I had a similar experience this fall. I shot an elk at sunset and it bailed off into the coulee from hell. My brother shot an elk only 50 yards from mine at the same time. He began field dressing his while I looked for mine. I quit looking at dark and we finished dressing his elk and retrieved the pick-up truck. With the aid of artificial light we looked for my elk until 10:00PM. No luck.
I returned the following morning with a good friend of mine who is also an experienced hunter and guide. Also along for the ride was his father in-law, and his two sons. We had a total of five people looking. The terrain was open Wyoming sage mixed with rocks and sparse Juniper. We found only one drop of blood and we could see where the herd had entered the draw. Even though we could not find a blood trail, we knew we were close unless the animal was very poorly hit. We looked until 11:00AM then gave up in disgust. I was walking up a steep hillside near my truck when I found the dead elk. The critter had expired on a small game trail between several clumps of chest high sagebrush and an 8 foot tall juniper tree. The animal was only 75 yards from where I shot it. The elk was all but invisible unless you were within 10 feet of it. I hit it high in the lung cavity with my 30-338 with 180 grain Nosler bullet. The animal bled out internally accounting for the absence of a blood trail.
Now what? The elk was shot at 5:00 PM the day before and it is already 60 degrees at noon the next day. Well, we gutted the stiff old critter and hauled butt to the nearest wild game processing plant two hours away. The jury is still out on whether or not the meat will be palatable…but I gave it my best effort.
I called our local game warden to advise him of the situation since disposing of the animal would constitute “wanton waste” and is punishable by loss of hunting privileges and a pretty hefty fine. If the meat is spoiled, I will be in a bit of a pickle, but nothing that can’t be worked out. Our game and fish people work with, not against, the ethical hunter and I am sure the situation will be resolved without any hard feelings either way.
Very few people would have even bothered to return the following day to look for your deer. Even fewer would tag it and attempt to salvage the meat. You have nothing to be ashamed of and I commend you. It does my heart good to know there are people like you in the field. You are a refreshing break from the stories I hear about poachers, party hunters, and slobs. Next year I hope you stick a Pope and Young buck, you have paid your dues.