When the trail goes cold, call in the dogs
George Moore had almost given up finding the trophy buck he had put an arrow in last month.
The Arcadia resident shot a 7x7 buck on Oct. 8 and watched through binoculars as it ran into the woods, but Moore couldn’t find the animal afterward.
Moore called friends to help search the area with flashlights for four hours that night with no luck. He walked another three miles over the property the following morning but still couldn’t find the buck that would have been the biggest typical he had ever shot.
Moore assumed he had just wounded the deer, but when it didn’t show up on any of his trail cameras over the next two weeks, he decided the buck must be dead.
“I’ve had that buck on camera for two years,” Moore said. “Last year he was 6x6. I’ve got a thousand game cam pictures of him.”
As a Hail Mary attempt to find the rack two weeks later, Moore posted his predicament on a Deer Recovery Facebook page asking for any help. Trey Starr of Graham, Texas, responded and brought his 2-year-old Labrador retriever, Rio, to Edmond to search for the buck.
Starr and Rio began a grid search on the property the next morning, working downwind, and found the carcass in two hours. When Rio detected the scent of the dead animal, “he just took off and pretty much pulled off my arm,” Starr said.
It was 340 yards from the deer stand where Moore had been hunting.
“I will be honest, it doesn’t always work out as it did for George,” Starr said. “Those are tough deals.”
Katie Sanderson of Yukon, who founded the Oklahoma Blood Trackers Association with her husband, Eric, said the chances of finding Moore's buck two weeks after it was shot was less than 5 percent.
This is the third deer hunting season where tracking wounded deer with dogs has been legal in Oklahoma. Handler and dog teams like Sanderson and her mutt, Brutus, have been staying busy.
Sanderson and Brutus have gone tracking 14 times this hunting season and found six animals for deer hunters.
When Brutus recovers a deer for a hunter, “it’s like Christmas every time,” Sanderson said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have a hunter and a deer reconnected.”
On the Facebook page of the Oklahoma Blood Trackers Association is a state map with the names and locations of certified tracking teams or teams planning to be certified. Being certified by one of three national organizations means a dog has been evaluated and passed a hunt test proving they could track wounded game.
The Oklahoma Blood Trackers Association holds a workshop every spring at Lake Arcadia. A dog doesn’t have to be certified to be a good tracker, but it gives deer hunters who are hiring a dog team confidence that they are getting a reliable tracker.
Starr said Rio is not certified yet, but there are plans for him to take a hunt test this spring. Starr got Rio as a puppy to be his duck hunting dog, but discovered on a feral hog hunt that he had a nose for tracking.
“He loves working his nose,” Starr said.
Sanderson has a similar story of discovery of the abilities of Brutus, a dog she adopted from a shelter.
“He would sniff everywhere,” she said. “My girlfriends would come over with purses and he would have to have his head in their bags to see what was in there.”
Her husband had watched a hunting show on deer tracking, so they decided to see if Brutus could find a wounded deer. He seemed a natural. Sanderson said any breed of dog can be a good tracker, but not all dogs are.
“Every dog has the capability of doing it,” she said. “I always say every dog can fetch a ball or Frisbee, but not every dog will. It just depends on the dog’s general desire to want to do it.
“Some dogs are naturals at it, and in those cases the handler has to learn more about tracking than the dog. A lot of people just think you throw your dog out and they go find the deer. There is so much more to the process than that.”
In Oklahoma, to legally track a wounded deer with a dog, the game warden in the area must be first notified of the intent to search and the dog must be kept on a leash. To ensure someone is not using dogs to hunt deer, no one can carry any “means of take” such as a gun or bow while tracking a wounded deer.
Sanderson said the overall success rate of dogs finding a deer is 27 to 33 percent. The longer a hunter waits to call a dog team, the less the chance of recovery, she said.
If hunters haven’t found a deer within 150 or 250 yards of where it was shot, Sanderson recommends hunters abandon the search and call a dog team.
“If you back out and call a tracking team, your chances of recovery go up,” Sanderson said. “You are not going to muck up the scene. A dog has a better chance of closing in that distance really fast if you don’t disturb the grass and all the stuff around there.”
Dog handlers charge varying fees, often depending on how far they must travel, Sanderson said.
Moore, 65, has killed many deer over the years and some he never found. This was the first time he used a dog on the search. He now has his best typical whitetail archery buck to show for it.
“I am a believer in these dogs,” he said. “I will use one from now on."