By Cole Karsky | December 15, 2022
The alarm clock sounds, it is another early morning with a chance to get into the woods and chase the elusive whitetail deer. It has been a long season already in Minnesota. I have sat through bow hunting, the early antlerless firearm hunt, the standard firearm season, and now I am on to the muzzleloader season. It is yet another opening day for me. Even though this is my fourth “opening” day of the season, it brings that renewed energy and the feel of a brand-new season. The 2022 hunting season has yet to bring me an opportunity for a shot, but I have however seen deer. I had a very active morning on the opening day of the standard firearm season. I saw a dozen deer that morning, unfortunately, they were roughly 600 yards away and in front of my second choice of blind location. I made the wrong choice that morning. Nevertheless, I had an extremely enjoyable sit and was happy to see movement.
Now we flash forward to the opening day of the muzzleloader season. I want to go sit that blind and intercept those deer. After my alarm sounds, I check the forecasted wind. The direction it is forecasted to blow is the worst wind for that blind. It would be blowing into what I believe is a bedding area. The deer would know I am there and choose a different path for their movement. That leaves me with an easy choice for what tower to sit in as the wind sets up perfectly for that spot. Decision has been made and I hop into the truck and make my way to the farm.
As I make my drive, I reflect on my goal, to put some meat in the freezer. I am new to the sport of hunting; it is a passion I picked up as an adult. While meat in the freezer is a goal, my main goal for many seasons has been to shoot my first buck. I almost had this goal accomplished on a snowy Northern Wisconsin bow sit back in 2019. I put a shot on a quartering away 8-point buck at 30 yards. I thought I made a good shot and had a good blood trail. After backing out and waiting, we began to track, and the trail led to the neighbor’s property. We backed out and decided to wait until morning to retrieve the deer. There was some snow on the ground to make tracking relatively easy. We got permission for the landowner and made our way the next morning. We tracked the deer and the blood in the snow just disappeared. We did a grid search spanning out from last blood and were never able to recover the deer. We searched until dark that day. We will never truly know if the shot was fatal. I don’t think that is something you can ever truly get over as a hunter. You never want to leave a deer out in the woods suffering. I cannot help but replay those days in my head as I prepare for my next hunt. It is something that sticks with me. It is a hard lesson learned, but a crucial one. I am now much more cautious with the shots I will take, and it has taught me patience while in the field. Don’t take a shot until you are certain it’s an ethical one.
As I pull into the farm, I flip off my headlights. I have a bit of a walk to the tower I have picked, and I want to make sure I can sneak into it undetected. I put on my gear, starting with the base layers and boots. I step into my heated bibs and zip up my heated vest. It is a chilly morning and for an all-day sit, I will need both those pieces from TideWe, but for now, I will have a bit of a walk and do not want to get overheated. I grab my heated jacket and stuff it into my extendable capacity backpack. This pack is awesome, especially for later season sits. The extended capacity on the outside of the pack allows me to carry in some outerwear layers and not break a big sweat on my hike in. The outerwear is not taking up the entire internal storage space of my pack. And for a guy who is a gear nut and likes to film their outdoor adventures on my YouTube Channel, Beef Outdoors, this is key. Having the space to carry camera gear, batteries, and your outdoor equipment is essential.
I make the hike in, being as stealthy as possible. I had to walk much slower than I generally must on my way in. This early morning had a sparse covering of very crunchy snow. I tried to step in the open grass patches as much as possible and when I did have to step into snow, I did so as quietly as possible. I arrived at the tower and climbed up. I got my gear organized, cameras set up, muzzleloader ready to fire, and settled in to wait for legal shooting light. After settling in, I turned on my heated vest to stay nice and cozy during the brisk chill of the morning. As I look out from the tower in the pitch black, the shapes in the dark always look like big deer to me. Every stump and every branch look like that trophy buck. As the sun rises, reality sets in to let you know your mind is just playing tricks on you.
