In the fading light of the fall afternoon, a nice buck appeared, well within range of the archer in his treestand at Willow Point, part of Tara Wildlife near Vicksburg, Miss. The hunter drew his bow, released the arrow and hit the buck, which vanished into the brush.
“When the guides arrived at the hunter’s stand, he told us what had happened, and I examined the arrow,” said Bobby Culbertson, Tara’s head guide. “I could tell the buck had been gut-shot. We decided to leave the deer and not chase it overnight.”
Culbertson and the hunter returned to the lodge, ate dinner and planned to locate the buck the next morning. During the night, however, the hunter awoke to a sound that would mortify any bowhunter who had to leave his deer in the woods overnight — pouring rain.
The next morning at breakfast, Culbertson told the hunter, “Don’t worry. If you’ve made a good hit on the buck, our trailing dogs will find him.” However, Culbertson and the hunter realized no blood, and likely little or no scent, would be available for the Labrador retrievers to follow.
“When the group reached the hunter’s stand the next morning, he showed us the direction he thought the deer had run after the shot,” Culbertson recalled. “We searched on our own for awhile. When we brought a dog in, the dog ran in the opposite direction of where the hunter thought the deer had gone.”
In a matter of minutes, Culbertson and the hunter heard the dog’s bell stop sounding.
“He’s found your deer. Let’s go get him,” Culbertson said. After walking only 150 yards, the two men spotted the dog and the deer.
“I could have sworn that deer went the other way,” the hunter explained. “I can’t believe the dog picked up the trail after that huge rain we had last night.”
Culbertson laughed and said, “These dogs do it all day, every day.”
Why Use Tracking Dogs
Hunters have relied on tracking dogs for centuries to help pinpoint the location of arrowed deer. “Many European countries require hunting with a tracking dog,” said John Jeanneney, co-founder of Deer Search Inc., a tracking dog advocacy group. “But only 17 states in the U.S. currently allow the use of tracking dogs to recover deer and other big game.”
Southern hunters traditionally used dogs to jump deer out of the almost impenetrable cover and run them toward hunters waiting on stands with guns and to recover wounded deer. As Southern deer drives have given way to treestand hunting over the past 25 years, the custom of dog hunting for deer has vanished in many Southern states.
However, the time-honored practice of finding wounded deer with tracking dogs has grown steadily, because tracking dogs generally can tell if a deer is mortally wounded in a matter of minutes.
Tracking dogs also can follow the deer’s trail:
- When there’s no visible blood trail, especially in thick cover, flooded timber and swamplands
- When the deer has exited the water
- When a wounded deer runs through a herd of non-wounded deer
- When rain and snow have washed away the visible blood trail
- And when the blood trail is 24-48 hours old
Tara Wildlife includes three, bowhunting-only properties that encompass more than 15,000 acres of hardwood forest and agricultural land in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Throughout archery season, Tara’s tracking dogs continuously pinpoint wounded or dead deer. Many of those deer almost certainly would have been lost without the keen noses, the years of experience and the dedication of these Labrador retrievers and their handlers.
If the deer you arrow goes into dense cover, crosses water or leaves no blood trail — or if rain or snow washes away or covers the trail — you may find trailing the downed animal without a tracking dog almost impossible.
Tara has a strict policy of using dogs to follow up on every single shot clients take.
During the 2008-2009 deer season, Tara’s tracking dogs helped recover 64 bucks and 36 does.
“We depend so heavily on our dogs to make sure we don’t lose any deer that we’ve got to have at least seven at all times,” Culbertson said. “Because we don’t ever want to be without a blood-trailing dog, we’re constantly bringing on new pups.”
The old dogs train the new dogs, and Culbertson believes a pup needs at least four or five years of experience to move from a trainee to a finished dog. A young dog will keep his head up and wind-scent the deer, often moving back and forth across the trail, but as the dog gets older, it learns to keep its nose on the ground to stay on the trail of the wounded deer.
To search for a deer, a guide will shake a bell and tell his dog, “Go get your bell.” Then the Lab will go into the tack room, select his own bell and collar and take it to the guide who fastens it around the dog’s neck.
“Once the time arrives to go to work, our Labs become deer-finding machines,” Culbertson said. “The hunters who come to Tara don’t know the lay of the land, where the next hunter is or where deer go when they’re hit like the dogs and the guides do. We ask our hunter to flag the spot where he’s arrowed or shot at the deer and then stay on his stand until the guide and the dog arrive.”
