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Deer report: An incredible week turns into such a low, and what to take from it

Buck sign, including big rubs like this, were everywhere in North Dakota this week as whitetails entered into the rut. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)1 / 2
A fresh coating of snow covered the trees and vegetation that lined the Red River in North Dakota on Wednesday. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)2 / 2

You have to get back in the stand. This happens in hunting.

Those are things your buddies tell you after a bad shot on an animal, but they don't help you sleep at night. Losing an animal should hurt. There is a life at stake, and it's something I take very seriously.

You see, I'm going through the lowest point of any time I've been a bow hunter, and it's not completely clear what the best step forward is. My greatest passion in life—something I work incredibly hard at to avoid these kinds of moments—has become a source of frustration like I have never felt. Embarrassment, anger, regret, I've experienced them all the last few days.

I lost two bucks on a hunt in North Dakota this week. One I'm almost certain was not a mortal hit. One I know for certain was.

This is my 11th season bow hunting, and for nine years I never lost a deer. I tagged almost 15 does and bucks during that stretch, most of which I watched drop within sight of my stand.

I don't write that as any kind of huge accomplishment or justification. Only to let people know that this is not something that only affects beginning hunters.

The reason for that success is because I'm able to talk myself out of taking questionable shots. I've never released an arrow at a deer more than 30 yards away, and maybe that's why this has been so confusing. There's no easy fix. No saying, 'Well, I know not to do that again.'

I was hanging in my tree saddle overlooking a funnel on the morning of Nov. 5. Twenty minutes after legal shooting light, here he came. I knew right away this was a buck I would shoot, and it all happened fast. He was trotting, so I grabbed my bow, drew back and stopped him with a bleat. I buried the pin and pulled the trigger, but the arrow hit low and forward. So much so that it missed vital organs completely and exited through the brisket. I got a close look when 20 minutes later that buck came back through following a doe. I would have had another shot, but I did not have an arrow nocked. Another mistake.

He had a limp, but his full attention was on that doe. An hour and a half later, he passed by again, this time 80 yards away walking downwind of bedding.

I wrestled with what to do all day. I tracked a blood trail that afternoon that dried up quickly and began to search from there. The blood had no signs of air bubbles that would indicate a hit lung. After thinking things over and getting some advice, I decided to get back in the stand on Tuesday, confident this deer was going to survive.

November 6 was a morning whitetail enthusiasts dream of. Temperatures at 30 degrees. Winds 10-15 miles per hour out of the northwest. I knew there would be bucks cruising, and four minutes after first shooting light, here one came. I grabbed my bow, but it was still pretty dark in the woods with the cloud cover. I did not feel comfortable taking a shot as he passed by at 20 yards.

Another fork buck came under my stand at 7:30. Then at 8, I saw movement 100 yards in front of me. A thin frosting of snow covered the fallen leaves that morning, so the deer trails that had been worked to mud with heavy use popped out. This buck—what I believe was a 3.5-year old 8-pointer—was coming down my trail on a string.

I grabbed the bow and got ready. "You're going to make a good shot," I kept telling myself. Two years ago, I knew that was going to happen. Right now, it seems I have to convince myself.

I watched the buck come—70 yards, 60, 30, 20. All the while, I was in complete control. There was no shaking, nothing sped up in my head—things that people typically associate with having "buck fever."

I drew my bow and waited for him to step forward with his front leg. At 15 yards and slightly quartering away, I stopped him. "Anchor. Bury the pin. Follow through." I went through all those steps and watched the arrow disappear. The buck jolted out of there, stopped 40 yards away, went down, and my emotions poured out.

Everything told me it was over. I felt the shot was perfect, that it was a double-lung hit. I texted friends and family who have helped me through these struggles since losing my first deer a year ago.

Twenty minutes after the shot, I looked back down the trail where he had laid, and he was gone. How is that possible? I replayed the shot over and over in my head. I was so confident initially, but doubt now crept in. I sat for another half an hour when a coyote came downwind of where the buck had initially bedded. This was the nightmare scenario if he was still alive.

I got down, grabbed my arrow, and my heart sank. Dark red blood indicating a liver hit. I hit lung, too, but the shot was further back than I realized. I had to wait hours to track him.

My dad and I returned at about 1 p.m. and followed blood to his next bed only 60 yards from his first. Something made him get on his feet again. Coyotes? We kept following the trail until it dried up. By now, snow was falling that eventually accumulated over an inch.

Our chance of finding more blood was over, so we grid searched the property. Up and down through the long, narrow bedding cover along the river. Dad and I stayed 15 feet apart to make sure we could see everything until dark. At first light on Wednesday, we went back to look. If he was on the property I shot him on, I feel like we would have found him. Instead, I was forced to accept that it happened again.

The question that has kept me up at night since then is how do I fix this? Where do I go from here? I'm done hunting in North Dakota this season. I would not feel right about tagging a deer out there, but I still have tags I can fill in Minnesota.

One of the texts I sent my dad from the stand was that if I lose this buck, I’m quitting bow hunting. The thought of doing that the rest of this season has entered my mind, but I can’t do that. I feel strongly that having passions and pursuing them vigorously is instrumental to consistent happiness. This is my passion.

It's because of bow hunting that I love whitetails. Being able to spend this much time in the woods watching them, seeing their instincts, what incredible survivors they are—I respect them more because I hunt them.

It is also not a matter of just figuring out something with my shot. I can drill fist-sized groups at 40 yards in my backyard after shooting thousands of arrows every year. This is something I need to conquer in the stand.

I am going to take a break for a little bit, even if it's just a week to clear my head. My target is in our shop where I am going to shoot arrow after arrow focusing on those three steps—anchor, bury the pin, follow through.

A buddy sent me a text this week that put things in perspective: "Hunting teaches us perseverance. Stick with it and shake it off. You cannot change the past. Don't let it affect the future."

Get back in the stand. I'll do that soon enough, focused on learning anything I can from these mishaps to keep them from happening again.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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