Coping With a Loss — Wounded Deer

mangled broadhead that failed to deploy blades

Something happened to me a week ago that has only happened one time before in my life. I lost a deer. Not only that, but it was a really nice deer. I can feel good in the fact that the loss was not my fault, but rather the complete malfunction of a mechanical broadhead-tipped arrow shot from a crossbow. The shot looked good, perhaps a tad high, but not when you considered the angle and certainly in an area that I have killed dozens of deer before. Here’s what happened. I climbed into my tree stand a little past 3 p.m. The only action I saw was a diving hawk as I climbed up the tree. He was close enough that I flinched and nearly reversed direction! Around 4:30, I heard and saw a deer walking up the ravine from over my right shoulder. I stood and readied myself as I realized he was a shooter.

Arrow tipped with a mechanical broadhead on ground
Normally, finding your arrow after a shot will tell you about the quality of the shot and wound location.

The deer walked to the north side of my tree. I stopped him with a grunt; he was quartering-to at 14 yards. He looked right at me as I squeezed the trigger. I watched the arrow disappear behind his left shoulder and was surprised to see it hanging out the far side as he ran away.

My first thought: “That is a dead deer.” I even heard a crash from about 100 yards up the ravine.

It was starting to get dark, so I waited about 10 minutes. I gathered my gear, lowered it to the ground, and carefully climbed out of the tree. Quickly, I walked over to the area where the deer had been standing. No blood.

I walked along the path he took toward a winter wheat field. No blood. Then, I skipped ahead to the area where I had seen him go from the field back into the brush. No blood. I knew I didn’t miss. I saw the bolt go in and out. I called in some help, and three of us began the search. I found blood- 150 yards from where I shot the deer. It was good, red blood with no hint of paunch material. Due to the distance from the initial hit, we decided to back out and give the deer overnight.

mangled broadhead that failed to deploy blades
A broadhead’s blades can fail just as a bullet can fail to expand. Catastrophic failures such as this are rare.

I hardly slept a wink. This was probably the biggest whitetail I had ever shot. The scenario replayed itself over and over. The other hunters in camp assured me—“that’s a dead deer.” We’ll find it in the morning. At first light, we were on the ground. We found blood, more blood, and yet more blood. We walked at a fairly rapid pace expecting to find the buck in the next thicket or in the next bend of the creek. Then, the blood just stopped. Five of us circled for 30 yards and found nothing but an old shed antler hanging from a thorn bush. We were puzzled.

Then my host looked down and said, “Hey, what’s that on the tip?” It was blood. The deer had gone through the thorn bush and bled on the antler. We were back on the trail, and now finding more blood that was close together and on a trail that was clearly headed toward a pond. My confidence was up. I figured the deer was hurt and had probably gone to the pond for water, had bedded, and we would find him dead.

Shed deer antler with specs of blood
As a piece of irony, the author found a shed with speckled with crimson, but not the buck he shot.

Then the blood trail simply ended. Five experienced deer hunters, at times on our hands and knees, could not find another drop of blood in a grass field on a trail that was rather clear. Two hours later—walking every possible trail we thought a deer could have taken—and after walking concentric circles, we finally gave up the chase. The follow-up had taken almost four hours and spanned nearly one mile. The determination was made that the shot was not as solid as I had perceived.

I couldn’t believe it. Instead of going to another stand that afternoon, I went back to the same stand and replayed the scenario in my head. I got down on my hands and knees in the buck’s tracks and, inch-by-inch, followed the trail toward the field. I found blood—good, red blood. I moved forward slowly about 20 yards and found the front 75% of my arrow. I immediately saw what happened. The broadhead was mangled, with the blades twisted around the shaft. Instead of a two-inch swath being cut through the animal’s body, there was a hole the diameter of an arrow shaft.

I hunted for the next three days, spending my lunch break around the same field looking for signs of death—Coyotes, crows, even cows congregating in one area… to no avail. I can only hope that there is a 150-class, 8 pointer out there who is a little wiser, walks with a limp and has one helluva story of survival to tell.

Have you ever made a heartbreak shot on an animal and failed to recover it? Share your story in the comment section.


