by Kevin Armstrong
reprinted with permission from New York Bowhunters Inc. Full Draw 2006
There have been two constants in my life. Number one is a nearly obsessive interest in deer and deer hunting; the other is an abiding love for dogs, especially hunting dogs. Unfortunately, for the first fifty three years of my life these pastimes had to remain distinctly separate. In my world it was taboo to think of dogs and deer hunting together.
A connoisseur of hunting literature I had thrilled to the nineteenth century accounts of hounding deer in the Adirondack Mountains. I’ve spent countless fireside hours captivated by the deer hounding yarns of “Old Flintlock” (Archibald Rutledge) and his Christmas morning horseback deer drives. Where aided by a pack of fine deer hounds he and his cronies chased great stags through dense southern swamps, harvesting the noble bucks with heavy loads of buckshot fired through fine double barreled shotguns. I savored the works of Robert Ruark and William Faulkner, picturing in my mind the colorful characters, lanky tri-colored hounds and great bucks that inhabit their tales.
In the late 20th century New York sportsmen had the notion that deer and dogs mixed like oil and water, but despite this I long harbored a secret desire to blend my two loves. Alas, my deer/dog fantasies were doomed to remain in the closet. In most deer hunting circles I dared not even express my heretical interest.
Over the decades I assuaged my interest in dogs by hunting small game and upland birds. For rabbits and hares, I used my trusty, stubborn, little beagles. For upland birds I began with English Springer Spaniels eventually coming to favor pointing dogs, especially Brittany Spaniels.
I pursued big game, especially deer, with an assortment of firearms but early on developed a preference for the bow and arrow. After 15 years of deer hunting with compound bows equipped with all the bells and whistles I ended up where I began; using a bare recurve bow and heavy arrows. Life was good. I was nearly content. As the years went by I surrounded myself with serious bowhunters. I spent my autumns in deer camps and springs in bear camps where I gained a good deal of experience and a degree of expertise as a tracker.
Sometime in the early 1980’s I attended a New York State Conservation Council Big Game Committee meeting where Don Hickman and Roger Humeston gave a presentation on a revolutionary new concept: Deer Search. A perfect gentleman, Don laid out a very professional presentation. After the meeting Roger and I talked about recovering arrow wounded deer. I asked him a loaded question; what did he consider “the best” broadhead? Without hesitation he gave me an unambiguous answer. His answer and his reasoning delighted me. These guys were the real McCoy. They were savvy deer hunters and they were doing it! They had found an honorable, ethical way to combine dogs and deer hunting. The seed was planted.
Years passed, and as they passed I met other sportsmen and women who were finding great fulfillment in tracking wounded deer with their funny looking little dogs. I pestered Walt Dixon, John Engelken and others for stories of their tracking seasons. The devotion these folks showed for tracking impressed me. Unwilling to forgo my own bowhunting time I hesitated to get involved for nearly two decades. Then in 2004 John Jeanneney donated a copy of his new book Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer to New York Bowhunters, Inc. (NYB) to be used as a fund raiser. I was the lucky high bidder for the book. Before I was half way through I was sending John and Jolanta email. I found myself spending time on the Deer Search Inc. (DSI) web site and the Born-to-Track web site. I filled out an application and got myself on the waiting list for a puppy.
The Jeanneneys and I agreed that a female pup would keep peace in my pack of male housedog/hunting dogs. She was from the Jeanneney’s “2005 K litter”. My wife (Kathy) and I spent weeks before we brought the puppy home discussing various names, knowing all the time that puppies have a way of naming themselves. A couple of days before we were to pick up the pup Jolanta told us we needed a name beginning with K so she could fill out the pedigree papers. I asked Kathy for a name beginning with a K. Without hesitation she said “Karma”, Jolanta replied “that’s a wonderful name” and so it was.
The name stuck. In July 2005 I brought Karma home and introduced her to her new family; Punky the beagle, Magic the Brit, and Mohawk the bull/boxer mutt.
I was determined to get my DSI certification in the fall of 2005. In June we attended a DSI seminar. In August Kathy and I passed our New York tracking dog license certification tests. Gary Huber took me under his wing and became my Master Handler. We started out the first weekend of the archery season. On our third call we found a nice eight pointer for a happy bowhunter in East Otto, New York. I was handling the more experienced lead dog when we made the find. What a thrill! After a difficult trail I spotted the dead buck first. “We’ve got your deer up here!”
As the bow season passed we followed quite a few trails. Most of them were clearly superficially wounded deer. I met and tracked with a number of fine dogs and experienced trackers as the weeks went by. I learned from each of them.
It was growing late in the bow season when I decided I had better get serious and shoot something or go skunked this year. On a sunny Saturday morning a spike horn that I had been passing up all season looked mighty good. He was ten yards away when I passed a razor sharp Woodsman broadhead between his ribs. Even though I knew he was fatally wounded and even though I had heard the deer crash fifty yards into the thicket, and even though the blood and arrow told the tale of a solid lung hit I could not resist the opportunity to go home and get Karma. After the last ten trails without a reward at the end I wanted her to follow a trail with a deer at the end of it. After the requisite calls to the Environmental Conservation Officer, Karma and I took up the short, hot, trail. Kathy tagged along and took photos. Karma found the deer in minutes fiercely attacking the carcass.
We had a couple more fruitless calls that week. Then one late afternoon near the end of the bow season the phone rang. The hunter had heard I was training a pup for deer search. He had a fatal hit on a nice buck but he had no blood. Rain was in the overnight forecast and the deer was in a coyote infested valley. Prudence dictated we wait at least six hours before taking up the trail. At 10:30 PM Karma and I met the hunter. At the hit sight the hair told us the arrow had entered the deer’s back and exited the paunch. The arrow showed evidence of a paunch hit but there were also a few tiny air bubbles near the fletching. There was not a drop of blood to be found.
The night air was cool, damp, and still. Seven month old Karma was straining to go as I switched her from her everyday collar to her tracking collar. As soon as I gave her a bit of slack she was off. The hunter confirmed that she was going in the right direction. My instinct told me to let her have her way for awhile. I asked the hunters to hang back a little way and look for blood. Karma nearly dragged me one hundred yards up hill through acres of dense thorny rose and wild grape tangles. Then at a low ridge she turned a hard right angle. We fought our way through another fifty yards of thorn and vine when my headlight caught the reflection of a deer’s eye. There he is! A fine buck lay crumpled between twin blow-down tree trunks, his antlers entangled in vines where he died on the run. “I’ve got your deer up here!” I called.
The next hour was one of the most pleasant hours of 2005. Photos were taken, tags were cut out and filled out, the deer was dressed and dragged and Karma and I basked in the praise of the hunters and the glory of the moment. That was the hour where I came to understand why the men and women of Deer Search so willingly give of themselves. Young Karma had passed a milestone with her first serious solo find. I had passed a milestone where I realized that my time spent working with my funny looking little dog, in service to a fellow hunter, to help find their deer, was at least as rewarding as my own hunting time. My deer/dog preoccupation had found a healthy outlet. Now I knew why all the DSI folks I had met along the way so happily go to such extremes to track deer. It had been a passage for the well seasoned hunter and the little rookie dog.
As I write the story she rests quietly at my side, both of us longing for the next season and our next trail together.