Whitetails make numerous reactions when a bullet or arrow impacts it that can provide useful information. One of the most interesting is the mule kick. If you haven’t seen a deer give a mule kick, it looks just like it sounds.
Another beautiful morning in the life of a hunter! I had arrived at my archery stand a bit late — a climber positioned on a flat narrow ridge with a cut-over behind me and beautiful mature hard- woods to the front. I set up everything quickly and it was good that I did, because I had barely settled in to my stand when a deer came in perfectly, right to left, and broadside at about 16 yards.
I thought it would be pretty easy to get my bow drawn, but she picked up the movement at the end of my draw and stared straight through me. It didn’t matter, this was an easy shot. A 5-inch thick sampling blocked the front of her shoulder, but I could easily shoot behind it and center her ribcage and take out both lungs. I took a breath, held it and steadied the pin right where I wanted it. I got a smooth release and good follow-through, and watched the arrow head right where I wanted it.
But the sound of the impact was all wrong. Instead of the sweet low thump of the arrow hitting her chest, I got an odd “thwack” that definitely didn’t sound reassuring. The deer, meanwhile, dipped her front shoulders down a bit and took off without giving any body reaction to my arrow.
It sure looked like a miss, but I had visually followed the arrow right into my target. It was impossible that I had missed, so I sat back quietly in the stand and hoped to hear my deer fall and thrash around a bit.
I waited a full hour; the morning was terrific, and I wanted to give my deer plenty of time to bleed out rather than rushing her in case the shot was marginal. Despite that funny sound, I was sure I had a solid broadside hit at that range. Of course, there was that odd coincidence of no reaction in the deer’s body.
Experienced hunters know how this is going to end. I went over, found my arrow and wondered, sincerely, how an arrow could pass through a deer’s body and NOT be covered in blood. I looked back toward my stand and then I saw it … a vine about three-quarters of an inch in diameter hung in a most unfortunate spot. I stepped over and saw that I had dead-centered the vine and one of my broadhead blades had cleanly cut the right half of it, deflecting the arrow. A clean miss. At least I now knew why I had missed.
THE ANATOMY OF A HIT
Killing a mature white-tailed deer can be easy on occasion, but most of the time it is far from that. A lot of things have to go right to connect on a whitetail. I once had a wise man tell me that anytime you successfully kill a deer with your bow, you have experienced the perfect day. A blessing is needed to experience one of these days, as well as lots of preparation. One of the things that must go well is placing an arrow or a bullet in one of the deer’s critical areas.
The choice of exactly which is the best target for bow or gun is a matter of circumstance and opinion. When most everything has gone well, you have a relaxed deer standing broadside at a range within your ability to accurately place a projectile. But experienced hunters will tell you that such perfect situations can be pretty rare.
Noting the deer’s reaction once the shot is made is very important. One cold, clear morning this past deer season, I was sitting in one of my favorite spots as the sun cleared the high ridge to the southeast. The spot was a shooting house on a powerline. A couple of years before, I had used my buddy’s laser rangefinder to check the distances to several prominent landmarks, and I had wisely inscribed the data near the two key shooting windows.
So when a trophy 8-pointer appeared on the west edge of the powerline, right at the boundary between the hardwoods and pines, I knew he was at 180 yards. I was carrying my trusty .270 Win., and had great confidence at that range with this rifle, especially with the solid rest on the shooting house window sill. There was just one problem, and it was a big one indeed.
The bright morning sun was shining directly through the southeast-facing window. The glare on the ocular lens of the scope made it impossible to see the big buck. I was thrilled at the prospect of taking that buck and, fortunately, when I twisted my ball cap bill 90 degrees to the right, it blocked the bright sun and the big deer was clearly visible.
The buck lurched at the impact of the 130-grain bullet. He made two bounds right toward me and I was thinking, Go down, go down! Then he collapsed. Don’t get up, don’t get up! And he didn’t.
