When the trail went cold on four wounded whitetails in 2009, John Engelken and his tracking dogs went to work, tracking and recovering 670 inches worth of antler in a single 24-hour period. These guys are good -- really good.
Jesse, one of John Engelken's bloodhounds, goes to work.
Whitetail outfitters know that harvesting big bucks is a low percentage game. To increase the odds, many of them use blood tracking dogs to help hunters find their animal if it goes unrecovered. In Illinois, one of the most respected blood trackers is John Engelken.
Engelken is a caribou guide for Luco Caribou Adventures in Quebec in August and September. He spends the rest of the fall in Illinois with his bloodhounds working for outfitters. When a buck is shot and cannot be found, Engelken is called in to look for it.
Often the bucks he looks for are monsters -- bucks for which Illinois is famous.
The 2009 season was a productive one for Engelken and his dogs. He found dozens of bucks that likely wouldn't have been recovered otherwise. In one 24-hour period, he found four bucks that together had more than 670 inches of antler on their heads.
"Going on four tracking jobs in one day and finding four bucks is uncommon," Engelken noted. "Often when I track deer I don't find them because they aren't dead. As a rule of thumb, if a deer is dead, my bloodhounds typically find it, and that was the case this fall.
We found four great bucks in a single day because all were mortally wounded."
Engelken and Jesse pause for a minute to admire Chad Haucke's 182-inch buck.
Engelken uses bloodhounds because they have a great cold nose and their ability to trail wounded game is second to none. In Illinois, most property is owned or leased by outfitters. When a wounded animal leaves one tract of land and enters another, deer typically can't be recovered because the owner won't allow you on the property. Unlike many trackers, when a buck can't be found, Engelken leaves it alone for a while.
"My bloodhounds are trailing dogs, not tracking dogs," he explained. "They trail scent. It might be blood from the wounded animal, hormones given off by the wounded animal or a combination of the two that can't be seen by the naked eye, but the dog can smell it.
Often there is no visible blood. Their nose is so good that they can smell drifted scent some distance from where the deer traveled. They are tracking the scent that is given off by the deer as it travels through the area. Even when the odor from the deer is several hours or days old, the dog can often easily trail the animal. To avoid pushing a wounded animal off the property it was shot on, I usually wait in hopes that the buck will lie down and die instead of traveling a long distance onto someone else's property."
Giving the four big bucks time to bed down worked and Engelken had one of his best tracking days ever.
SETTING THE BAR
The first buck was a 130-class buck shot by Chris Oberry at Midwest Whitetail Adventures. The buck was shot on the edge of an open field. According to the hunter, he hit the buck a little far back. "The buck went all over the place," Engelken said. "At first, the dog had a hard time trailing the deer because it circled around and then crossed a creek. It ran through a thick CRP field, but eventually the dog locked onto the scent. I could tell by her body language that she was on the trail as we passed through the CRP.
Engelken used all three of his tracking dogs to find Chad Haucke's 182-inch buck, which was nearly submerged in a pond.
After crossing the CRP, she led us into another wood lot and up a steep hill where the buck laid halfway up the hill on a small plateau. The buck didn't bleed a lot, which made the search somewhat difficult. As we traveled through the CRP, I didn't see any blood or sign that the deer went the way it did. It's in situations like this that the dog's nose really shines."
Finding the deer would have been difficult -- if not impossible -- without the help of Engelken's bloodhound, Jesse.
The second buck was shot at Hadley Creek Outfitters by Chad Haucke and scored 182.
The tracking job started the day before but because he thought the buck might be alive based on the freshness of the sign, he decided to give the deer some time. "Initially we had some blood along a creek bottom," Engelken recalled. "The hunter and outfitter thought we would find the buck because (Haucke) took a decent quartering shot, but we never know what kind of shot was made until we find the deer. After going several hundred yards, we saw a bed where the buck had bedded down but it got up so we continued to track it. Suddenly, I could tell by the body language of my hound that the trail was much hotter than when we started. I had a feeling the buck was alive. We backed out and I came back the next day."
