Island Archers Follow Footsteps of the Past
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
Thousands of years ago a prehistoric hunter figured out that hurling a length of wood tipped with a sharp piece of stone at an animal that tasted good was a good way to put food on the fire pit.
At some point in man’s development of bigger and better weapons, an overachieving Cro-Magnon built a bow and arrow. Word got around even without instant messaging.
According to one report, examples of ancient bows and arrows have been discovered in every part of the world except Australia, probably because the boomerang is so cool.
Ancient bows were usually made of wood branches or saplings with strings made of animal hide and likely cost a few clamshells. The cost of a modern compound bow outfitted with a fiber-optic sight, custom bow string and carbon arrows tipped with razor sharp steel points easily approaches $1,000.
Still, despite advances in bow hunting weaponry the basic hunting skills experienced Island hunters rely on during the state’s six-week deer archery season that began Oct. 17 are not that much different from those Adam used after he told Eve he was not going to be a vegan.
Hitting a deer with an arrow requires proper shooting technique and concentration. That can only come with practice.
Tracking and finding an animal that has been shot requires skills that can only come from experience. Some hunters are better at it than others.
Last archery season, I was deep in a Chilmark swamp entangled in briars and thickets despairing of finding any sign of a large buck I had shot that morning. My cell phone rang in my pocket. It was Ned Casey.
“Where are you,” he said. “I found blood up by the stone wall.”
The sense of gloom that had settled over the excitement I had felt hours earlier began to lift. Needing help, I had called Ned and explained what had happened. He assured me we would find my deer, and he was right.
Ned, an experienced hunter, had found a small droplet of blood on a stone in a gap in a stonewall hundreds of yards from where I shot the deer. Small drops became larger trail markers that led us to the buck.
Put aside using a telephone call in the middle of a swamp and the scent-free Cabela’s clothing we wore, Ned and I were following in the footsteps of hunters throughout the ages. The quarry may have been deer instead of mastodon, but the object was the same — to find the small signs that indicate how badly an animal has been hurt and the direction it went.
Walter Ashley of Oak Bluffs, a state certified hunter safety instructor, has been bow hunting for more than 30 years. Lean and spare in his comments and look, Walter is an expert marksman and hunter.
During archery season Walter voluntarily checks in deer for the state, recording data and selling doe permits, at his small engine repair shop, C & W Power Equipment off Airport Road in Edgartown. The shop is a focal point of bow hunting activity and stories.
I spoke with Walter and Ned about some of the skills it takes to recover a deer. Both agreed that finding a deer begins with shot placement, a critical element when hunting with a bow.
The bow hunter must think in terms of the arrow’s angle of entry and exit in order to ensure the razor sharp broadhead hits a vital spot. That takes patience, concentration and a willingness to pass up a poor shot opportunity.
Once the arrow is released it is imperative that the hunter focus on the arrow’s flight. Seeing where a deer was struck can help a hunter determine how far the animal will go before lying down or expiring.
A good tracker reads his or her arrow. An arrow covered with blood and small bubbles indicates a lung hit and a mortally wounded deer. Dark blood indicates a liver shot. An arrow covered with food matter indicates the deer was likely hit behind the lungs in the intestinal area. Even the color of the hair on the arrow can be read for signs.
A well-struck deer sometimes falls dead within sight of an archer. But even a mortally wounded deer is capable of running out of sight.
Often a deer that has been shot will go a short distance and bed down in heavy cover. If it is well hit it will go no farther as long as it is not disturbed.
“Always wait,” said Walter. How long depends on the type of hit. At a minimum, a hunter should wait 30 minutes to avoid spooking a deer, he said.
“The problem with going after it when you shouldn’t is you take the chance of losing it,” said Walter, “because it is just going to get up and keep moving and moving.”
A poorly hit deer must often be left to rest overnight. But every situation is different. A forecast of rain or snow, which can destroy a trail, leaves the hunter with no option but to go after a deer.
Tracking a deer requires attention to detail. Broken twigs and branches provide direction; how high blood is found on a branch indicates where an animal was hit which may not always correspond to what a hunter thinks he saw.
“Slow and easy,” said Walter, is the best way to approach tracking an animal. “Take your time before you start, and then when you do start, go easy.”
What to do when the obvious signs run out? “Then you stop and you look,” said Walter. “ Any broken branches, any runs, any little holes in bull briar patches, again, slow and easy.”
Ned Casey grew up hunting birds, rabbit and deer in western Massachusetts with his father and brothers. His hunting education began when he shot his first deer, a big doe, with a Red Wing Hunter bow when he was 15 years old while hunting near his house by the Quabbin Reservoir.
He was alone but managed to clean the deer having watched what other people did. He dragged the deer out of the woods. His mother saw him out the window.
“I was covered with blood and she thought something had happened to me,” said Ned, “and she started to scream. I said no, no Ma, I got a deer.”
For Ned, the key to finding a deer is the discipline it takes to pick an aiming spot on the deer and watch where the arrow hits without pulling your head away, and then to mark the spot where the animal was standing when it was hit and where it goes by picking out recognizable landmarks.
“When you climb down from the tree it looks totally different from when you are up in a tree,” said Ned.
The blood or absence of it found on an arrow that has passed through an animal provides the first signs Ned looks for and helps him determine how look he will wait before following the trail.
“My rule of thumb is that if I know the shot was placed well, in the heart/lung area, which is where we all want to do it, I usually wait a half hour,” said Ned.
Ned looks for clear signs the deer has been hit well within 20 to 25 yards of the shot. If he does not find a clear blood trail he waits a little longer to allow the deer time to bed down.
Tracking a deer requires patience, said Ned, and a willingness to inspect the ground inch by inch. Often a speck of blood is all that a hunter will find to keep on the correct trail.
Ned said that tracking requires a willingness to go into tight places and the sorts of spots where deer seek refuge. It does happen, he said, that despite a hunter’s best efforts and many hours spent looking, there are no signs to follow and a deer cannot be located.
Ned said that while not recovering a deer is a part of hunting and something he and many other hunters have experienced, it is never easy to accept. It all begins with the basics, he said.
“You are going to be excited, but don’t be excited to the point where you are going to make a poor choice of a shot,” said Ned. “Because, then you do not have the satisfaction of knowing that you placed a good shot and the real work begins.”
Ned and Walter highlighted the obligation hunters have to make the best effort to recover an animal after it has been shot.
“A lot of guys just give up too soon,” said Ned. “We have a responsibility as hunters to follow through as much as we can.”
Walter said he once spent a day and a half looking for a deer, because he knew he had hit it and knew it was dead.
Asked why he spent so much time looking for that one deer, Walter said, “Because that is what you are supposed to do. You shot the animal, so you are responsible.”
(This column originally appeared in The Martha's Vineyard Times on November 10, 2005.. Walter Ashley died June 28, 2014.)