Only fools rush in to track a wounded deer.
It was in the waning minutes of daylight, and the dense softwood canopy hastened the dusk. From any other stand, I might already have started packing up my gear, but the one I was perched in had a history of last-minute activity, so I held out to the very end. The nearby snap of a branch seemed too loud to have been made by a deer, but I prepared for a shot anyway. A large gray body ghosted through the underbrush. Then I caught sight of a thick antler beam. No time to count points, but there was little doubt it was a shooter.
A low-hanging branch between me and the target forced me to crouch for the shot. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to throw off my shooting form. The only sound I heard was the dull thud of my arrow hitting the soft ground, followed by the buck’s hasty retreat. I knew I’d blown it and was devastated. Just the same, I sat tight for another 10 minutes.
By the time I got down, it was pitch black. It took several minutes to locate my arrow. The bad news got worse. Not only was the arrow not clean, it was covered with a malodorous brown ooze: paunch.
I knew from experience that I should leave as quickly and quietly as possible and not return until daylight. Even then, odds of recovery would not be in my favor unless I did everything by the book.
It’s inevitable that some deer shot by hunters will be lost. Many will recover from their wounds, but the hunter doesn’t know that. And some mortally wounded deer will never be found. Nothing goes to waste in the wild, but it’s a tragedy nonetheless. However, you can significantly increase the odds of recovering your deer if you take the right steps after the shot. What follows is some advice and guidelines directed primarily toward archers but applicable to gun hunters as well.
The process of recovery begins before you take the shot. You should be familiar and well practiced with your equipment. And you should know how to react if and when you get a shot. When I put a hunter up a tree, I want him to be able to answer several questions if he takes a shot:
1. Exactly where was the animal when you shot?
This is where you’ll start all blood trailing jobs. Unless you make a concerted effort to identify the location, it can be hard to find afterward and will only get more difficult.
As time passes, you lose focus. Things look radically different from the ground than from a stand. Pick out a landmark right away, like a particular tree, rock or whatever, and memorize it. This will also help you calm down and focus on the task ahead.
2. Where do you think you hit it?
You need to be honest with yourself as well as anyone else along to help. Sure, it’s embarrassing to admit you made a bad shot. But where you hit the deer can make a big difference in how and when you should begin tracking. Make the wrong call and you could lose your deer unnecessarily.
Try to replay the shot in your mind’s eye, concentrating on where/how the deer was hit. Was it forward or back? Which way was the deer facing, broadside, quartering-to or -away? Be aware that shallow angles can be misleading. Often a deer that looks broadside is actually quartering slightly, which can make a big difference in the wound path.
3. How did the animal react?
Observing how an animal reacts to a hit can be helpful and can reinforce or refute other evidence. A deer might bolt at the sound of a shot whether hit or missed but will generally react more quickly and violently to a hit. Any sort of erratic movement such as a stumble or leg kick might also indicate a hit.
Behavior also can hint at location of impact. Keep in mind these are generalities, but they hold true more often than not. A heart-shot deer will often buck, jumping straight up in the air or kick its hind legs up high before bolting. A paunch-hit deer will usually hunch up and walk or trot away in a humped-up posture. Lung-shot deer can react in a variety of ways, from bolting on impact to showing complete indifference. An ambiguous reaction is not necessarily a bad thing.
Sometimes the type of weapon makes a difference. With a bow, reactions vary widely from complete indifference to all-out panic. With a rifle or shotgun, the sound alone is usually enough to send a deer fleeing, whether hit or not. In my experience, deer often show little reaction to the sound of a muzzleloader, unless they’re hit. But there are exceptions.
While hunting with some folks from RutWear in Kansas last year, I shot at a buck with a .50-caliber T/C Triumph. When the smoke cleared, the deer was still standing in the same spot, looking more curious than perturbed about the boom and the cloud of sulfurous smoke that hung in the air. I quickly reloaded and sent another round on its way. The buck’s only reaction was to take two steps and look back over his shoulder. I thought I was shooting blanks until the deer suddenly toppled over. The shots formed a two-inch group in the vitals.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution. The eyes sometimes play tricks on the mind. Another time I shot at a deer and was certain I saw the arrow fly clean over his back. I searched and searched and finally came up with the arrow, covered in blood. I found the deer 75 yards away! Incidentally, marking the spot where the deer was standing when I shot ultimately made finding the arrow easier.
4. Which way did it go?
This one is pretty straightforward. If you know which way the deer went, that’s the direction you should start looking for it. In fact, unless you saw the deer fall over dead, you should always begin at the beginning. Don’t try to skip ahead. Start at first blood and follow it out. It often saves time and effort in the long run, especially if you end up on a difficult tracking job. Also bear in mind that deer don’t always move straight forward, which is the reason for the next question.
