September 27, 2023
The greatest game dog I’ve known was Nimrod of the Limpopo. His exploits recovering game and fighting with leopards and baboons made him a legend in South Africa’s Limpopo province. I was fortunate to share the field with Nimrod on three safaris. He was a big dog, a crossbreed with some bulldog, some pointer and probably a little Rhodesian ridgeback mixed in. He was relentless on a blood trail and could bring down wounded game as large as wildebeest. Though I didn’t need his services, I never knew of him to fail when supporting other hunters. Nimrod was a one-in-a-million dog, and I doubt another like him will ever follow a trail.
Game dogs the likes of Nimrod are not used very often nowadays, especially here in the states. Even in Africa, where this type of dog originated and where the Rhodesian ridgeback breed was established, they’re falling out of favor to smaller, easier-to-handle blood-trailing dogs like Jack Russell terriers. Hennie Badenhorst, the professional hunter who trained Nimrod, is not a fan of the smaller dogs for game recovery. They’re great at finding dead critters, but if released on the trail of a wounded animal, they can push it beyond their ability to keep up with it. Badenhorst prefers larger, more aggressive dogs that can run with, hold and even take down large, wounded beasts. His current game dog is a Rhodesian ridgeback and German shorthair pointer mix named Steyr.
For the type of work Badenhorst likes a game dog to do, this is a perfect cross. The dog has the nose and game instincts of the German shorthair, as well as the aggressiveness and unmatched cat-like agility of the ridgeback. (It’s the ridgeback that makes the difference. My ridgeback is 8 years old and 20 pounds overweight, but if a rabbit comes in our yard, she eats it. It’s also not uncommon for her to bring me mice she’s killed in the house.) But here in the states, smaller blood-trailing dogs are more popular. Not only are they favored, but they’re also changing hunters’ lives and legislation.
The Deer Tracker
The dean of blood-trailing dogs in West Virginia, and maybe on the entire east coast, is Shon Butler with Longspur Tracking. He is the most active deer-recovery man in the state, and along with his dogs, he has been instrumental in changing state law. Butler primarily relies on jagdterriers and now raises his own line, which originated in Serbia and Croatia, where they’re used to hunt wild boar. He has a waiting list 10 deep for his pups, which sell for $1,200 each, and says without hesitation that their dam is worth “$25,000 plus.” Butler fielded 2,500 calls requesting recovery service last year, and he has 39 trackers working for him in nine states. He trained 36 tracking dogs last year. When it comes to the modern blood-trailing dog, Butler is the man.
Butler, who’s 51, has been hunting for more than 40 years. He grew up in West Virginia and established an early love for bird dogs during the heyday of grouse hunting in the state. That’s also when he discovered bird dogs can find dead or wounded deer, but he learned it was illegal. Butler helped get that law changed, and when he lost his employment during the COVID pandemic, he started Longspur Tracking. During his first year he received about 500 calls for recovery assistance. Last year he had five times that many, and this year he expects to receive more than 5,000. He’s also started the National Tracking and Shed Dog Registry that permits pedigree recognition.
In West Virginia and most other states, blood-trailing recovery dogs must remain on the leash. This means the handler and hunter work closely with the dog. If the deer is located and needs a finishing shot, the hunter is there to make that happen. (In West Virginia the dog handler cannot finish the deer.) Ironically, though, Butler notes that in all his tracking experiences, he’s never had a hunter who was capable of getting a shot at a located deer. He says they’re often not experienced enough or too excited. In some cases, they’re unable to keep up with him and his dog. He has also observed that most hunters—he says about 80 percent—have no clue where they hit a deer and a large percentage of them cannot even show him the spot where the deer was standing when it was hit.
Butler says his recovery rate is 49 percent. That might not sound all that great, but understand that a lot of the deer he has tracked were not lethally hit, even though the hunter swore the shot was perfect. Butler notes that when the recovery rate is adjusted for deer that were accounted for later, it goes up to 74 percent. By accounted for he means, for example, a buck wounded in bow season that shows up in a trail camera photo later that fall. Or a deer that survives a known arrow wound and is taken later in gun season. The reality is that with a lethal hit, the chance of Butler finding the deer is probably closer to 80 percent or 90 percent!