All deer hunters need to study how deer react to shots by bows, muzzle- loaders, slug guns and high-velocity rifles. It can reveal a lot about where the deer was hit — and what you need to do next. Time of day, weather conditions and other factors are key, but so is the deer’s reaction.
My favorite reaction is to see the deer collapse, without a twitch, but this has happened to me only once. My next favorite reaction is when a deer immediately hits the ground and makes only a couple of kicks before expiring. My least favorite reaction is when the deer bounces away wagging his/her tail at me in contempt.
THE MULE KICK
There are numerous reactions a whitetail can make that can provide useful information. One of the most interesting is the mule kick. If you haven’t seen a deer give a mule kick, it looks just like it sounds. The deer rocks forward on stiff front legs elevates its haunches and kicks back hard.
Some hunters believe the mule kick is a response to a heart shot, but I have shot several deer through the heart with no such response. I am not totally sure what precipitates this reaction, but I suspect it has more to do with survival reflexes than where the deer was hit.
In the natural world, a deer’s most likely predators are coyotes, wolves, mountain lions and dogs. These North American predators, except for big cats, often hunt in packs and all of them tend to, at some point, jump onto the deer’s hindquarters to drag it down for the coup de grace. A terrific defense against this is for the deer to deliver a powerful, well-placed mule kick. So, in my view, the mule kick is not a response to an arrow or a bullet, but a reaction to a perceived attack — an automatic response they hope will fend off what they think might be a predator’s attack from behind.
In my thinking, the sound of the bow or the gun is a key trigger telling the deer to reflexively respond to a threat. Over the years, I have observed that deer respond differently to the same noises at different distances from them. We have all observed deer ignore distant gunshots.
I have seen deer appear totally disoriented by a gunshot very close by, say under 30 yards. In the case of the very close boom, I suspect the deer’s sensitive hearing is so overloaded that the location of the sound is indeterminate. The deer flees to maximize its safety, and sometimes part of that reaction is the mule kick. If the sudden noise were an attacking predator, attempting to sink claws and teeth into the deer’s hams, the mule kick would help the deer escape. The deer’s survival plan is mule kick, then run. Mule kick to separate from the predator, then run to complete the escape.
REFLEXES: HUMAN AND DEER
Reflexes are a wonderful thing that reduce injury and death. In humans, a good example is the pain reflex that causes us to quickly contract the muscles to pull our hand away when pricked by a thorn or when touching something hot, while also firing the postural muscles that causes us the move our entire body back as well. In whitetails, it is likely a reflex that enables the deer to “mule kick” or “jump the string.”
Reflexes are a wonderful thing because they allow us — and deer — to respond very rapidly by causing muscle action without involving the brain. In reflex responses, a sensory nerve detects a threat, the nerve signal goes to the spinal cord, and the appropriate motor nerves are activated to cause a coordinated muscle action to maximize the likelihood of escaping with minimal harm. The brain isn’t even involved, which saves time in dangerous situations. Both deer and humans are marvelous creations!
THE JOY OF DEER HUNTING
Am I right or wrong in my speculations? I do have evidence gathered from years of observing deer. But as a scientist I can assure you that even good data can lead to bad conclusions (consider the number of scientifically approved drugs that are recalled each year). So I encourage you to collect and assess your own data. Make notes of what you see, including shot location, distance, weapon, activity when shot, number of total deer present, escape route and other information you deem important. How did that deer respond when you shot? Where was it hit? How far did it go and how did the blood trail appear? What else did you see?
One of my greatest joys of hunting is learning a little bit during each outing. I just wish I had written down more over the years. To have the notes and not review them seems preferable to wishing I had a record of what happened, which precludes the option of reviewing them.
We go to much trouble during the pre-season, recording information from scouting cameras, — the time deer show up, number of bucks, size of racks, etc. We ought to keep records the day of the hunt and following the shot as much as we do when scout- ing and setting stands. Now go out there and learn something!
— University of Alabama professor Phillip Bishop is a former NASA scientist.