This morning is an extremely clear one, with very little cloud cover. The light starts to pour over the landscape and take in all the details. Just after legal shooting light there is one detail that catches my attention, a dark semi-circular arch just below the crest of a small hill. I focus in on it and the arch moves. I realize my mind isn’t playing any trick on me now, it is a deer that I am seeing. I reach over and grab my binoculars and focus on the deer. Its head pops up and I see that it is a buck. My heartrate immediately skyrockets, and my hands begin to shake. This is another moment I have been waiting for. The deer has a lot of work to do yet though, it needs to cover at least 200 yards to get within my comfortable shooting range of around 100 yards with my muzzleloader. The deer is making its way directly towards me. I watch it the entire way. I am not sure how long it took for the deer to make its way to me, but it felt like a lifetime. I lost site of the buck once as well. There was a small dip near a couple of trees that it went into. While it was down in that dip, I felt like it would never come back out and it would be lost to me for forever. Alas, it finally popped back out. It was just out of my range, but still working directly at me. During this time, I had my phone out on the tripod and was filming it, hands still shaking. The way the land naturally flowed in front of me, the deer would have two choices. The first choice would be to follow the field that goes to my left. If the deer chose this option, it would walk in front of me broadside at about 75 yards for a clear shot. That is not the option that the deer picked. The buck chose to go to my right and head off into the trees down a trail I could not see from the tower. When the buck made that decision, it was at just under 100 yards. Its choice caught me by surprise, and I had to get out of my chair and move over to the other window of the tower. I completely neglected my camera at this point as the deer was priority number one. I get set up in the window and raise the muzzleloader and steady it. The deer is calmly walking to the path. I get the sites on the body and let out a “meh” to stop the buck. It freezes and looks directly at me. The deer stands mostly broadside, but slightly quartering away. I steady my aim, take a deep breath, and fire. The muzzleloader cracks and the smoke is in the air. I see the buck tuck its tail and begin to run as fast as it can through the trees. Because there are no leaves and a blanket of snow, I can watch the buck run down a small trail and dip out of sight. Now the agony begins, the wait.
Thoughts run through my head, did I miss, was it a bad hit, did I make a poor shot? While I am confident in my decision of an ethical shot, there is always that uncertainty of the execution. The shot placement I chose was double lung. I am the most confident in that placement as it is a large area to hit. I have spent my time on the range being comfortable with that muzzleloader, and it has put food on the table for me before with a doe I was able to harvest a few years back. That half hour I told myself to wait was the longest thirty minutes of my life. I put a shot on a buck, a goal of mine since I started hunting. Food on the table for my family. Now I knew this buck was not a trophy deer by any means for a lot of folks out there, but this was going to be a trophy to me. If you asked me up in that tower, how many points the deer was, I couldn’t have given you an answer with certainty. I knew it wasn’t a fork, and I knew it wasn’t a ten pointer. I guessed it was a 6-point buck. I look at my phone and my thirty minutes was up. I climb down and I anxiously begin to walk towards where deer was standing when took the shot. I find the area where the snow was disturbed, no blood. My heart sinks. I thought I had a complete miss. I pull out my TideWe rangefinder and I point it back to the tower and click it to get the distance reading. Ninety yards. A yardage well within my comfort zone where I practiced. My heart sinks more. I did all the right things I told myself to do. Wait for it to be in range, wait for it to be broadside, take a deep breath, and take the shot. But no blood.
My eyes track though the snow, following the hoof prints, and at the entry to the deer trail I spot it, a small spray of blood. A spray that looks like someone waved a paint brush and flicked off the excess paint. It wasn’t a lot of blood by any means, but it was consistent and easy to follow in the snow. I found this sort of blood to be strange. I have not had a lot of tracking experience, but in each of the situations I have had to track deer, there was larger droplets to follow, especially initially. I slowly creep along, following this spray trail in front of me. I only must stop once or twice to gather my self and look for where the deer went next. Each time, relocating blood easily. I am working my way through willow brush and smaller trees when I finally come into the next cut opening. In front of me is the property boundary, a ditch filled with a bit of water. The blood heads right into it. I look down in there, half expecting to see the deer laying in the water, but it is empty. I look up the steep wall of the ditch and see where the grass has been disturbed, along with a big smear of blood. The first real big spot of it on this tracking journey. Now I am in a predicament however, I am at a spot where I will not be able to cross this ditch. I do not know how deep that water is, and the far wall is very steep, and unlikely that I will be able to scale it. Once again, I am at a situation where my buck ran off to the neighbors and I need to go recover it. Deja Vu. I back out, gather my gear and head to the truck. I will need to drive around the property and set up at a different location to cross that ditch safely to the neighbors.