BACK ON TRACK
Engelken resumed tracking where they left off the night before. "I started trailing at a barb-wired fence that led into some thick and nasty cover," he said. "It was tough tracking. It was warm and breezy -- not ideal conditions for the dog. The trail was now a day older but as she started trailing along a creek bottom it became apparent that the dog was following drifted scent. There was no blood trail but I could tell there was enough scent in the area that she was sure she was going in the right direction. Eventually she started circling, trying to get the scent of the buck. She kept coming up empty-handed so I had her start over at the fence and do the entire trail again. Eventualy I decided that she was getting worn out so I took her to the truck and brought back my other two dogs: another Bloodhound and a German Shepherd that I use for tracking caribou in Quebec."
When Engelken brought his two fresh dogs back to the area, he began making big circles with them, hoping they would find the scent of the buck. "The hunter and outfitter were with me but decided to head back to the truck. I thought I would go back to water my dogs and then return to l
ook. However, there was a piece of ground that I hadn't yet covered so on my way out, I decided to check there. As I wandered through the woods, I saw a pond. On the far side of the pond, I saw antlers sticking out of the water. We found the buck!" Persistence from the dogs narrowed the search and Engelken's persistence resulted in finding the buck. "The hunters had given up and were headed back to the truck to take down treestands and head home because it was the last day of their hunt," he said. "We found the buck just in time."
Jesse tracked down Chris Oberry's 130-class whitetail through dense CRP cover and across a creek.
Engelken received a call from Joe Gizdik at Tall Tines Outfitters while taking pictures of the 182-inch buck. "(Gizdik) informed me that Eugene Burger had hit a monster buck and needed my help, so off I went on job number three," Engelken said. Initially Engelken didn't hold out much hope of retrieving the buck. The hunter indicated he hit the buck high in the shoulder and in front of where you want to hit a deer, but in the end, the hounds' nose completed the job. "The buck was shot in the evening so I waited until after dinner to give the deer some time," he said. "After dinner, Jesse and I went to where the buck was shot and immediately she was on the trail, even though there wasn't any blood. She trailed through a thick wood lot for a while. We reached a point where the deer bled really well and then the blood stopped."
It stopped so abruptly that Engelken believed his dog must have missed the deer or the direction it was headed but he followed her for a distance through some thick CRP and she led Engelken right to the buck. "It was tough at times because there wasn't any blood, but I have learned to trust her nose and it paid off," he said. "The buck green scored 204."
FOURTH AND FINAL
The fourth and final buck was found the next morning but still within 24 hours timeframe of receiving the call for the Oberry's buck. "The last buck was shot at Illinois Connection and the hunter was Darryl Edwards. They called me after tracking the buck the night before. They thought they bumped the buck from a bed," Engelken recalled.
Doug Benefield, owner of Illinois Connection, often relies on Engelken. "John has found bucks for me and many of my clients. I am confident that if a buck is dead, he will find it, which was the case on this particular buck," Benefield said.
Engelken started tracking the buck in a deep ravine where the hunter and outfitter left off the night before. "It took the dog about five minutes of circling before she determined which direction the deer went," Engelken said. They tracked the buck up the ravine and through a CRP. At this point, it was obvious the dog was following the deer. "She was moving along at a good speed through the CRP. All of a sudden, she took a sharp turn through a hedgerow and into another CRP field that was very thick. If the deer was a yard or two away, I wouldn't have been able to see it. We had gone several hundred yards.
Eventually, she started going in large circles to determine which way the buck went.
When a dog circles, it is usually reconnecting with the trail. Sometimes bucks backtrack or do something crazy and the dog has to figure out what they did."
"She circled several times but eventually she figured things out and found the buck," Engelken noted. The final buck was a 150-class buck, bringing the grand total of inches found in 24 hours to somewhere in the neighborhood of 670 inches.
When Engelken gets called in to find a buck, hunters are typically not very happy to see him. "When one of my outfitters calls me, it's because they are not confident about finding the buck, so the hunter is down in the dumps when I arrive," Engelken said.
When he finds a buck of a lifetime for the hunter, their tune changes. "I receive my fair share of man hugs. When I meet the hunters, they are at their lowest lows. If I find their buck, they are on cloud nine."
To learn more about John Engelken or to pre-order his book, "Tracking Monsters," visit www.bloodtrackingdogs.com.