In the fading light of the fall afternoon, a nice buck appeared, well within bow range of the archer in his treestand at Willow Point, a part of Tara Wildlife near Vicksburg. The hunter drew his bow, released the arrow and hit the buck, but the buck vanished.

"When the guides arrived at the hunter's stand, he told us what had happened, and I examined the arrow," said Bobby Culbertson, head guide at Tara. "I could tell the buck had been gut-shot. We decided to leave the deer and not chase it overnight. The weather was cold, and we knew the meat wouldn't spoil."

Culbertson and the hunter returned to the lodge, ate dinner and planned to locate the buck the next morning. However, during the night, the hunter woke up to the sound that would mortify any bowhunter who'd ever have to leave his deer in the woods at night - pouring rain. The hunter feared that the rain would wash away any sign of blood and any sign that might aid the group in recovering his deer.

The next morning at breakfast, the hunter told Culbertson of his concern.

"Don't worry," Culbertson responded. "If you've made a good hit on the buck, our trailing dogs will find him."

The hunter was skeptical. Culbertson and the hunter both realized that no blood and likely little or no scent would be available for the dogs to follow to find the deer.

"When we reached the hunter's stand the next morning, he showed us the direction he thought the deer had run after the shot," Culbertson said. "We searched on our own for awhile, expecting to find the deer. However, when we brought a dog in, the dog ran in the opposite direction of where the hunter thought the deer had gone."

In a matter of minutes, Culbertson and the hunter heard the dog's bell stop sounding.

"He's found your deer. Let's go get him," Culbertson said.

After walking only 150 yards, the two men saw the dog and the deer.

"I could have sworn that deer went the other way," the hunter explained. "I never would have thought to look over here to find that deer, but that's definitely my deer. I just can't believe the dog picked up the trail after that huge rain we got last night and located my deer in a place I never would have looked."

Culbertson laughed.

"These dogs do it all day, every day," he said.

Trailing dogs

During archery season, the trailing dogs of Tara continuously pinpoint wounded or dead deer. Through the years, hunters would have lost many of these animals except for the keen noses, the years of experience and the dedication of these Labradors and their handlers.

After arrowing a buck that leaves a good blood trail you can follow across open terrain, you won't have much trouble recovering that deer. However, if the deer goes into dense cover, crosses water and leaves no blood trail, or if rain or snow washes away or covers the trail, you may find trailing the downed animal without a tracking dog almost impossible.

Because Labs want to please their owners so much, when the Tara dogs go on a blood trail, they go all-out, wide-open, running hard.

"We easily can wear a dog out, if we only have one dog," Culbertson said. "So we rotate our dogs into service. That way no dog gets so much work that he becomes too fatigued."

Since the dogs travel through such rough terrain, they'll encounter briars and get cuts, scratches and bruises. This rotation system allows them to recover.

"We depend so heavily on our dogs to make sure we don't lose any deer that we've got to have at least seven at all times," Culbertson said. "Because we don't ever want to be without a blood-trailing dog, we're constantly bringing on new pups."

The old dogs train the new dogs, and Culbertson believes a pup needs at least 4 or 5 years to move from a trainee to a finished dog.

Several properties make up Tara Wildlife, and you can only archery hunt at Willow Point. Deer hunting starts on Willow Point around the middle of October, and continues through the middle of January. Last season, bowhunters harvested 75 bucks off Tara Hunt and 57 bucks off Willow Point. Both of these properties use Labrador retrievers to follow up every shot an archer takes.

"We have a wide variety of archers who hunt our property; therefore, we must use people-friendly dogs that can get along with all our hunters," Culbertson says. "Our Labs will let anybody pet them. But once the time arrives to go to work, they become deer-finding machines."

To search for a deer, a guide will shake a bell and tell his dog, "Go get your bell." Then the Lab will go into the tack room, select his own bell and collar and take it to the guide who fastens it around the dog's neck.

"Currently, we have seven finished dogs and three puppies in the training process," Culbertson said.

"The hunters who come to Tara don't know the lay of the land, where the next hunter is, or where deer go when they're hit like the dogs and the guides do," Culbertson said. "Therefore, any time an arrow's released here, we take one of our tracking dogs to follow-up the shot."

From the time the arrow leaves the bow until it strikes the deer, several factors can affect the shot and cause it not to go where the hunter thought it would when he squeezed the mechanical release of his bow.

"We ask each of our hunters to flag the area where he's shot the deer, and then wait for the guides to come to the spot," Culbertson said. "When we reach the site, we assess the hit. We try to determine where the archer's arrow has hit the deer, and whether he's made a lung, a liver or a gut shot.

