Sika Deer in the Swamps of Maryland by Dave Landis
Fall was just beginning to show it’s stuff…it was September, but still too warm to get too excited about archery season… Pennsylvania’s opener was a few weeks away
A friend called. He offered to take me to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for Sika deer if I wanted to invest in a Maryland NR license. I jumped at the chance.
We drove down the Baltimore Beltway in Friday evening traffic. It was a good 3+ hrs and more. We got a cheap hotel room and sacked out. Next morning, I let him drive the F150 out through the swamp roads to the hunt area before daylight. I’d never even seen a Sika deer. Just then there was this wee beastie standing along the road and he jacked the lights on high and said, “There’s one!” As we slowly motored past this tiny replica of a deer, I said aloud, “How the devil am I gonna hit that with a stick bow?” I swear it was about the size of friends small dog! It was called a “cow”, a typical 30# female. We saw a few more as we continued to drive and they were all diminutive females like the first.
He’d gotten permission to take me along to hunt his lease. We split up and he gave me instructions on where to place my hang-on stand. I found the spot, got set up, turned on the Thermacell to the hum of thousands of skeeters… and settled in.
About 8:30, something made me turn and look behind me, away from where I was told to expect sightings. Here comes a small critter just like we saw on the drive in. I swear it sniffed a 12” diameter log lying on the ground and then had to crouch to jump over it!! It was so darn cute, I wanted to get down and play with it! But this was a hunt so I tried to focus. The angle I’d hung the stand prevented a shot to my right, being I’m right handed. I had to wait until it came out of the woods onto the old logging trail in front of me. I’d read and heard that Sika were very wired and hinky deer—quick to bolt at the slightest hint of movement. I remained seated and finally drew at 18 yards quartering away, while it shuffled nervously back and forth on the road. Just as I released, this wiry little “perpetual motion” machine moved a tad. A “tad” is a lot on a 30# critter. My shot was well back of my “spot” on the shoulder. I swear the deer was only 24” front to rear! It whirled and I could see the arrow had exited in front of the rear offside ham. I was sick! The only good news was the deer was barely moving. The big sharp Simmons had done major damage. I got another arrow and as it’s nose came out from behind an pine, I let fly, brushing its face with white feathers. Fortunately, it took 2 more steps, lay down, bleated once, and died.
I was beating up on myself pretty badly for the poor shot, when Rod arrived being all congratulatory. He couldn’t believe my first time out I took a nice “cow.” He shared that he’d hunted them for years before bagging his first. After driving all over MD looking for an open check station, we got the little thing skinned and on ice. Multiple deer are legal so after lunch we crossed the road to the Blackwater Federal Refuge where we’d obtained mail-order permits for archery. It was a long walk in hip boots, slogging through swamp and stumbling over sunken logs … Blackwater indeed! I was already beat! I’d gone approximately a ½ mile and figured, “hey, I have one deer and that spot over there looks just fine, thanks!” Rod, my partner, kept going deeper into the swamp.
About 6 PM, I had a much larger, albeit, still small by whitetail standards, Sika spike come within 25 yards. After the poor placement in the morning, I elected to pass. Twenty-five yards is stretching my game shooting comfort range. As I sat and watched the swamp fill with evening light, I marveled at how different this hunting was compared to my woods/field hunting in PA, not that far north. It was beautiful in an eerie sort of way. After reflecting on how much fun I had stumbling through the water, tripping over drowned logs and such in daylight, I’d decided I’d just start out a bit early to avoid replaying that distinct pleasure in the dark! Little did I know!!! While surveying all that water all day in my stand, the good news was I’d not seen one snake. I just don’t like snakes! Look good on bows, but I try to avoid em when I can.
I got down toward last light and got my stand packed up and headed out. The radio crackled. It was Rod. “I just shot a monster!” he said breathlessly. I groaned. I knew it was going to be a long night. I asked, “Did he fall in sight?” Silly boy, but I had to ask… “No” was all I got back. I told him I was headed out to the truck, that I would shed some gear and grab the pack-able deer cart and head in to his location. I was told to wait at the truck, as he had to dump gear too.
Shortly after he got back, we set off armed with lights, the cart…and water. Rod left his bow behind, being it was a federal refuge and we weren’t sure on the rules of packing weapons after dark plus he felt sure it was a good shot. He had shot down at a steep angle, but found good blood on the arrow. We trudged what seemed like a long way in the dark till we hit some landmarks and found his flagging. The blood trail was decent to start, but the blood started to dwindle. We were down to finding tiny dots of blood on floating pine needles! Now this was “real blood trailing!” I could tell Rod was discouraged. The tall swamp grass was looming ahead. Rod shared that Sika deer’s special under fur absorbed blood like a sponge and the grass would wipe it off in short order, making trailing nearly impossible. We kept examining every watery route and would find a spec here or a stain there on a leaf or floating debris. I found where the deer had entered the tall dry grass. I was packing a bright Blood Hound light that runs on a propane/butane mix with a burning mantle. I told Rod to remain fast and I’d go in! I started in and all of a sudden I backed out quickly with wide eyes… Rod excitedly asked, “Did you spot him?” With a stupid look on my face I turned around and said, “No, but this lantern is setting that goofy grass on fire as I go! Give me your battery powered headlamp!” We laughed and the tension broke. Rod quipped he didn’t think he could outrun a swamp fire in hip boots… I counted I didn’t think I’d lie down in that black stinking swamp water even to avoid being burned to death!
I took his headlamp and went back in. Shortly, I came to a big tree and some dry ground and there was the buck. It was still alive, head up, but couldn’t rise. Those long dagger horns were just taunting me to ‘go ahead and reach through the swamp and try to grab that muscular neck and cut the throat…’ Of course, I couldn’t do that to what I knew would be a mounted cape. You just have to be respectful of a friend’s trophy, don’t you know? It had nothing to do with fear of getting my head torn off by this mini-tank of a buck (Stag), mind you! I pulled back and we made a decision to go back for the bow.
As we were leaving, we heard some commotion. I thought I heard a death groan, and Rod thought he heard water splashing like the deer was running off. I was sure, given it’s condition, it wasn’t going anywhere. We didn’t chance it. We went all the way back out for the bow and fresh batteries and came back to find the deer had made a last desperate lunge, which is what we probably heard, and had died right where he was. I didn’t mind. It was great fun to get another round trip in the dark in the swamp! Isn’t it sorta weird how we can do something for a friend, and get enjoyment from it and yet, to do that same thing for ourselves, we’d complain?
It was quite an evening. We’d nearly had a panic when we left the buck’s resting place and started back out for the bow, realizing that in our intensity, we’d not “flagged” our blood trail in, and we had to “blood trail” them wee dots and floating needles back to the main trail. We for sure flagged our way back out quite well! As Rod put it, “Well sure, we now have to come back to get my deer!”
It is an exquisite specimen of the species… a nice branch antlered “stag,” as males are called, and well deserved as Rod has pursued them diligently for many years. It was a single lung shot from above, but exited below. It went a ways, but the low exit allowed us to follow enough blood for a successful recovery. The deer weighed 90 pounds when we got him home and to the butcher shop the next day.
On the long drive home to PA, starting after midnight, we reflected on what fortune befell us. On my first Sika hunt ever, I tagged a nice tender “cow” and passed a longer shot on a spike in the afternoon. My friend shot the best stag of his lifetime hunting Sika. The best part for me was being there to help with Rod’s blood trail and recovery. To coin a phrase from an ad campaign some years back, “It don’t get no better than this..”
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