Explaining Marginal Shots on Whitetails

Explaining Marginal Shots on Whitetails
The arrow entered the buck here and appeared to be ranging forward for a killing exit (note the position of the left front leg). The author later discovered he had missed his target by roughly two inches.

Will a marginal shot on one deer get the same results as a marginal shot on another?

I spent 25 days between Oct. 4 and Nov. 11 hunting one buck before finally getting a shot. The impact looked good to the eye — and to the camera, as my cameraman and I saw when we played it back on video — but I missed the spot I was aiming for by about two inches at 30 yards. I hit the deer right behind the heart; he mule-kicked and tore off. However, the buck showed back up on the other end of the field chasing a doe (though not too energetically) an hour after the shot. Finally, he gave up and went down into a draw, presumably to die.

I produce a web series, Midwest Whitetail, and when I ran the shot on my daily video blog that evening, most viewers thought it was a dead deer; so did I. I decided to wait until morning to go after him, as it was very cold that night and the meat would be fine, but when we returned the next day, we found very little blood and no deer.

My cameraman and I looked for two solid days — with thousands of viewers watching over my shoulder. Then I looked by myself for another half-day before finally giving up. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead, but we sure didn’t find him. That certainly took the wind out of my season!

As you can well imagine, the comments section of the video player lit up like a Christmas tree with every kind of advice from, “You should quit bowhunting,” to, “I hit one just like that two years ago, and the same thing happened.”

As time went by, the conversation shifted to the topic of dead zones — places you can hit a deer and not kill it. I opened that discussion with a blog on my website, just to see where it would lead. Sixty-four comments later, I was very impressed with the quality of information that came from the viewers.

I’m going to condense the topic and the feedback I received to fit into this column because it’s such a fascinating, and important, subject.

The Second Dead Zone

I’m now aware of two dead zones on whitetail deer. (I used to think there was only one — high in the lungs). Given the feedback I received from our viewers, there are a lot of deer hit right behind the heart that aren’t killed. I personally know of five such bucks, two of them mine and three from my friends. Of those, only two were recovered, both of them only after long, multi-day chases. In all five cases, I believe the arrow went behind the heart, going through the body cavity without hitting brisket. I also believe that, at least in the case of those bucks that were recovered, the hit was slightly farther back, resulting in a forward paunch hit.

After field dressing hundreds of deer, most of them does, I also think deer aren’t all formed the same. They may start out alike, but when I field dress some deer (about 20 percent), the lungs are seemingly glued to the sides of the chest cavity — I have to literally scrape them out. In other cases (the majority), the lungs fall free easily.

I’m sure lungs stuck to the chest cavity don’t lie in exactly the same place as those that are free-floating. If that’s possible with lungs, what’s to prevent the diaphragm and liver from being in a slightly differently place from one deer to the next? Not to mention the heart!

Slight anatomical variations such as these can lead to some very puzzling “mystery hits.” In the end, shot placement is a game of inches — an inch either way can make a huge difference.

The arrow seems to have passed just behind the heart before exiting here, revealing the existence of what the author believes to be a second "dead zone" in deer anatomy.

Soft-Tissue Hits

I’ve seen broadheads pass through the middle of deer without killing them, and I know other people who have, too. I know those deer lived because I saw them the next year!

I’ve also seen (when field dressing deer) where the broadhead traveled through the paunch area and didn’t cut the intestines. Maybe there wasn’t enough pressure against the blades to cause them to cut this rubbery, flexible membrane, or perhaps the head created a shock wave in the organs that moved them aside slightly as it passed. Mostly likely, the blades weren’t sharp enough and slid through rather than cut. I don’t know for sure; I only know I’ve seen it.

Puncturing the Diaphragm

This brings up another important question: Will a diaphragm hit kill a buck? To find out, I contacted a veterinarian who specializes in livestock, including cattle, sheep and goats. He told me that unless part of the paunch projects through the hole, there’s a high likelihood that a punctured diaphragm won’t kill the animal. He sees it in his office all the time.

The Feedback

As I mentioned, I received tons of feedback on the website from some very serious whitetail hunters. (If you have the time, you really owe it to yourself to read those comments. I learned a bunch from that savvy group.) Two major points came out of it: One, veterinarians confirmed some anatomical differences may exist from deer to deer. Two, broadheads have to be razor-sharp for maximum effectiveness. Even when they make what appear to be lethal hits, some strange results can occur if the blades aren’t sharp enough.

By the same token, some of the comments related to what happens to a broadhead when it hits bone. A head that center punches a rib won’t react the same on the other side as one that slips between the ribs; it’ll punch more, cut less and create less trauma. Bone dulls blades. Dull blades are bad. So, by inference, bone hits are bad, even if you zip through them.

There was also a lot of input on broadhead styles and designs. One comment came from a whitetail guide who takes 20-plus bowhunters per year. He said his best recovery success has come from hunters using large mechanical heads with super-sharp blades. He swears by them.

Here’s my favorite comment: “Interesting topic, but Nancy Drew would be disappointed! If you look at various anatomically correct diagrams of whitetail deer, you readily see certain places where a broadhead could miss an organ or, more important, a major blood vessel. When you combine that with other variables — broadhead size and structure; sharpness of the blades; speed of the arrow; distance and posture of the deer; exhaling versus inhaling; rib impact; shot angle; wind; human error such as jerking the trigger, moving the head, misjudging distance; etc. — the only real mystery is how we manage to harvest as many deer as we do!”

The Takeaway

I’m now convinced that anatomy isn’t a given. A marginal shot on one deer may not produce the same results as the same marginal shot on a different deer. This has to be the reason for some of these mystery hits. Broadhead sharpness and size are also key factors. I know that old bucks are super tough, too. They’ve been through some hellish battles in their lives, and it just takes more to kill them.

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