"If we can determine a hit has been made, we may immediately release the trailing dog, or we may wait an hour or two and release the dog to recover the deer so that the deer has a chance to lie down. Any time we find blood, we'll turn out one of our dogs. We explore all possibilities to determine if the hunter has made a clean miss, made a sure shot or hit the deer but, because of the arrow's placement, the dogs will need to find the deer."

If the arrow's not found after the shot, Culbertson considers two possibilities - either the deer has the arrow still in it, or something has deflected the arrow, and no one will find it. These situations allow the trailing dogs to pay for their room and board. In a very-short time, the dog can decide whether or not the hunter has hit the deer.

"An old dog like Bo will put its nose on the ground and identify the deer's scent," Culbertson said. "Many young dogs may run through the woods with their heads up, trying to wind the deer, but our older, more-experienced dogs know better. These dogs put their noses down and stay right on the trail.

"At times, the dog may overshoot the trail and lose the scent for awhile. When this happens, the dog will return, work a grid pattern until it picks up the wounded deer's scent again and then get right back on the deer's trail. I'm amazed that with no visible sign of the wounded deer on the ground, the dog still can identify and differentiate between an arrowed deer and other non-wounded deer that may have crossed the same trail."

When Culbertson and the guides at Tara go out to find wounded deer, they take only one dog with them and hope that dog will locate the dead deer.

However, if the deer jumps up and decides to run, Culbertson will turn out a second and sometimes even a third dog to act as catch dogs. Stockmen use a similar technique to catch and hold the animals they want to reach.

"I use one dog as a trailing and tracking dog, and the other as that dog's bodyguard," said Jeff Terry, a former Willow Point guide. "A wounded buck can hurt or kill one dog, but when you add the second dog to the equation, one dog can distract the deer while the second dog goes in and catches him. Or, if a deer decides to stand and fight, the two dogs will bay that deer up, and we can get to that deer."

"One of the most-difficult retrieves we've ever had happened last season," Culbertson said. "The Mississippi River had risen and had flooded some of our property. One of our dogs trailed a deer to the edge of the water. The deer swam out through the flooded timber and reached a cutover that wasn't flooded. We encouraged two of our dogs to cross the water and go look for the deer.

"After the dogs crossed the water and got into the cutover, the deer jumped up, ran to the Mississippi River, jumped in and swam down the river with the dogs right behind it. Finally the buck came out of the river, and the dogs bayed it. We got into our vehicles and, after 30 or 45 minutes, we reached the place where the dogs had the deer bayed-up."

The hunter had taken a lethal shot, but just as he released the arrow, the deer turned, and the arrow struck the buck in the chest. The arrow had passed through the deer and come out just in front of its genital area. The guides more than likely wouldn't have recovered this gut-shot deer if they hadn't used the dogs.

"A deer shot through the intestines will die," Culbertson said. "But often a gut-shot deer can go some distance before succumbing to the shot. Trying to recover these deer is very important. In this particular instance, our Labs made the difference in finding and retrieving the animal instead of losing him."

Because the weather's so hot in Mississippi in October and the grass so high, hunters and dogs will have a tough time physically when searching for a wounded deer in the early season.

"When the weather's hot and the grass is high, we always carry jugs of water for our dogs when we're out looking for a wounded deer," Culbertson says. "Last season a hunter shot a buck between its shoulder blades as it stood right under his treestand. The arrow didn't pass all the way through the animal. Since the shaft still was in the deer, the animal left no blood trail that we could see.

"After the shot, the deer ran out into a large, select cut with plenty of 4- to 5-foot-high briars, brambles, deep grass and fallen limbs. We worked the region for several hours trying to pinpoint the deer. We'd given our dogs water to drink, and we'd poured water on them to keep them cool. We were just about ready to give up and return to camp when we saw all the dogs in one spot, about 600 yards from where the bowhunter had hit the deer. Although we had to fight our way through the thick cover, when we reached the dogs, the buck was lying there on the ground."

Through the centuries, many hunters have found trailing dogs the quickest, easiest and most-efficient way to pinpoint a deer after it's been arrowed.

"Many European countries require hunting with a tracking dog," John Jeanneney, co-founder of Deer Search, Inc., says. "Tracking dogs have been used for years throughout Europe to find wounded game, but only 16 states in the U.S. currently allow the use of tracking dogs to recover deer and other big game."

Southern hunters traditionally have used dogs to jump deer out of the almost-impenetrable cover there, run them toward hunters waiting on stands with guns and to recover wounded deer. As southern deer drives have given way to treestand hunting in the past 25 years, the custom of dog hunting for deer has vanished in many southern states.

However, the time-honored practice of finding wounded deer with tracking dogs has grown steadily, because tracking dogs generally can tell if a deer's mortally wounded in a matter of minutes.