In 2010 I was obsessed with a buck we had named Little Joe the year before. As a three year old, he was impressive but we passed him several times in 2009. The morning of November 18, 2010, I pulled my bow into a hang-on stand. At 7:15 a.m., three bucks appeared, making their way down a trail towards my perch. Binoculars were not needed to know the third buck was Little Joe. The bucks were 80 yards out and approaching at a steady pace. I took my bow off the hook, closed my eyes and mentally readied myself for the shot. When I opened my eyes, the bucks were still coming and 60 yards away. When the first buck, a three-year-old eight-point, entered my shooting lane, he was 26 yards away. I could not help but think how, not long ago, we would have proudly shot this buck. But the real prize was still 45 yards out and still coming. The second buck, another three-year-old eight-point, passed through my lane at the same distance as the first. To my relief, both of these bucks passed without detecting me. Now the focus was on Little Joe.
As he entered the lane, a soft grunt stopped him in the center of the shooting lane. I focused on the crease behind his right shoulder and centered the 20-yard pin 2 inches high of dead center. In the blink of an eye, the arrow had passed through Little Joe. He was now standing 80 yards away, not knowing what had happened. I did. The arrow had hit a full 8 inches left. With a twitch of his tail, Little Joe disappeared into the timber.
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Two torturous hours later, I quietly climbed down and went to the arrow. The green coating reinforced what I already knew. Six hours later, I took up the trail. A hundred yards later, I saw him get up and run away.
That was one of the worst nights of my life. First light found a friend and me where the buck had jumped. There was a small amount of blood in the bed but nothing to follow from that point. After an entire day of searching, we called it off. The next day, the call came to me at work. My wife, Tes, had found what was left of Little Joe. The coyotes had had their way.
We have all heard the phrase “That’s hunting. It happens,” and sadly it does. With Little Joe, I did what years of experience had taught me. Get away, give it time and do not push the buck. Eight torturous hours proved not enough time after Little Joe was shot. So how do you know what is enough time before taking up the trail?
In the end, we were able to recover what was left of Little Joe. That was small consolation. The guilt I felt for not making a good shot and then losing the blood trail caused me to take a hard look at myself and do everything possible to not let it happen again.
At the time, I did not know anyone who had a blood-trailing dog. Since then, I’ve made a serious effort to learn about the dogs used to find wounded deer and who to call should we ever need help recovering another wounded deer.
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There is no doubt that a trained blood-trailing dog greatly increases the chances of recovering a wounded deer. All dogs can smell infinitely better than humans. When trained to follow the scent of blood, regardless of breed, these dogs are a great tool for solving the mystery of blood trailing wounded deer.
Regulations on the use of blood dogs vary from state to state. Some states require the dog be maintained on a leash. Other states allow blood dogs to roam free. Is it legal to use a blood dog at night in your state? What is a legal way to dispatch a wounded deer if the blood dog bays it?
Always consult your state and local regulations before employing a blood dog to recover a wounded deer. In Alabama, there is no leash law and you can use the dog at night. You cannot use a firearm to dispatch a wounded deer unless gun season is open. A good handler will know what is legal and what is not.
In the age of the internet, a good blood dog could be as near as a short Google search. Simply type in “blood trailing dog,” your state and county for results. I advise locating a blood dog before you are in a situation where you need one. Call that handler and discuss his rates and availability. If you are comfortable, put his number in your phone.
If you live in Alabama or Georgia and need the services of a professional blood dog handler, Brian Shepard can be reached at 706-718-1690. Harold Kowalski will have a dependable blood dog ready for service in the Macon County, Alabama, area in 2015. He can be reached at 334-421-1811. I am certain that with a little effort you too can locate a blood dog in your area that could salvage your hunt of a lifetime!
Otis is an eight-month-old Slovenský Kopov. His owner is my friend, Harold Kowalsky. Harold purchased Otis with the full intent of training him as a blood-trail dog.
