By Dylan Cooper, columnist
This time of year always sends me on a roller coaster of emotions when it comes to hunting. The 2022 deer season was another seemingly short, wild ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Back in the late Summer months, I was in the mode of “buying my theme park season pass”, full of hope and excitement while looking at trail camera photos, scouting, and clearing stand sites and trails. I had mentally ranked out a list of bucks I was going to pursue. I planned to harvest the first doe that I could to satisfy the Earn-a-Buck regulation. I even had a goal of harvesting a deer with a different kind of weapon than my usual arsenal.
On archery opener, the hopes and dreams I had going into the season got a warm, wet smack in the face like from Splash Mountain. A nasty tropical system made its way through the area that weekend, and when I stepped outside at 4 a.m., donned in my first camo outfit of the season, I nearly got blown off the porch. Then, maybe for the first time in my life, I turned around and sulked back to bed. I thought “no deer is worth risking my life up in a tree in this wind this morning.” I decided to go that evening after the winds died down, but walking to and from the stand was like navigating the children’s splash pad at the water park, and it didn’t pay off either. After that day, I couldn’t get away from work to hunt anymore during the first few weeks of the season, and thus the bucks I had been watching all summer got to float away into their unpredictable fall patterns.
It took until the last Saturday of bow season at my normal stomping grounds in Fauquier County to finally get that first doe in range. I was up high in a hang-on stand when this doe came right down the path I was expecting and offered me a 30-yard broadside shot. I had to stand up to clear a branch, and upon the pull of my crossbow trigger, I heard a nice “thwap” and the doe took off, but her tail was twitching, a sign of a bad hit. The second bad sign was when she kept going out of sight without seeming phased. After a while, I got down to find that the bolt was oddly clean except for a little bit of brown hair stuck to a fletching, and no evidence on the broadhead since it got buried 10 inches in the dirt. The blood trail wasn’t much to speak of: just occasional drops of bright red blood that a buddy and I were able to follow for over 500 yards before it whittled down to nothing. I’m thinking the bolt didn’t quite clear that branch and may have grazed across the top of her back. I hate to wound an animal like that, but I felt pretty confident she survived it.
When November rolled around, the season’s roller coaster ride clinked along up to its thrilling peak, then quickly evolved into a blackout-inducing nose dive similar to that of the Intimidator 305Ⓡ. Whatever hopes you have when early muzzleloader comes in, they are usually dashed by the end of the month when rifle season is going out.
November 6-8 are my magical dates each year for rut action where I hunt. This tends to be when things bust wide open as bucks are all out seeking the first few does in heat. But to add to the wild ride this year, we had record-breaking high temperatures on November 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th. With the bright full moon on November 8th, and all of those hot daytime temps near 80 degrees, it definitely hurt the daytime rut activity this season. I was only seeing a few deer total each day, yet my cellular trail cameras were blowing up at night time. I even had to break down and get my first thermacell and used it well into November.
A week after the doe mishap, I found myself in the same stand for the muzzleloader opener on November 5th. That morning, I recall hearing a few shots here and there, but I wasn’t seeing a thing. By 9 A.M., I was a little bored and hungry so I started chewing on some of last year’s deer jerky when someone across the property line shot three times in rapid succession. Soon after I heard them driving around on a UTV, which I assume meant at least one of the shots had landed and they were going to pick up their kill. It was during that commotion that I heard a single deep grunt way down in the thick woods to my right. I slowly put the jerky bag down and grabbed my gun. Through the trees, in a gap maybe 4 inches wide, I could see just a sliver of a deer with antlers. It took me a while before I finally made out the whole left side of a dark rack sticking out past the ear. “Good enough buck for me” I thought, as my season’s impatience started to grow on my trigger finger.
After watching him standing still for a minute or two, I realized he was on alert from the commotion next door and was likely not moving any closer than about 75 yards. He was quartering hard toward me, and angled uphill at me, even with me sitting in a high hang-on. I remember thinking this was an unusual shot but doable, so I put the crosshair on the front edge of the shoulder nearest me, knowing this was gonna put a 200 grain SST through the boiler room before exiting through the paunch.
When I squeezed the trigger, I heard an unfamiliar “ka…..POW!” that spooked me as well as the buck. I had never had a delayed Blackhorn 209 powder charge from this one-year-old .45 cal Accura LR-X before. In reality, it was less than a second delay after the primer went off, but now I had no clue where I hit this buck. After the smoke cleared, I saw his dark tail tucked as he was escaping back downhill the way he came. I frantically texted the couple members hunting near me to be on the lookout for him crashing by but no one ever saw or heard him, including the guy hunting just 200 yards away. I figured that must mean he went down in between us so I gave him a half hour and then three of us started the search.
