Robbie Nickels and his daughter, Kristen Nickels pose with the deer that Robbie shot on Lasell Island on Nov. 15. The deer plunged off a cliff into Penobscot Bay and Robbie swam out to retrieve the deer. Credit: Courtesy of Robbie Nickels

For the past several years, Robbie Nickels of Searsmont has been playing a game of cat-and-mouse with a rather large deer while hunting on an island 5 miles off the Maine coast.

Nickels, 51, serves as the caretaker on Lasell Island, which is due east of Camden. And during frequent deer hunting adventures, he has been constantly outwitted by the eight-point buck.

Not any more. Kind of.

On Nov. 15, Nickels was hunting on the privately owned island, as was his adult daughter, Kristen.

Not long before sunset, while hunkered down near a stone wall, Nickels watched as his old nemesis came walking across a field, directly toward him.

“That specific deer has given me the slip for the last four years. He’s really smart. But he happened to make a mistake that day,” Nickels said.

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The deer approached him head-on, and when it got within 15 yards the buck turned its head away from Nickels, allowing him to raise his bow.

“He didn’t smell me, and I let [an arrow] go,” Nickels said. “And then the race was on.”

And it turned out to be quite a race.

Hard tracking

Lasell Island is a small island, measuring just 148 acres, but it has plenty of forest for its sizeable deer herd. Nickels and his daughter spent the better part of four hours tracking the wounded deer, one tiny drop of blood at a time.

“We kept losing the trail and had to keep picking it back up. And of course, this was in the dark,” Nickels said.

Eventually, he and Kristen split up, conducting their own searches for just one more pinprick of blood.

Kristen found it and called out to her dad. He wasn’t particularly pleased to hear her voice coming from the west side of the island, where the terrain is rugged and cliffs and ledges fall away steeply into Penobscot Bay.

“I knew from her voice which direction she was, and I was like, ‘That ain’t good,’” Nickels said.

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Then he walked to where Kristen was standing and learned how bad it actually was. There was, indeed, a small drop of blood. Four feet away, there was a cliff that dropped about 30 feet. Beyond that, the bay. And Nickels knew where the buck had gone.

Credit: Courtesy of Kristen Nickels

“I thought we’d lost him,” Nickels said. “He hit the water and he swam and died in the water.”

Determined to follow through on their tracking effort, the duo found the safest way down the ledge that they could and decided to rest and re-evaluate the situation.

“We took a break, sat down, and I smoked a sweat-stained cigarette. [Kristen] took the spotlight and was looking out into the water, and there he was, about 30 yards out,” Nickels said. “It kind of looked like he was hung up on an outcropping of ledge, seaweed all around him, in the water.”

Nickels’ next reaction may seem surprising. Many hunters will recognize the sentiment, however.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to swim for him. I’ve got to go get him,’” Nickels said. “I don’t enjoy killing the animal. I have a lot of love for nature. It was honestly gut-wrenching to me to think that I wounded a deer and lost him after having had encounters with him for the last few years. It made me sick.”

According to one game warden who did not want to be identified, it’s not uncommon for wounded deer to run to water, nor for hunters to take extraordinary means — including swimming — to retrieve their game.

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According to the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems buoy in Penobscot Bay, the water temperature was barely 48 degrees that night. And after considering other alternatives, he plunged into the bay and swam out to the deer. He gathered himself, prepared to tow the deer back to shore, and ended up with a big surprise.

The deer was still alive.

“I muckled right onto his hind leg to pull him behind me and he just thrusted out of the water. He was alive,” Nickels said. “His eyes opened up and he just thrusted out of the water … like a scallop trawler in a nor’easter. He just plowed through the waves, and away he went. Heading for deeper water, Penobscot Bay. Away he went. I was just speechless.”

Back in the drink

After that disastrous outcome, all he and Kristen could do was sit and lament their misfortune, again.

“Both of us thought that couldn’t have happened,” he said. “And both of us thought it was over.”

They trained the spotlight on the retreating deer until it was nearly out of sight, and Robbie Nickels turned to start climbing back up to the top of the cliff.

Kristen, however, took a final look out into the bay, and couldn’t believe what she saw.

“She looks back again and said, ‘Dad, he turned around!’”

Sure enough, the buck began swimming back toward Lasell Island. The duo scrambled up the ledges and began tracking the swimming deer, which had taken a turn toward the south. Eventually, blowdowns and obstacles forced them to head inland, and when they returned to the bay after a cross-country traverse, the buck had succumbed to its injuries.

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“He was belly-up, floating in the water,” Nickels said.

The deer floated in the current until it became fetched up on another bunch of rocks. At that point, Nickels realized his night of swimming wasn’t quite over.

“It was obvious I was going to go back into the water, so we went back to camp and warmed up,” he said. “This time, I got a wetsuit on. Partially. It wasn’t my wetsuit. It was a girl’s wetsuit and way too small, and I couldn’t get it up over my ass. It was kinda partially on.”

Which made him kinda partially warmer than he had been. Which was good.

Credit: Courtesy of Kristen Nickels

Nickels eventually waded out, water up to his waist, and hooked a rope around the buck. Then he and Kristen were able to haul it into a cliffside cave until Nickels could bring an excavator close enough to the edge to hoist it to dry land.

By the time that extrication effort was over, it was nearly midnight. Nickels said he never weighs the deer he shoots, but estimated the buck weighed 185 pounds. Soaking wet.

“She was excited. I was excited. We kept saying, ‘I can’t believe that just happened.’ And ‘I can’t believe we got the deer,’” Nickels said.

All of which led to a story that even Kristen Nickels recognizes sounds far-fetched.

“[She said], ‘You always have a lot of stories. If I hadn’t been here with you to witness it, I probably’d never believe it,’” Nickels said.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...