“I have lost several deer over the years, and decided my next dog would be one bred for this job. I wanted a smaller dog that was noted for his intelligence and disposition. Kopovs fit that mold. I wanted a tough breed that would also be a good family pet. I have twin five-year-old boys and the dog had to be a part of our family,” said Kowalsky.
“I purchased Otis when he was two months old. I immediately began a bonding program with him. I wanted him to have manners and know basic commands. I began with sit, stay, pay attention and kennel. I reinforced these commands with treat rewards,” said Kowalsky. “Once he began obeying commands, I started laying down short blood trail lines, using beef liver for the scent on the ground and the reward at the end of the line.”
Kowalksy continued, “Otis improved with each line he ran. I began making the lines longer and putting checks, or 90-degreee turns, in the line. I changed from beef liver drags to deer hide sprayed with deer blood and kept the liver as a reward for successful runs.
“When Otis was six months old, I put him on his first real deer,”said Kowalsky. “This was a staged event where I knew the deer was dead and where it was. Otis followed the blood straight to the deer. I have done this several times since, and so far I could not be more pleased.”
Kowalsky has contacted every hunting club, lodge and friend he could find to offer Otis’ services. The idea is to put him on as many trails as possible in his first season.
“I believe repetition is key to developing a good blood-trail dog,” said Kowalsky. “I have always enjoyed the tracking part of hunting. I also enjoy helping other people find their deer. I plan to do all I can to make Otis the best he can be. I do not want him to get hurt or have a bad experience, so I will try to choose tracks that have a dead deer at the end of them. With age and experience, I believe, due to his breeding, he will be tough enough to hold his own and bay a wounded deer.”
Brian Shepard is a for-hire tracker who lives in Pine Mountain, Georgia. He covers Alabama and Georgia and uses Hindes breed dogs to trail and recover wounded deer.
“My dogs go back to the line of dogs bred by the Hindes family in Texas,” said Shepard. “These dogs are a mix of Blue Lace, Black Mouth Cur and Catahoula Leopard Cur. They have tremendous grit and are very good at finding wounded deer. They have found literally hundreds of deer that hunters could not find.”
Shepard went on to detail how he gets his dogs ready for the hunt. “I start my dogs by first making them my friend. I keep them with me as much as possible and let them know when they do things that please me. When you do that they instinctively learn what is expected of them. Short, easy blood trails created with a deer leg sprayed with deer blood is how I start them. I start a dog at six months old and make the trails progressivley more complicated. These dogs are bred to trail blood, so it only takes a short while and positive reinforcement for them to understand what their job is.”
According to Shepard, “When a hunter calls me to help find a wounded deer, I ask specific questions. Was the shot with a gun or a bow? Where did you hit the deer? How long has it been since the shot? Have you tried tracking the deer and did you jump it? The hunter’s answers to these important questions determine how I approach recovering that animal. I like to wait three hours before turning my dog out on a gun-shot deer, and four or more hours on a bow-shot deer. Shot placement plays a huge part, as does an undisturbed trail.”
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Leading The Way
“These dogs know if a deer is mortally wounded. There are times when I know by how the dog is working that the deer we are trying to find is not dead or catchable,” said Shepard. “I believe mortally wounded deer give off a different scent. I use a Garmin tracking collar on my dog and use Birdseye software to know where my dog is and what kind of terrain we are dealing with. These dogs can travel great distances on a track.”
Shepard continued, “As a hunter, you owe it to any deer you shoot to make every effort to recover a wounded animal. Sadly, calling in a blood dog is often the last resort. It should be the first thing you do if you suspect your shot was marginal. A good dog on an untainted trail greatly increases your chance of recovering your deer. Whether the dog finds your deer or not, you know you have done everyting possible to recover that animal.”
When I shot Little Joe in 2010, I did not know anyone in our area who owned a blood dog. To this day, that experience remains the all-time low for me as a bow-hunter. It was an experience that can happen to anyone, but it happened to me. I took it personally and never want to go through that again. I now have several blood dog owners on speed dial on my phone. I will not hesitate to make the call next time.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.