On the way back to the truck, I give my wife’s uncle a call. I am hunting on the family farm he grew up on and still hunts to this day. I tell him where the buck has gone and to what neighbor’s property he went on to. He said he will give them a call to let them know I will be going over there. I find out that these neighbors are lifelong friends of his and they used to hunt with them when they were kids. Permission to access their land is gained and I make my plan to position myself to resume the track. I drive my truck to a different area of the property and find a spot to cross the ditch. The spot I found was alright for me to just cross over, but I never would be able to drag a deer to my truck there. If I recovered this buck, I knew I would need to make another plan. I put a waypoint in my OnX app of where the last blood was on the ditch and made my way towards it. The trail immediately leads from the ditch into a swampy area. Lucky for me, the weather has been cold and relatively dry, so what little moisture there was in that area was all frozen up. I was able to walk through the area and continue the blood trail. Now the blood is getting thicker and the spots larger. I am starting to see smear patterns on the grass and cattails. I feel like I am closer. I break through the swamp into an open cut of field and see a steady trail of blood through the snow leading into another thick swamp. I make way into the swamp and follow the blood. I am seeing larger drop areas along with a brown matter mixed in. This is where I really start to worry. Did I gut shot this deer? What is this brown matter in the snow? I stop to collect myself and think of what to do next. I conclude that I should look up until the next tree line about 50 yards in front of me. If I do not find the buck by then, I will back out and reevaluate my options. I move on and follow the steady trail. For most of my track, and especially in this swampy area there is a very clear deer trail that his buck is following. It is going down what is likely a very familiar path to it. If I had to venture a guess, this buck beds in one of these swampy areas during the day and I intercepted it on its movement towards it. I don’t make it more than about 15 yards from where I stop before I see an area of churned up snow with my buck laying in it. My goal has finally been achieved! It is difficult to put into words the overwhelming rush of emotions. The gratitude to the animal for its life and the food it will provide. The thrill of the chase that has been going on all season long and many seasons prior. Finally, being able to check off that one true goal you have set for yourself. Now the real work begins.
I know that I will have a very tough time dragging this deer out of the swamp alone, and an even tougher time getting it across the creek. I decide to backtrack to the truck and drive to the neighbor’s farm and see what options they suggest. Maybe they would let me drive my truck to the field edge and I can phone a buddy to come help. Once I arrive and I tell them where the buck went down, before I can even ask If I can park at the field edge, they say start walking towards the area, and I will bring the four-wheeler down so we can go retrieve it. This is another one of those situations where you realize the outdoors community has so many great people in it. We go down to the buck and I lead him along the trail to it. Once we arrive, he congratulates me on how awesome of an animal it is and how it is so great to share the experience of a first buck with someone. Mind you, I met this man for the first time 15 minutes ago and he was already so happy for me like I have known him my whole life. He goes on to tell me about all the deer their farm hunting party got this season, along with a story of a girl who go their very first doe this season as well. He told me he has shot many deer in his life and while he is grateful for and enjoys every deer, he gets true joy out of new hunters who harvest their first. It is a great perspective to have and brings him into a window where he reminisces about his first deer.
After story time of successful hunts and big bucks we have seen, we assess the situation at hand to get this animal out of the swamp. He concludes, because it is dry and frozen, he will be able to drive his wheeler into the swamp most of the way and we can load up the buck and drive it out. He drives the wheeler in, positions it so he can pull out forward, and we load the buck and strap him down. He slowly makes his way out of the swamp and back up to the farm.
Once we get up to the farm, we get to field dressing the deer. Once again, he offered to assist in this, something he did not have to do. He was so happy to help me with the whole process. I told him my fear of a gut shot when we were tracking as I found that brown matter. He said he wouldn’t be too worried about it as it was most likely just regurgitation from the deer due to stress. I thought the wound looked a little far back as well, but he thought it looked good. When we were field dressing the buck, we looked at the vitals to see if we could find the entry and exit wound. We did indeed find the entry in one lung and the exit in the other. The double lung shot I was aiming for. Along with this, we were not able to find the whole intact heart, just pieces of it. I was able to place the perfect shot. All the practice at the range and that final calming breath before pulling the trigger paid off. Reflecting on this, it is quite amazing how far the deer was able to run with those type of wounds. It just goes to show how tough and resilient the species truly is. They have survived in the brutal winters and hot summers across the country for a reason.
This is a deer that will hold a special place in my heart. It is a seven-point buck, and I couldn’t imagine being any prouder of a trophy than I am of this deer. Only time will tell in my life if that will be my biggest deer. One thing I know for certain though, is this will be the most special deer I harvest. My family will enjoy the food it provides for the next year until next hunting season rolls around. I already cannot wait for the chill in the air, the slight snow on the ground, and turning on my TideWe heated vest to settle in, waiting for shooting light and magic to happen.