The guide assesses from the sign at the scene what type of hit the hunter has made and then decides whether to release the dog immediately or return to the lodge, wait a couple of hours and t
hen go back to the stand and release the dog. Even if the sign includes a good blood trail and an obvious lung or heart shot, the guide still will use a tracking dog.
“We want to make sure we make every effort to recover any animal hit on our property,” Culbertson said. “One lost deer is too many.”
A bell on the dog’s collar enables the guide to track the dog’s location and direction of travel. When the bell stops ringing, the guide knows the dog has stopped and pinpointed the deer. If the bell starts ringing like a dinner bell, the guide knows the dog has jumped the wounded deer and is chasing it. Tracking dogs at Tara will bay a wounded deer until the guide arrives.
When Culbertson and the guides at Tara Wildlife go out to find wounded deer, they only take one dog with them and hope that dog will locate the dead deer. However, if the deer jumps up and decides to run, Culbertson will turn out a second and sometimes even a third dog to act as catch dogs.
“One of the most difficult retrieves we’ve ever had happened a couple years ago,” Culbertson said. “The Mississippi River had risen and had flooded some of our property.
One of our dogs trailed a deer that swam out through the flooded timber and reached a cutover that wasn’t flooded. When two of our dogs crossed the water and got into the cutover, the deer jumped up, ran to the river, jumped in and swam down the river with the dogs right behind it. Finally, the buck came out of the river and the dogs bayed it. We got into our vehicles, and after 30-45 minutes, we reached the place where the dogs had the deer bayed up.”
If the arrow is not found after the shot, Culbertson considers two possibilities — either the deer has the arrow still in it, or something has deflected the arrow, causing the hunter to miss the shot. On one occasion last season, a hunter shot a buck between the shoulder blades as it was standing directly beneath his stand. Because the shaft was lodged in the buck, there was no blood trail to follow.
“After the shot, the deer ran out into a large, select cut with plenty of four- to five-foot-high briars, brambles, deep grass and fallen limbs,” Culbertson said. “We worked the region for several hours trying to pinpoint the deer. We’d given our dogs water to drink, and we’d poured water on the dogs to keep them cool. We were just about ready to give up and return to camp when we saw all the dogs in one spot, about 600 yards from where the bowhunter had hit the deer. Although we had to fight our way through the thick cover, when we reached the dogs, the buck was there on the ground.
“I’m amazed that with no visible sign of the wounded deer, the dogs still can identify and differentiate between an arrowed deer and other non-wounded deer that may have crossed the same trail.”
Tracking dogs also are employed at Cedar Knoll Hunting Lodge in South Carolina, where owner Hayward Simmons uses them to help hunters find deer on his 2,800-acre Lakeview Plantation.
Several years ago, a bowhunter there told me, “I know Hayward thinks a lot of his dog, Sunny, but I can tell you right now, that dog’s lying.”
The hunter had arrowed his buck before dark, and the buck had vanished into thick cover.
Simmons requires his archers to remain in their stands and not follow the bucks they hit unless they fall within sight. Simmons picked up the archer who shot the buck and took him back to camp, where he and the other hunters ate dinner. Then I accompanied them to track the buck in the dark.
We arrived at the spot where the hunter shot the deer, and Simmons released Sunny, a yellow Lab. Immediately, Sunny picked up the trail and went to the left — the opposite direction from where the hunter said the arrowed buck had traveled.
“We’re wasting our time,” the hunter said. “I know the buck went to the right.”
Finally, we heard the bell around Sunny’s neck stop ringing, and then Simmons bellowing to the hunter, “You have a big, 10-point buck, and I need some help dragging him out.”
Later, Simmons told me, “The bowhunter’s concentrating so hard on his shot, watching the arrow and the deer after it takes the arrow that often the hunter doesn’t see exactly which way the deer has run. A trailing dog’s a great hunting tool, because it can smell the scent of the wounded deer and go straight to it.”
Simmons, who bought his first trailing dog in 1981, has used beagles, hounds, blue heelers, Brittanys and Labs through the years. But he prefers Labs because, “They’re easier to handle and learn quickly that you’re looking for a wounded deer. Also, most Labs will check in with you to make sure you’re keeping up with them. Sunny, my best tracking dog, once trailed a wounded deer through a herd of live deer on a green field and stayed on the wounded deer’s track until he found the buck.”