We’ve all experienced it. We watch a big game animal disappear into the woods in front of us after taking a great shot. After waiting several minutes for the commotion to settle, we climb out of the tree stand and start looking for blood. After a few minutes of searching for blood and finding a few drops or none at all, we get that bad feeling in our gut and start to question the shot. We wonder if we made a good hit. Our hopes start to fade almost as quickly as the dwindling blood trail. Mere centimeters can make the difference between a good hit, gripping antlers and smiles, or going home to cry in our soup. Most hunters who don’t find a critter after shooting it head home and replay the shot in their head for weeks before they begin to recover from the disappointment of not finding the animal.
John Engelken from New York squashes the agony that comes with not recovering a game animal shot by a hunter by finding countless whitetails, bears, and caribou that would have gone unrecovered if it weren’t for help from him and his team of well-trained, blood-tracking bloodhounds. It started as a hobby and turned into a full-time job. Engelken makes a living running a caribou camp in Canada and uses bloodhounds to recover whitetails in the Midwest for hunters who can’t locate their trophy after the shot.
Each year Engelken tracks numerous whitetails for hunters. Many have happy endings. “My bloodhounds and I recover a lot of deer every year. If a deer is mortally wounded and the scent trail and or blood trail is easy to find and track, there is a good chance we will find the deer. Many deer aren’t mortally wounded and end up living. In either case, I believe hunters go home sleeping better after my dogs and I are done tracking. If the deer is dead, there is a good chance we will find it, which pleases the hunter. If the deer is alive, I can usually determine that after tracking the deer for a while. Knowing an animal is alive and well gives hunters piece of mind that the big buck they shot isn’t lying under a bush somewhere rotting away,” Engelken explained.
Taking Up The Trail
Engelken could write a book about his tracking adventures. He learned to always trust the nose of the bloodhound. “There are a lot of myths out there about what wounded whitetail do after they get shot by an arrow. Some people say they always run downhill to water. Others say wounded deer won’t travel uphill. I learned that wounded deer will do almost anything. I’ve seen wounded bucks go straight uphill before expiring. I have seen bucks that are losing lots of blood go several miles. There really isn’t a rule of thumb when it comes to what a deer will do when it’s wounded,” Engelken added. Engelken often sees deer circle around and end up in the same place they were shot. “I think in many cases a deer makes a big circle after getting shot because he wants to return to the area where he felt safe which is often the spot he was in before he got shot,” Engelken stated.
Some tracking jobs stick out in Engelken’s mind as most memorable. “I showed up on a tracking job where I had to pull down to the end of a cul-de-sac and park my truck. The hunter met me there and told me he spent countless hours looking for his buck. When I showed up, I dropped the tailgate of my truck down. While I was getting my gear on, my bloodhound Jesse started showing signs of smelling something before I let her down on the ground.
She started putting her nose in the air and sticking her head out of the back of the truck in the direction she was receiving the smell. As soon as I let her out, she ran in the direction of her nose and found the buck about 200 yards or less from where the truck was parked. She knew where it was before she even got out of the truck. That doesn’t happen very often, but it proves how awesome a bloodhounds’ nose is,” Engelken added.
Another tracking job that stands out occurred last November in Illinois. Mike Hyma from Michigan arrowed an amazing buck that grossed 2225⁄8 inches. After trailing the deer for several hours without finding the buck, he called Engelken. “We had tracked the buck for a day and a half before calling Engelken. I even had a guy with a border collie tracking the deer. That dog didn’t find the buck even though at one point the dog walked within 20 yards of where the buck laid. Someone told me about Engelken’s service and I called him.
He was reluctant to track my buck at first because the trail wouldn’t be as fresh after a day and a half, but he came out and I’m glad he did! In about half an hour, his bloodhound Jesse found my buck under a large deadfall,” Hyma recalled. Jesse took Engelken and Hyma through fields thick with briars and a variety of other vegetation and led her master to the buck. “I was a little worried that since the trail was old we wouldn’t find the buck but at one point, Jesse started getting hot. I could tell she was onto something. Hyma told me that Jesse was leading us in a different direction than the other dog did. At that point, I thought Jesse would probably find the buck,” Engelken explained. The deadfall where Jesse led Engelken was a nasty gnarly mess and was only about 400 yards from where Hyma shot the buck. Sometimes a buck can be right under your nose but isn’t found due to the nasty terrain. “There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have found my buck if it wasn’t for Jesse the Bloodhound. Watching her was truly amazing,” Hyma noted.
A Different Breed
According to Engelken, Jesse stands above the rest because she has a great nose and reaps the benefit of his commitment to training his dogs daily. “I spend several hours almost daily training Jesse and my other bloodhounds. I have learned that many dogs have great noses, but bloodhounds have the best cold nose out there for blood tracking. That’s what they are bred for. They can be difficult to train, but they are great tracking dogs. They can find old blood trails and old scents and key in on the scent to find the downed game.