Advice for Hunters
Butler has some good advice for hunters when it comes to dealing with wounded deer. He suggests that they reach out to a local tracker before deer season begins. Hunters need to have a tracker’s contact information in their cell phones so that when they make bad shots, they can call immediately. And, since they’ve made prior contact, they’re not calling blind. In fact, it’s a great idea to talk to an experienced tracker before hunting because of the information the tracker can share about the recovery process.
When you shoot a deer, Butler says the first thing you should do is mark the spot where the deer was standing when it was hit. If you follow the trail, be sure to mark the last spot where you find blood. This is best done with survey ribbon, which is cheap and easy to carry in your pack. Butler advises against using toilet paper because rain and snow can make it useless.
If you think you’ve made a bad hit, take a moment, calm down, and call a tracker to discuss the hit and seek advice. Butler states that while he makes no money if he helps you find your deer over the phone, he’s still doing his job and he has created a relationship with a potential future customer.
This might be the best advice Butler offers. When hunters make a bad shot, they often call their hunting buddies to discuss the situation. But here’s the thing: Even those of us who hunt a lot will only track or blood trail, at most, a few deer each year. A guy like Butler will track hundreds. Failing to take advantage of that knowledge before you muck things up is not wise. Butler says he’s helped direct lots of hunters to a recovery and never even put a leash on a dog.
Butler encourages hunters to track their own deer. After all, recovery is a skill all hunters need to develop. He’s not worried about them screwing up the trail by walking on it, he says, because if a tracker has a good dog, it does not matter. But he also suggests that hunters be more patient; most of them do not wait long enough before they begin following up a wounded deer.
Butler also has some observations regarding fixed-blade verses mechanical broadheads. In his opinion, if a hunter makes a good shot, the style of broadhead does not matter. However, if heavy bone is hit, cut-on-contact, fixed-blade broadheads tend to penetrate about twice as deep and usually deep enough to penetrate one lung.
Many of Butler’s calls for tracking assistance are the result of crossbow shots, he reports. It’s not that the crossbow is less lethal, he notes, but instead because hunters tend to treat them like rifles. They take shots outside the limits of the equipment, including high shoulder shots. Since Butler does a lot of recovery work in Ohio where straight-wall cartridges are popular, he’s found that due to extensive bullet upset, few of those cartridges produce exit wounds. This means deer leave less of a blood trail and are harder to track. If you’re a hunter who uses a crossbow or a rifle chambered for a straight-wall cartridge, keep Butler’s observations in mind.
Worth the Money?
You might be wondering what it costs to enlist the services of an experienced tracker, with an experienced dog, to help you find a wounded deer. Well, it varies. In West Virginia Butler says the price runs about $200—with some adjustment for mileage—which gets most hunters about two hours of effort. But Longspur also has a cadre of good apprentice trackers that will work for gas money and tips. In Ohio it will cost a little bit more, but considering the cost of raising and training the dogs and the time involved, it’s still a very reasonable price. However, Butler says some trackers can charge as much as twice that, and he knows one that gets more than a grand to put a leash on his dog. This, of course, is even more reason to find your tracker before you need one.
There’s no doubt Butler helps hunters become better and more successful. If you’ve never tracked a wounded animal, there’s a wealth of information you can gain from one attempt, especially if it’s with a guy like Butler who knows what he’s doing. That information may very well help you down the road when you must do it on your own. And, of course, the elation associated with finding an animal you hit puts the exclamation mark on every hunt.
I grew up with hounds, and three game dogs currently live in my house. I’ve also experienced the services of the modern, American, blood-trailing dog. A wire-haired dachshund named Gilbert helped me, on a near mile-long recovery, collect a mule deer buck I wounded in West Texas. But my first exposure to a dog that tracked wounded game was in Africa. He was a might larger than American blood-trailing dogs like Butler’s and quite a bit more violent. But I’d pay well more than $200 if I could just once again see him in action. Nimrod of the Limpopo was the greatest game dog I’ve ever seen. His kind might be a dying breed, but today game-recovery dogs of a different ilk continue to save the hunt.