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Coping after losing an animal


Sunrise in the mountains
All photo credits unless otherwise noted: Dave Barnett

As hunters, the best way to hone our skills and knowledge of the field comes from learning experiences. Sometimes these experiences will be grand and memorable and other times they can be negative and ugly. Some of the most successful hunters I know are constantly yearning for this knowledge and never pass up an opportunity to learn—no matter how small or big the lesson may be. I’ve often found that, for myself, some of the most negative and just plain awful situations I’ve experienced have become some of the best lessons in life. These situations can arise in the form of a miss, blown stalk, or even just the difficulty in finding animals on a tough hunt. Yet, beyond those, losing an animal after a shot for any reason is absolutely at the top of my list when it comes to undesirable situations.

This is a situation that I feel often gets swept under the rug and pushed away into the dark recesses of our memories. Many hunters try to hide these situations, largely due to the embarrassment I suspect, but discussing these can illicit fresh thoughts on the situation and provide valuable lessons. I’m not saying that you should jump onto your favorite social media platform and proclaim your predicament to the world, but discussing it among friends or family can be healthy.

They say that if you hunt long enough you’ll eventually reach a point in your career where you’ll do everything right and still lose an animal. While this may not be an absolute truth, it does carry a heavy possibility. If and when this happens it’s going to destroy your confidence, make you question everything, and force you to take an honest and real evaluation of what you’re actually doing in the woods. This is one of those “lowest of the lows” events that will lead you into a hunter’s depression. However, it should be noted that there is a real opportunity here.

The first 24 hours

The first 24 hours following the end of the search are going to be agonizing; there’s nothing you can do about it. While I can’t speak for everyone reading this I can say that in my own personal experience you will become a social recluse. I shut out everyone around me and mostly become just miserable to even be around. You’re going to fall into an awful funk as you constantly replay the situation in your head, constantly asking yourself the question, “Why?” At this point, I’ll question my ability and skills in the woods and even contemplate selling everything and taking up a new sport. You’ll basically turn into a manic pubescent teen throwing a fit.

Instead of being totally shut out, I try to force myself to reevaluate the situation while the encounter is still fresh in my mind. I may write every detail down that I can remember, study anatomy charts, or talk through the situation with a friend or family member. During your initial search while in the field, you will likely become desperate with hopes of finding the animal and may overlook small details that could allude themselves to what actually went wrong. Talking through the event with a fresh mind can foster questions and evaluations that could shed some light on this unfortunate event.

The why?

When evaluating the encounter, hunters should be constantly asking themselves “Why?” rather than, “Why did this happen to me?” They should focus on questions like, “Why did I miss my mark?” or “Why did the animal react like that?” Many times, if a person looks at all of the facts and accepts everything with an open mind, a very probable explanation will become obvious. There can be a million and one reasons that cause a shot to go errant and sometimes these issues could have have been prevented; other times they may have been totally out of our hands.

Identifying the problem

Mule deer blood dropping on rock
Tracking mule deer blood after the shot. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Generally speaking, the primary culprit of not recovering an animal will fall in the initial shot placement. First, I like to identify why I missed my mark. Was it improper foot placement? A rushed shot? Did I hold at full draw on my bow too long? Or did I have an unsteady rest for my rifle? The possibilities of cause are endless, but identifying the primary issue can shed some light on what went wrong and what to work on for next time.

Beyond the shot, many hunters will also make the mistake of taking up the bloodtrail too early. Even with a lethal hit, some animals may require up to 12 hours to pass. Picking up their bloodtrail too soon can increase the risk of bumping the now wounded animal and could lead to a long and fruitless tracking effort. On mortally wounded animals, hit anywhere other than the heart or lungs, the animal will generally cover a short distance (50 to 300 yards) and bed down if undisturbed. At this point, the wound will clot up and the animal will only bleed internally. Bumping your quarry at this point means that you now have an adrenaline filled animal bailing off the side of a mountain all the while not leaving a single blood drop to track. The odds of not recovering that animal just got very high.

The bottom line here is that there are literally thousands of possibilities that could lead up to an animal not being recovered. Looking at the entire situation subjectively can help you identify what went wrong, whether it was your fault or not, and how to prevent this from ever happening again.