Sometimes it isn’t even blood. Their noses are so good that they can smell tiny molecules left on the ground or in the air that are invisible to the eye and track it. I rarely question my dog even when I can’t see blood. She really knows what she is doing. Once she led me through the woods into someone’s front yard and under their picture window. I thought that there was no way the deer went by the picture window. A few minutes later, she found the deer in the woods. The hunter who shoots the deer is often puzzled when we go walking through a yard, but the nose of a bloodhound is so amazing that I no longer question it. I simply follow it,” Engelken explained. Engelken says a bloodhound really comes in handy when tracking in hot weather and tough tracking conditions.
School Is in Session
Engelken saves dozens of bottles of deer blood every year and freezes them. As he trains his dogs, he thaws out the blood and uses it in the woods to simulate a real blood trail. “When training puppies, I start with short blood trails and lots of blood. As a dog learns how to find the blood and track, the trails get longer and the amount of blood decreases. By the time a dog is trained, only a small amount of blood is used. There are times when almost no blood is used so they can learn how to pick up a lost blood trail. At the end of every trail is a reward. In some cases, that means food; in other cases, praise is the reward. The reward is dependent on the dog I am training. Many people want dogs to do things to get praise from the master. I want my dogs to love finding wounded game for themselves, not for me. I think that makes a better blood tracker,” Engelken noted.
Engelken says anyone wanting to teach a dog to track wounded whitetails can, but some breeds aren’t as good at finding blood trails as others. Engelkens’ daily regiment and training pays off. His dogs know what to smell in the woods which greatly increases the hunter’s chance of finding their whitetail. “Jesse and any seasoned tracking dog trained to find wounded game know the odor of a wounded animal. She knows what she is looking for and when she smells it, she keys in on that odor and tracks the animal.
In some cases, she will lose the scent for awhile at which point she starts making larger and larger circles until she finds the blood scent again. She learned that making large circles enables her to find the scent of a deer regardless of the direction it went. When they double back or go right or left, she can determine which way they went by circling. She is amazing at finding wounded game because she has a great nose and can smell the faintest amount of blood. She also knows how to find a blood trail after she loses it,” Engelken added. If you think you have a dog with a great nose, get some deer blood and start training. If you don’t have the time (which most of us don’t) and can’t find the trophy, call Engelken.
In most cases Engelken says he is called as a last resort, but the chances of finding a deer are much better if he is called right away. “Hunters should watch and listen in the direction a deer goes after a shot. The moment they start tracking, they should try to remember where they last saw and heard the animal. When they are tracking and get the feeling that they’re having trouble or doubt that they will find the animal, they should call me. We don’t find every animal, but the sooner we get a call, the better. If I get a call right away and conditions are good and the deer is dead, we have a good chance of finding it,” Engelken stated.
Many hunters call Engelken hours or days after they have been looking for their deer. Often many people and other dogs have been tracking endlessly and get blood on their boots. They spread the blood scent and a variety of odors all over the woods, which makes Jesse’s job much harder. “When hunters are tracking, there should be no more than three people in the woods. If there are more than that, it gets confusing for the hunter trying to find his deer as well as the tracker and his dog. I train my dogs to ignore human odors and other odors and concentrate on blood odors, but many human odors mixed with blood can make the dogs’ job difficult.
After a few hours the scent of the blood trail can start to disappear and time, wind, rain and other factors can reduce the chance of finding an animal. The sooner I get a call to get my dog on a trail, the better chance a hunter has of finding his animal. Some hunters who have used my services in the past have my phone number on speed dial,” Engelken added.
Making the Call
In some cases, Engelken believes hunters don’t call because they don’t want to spend the money. In other instances, hunters don’t want to admit they wounded an animal. “Hunters shouldn’t be embarrassed to call me. We all make mistakes and in some cases, it isn’t always a bad hit that results in a long, hard tracking job. If an entrance or exit wound gets plugged up, an animal won’t leave a blood trail. That is when a tracking dog shines because they can smell a wounded animal without lots of blood on the ground.
Hunters who are afraid to spend a few hundred dollars should consider how much they have wrapped up in a hunt. After I find a deer for somebody, they often tell me it was the best money they spent on hunting in a long time,” Engelken added. In some cases, hunters go a little crazy after Engelken finds their animal. “When guys call me they are often at a very low point. They are sad and disappointed. When we find the deer, they are overjoyed. I have guys hug me and even kiss me. A man hug is alright once in awhile. Kissing is going a little far, but that explains how excited they are to find what they believe was lost forever,” Engelken replied.
There are many blood tracking dogs out there. However, very few individuals make a living tracking wounded caribou, bears and whitetails like Engelken. He tracks largely in his home state of New York and in Illinois during deer season. He is willing to travel some, but the cost of tracking goes up. If you find yourself in a predicament this fall and can’t find the deer you shot, don’t hesitate to give him a call. You can check out his website at www.adventurevgn.com or call him at (315) 696-5214. Keep in mind: not all states allow the use of dogs to track wounded game but if yours does, using Engelken’s services will likely help you sleep better at night because he will probably find your animal or help you come to grips with the reality that you didn’t mortally wound it.