Earlier this spring, I returned to a location that has become a favorite of mine. On the agenda was a week with friends, some old and some new, to share stories, a campfire or two and the pursuit of feral hogs.
This story really begins on the first day. A Sunday afternoon in March. My good friend Thom Jorgensen and I had arrived in camp about mid-day and headed deep into the swamps around 3 p.m. anxious to stretch our legs and hopefully our bow arms before the day was done. We scanned the swamps and Palmettos as we walked to our stands. After roughly a mile or so, we arrived at Thom’s chosen location a pop-up blind placed adjacent to a feeder and just off the main road. We briefly discussed our exit plan for the afternoon and I bid Thom farewell and continued on to my location roughly 200 yards away.
I settled in at about 4 p.m. and it wasn’t long before the woods came to life. Squirrels began playing nearby and I spotted the movement of a few deer slowly working their way towards me soon after. One came close enough for me to see it was a younger buck that had recently shed his antlers. They slowly milled through the area and continued on until out of sight. I did manage to capture some video footage of them, which is always an added bonus for me for any trip into the woods. I adjusted my seat a little and went back to watching and listening for hogs.
Sometime around 6:30 p.m., my ears caught the unmistakable sound of hogs coming my way. For anyone that has never heard it there is a combination of sounds rustling leaves, grunts, squeals and even growls all coming together and getting louder with each second. I quickly turned my video camera on and pressed record.
The first pigs to appear were the little ones. I guess there were at least a dozen of them and right behind the little football-sized pigs I saw three larger pigs following close behind. The leader of this group was the largest, so I zoned in on it. It let out a menacing growl when it arrived at the feeder and most of the smaller pigs rushed from its path. My bow came up instinctively and my fingers found the string. I began my draw and (at about 80%) the hog moved behind a steel leg of the feeder, forcing me to hold. A few seconds passed and the hog inched forward. I hit anchor, as my target began to raise its head. I released and the arrow was on its way. The shot looked good. The hog let out a squeal and took off for the cover of the palmettos. Soon, all was quiet, but I could see my arrow stuck in the ground where the hog had been. I listened to the hogs running away and I felt good about the shot despite not hearing anything that sounded like a hog going down.
I grabbed my camera and replayed the captured video. Even on the small screen, I felt the shot was a good one. It was still an hour before dark, so I settled back in thinking other hogs might still come in. It was cool and there was no reason to pursue the hog. I felt it better to just let it lie and hopefully make recover, in an hour or so.
The sky clouded up pretty quickly by 7:30. There was a chance for rain starting at midnight but, as soon as I felt a few sprinkles, decided it better to ease over and let Thom know I had shot a hog so we could pick up the trail and be sure to get it out before any rain set it. It was a weather report, after all, and I usually feel them to be more like hunches than science. I climbed down, eased over to Thom, and apologized for ending his hunt a few minutes early. After hearing my story, Thom agreed it best to collect the hog already shot than to worry about the 10 minutes lost and the minute chance that another one would be taken. We headed back to pick up the trail.
Almost immediately I started second guessing my shot and what I saw on video. The blood trail was not at all what I expected. The blood is bright red, not very heavy, and despite my expectations there is no sign of a lung hit. We followed the track for a couple hundred yards until it intersected the main road. At that point the sky looked less threatening and we felt we had a little time to back off, regroup at camp, and return with proper lighting and perhaps another set of eyes.
We returned an hour-and-a-half later and resumed the trail where we had left off. For another hundred yards or so, we had no issue following the trail and did so at a walking pace. Then things came to a grinding halt upon encountering a stand of river cane. One person would mark the last bit of blood, while the other two would search for the next. We continued on a short way with this method until all blood vanished. Try as we might, we could not find where the hog had gone. It was like it vanished into thin air. After approximately 45 minutes of searching, the rain that had been forecasted set in and all hopes of picking up the trail was washed away.
Back in camp, I retrieved the memory card from my camera and loaded it into my laptop for a better view. Even on the bigger screen, I thought the shot looked like a good one. Over the course of the next few days as many as seven other people watched the video played over-and-over again. All parties said the same thing: the hog should have been dead inside of 100 yards. Thom and I even went back the next morning and performed a three-hour search with the same result. The hog would not be recovered.
What I kept playing through my head was how good the shot looked. The video confirmed this. How many times had I heard similar from other hunters over the years? How many times had I thought silently that things just did not add up? Yet, here I was in the same position. I had lost animals before, but in most cases, knew why, even if I did not want to admit it to myself, or to others. Deep down, I always knew why. That was not the case here and it would haunt me the remainder of the week.
Once back at home, I really did not want to think any more about my failure. So, I stowed my gear away and resumed my normal daily life. It would be some time before I would have to go back to the video to try and figure out what had gone wrong. Once I did, things became clearer.
On one evening in particular, I dug out the video camera, loaded up the SD card, and imported the video clip into a video editor. As I played through the entire recording, I watched for the instance in which the shot was made. I then paused and backed it up a few seconds. I then proceeded to step through the shot frame-by-frame. At 30 frames per second, it took some time to click through each, but I found the answer I was looking for. As I watched the arrow impact the hog, it was clear to me the shot was further back than it had appeared to the naked eye. Things happened quickly, as they tend to do in hunting situations. In the very next frame, you can tell the hog is on the move. The arrow is in him, but also stuck in the ground on the other side. The arrow itself was bending with the him, as he moves forward and the fletching appeared to be right over the spot I thought the arrow had struck. It was all right there.
I stared at that image for the longest time. As I did, I began to think about every shot made over the course of nearly 35 years of bowhunting, in which an animal was not recovered. There were not many of them but each was etched into my memory. I began remembering the times others said to me “…the shot looked great, but I do not know what happened”. I thought about all the times I’d heard, “…if you can keep the arrows in a pie plate, that is hunting accurate”. How many people had I mis-judged? How many had actually experienced what I just had?
At that point, the realization set in. We are all pursuing a sport that comes down to a matter of inches. While the “kill zone” may be an 8” circle, it only takes an inch too far in one direction or another to be a miss. It is all inevitable. We are human. We will make mistakes. Things will happen that are out of our control. While none of us should shrug off the times when Murphy rears his ugly head, we must all come to terms with the fact that if you do this long enough, you are going to hit and not recover an animal.
You rarely read about occurrences such as this. I think most are too ashamed to admit they happen. Others are probably afraid they will be chastised or ridiculed. I think maybe some are just too vain to admit they made a mistake. I strongly believe that where bowhunters and wounded animals are concerned there are three types: those that have wounded an animal and admit it; those that have wounded an animal and have not admitted it; and those who have not shot many animals at all. For me, this situation opened my eyes, and I made myself a promise to never judge someone when they were unable to recover an animal. Instead, if possible, I will lend a hand to help with the search, or share my story and let them know that it happens to the best of us. In this sport, one inch or 1/30th of a second can make all the difference in the world.
This article was orginally published in the Summer edition of “A Walk in the Woods” the official quarterly publication of Compton Traditional Bowhunters