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Taking action

Not every missed opportunity on an animal will result in the hunter coming to some sort of moment of clarity where all that went wrong will become obvious. Sometimes, it's just a matter of fact that you’ll never know. That being said, there is always an opportunity to improve on something—whether it may lead to recovering an animal or not. The important factor here is to identify something, anything really, that you feel could have improved the outcome of this situation. Actively seeking solutions and acting on them can only help you in the future.

Personally speaking, this generally boils down to more time at the range and familiarity with my equipment. Just because your bow is still on at 50 yards or your rifle at 200 doesn't mean that your body remembers how to correctly execute a shot when your adrenaline is red lining. In my opinion, muscle memory is far more important than any piece of gear for improving accuracy and consistency. Along with familiarity with your gear I also believe that a strong mental game can go a long way when everything starts going sideways.

Physical practice

Going to the range should be at the top of the list for any hunter, but it is also important to realize that the ideal shooting conditions found here will not always be the case in the woods. Real world practice can directly relate to your success each fall and getting creative can be both insanely beneficial and enjoyable. Challenge yourself during the offseason with some scenarios you may find in the woods. Take a portable target to your favorite public land spot and practice shooting at odd angles, through obstacles, or at unknown distances. Enhance this experience by bringing a family member or friend and you will find that competition can push you out of your comfort zone and really test the limits of your abilities. The bottom line here is that we are trying to train our muscles to perform under pressure and adverse conditions when our minds may not be able to do the same.

Mental practice

Reliving past hunts with family

Reliving past hunts with family.

Along with physical practice, I also hold a lot of merit in mental preparation. This can have many meanings to everyone, but, for me, I strongly believe that if my body thinks it has been in a particular situation before, then my brain can process what needs to be done much faster and more efficiently. This can be as rudimentary as watching your favorite hunting shows and imagining how you would handle any given situation or simply daydreaming yourself into a scenario and executing a shot. This can be as simple or complex as you make it, but I’ve always been in a firm believer in the “your body cannot perform what your mind has not” train of thought.

Get back out there

Garmin GPS while hunting

At the end of the day, no amount of words that I can type or a friend can say will ever make this feeling go away—at least not immediately. Losing an animal sucks, plain and simple. This is a hard situation to get over and simply feeling the drive again can take weeks or even months. Like all things in life, a lesson can be learned here and it’s up to us as individuals to squeeze every ounce of knowledge out of it. I’ve always kept in mind that everything happens for a reason. Sure, you may have lost an animal this season, but the knowledge gained from that one experience can lead to many more recoveries in the future. Once you’re up to it simply lace your boots back up and hit the hills; sometimes some quiet time in the woods is all you need.

A great example of all of this heartbreak is what Brady Miller encountered on his 2015 high country Colorado archery mule deer hunt. You can check out the video below from his hunt.


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Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-13-2017 08:50:29 pm
Lolo, Montana

@Austin M. Thanks for the reply. Terribly sorry to hear of your misfortune as I have also been there. My first few seasons of archery definitely saw some major pitfalls. When you do get your first bull, and you will, you will appreciate it that much more! It's an interesting point you brought up on hunting within a given reciprocity of fences or private lands. In this day and age of pushing the limits to squeeze every ounce of "public" out of public lands I see a lot of hunters setting up in areas that could be ethically questionable. In the end we have to put ourselves in situations where we feel we have the best chance of killing AND recovering the animal, this can also be applied to hunting too far away from your truck. This is just a game of percentages. Good luck next fall, can't wait to see you behind a well earned bull!

Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-13-2017 08:44:33 pm
Lolo, Montana

@Bendrix B. Thanks for taking the time to respond! The animals we pursue are tough critters and it's amazing to see some of the injuries they can overcome. Just today a customer showed me a picture of a bull he had killed this fall that had an arrow embedded into the eye socket. The day he killed the elk the bull was chasing and rutting as if nothing was wrong! Incredible. I will look into the book you mentioned, Thanks!

