You never know what you’ll discover when hiking in a state park, but you don’t expect to cut a fresh blood trail.
That is exactly what myself, Larry Moorlag and a bunch of kids stumbled upon at Swan Lake State Park just outside of Carroll, Iowa, the day after Thanksgiving.
At the end of the trail, we found more than we bargained for.
Watching kids play on iPads and iPhones drives me crazy, and the youngsters at our family Thanksgiving looked like they had wiped out the nearest Apple Store.
So after listening to “What Does the Fox Say” for the hundredth time, I persuaded most of the kids to power down the electronics and go hiking at the park in hopes of spotting some deer and other wildlife.
In the winter, the park gates off a good portion of the roads to keep plowing expenses down. We parked at one of these gates and started leisurely walking down a road covered in a light dusting of snow.
A little ways in, I looked to my left and realized the snow was dotted with blood.
We had cut a blood trail.
I call the kids to gather around and explain to them what I found. The blood was fresh. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours old. There were no boot tracks, so we began to follow it.
For the most part, it was an easy trail, so I let the kids take the lead. Every once in awhile, they’d miss a turn and have to circle back to figure out which way the deer went. Their excitement was infectious.
I watched with glee as their senses naturally dialed in to a level of keenness they’d never known before. Most of these kids had never seen a dead deer before, so I began to wonder what their reactions would be if that’s where this trail ended.
After about 500 yards of trailing and teaching the kids how to track, I concluded that we were going to find a deer.
There was just too much blood loss for it to live, so I again gathered them and explained what I expected to happen, which ended up being wrong.
The deer wasn’t dead; he was still very much alive.
To a hunter-conservationist, nothing is more heart-wrenching than a wounded animal.
I know it is hard for many to grasp, but we love the animals we pursue. Our goal is always for an animal to experience a quick, clean death.
The magnificent buck we found had a severely broken leg and was nearly bled out. He was upright but unable to move further than a few lunges forward. He was suffering.
Assuming the tears would start rolling, I backed the kids away from the deer and called the local sheriff’s office and asked the dispatcher to send the local conservation officer.
To my surprise, the kids weren’t crying, they were awestruck. They were taking pictures and were amazed with themselves for having tracked the dying deer.
The conservation officer came and put the creature down after moving the children from view. I asked to keep the rack but couldn’t because it was found in a state park.
I was offered the meat, which I accepted, but first the officer had to run a metal detector over the carcass to search for bullets, which if found would indicate poaching.
We dragged the deer to the officer’s truck and posed for a few pictures. Then we loaded it and he took off. Having already experienced more excitement than we bargained for, Larry, the kids and I did the same.
Later that evening, the officer called as he said he would and told me where to come for the meat. He had inspected the deer and found no traces of metal, thus proving the deer had not been shot with a bullet. He claimed to believe the buck was hit by a car. I’m pretty sure it was shot in the leg with an arrow.
The following evening, at a surprise 85th birthday party for the family patriarch, fresh venison back strap was served. It had marinated overnight wrapped in bacon and was quickly seared over charcoal. The kids devoured it with pride.
See you down the trail.
Brandon Butler’s outdoors column appears Saturdays in the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.