A crossbow hunter who nearly died in early January after getting gored by a wounded buck he was tracking has paid $343.50 in fines for illegally hunting over bait.
Richard C. Harris, 71, of Waunakee arrowed the 10-point buck between 4:15 and 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 5 while hunting a baited food plot on his 80-acre property northwest of Portage in Columbia County’s Lewiston township.
Harris’ arrow didn’t hit the buck well, however, and he called his wife soon after dark to say he’d be tracking it awhile. When he failed to call or return home during the next six hours, his wife drove out to the cabin. She couldn’t find him, and noticed the ATV was gone. She called the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department about 20 minutes after midnight.
Rescuers from the sheriff’s department and Portage Fire Department responded, located the ATV, followed Harris’ tracks in the snow, and found him about 1:15 a.m. Harris struggled to move, and was slipping in and out of consciousness, apparently from blood loss, frostbite and hypothermia.
Rescuers tried warming Harris while securing him in a rescue basket and loading him onto a UTV. They drove him to a nearby field and loaded him into a MedFlight helicopter, which flew him to the University of Wisconsin hospital in Madison. Doctors let Harris return home around midafternoon the next day, Jan. 7.
After investigating the incident, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources cited Harris on Feb. 1 for hunting wild animals with bait. Deer baiting has been illegal in Columbia County since 2003, when the DNR verified the county’s first case of chronic wasting disease. The county has since identified 305 positive CWD cases.
Harris pleaded no contest to the charge Feb. 16 and paid the fine. The maximum penalty for illegal baiting is $2,152.50.
Court records show the DNR previously cited Harris in November 2017 for improper transfer of a hunting permit after shooting a deer another person tagged. He paid $209, but had the charge amended to “resisting/obstructing” in May 2018. On Jan. 24 this year, 18 days after his near-death encounter, Harris asked a Columbia County judge to expunge the 2017 violation from his record. The court denied his request the next day.
Harris didn’t return telephone calls to discuss the incident, but his wife called back to say the event was traumatic and he wanted to put it behind him.
DNR conservation warden Peter McCormick began investigating the case about seven hours after Harris was rushed to the hospital. McCormick’s 9-page report said he found Harris’ pop-up ground blind bordering a food plot planted with turnips, radishes and brassicas. McCormick saw corn kernels inside the blind, but no cornstalks or evidence of recently grown corn nearby.
About 20 yards away, however, McCormick found shelled corn spread across an 8-by-30-foot area, and numerous tracks made by feeding deer. He estimated the shelled corn present would total three to five gallons. He found the start of the buck’s blood trail 60 yards away.
The report noted that Harris tracked the buck about 400 yards before stopping after dark. He left his crossbow, cocked and loaded with an arrow, leaning against a stump, and walked to his cabin to shed his heavier clothes. After calling home he drove his ATV back to the blood trail to resume tracking the buck.
Falling, blowing snow and sub-zero wind chills made tracking difficult. Harris judged from the buck’s tracks that his arrow’s expandable-blade broadhead had badly cut a foreleg but only one lung. He tracked the buck about 500 yards to the northwestern corner of his property. He left the ATV there, its engine still running, and entered the neighbor’s property on foot. He then tracked the buck through a ditch and thick woods over 250 yards.
Harris caught up to the buck around midnight after jumping it from five or six beds spaced increasingly shorter distances apart. He told McCormick the buck was sitting up but laboring to breathe when he found it. He assumed it was near death, and circled around it and approached head-on until they were 6 to 8 feet apart.
As the buck stared at him, Harris weighed his options. His phone’s battery had died by then, so he couldn’t call for help. He hadn’t brought a knife, and considered walking back to the cabin for his compound bow to finish it.
The buck, however, lunged ahead unexpectedly, driving an antler tine into Harris’ groin and knocking him over. The dying buck then walked away, bedded nearby along a clearing, and lowered its head.
McCormick found the buck dead there the next morning and confiscated it. He also retrieved the crossbow and arrows from where Harris left them the night before, and returned to his truck. He returned Harris’ equipment to him after resolving the case in mid-January.
McCormick doubts the buck intentionally attacked Harris. “The brush was thick, and Mr. Harris just happened to be standing between the buck and where it wanted to go,” he said.
Harris told McCormick he instantly knew he was in trouble because he felt blood rushing down his leg and into his socks when he stood back up. He tried walking but could only crawl. He hoped to reach his ATV, but only grew weaker. He recalled thinking he was going to die there, but was still trying to crawl when a sheriff’s deputy found him.
After interviewing Harris Jan. 15, McCormick told him he was being cited for the illegal bait. Therefore, McCormick could not “transfer the buck to him from the public trust.” Harris asked McCormick at least five times to give him the buck, and urged the warden to “find it in (his) heart to reconsider,” but McCormick said it wasn’t an option.
“Mr. Harris is very fortunate to be alive,” McCormick said. “It was a cold, windy night and he suffered a lot of pain, but the case is done.”