There was no blood at the shot site, which is not unusual for a muzzleloader, but it also got me feeling a little uneasy. We started a small grid search and found blood in about 5 minutes. What we found was quite bewildering: first it was dark red blood, then bone, stomach contents, bright red blood with bubbles, and even a piece of fat bigger than my thumb. There was a lot of everything, some good sign and some bad. “He’s gotta be right here somewhere,” we all chattered in agreement, as we stomped along in the woods.
At some point, we jumped him and didn’t hear him. I remember seeing a small flat spot in the leaves with dark blood around it and should’ve known then. But we didn’t realize it until the path took us within sight of the other guy’s stand he was in, and we knew he didn’t see it in that half hour we waited.
You know that feeling when you might’ve eaten a little too much then made a terrible choice to go straight to riding the Anaconda roller coaster? That was now how I felt. This buck just took us on a question mark-shaped blood trail, uphill even, and he was last headed for the property line. There was just one thicket left until the fence, and luckily we were downwind of it. So we backed out, the other guys left, and I snuck around to the fence line to sit and wait on him.
I had plenty of time to gather my thoughts and recollect on what had happened. I shot at about 9:20 and it was now noon with temps climbing into the high 70s. If I let him lie for the 6-8 hours that’s recommended for a gut shot, the meat will likely spoil before I find him. If I pick up the trail and bump him up again, I’d risk losing him on the other property. After a while, I came up with a third option.
After slowly walking the entire fenceline back and forth many times scanning for blood to no avail, I felt better that he hadn’t made the jump to the other property and had turned around again. I took a wide arc around where I thought he was bedded and started checking the downhill escape route. While moping around in one of my cut paths along an overgrown field, I was suddenly surprised to spot a few pinpricks of dark blood in the grass. He had made another question mark turn, exited the hardwoods, and was now trying to lose me in this thick field. I called in a couple more reinforcements and we started on the trail again.
Dried up dark blood specks in multicolored grass has to be the hardest way to track a deer. At times, I was on my hands and knees crawling through cedars, overgrown grass, and thickets. I would pick up the trail for 10 yards then lose it again and try every possible path until finding another speck. I was using my HuntStand app to drop pins and trace my path to see where he was going. He was making zigzags through the thick stuff, going uphill and downhill, but steadily making his way towards water. Once I even wondered if this was actually a deer I was tracking because of the small spaces he was squeezing through.
When he crossed a cut trail into another cedar thicket, I sent some of my help all the way to the downhill edge to try to cut him off at the other end. It was about 2:30 P.M. when, after I had said out loud for the umpteenth time “There’s another drop,” the cedars erupted just feet ahead of me. I took off running with my muzzleloader in hand heading towards the nearest cut trail. Then I saw him. The sunlight was perfectly behind him now, outlining this big buck hunched over broadside, trying to hide behind some cedars within 10 yards of me. Luckily my scope was already turned all the way down when I threw up the gun, cocked the hammer, and instinctively shot center-mass just as he went to take off again.
“I need another shot!!!” I yelled to the person on the downhill side of the thicket as they came flying over with their muzzleloader. The buck was now gushing blood out of both sides, stumbling downhill for the river. He was still far from it though when he crashed right at the doorstep of an old one-room cabin turned hunting blind that used to be my dad’s favorite spot. Once I finally got the full view of him, I immediately recognized the buck as the wide 8-pointer that was #3 on my hit-list. Finally, five hours and over 800 yards of tracking and sweating in 80 degrees had paid off.
Upon further inspection, this deer had seven bullet holes. My initial shot clipped the back edge of his front shoulder, meaning he did get a jump on that shot delay. Then it went in the ribs and barely clipped a lung, wrecked the paunch, exited the bottom of the belly. It re-entered the opposite rear quarter and exited it, but the bullet was laying right under the hide. The second shot went in and out the rib cage through both lungs. Certainly not the way I want to take an animal, but I was so glad I stuck with it and followed through on the tracking job. Every hunt is a learning lesson and this one certainly was no different.
For the rest of this roller coaster season, I played it pretty safe. I made sure to only take shots I felt great about, but even some of those had surprisingly long blood trails. The rut action I dreamed about never materialized and neither did the biggest bucks I was after. I did achieve one of my goals by taking my first deer with a handgun: a big doe at less than 10 yards with a TC Contender G2 in .45/70 with a 410 gr subsonic. Now I have lots of venison and plenty of time to recollect on the wild ride that it was so I can be more prepared for another one next season.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.