-hunting mode of shooting any deer that was a legal buck or a decent sized doe for which we had tags. And we all had tags.

I made the drive slowly and quietly and there was a good amount of shooting at the other end. When I came out my buddy said that he had missed one far down the hill near the hemlocks. It was too far and he was sure he missed it, given the indications and the distance. After that he had hit one, so we took up the trail. He said he had hit it too far back with his first shot and then missed when he shot at it again, on the run. He was very disappointed because after trailing it for a short distance few feet we realized that it was in fact gut shot.

We waited for a half an hour and then I decided that we should start tracking. It was about an hour and a half until dark and I was willing to take the chance of pushing it. I was gambling on sneaking up on it in its bed, which would be good. Or pushing it until dark and possibly losing the trail in the morning, which would be bad.

We followed slowly and I was getting nervous because the deer had lain down twice within a couple of hundred yards. I knew we were spooking it, reinforcing that famous whitetail will to live. The good thing was it was bleeding a lot in its bed. I knew it was dragging its innards, which was a terrible thought but a good indication. We came out on top of a ridgeline that curved around and looked over a large bowl of hardwoods. We stopped and visually searched the areas where I thought a deer might lay down.

He was there, about 70 yards away amidst some beech saplings that still held their dead leaves. I ended his suffering with a .308 bullet through his neck at the base of the skull. My buddy was thankful and embarrassed. I was ecstatic that my gamble had paid off. I have tracked a good number of poorly shot deer, and I take pride in not losing too many.

While my buddy field dressed the deer I walked to the other side of the ridge to find the quickest route to get the deer to a vehicle, given the failing light. I knew we were on the neighbor's property. That didn't concern me because we had permission, but I wasn't sure what would be the easiest way out. I wasn't lost, but I had made the rookie mistake of not keeping careful track of where we were as I followed the doomed little deer on its death run.

I hadn't taken ten steps when I saw a large eight-point buck. Dead, evidently shot the afternoon before, and sprawled out like he had died on the run. I was rather upset and told my buddy how I hated it when people shot and didn't bother to look if the deer didn't drop in it tracks. The buck had been hit in the ribs, just behind the shoulder, and it had expired on the run. The classic lung shot. It probably hadn't run more than a hundred yards from where the neighbors had shot it. I was disgusted. I now have a set of rattling antlers.

My embarrassed but relieved friend dragged his deer and I carried his rifle, leading us through the woods to my older brother who was waiting with the truck. We were walking along an old logging road, downhill from my stand and above the hemlocks. A deer emerged from the hemlocks, walked uphill, and stopped in the road near a deadfall. I quickly knelt down and fired. The deer ran as if it were gut shot. I didn't worry about it because I assumed that the bullet went right through the shoulders where I intended it to go. It was a quick shot, but I was pretty confident. I didn't shoot at it again when it stopped up the hill. I couldn't get a good angle on it through the trees and I knew it wouldn't go far. When I shoot at a deer nowadays, I assume I hit it.

I approached the spot where it was standing at the shot and was dismayed to find every indication of a gut shot deer. I met up with my brother and told him the whole story, and he told me that it wasn't supposed to snow. It was now dark. I decided it would be better to come back in the morning and pick up the trail. Until then I had been pretty happy about finding that deer, but all night I brooded over gut shooting a deer. The beer didn't even taste good.

The next morning was bitterly cold. I returned to the woods and picked up the trail in a couple of inches of snow. The deer hadn't bled very much and there were so many tracks below my stand that I soon decided to just go down into the hemlocks and look for where I thought a deer would lay down.

I found one. I was momentarily elated. It was lung shot and, like the eight point, had died on the run. It was not the deer I had shot at. I was instantly depressed. I backtracked the blood trail to the point of impact, looked around, and about 170 yards up through the woods my eyes settled on my tree stand.

I called my buddy over and he looked around and just hung his head. He knew what he had done. "I'll go dress it," he said, "I have a bonus tag." He skulked away.

I went back and followed some other trails hoping to find the deer I had gut shot. I finally grew frustrated and decided to go back to the scene of the crime. I was walking up the hill, looking at the dead fall by the logging road, when I glanced down and saw sign of a paunch shot deer. Going directly to where I thought I had gut shot a deer . . ..

I missed it! I had a clean miss and had been following a deer that had been gut shot by someone down in the hemlocks on the drive the day before.

After the exhaustive attempt to find the wounded deer was called off, we decided to go get some lunch. I was not happy about losing the deer, no matter who shot it. But I did have a clear conscience that I at least I wasn't the one who wounded it. During the drive back to hunting camp we discussed the events of the last eighteen hours. We had found two deer shot by my hunting partner, one presumably shot by our neighbors (who couldn't track a deer if their lives depended on it), and had tracked another shot, presumably, by someone in our large hunting party.

I couldn't believe I had missed that deer. I know everyone says that, but I really believe that when I pull the trigger it's a done deal. I said, "When I shoot at a deer, I assume I hit it." My buddy replied with, "I guess when I shoot, I assume I missed."

That was the revelation. Assume you hit! If you always assume you hit then you'll always go and find your deer. At worst, you'll prove to yourself that you missed and you won't have to wonder about that deer's fate. You'll just have to figure out why you missed and correct it. The old adage about assumptions is not always correct.

The ironic thing about finding that second deer was that the night before I had subjected my hunting partner, who incidentally is the oldest of my mother's three sons, to a long dissertation on how much I detest people who don't follow up their shots when the deer don't collapse before the echo of their rifle fades. I was a little embarrassed but I think he learned a valuable lesson that he already knew, and I was convinced that there's at least one good assumption out there.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by T.W Batzel, Jr. All rights reserved.