5. Where did you last see/hear it?
A wounded deer might run a straight line at first, but probably not for long. Often they’ll turn and run back in the direction they came from, or maybe circle downwind. However, they could go in almost any direction, especially if they’re not badly wounded or alarmed. This is especially true of arrow wounds. I’ve tracked mortally wounded deer that traveled some distance feeding and even rubbing trees before expiring.
If there’s no blood at the impact site, you have no choice; look where you last saw or heard the deer. Here, as with the impact site, identify a particular feature or landmark from your stand.
As you begin your tracking job, it’s time to become a forensic specialist. Look at the clues and let the evidence tell the story. In some ways, bowhunters have an advantage here.
The first thing you do upon leaving your stand is look for your arrow. The arrow tells all. Is it bloody? If so, what does the blood look like? Color and consistency can indicate wound area and severity.
Look for other clues as well, like scuff marks on the ground. If there’s no blood, they could be your starting point. Look for hair at the impact site. Hair color can sometimes be helpful in determining where you hit the deer. White hair indicates a low hit. Coarse, dark hair is likely brisket.
KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ‘EM
There are different schools of thought on how soon to proceed, and the best course of action can vary with circumstances. In most cases, patience is your ally. If the deer is dead, it’s not going anywhere. If it’s not, following too soon is far more likely to push it, causing you to lose it. There are very few circumstances, except perhaps a faint blood trail and torrential rains, that require quick action. Even impending darkness is no cause to rush. One other exception is public land. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to follow up a blood trail sooner than you should on public land for fear of losing the deer to another hunter.
The better the hit, the sooner you can begin tracking. The general rule of thumb for bowhunters is to wait at least 30 minutes. Gun hunters can follow up much sooner with a good hit. With anything behind the lungs, wait longer. For a liver shot, which is fatal, wait at least two to four hours.
No outfitter wants to hear “I hit a little back,” but it happens. And when it does, come clean. A stomach or paunch wound is fatal, but also probably accounts for the highest percentage of unrecovered deer. That’s because many hunters don’t wait long enough. Some folks say four hours is the minimum. Others say eight. Neither is enough. Whether hunting with a gun or bow, if you hit a deer in the paunch, you should wait at least 12 hours before following up.
That’s how long I waited before searching for the deer described in the opening paragraph. I found only one spot of blood, and then resorted to crawling along deer trails until I found him. The deer was still very much alive and bedded less than 100 yards from my stand. A second, better-placed arrow finished the job.
TOO MANY PEOPLE
Blood trailing is one place where too many cooks can most definitely spoil the soup. Two or three people is about right. Many more can actually be too many. Appoint one person as the tracker. His job is to follow the blood trail or other sign. He should take the lead, and noone else should ever get ahead of him. Moving ahead could inadvertently destroy important clues. This is especially true when sign gets thin.
Dry tracking — following a bloodless trail — is not as difficult as it sounds. Everything that passes through the woods leaves behind sign. And the sign of a wounded animal is different from that of a healthy one. Start with the scuff marks at the impact site and follow the deeper scuffs and freshly turned earth. Look for recently broken twigs and branches or kicked over moss or rocks.
Sometimes it’s helpful to get down on your hands and knees and put your fingers into the deer’s toe marks. At this level you can also get a deer’s-eye view. Look ahead for openings a deer would be more inclined to pass through. A lot of this is common sense. A deer will be more likely to follow the path of least resistance, like a deer trail. If they go crashing through the underbrush, it shouldn’t be hard to see where they did so.
Obviously, the job is much easier during daylight, so wait if you can. If not, bring along good lights — the brighter, the better — and extra batteries. Most any good light will work, but nothing beats a Coleman fuel lantern for nighttime tracking. Move along slowly and quietly and cast your lights ahead and off to the sides every so often to look for eye shine.
As you move along, mark your progress, even if there’s plenty of sign. You could run out of blood or decide to quit and return in the morning. With a well marked trail, you won’t have to go back to square one. A lot of people use orange surveyor’s tape. If you do, make sure you go back and remove every piece when you’re done. Toilet paper works well and is biodegradable.
When tracking in daylight, it’s helpful to have one person following sign and the other looking ahead (but not walking ahead) for the deer. Here, too, you should move slowly and quietly. If the deer is still alive, you might get a follow-up shot.
DON’T GIVE UP
If you run out of sign entirely, it’s time to start casting about. Mark the last sign and begin following trails, tracks or anything that represents a possible travel route. If that fails, recruit some help and begin a random search. You can do this by making ever widening circles around the point of last blood or sign, or do a grid search. Divide the search area into squares, then search each one before moving to the next. Ultimately you’ll end up searching the entire area; if there’s a dead deer in there, you’ll find him.
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
If all of the above fail, you still have a couple more options. Where legal, tracking dogs can be invaluable. You could save yourself a ton of time and aggravation simply by using one from the start. I’ve seen them work on numerous occasions, and they’re amazing. They’re not the only animals that can help you. If all else fails, return the next day and watch for crows, vultures and coyotes. All three have led me to deer that might otherwise have gone unrecovered.
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This article was published in the September 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.