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Comments (9)

  1. Three late afternoons ago while archery hunting I very uncharacteristically rushed a shot and hit a huge 6 point low and too far back. He bound out of dense thickets and burst through two of my shooting lanes like lightning, pausing at the third and last for a short moment while I rapidly assessed his size, yardage and such. In a heartbeat he stretched low to scent check a scrape which I mistakenly perceived as his ready set go motion, and…. Upon examining the arrow, the short white hairs and odor confirmed the suspected paunch shot. Waited until the following morning to track. The blood trail varied from considerable to hard to find barely a drop, for over a half mile through leaf covered forest. I lost the trail when the terrain meshed into a muddy low grass patch with few leaves if any, of about 200′ by 200′. Multiple crossings of this opening and a good 100 yards beyond in every direction of the surrounding hardwood forest turned up nothing. After 5 hours I relented. Went home feeling about as bad as one can, while unable to stop visualizing the last two blood drops found sitting on a yellow elm leaf and wondering where that buck went from there. That buck deserved better. I hope every kill opportunity I’m presented with in the future will be preceded with a remembrance of this buck, so I never rush a shot again in my life.

  2. I shot a buck this evening with my black powder. 40yds broad side. He had that classic tail down, struggling to run look. All this went down in the pouring rain. I never found blood! Couldn’t hear a crash. Two of us scoured 200yrds to no avail. This hurts.

  3. Ace,

    I will probably only be echoing what others will say as about your broad head.
    I can tell you a story about a 10 day Elk hunt which ended in the exact same way your deer hunt ended. Same broad head, Same result. The blades where twisted around the feral. The bull was lost.

    Same on 4 Montana White tails.

    I had harvested well over 12-14 deer with Rag three blades. I would say 50% of my kills presented a single blade malfunction. Still having 2 other blades work properly kept me using them. Until I had to help a friend search for 2 days for a Bull elk in the Missouri Breaks and all we found was spotty blood and a twisted up Rage two blade broad head on the arrow shaft. We never found the bull. His shot was broadside at 18 yards right behind the shoulder.

    There are 5 of us who no longer shoot Rage.

    I am sorry to hear about your loss here but all I can do is nod my head when I see your picture of the Rage broad head. I would personally rack this up to yet another Rage failure my friend.

    As ethical hunters it’s out duty to the game we hunt and to ourselves to hunt with the best gear we can to provide an ethical kill. IMO Rage is not a tool for the job.

    Kind Regards,
    Montana Elk freak

  4. Vinny, I have heard from over a dozen people that have told me the same or similar, including one that cleaned a deer in Pike County, IL last year that had a completely encapsulated broadhead in the same area you describe. They initially thought it was a tumor, and only cut it open when they saw a piece of arrow.

    I know I made a good, ethical shot and that the broadhead going between two ribs instead of “squaring” one (I know by the shot placement that it didn’t hit shoulder on either side) would have enabled a different ending to this story.
    At the end of the day, we do the best we can. Sometimes it isn’t enough.
    My outfitter has kept his eyes open for any sign of a dead or wounded buck in that area, but has seen nothing.
    My hope is that means he made it.

  5. “A tad high” told me you were in trouble.
    I’ve had this happen more often than I wish to admit, and with good fixed blade broadheads. Between the spine, aorta, and the lungs is what I call the heartbreak shot. Deer survive and are seen again no worse for the experience when hit there. I figure if the deer is exhaled when the shot hits the heartbreak zone, no vital artery gets cut.
    I’ve watched deer stand for hours, then slowly walk off and resume grazing with this hit.
    The good news is that you may get another shot at a bigger and wiser buck next year!

  6. Same place man. I saw the deer fall and was already thinking man I have to drag this deer up this hill. Before I knew it I heard a crash and it had crashed into the fence while jumping it and the last I saw of the deer was going into a creek. 30-45 minutes later I found a spot of blood just the other side of the creek then the blood trail stopped. It’s a feeling of sickness that you will hate. I have shot many deer in my life and I have lost a few and you never get over that feeling of sickness when you know for a fact you have wounded an animal and it got away, if I was ever able to walk away from a wounded animal and not have that sick feeling I would probably stop hunting.

  7. I lost a monster buck about 8 years ago and it made me just sick….I looked for it for two days…it rained that night and washed away the blood trail….I swore that I was not going to hunt anymore but my wife told me that I need to get back out there and keep doing what I love to do.

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