Austin M. - posted 1 year ago on 11-13-2017 07:37:29 am

Thanks for writing this. Timely for me. I lost my first animal this year, a Bull Elk during archery season. It would've been the first elk I killed with my bow after 6 years of trying, so the gut punch was that much worse. I think you nailed all the emotions pretty well. What Bendrix B. said I think is true also. I believe my animal didn't actually die. I hit him high above the vitals, in what I now know some people refer to as 'The Void'. My feeling after two days of searching is he jumped onto the nearby private land. That in itself was a learning lesson for me with my bow. I think something can be too close to private land, even if it is on public land, if you don't drop it within 100 yards and then it's gone forever, dead or alive, if the landowner doesn't let you follow it (this one didn't). Even though I believe he lived, I decided to eat my tag. Just my opinion, and not judging others who feel differently, especially if it's an expensive out-of-state tag, but if I release an arrow or pull the trigger and hit an animal, the hunt is over. The tag is spoken for. I made a commitment to that animal at that point. It's too easy to give up looking or to make a marginal shot if you are telling yourself in the back of your mind that you'll just go find another one if this animal is lost. This experience has made me even more committed to taking only the best shot, and not the available shot. My bull was broadside wide-open, I just hit high unfortunately.

Bendrix B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-13-2017 06:57:52 am
Rochester, MA

It was not mentioned in your essay, but often, the animal survives. Especially with arrows, a shot not in the abdomen is rarely lethal. If you've not harvested an animal with other hunter's hardware in him, or old scars, then you probably will someday. I've personally harvested animals with broadheads fully encased in protective scar tissue, missing muscles where a rifle shot tore off flesh and scars obviously made by hunting weapons.

I've done a ton of tracking for people who were convinced they killed an animal and wanted help recovering it and I've come to know the signs of animals that were simply wounded, but not fatally. These animals go on to live and breed and die another day.

When you think you've lost an animal you killed, mostly, you should not sweat it because you missed the vitals.

So, how did you miss? Besides the vagaries of shooting under pressure, animals move. The longer the range you shoot the more time they have to move. I won't shoot an arrow more than 20 yards because I've seen my own shots "miss" when the animal moved, and seen slomo video of how quickly and how far they can move. Years ago I shot at a deer across an opening at 35 yards. He heard the bow release and by the time that arrow got to him he had completely turned around to head back where he came from. I got him, double lung, but that was just luck. He could easily have departed unscathed.

The lesson there is, if you "miss" at range, the animal probably moved and there is no way to anticipate that. The only thing you can do if the risk of an unrecovered or wounded animal will spoil hunting for you is to limit your yardage to 20yds or less (archers of course).

If you do make a not instantly lethal shot on a deer, don't believe the conventional wisdom to wait before following up. I'll not describe what has been very well covered in Dead On, by John Jeanneney (google him and find the book). If you want some very valuable information about how to respond when an animal does not go down in 100 yards, and you have to search, this is the book. Some of the information in it will surprise you. And again, I've personally used this information to track and push animals to the point where they could be finished off and recovered.

So yeah, this is a great essay. It touches on a subject EVERY hunter will deal with one day, or has. But my advice is, you are a hunter. Wounding loss is part of the deal. Its not always something you had a part in, other than taking the shot. Don't get all caught up in the false morality of blaming yourself and wringing your hands over every instance of unrecovered game. You know when you were stupid, and if you weren't, then OK. It happens.

Sometimes the animal causes the non-lethality and gets away! Good for them. Sometimes they die hidden in some blowdown... Good for the scavengers. Nothing goes to waste.

Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-09-2017 08:19:37 am
Lolo, Montana

@Alexandre V. Thanks for taking the time to read the article! Losing an animal is never a fun experience and the mental anguish is a sign of humility in my eyes. It happens to the best of us, good luck to you!

Dave B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-09-2017 08:17:10 am
Lolo, Montana

@Dennis B. Thanks for the great feedback! Very much appreciated. best of luck to you!

Alexandre V. - posted 1 year ago on 11-09-2017 07:50:46 am
Salt Lake City, UT

Thank you so much for putting out this article. I lost an elk this year on Sept 1st that I shot at 5 yards and it was actually tormenting me this morning months after. I've taken away three major changes out of that experience... thanks again for writing this, it helps bring a bit of comfort to the situation.

Dennis B. - posted 1 year ago on 11-08-2017 09:27:54 pm

Dave B......thanks for your well written and very well thought out article about this most sensitive of topics.
At first I simply "scanned it". Then I read it. And now I'm gonna go back and digest it again.