SALE CREEK, Tenn. — Surrounded by deer, I fully expected to get "busted." That means at least one deer spots you and snorts a loud alert before you can take the shot.
I was right - and sometimes I hate it when I'm right. As I slowly raised the crossbow to my shoulder and began to aim at the biggest doe, 15 yards out, another deer to my right snorted an alarm and the entire herd bolted.
However, unaware of exactly what had alerted its partner, the deer I was after didn't go far, slowing after just a couple of short jumps. The sight settled and I sent the crossbow bolt on its way. It connected with a resounding, "thump."
It took a minute before I could settle my adrenalin-soaked nerves but then I reached for my phone and texted my friend, Scott Lillie, "Hit one. Think I saw it go down in the field but bring August."
August is Scott's Bavarian Mountain Hound, a dog bred and trained specifically for the purpose of tracking down wounded deer.
A year ago, Scott called in the aid of a tracking dog to recover a nice buck he shot. He was immensely grateful for the help and became fascinated with the idea of owning a tracking dog. It wasn't long after that he bought August.
"The whole idea of it, if you make a bad hit, you've got an insurance policy," said Scott. "These dogs are finding deer that would never be found if you didn't have the dog."
The use of tracking dogs for recovering wounded game, while still illegal in a few states, seems to be becoming more commonplace these days. In fact, Pope & Young - the organization that certifies world records for North American big game animals harvested via archery equipment. - recently released a new policy statement about the use of tracking dogs.
Only one year old, August is still in training and Scott was anxious to get him out on "real world" tracks.
When I texted, it so happened Scott was already on a deer track for another friend.
Later Scott said with a laugh, "I don't even want to go hunting anymore. I just want friends to go hunting so they'll call me to track their deer."
"The other deer than yours I tracked today, the guy said, 'There were about 12 deer that crashed out of here. Do you think that's going to be a problem?"
Scott said it wasn't.
"I don't know how they do it but they can smell the injured deer and home in on that one track. It was incredible to see it. He just went (about 300 yards) right to that deer," said Scott.
A wounded deer apparently releases a different scent than other deer. Even when there isn't a good blood trail, or any blood trail, good tracking dogs can differentiate the scent and will follow only the wounded animal, ignoring the scent of other deer that were not hit.
"I've been on four tracks this year and I'm sold," exclaimed Scott.
But the Lillie family is sold for another reason. Besides being on the way to becoming an excellent tracking dog, they say August is an incredible pet.
"I've had dogs my whole life and he is as much a family companion as he is a hunting dog. He's spoiled rotten, sleeps in the bed at night but you get him out in the woods and he's a totally different animal - just zoned in on what he wants to do, which is track down a deer."
Damon Bungard from Spencer, Tenn. and his dog, Jaeger, are a well-known team. Bungard says, "It's my way of giving back. Taking someone from the lows of their hunting career - wounding and unable to locate an animal - and then Jaeger comes out turns it into one of their greatest highs."
Bungard documented one of many such experiences with Mason Swan on video last year.
Bungard and Jaeger also aided in the recovery of a great buck for Jacob Mousseau on the 'Hunt for Warriors' at Enterprise South Nature Park two weeks ago.
On his Facebook page, Mousseau wrote, "Just wanted to give a special thanks do Damon Bungard and his hunting companion Jaeger at Jaeger Tracks for helping me track down my wonderful deer on this hero hunt I was able to go on! Thanks again Hero Hunt, Inc. and Tennessee Valley SCI for choosing me to go on this hunt and helping me become successful in my first muzzleloader kill and largest deer of my life!"
Back to my experience - I watched the deer I'd shot bound across the field into tall grass. It covered a hundred yards in mere seconds, however I was 90 percent sure I had seen the animal go down in the grass.
When Scott arrived, we began where I made the shot. August took a moment to sort through the various smells but soon started up the hill, directly on the path I had seen the deer go.
I was sure it was a solid hit, but at the high angle the arrow entered, without a pass-through, there was no blood trail. But August never slowed until he reached the tallest grass where I'd last seen the deer.
He made a wide circle, precisely as I had seen the deer do, ending the circle at the downed deer.
"Good boy," exclaimed Scott with excitement and pride.
Even though August may not have been necessary in that case, it was an excellent training run. Especially without a good blood trail to follow, it was great reassurance for me to have "an insurance policy" along.
You can learn more about tracking dogs in Tennessee on this Facebook page.