HIGHLAND COUNTY, VA. -- "Don't take it so hard," Jimmy Adams said. "If you hunt deer it's going to happen. You can't go second-guessing yourself."
But I was sick -- sick with the knowledge that a deer lay in the woods, dead by my hand, and I was helpless to find it.
The sad secret of hunting is lost game. Whether it's rabbits, deer, ducks, geese, squirrels, elk or bear, every hunter knows that some percentage of what is shot never is claimed.
The good hunter's ideal is the clean kill and you do your best. But it's never assured, even for shooters who practice hard and set a high standard, because the standards inevitably fall to the variations of circumstance in the wild.
Things happen fast. You've waited in a tree stand two days or in a duck blind all day. Suddenly, the game appears, often where you least expect it. Is it close enough? Is it a sure shot? Should you let this one pass? It's instinct then; no time to think. And instinct, whetted by enthusiasm, often is imperfect.
Here in Highland County, the fog was thick and the wind and rain cold last week for the final two days of one of the harshest Virginia deer seasons in memory.
Adams had invited me to hunt the 4,000 acres of his Upland Game Outfitters near High Town and had all but guaranteed a shot at a deer. Does were legal the last two days and the woods were crawling with does. "We've got too many," he said.
Sure enough, I wasn't in the tree stand an hour the first afternoon before two does filtered out of the high woods and into a cattle meadow, 75 yards distant, feeding on grass.
After nearly two weeks of hunting pressure, they were wary. I barely moved to improve my view. The lead doe's head shot up in alarm. Sit still, I thought, and they won't see you. My heart pounded.
The rifle was sighted-in at 100 yards, so the deer were in range. But scattered trees mucked up the field. It was a waiting game. The does were trending up the meadow, moving away through the trees. I would have to act fast to claim one of these.
Wait for a better chance later?
Better not. The weather was bad and getting worse. With just two days to hunt, these could be the only deer I'd see from the stand. As it happened, they were.
So when the lead doe slipped behind a tall spruce I put the rifle up and when she emerged, I breathed deeply and filled the woods with noise.
But the bullet strayed right and low, my mistake. The doe was mortally struck. I mentally marked the spot where she ran into the woods.
The experts' advice on tracking wounded deer is to wait. They rarely go far unless pushed, but if you trail them immediately, they'll run and lose you.
I waited a miserable hour, then climbed down to look for the trail. It was clear enough at first, but disappeared in the soggy ground after just 10 yards. I began circling but never found another trace.
At camp that night, Adams said he'd mount a search in the morning with Allen Baker, bow-hunting guide and his top tracker. Baker was optimistic. "You did the right thing not pushing her," he said. "She won't be 100 yards from where you shot. We'll find her. Don't worry."
But it was a sleepless night.
Next morning, Adams and his brother Byron were as baffled as I by the absence of trail, but the black-bearded Baker marched straight to the last blood on the ground and went to work.
"Wounded deer go downhill," he said, and began poring over the downslope on hands and knees, seeking hoofprints. Within minutes he had a hypothetical direction and a theory on ultimate location.
Baker was fast. A former hospital administrator, he gave up his career to open a bow-hunting store near Richmond and spend time in the woods. This was work he loved.
"This deer," he said, after a fruitless search of the area he'd chosen first, "must have circled behind your stand and bedded down in the laurel. That's probably where she came from originally. But it's thick in there. She'll be hard to find."
We took off. I was far enough apart that I could hear none of the others, but after a while my path crossed Byron Adams'. He'd seen nothing.
"Me, either," I said dispiritedly. "It looks grim."
"Whoa! What's this?" Adams shouted, and raced off low to the ground, dodging the laurel branches.
"I've got her."
Experience keeps a hard school, as they say.
Principally a shotgun hunter, I had inadequate experience to be hunting with a rifle I hadn't fired in the field in two years. Instead of a half-dozen or so practice rounds, I should have shot 30 or 40, to have a better sense where the bullet would fly.
Moreover, in my excitement, I'd pressed my luck on a hard shot. Visibility wasn't good. Brush in the way could have deflected the bullet. Better to wait than to risk wounding a deer.
These are things you learn.
As for tracking, Baker's basic rule is, "Don't give up."
Beyond that, he said that lacking a clear trail, a tracker should know the habits of the game, the lay of the land and let logic dictate where he searches.
If you don't know these things, it helps to have along someone like Baker, who does.