Buckmasters Magazine

Needle in a Haystack

Needle in a Haystack

By Steve Bartylla

Sometimes finding a wounded buck can seem almost impossible.

In at instant, I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. I’d watched the huge 10-pointer for about 10 minutes while the doe he followed stood in my shooting lane. As the monster buck put on an impressive display of sapling trashing and dirt-clod kicking, I knew the odds were high that he’d give me a shot. His girlfriend wasn’t going to go to him; he’d eventually have to go to her.

Finally, the doe began to move again, drawing Mr. Big right past my stand. Selecting an opening, I went to full draw, focused on my spot and sent the arrow on its way, yanking my head to the side to watch at the same moment.

As anyone who has committed the sin of peeking would expect, that threw off the flight of the arrow and made watching it impossible. Having no clue if I’d hit or missed, I watched the buck trot 50 yards and stop.

Dumbfounded at my foolishness, I reached the conclusion that I’d missed. Then the buck’s tail began to twirl and he staggered sideways 5 yards.

With my hopes rising, Mr. Big regained his composure and took several steps. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the mystery of the hit was solved. Though out of sight, the crunching leaves betrayed the buck’s every labored step. I listened as the buck traveled no more than 100 yards; it was obvious I’d gut-shot him. Sneaking out, I was confident that he’d be waiting for me just up the valley when I returned the next morning.

I was wrong.

More than 350 yards and less than a half cup of blood later, the buck had entered a 60-acre, head-high CRP field. Two and a half days of performing a grid pattern on the field, I left knowing that my buck was dead somewhere — a somewhere completely unbeknownst to me.

As much as we hate to admit it, there are times when a shot doesn’t go as planned. It’s not nearly as often as anti-hunters would make it out to be, but it’s disappointing and downright depressing when it happens — and it should be! Frankly, we owe it to the animal to practice hard and take ethical shots. Practice and good shot selection keep bad shots to a minimum.

Along the same lines, some deer will go unrecovered. As with bad shots, the number of times that happens can be greatly reduced and almost eliminated.

If you follow the right steps, you can, indeed, find a needle in a haystack.

Critical First Seconds

The key to a successful retrieval lies in making a good shot. Next in importance are the first few moments after the shot. A successful retrieval hinges on how well you burn those moments into your brain.

Pulling the trigger isn’t the final act of a hunt; it’s the first step of the last stage. Whether shooting a bow or rifle, you must identify the point of impact and angle of penetration. From that, you can determine what, if any, vital organs were hit.

Immediately after the shot and without moving from your stand, watch and listen. Make a firm mental note of the spot the animal stood when the impact occurred. Then follow the path of the fleeing animal with your eyes, noting landmarks along the way. Doing so will show the direction the deer was headed. This can be helpful if you don’t find blood right away. More important, memorize the last place you saw the animal. At that point, switch to using your ears to further trace its path as far as possible, listening carefully for the death crash. Lastly, sit down, calm yourself and replay the entire event in your head until every detail is burnt into your mind.

Remain in the stand for at least 15 minutes; this gives both the hunter and the deer a chance to calm down. Usually, waiting 15 or more minutes allows the deer to either get far enough away or lie down. Most times, if it was a solid boiler-room shot, the deer is already dead.

After quietly getting out of your stand, proceed to where the shot occurred. Scan the area for blood, hair or your arrow, assuming it was an archery shot. Think about what you find. If the hair is white, it indicates a low hit, possibly a belly or leg shot.

The blood also provides clues. Frothy blood could be the result of hitting the windpipe or lungs. Watery blood indicates a gut shot; and deep-red, rich blood indicates a heart or muscle shot. An unmistakable rancid smell often follows a gut shot.

Needle in a HaystackFinally, the arrow can provide all of the above information and more. Typically, it will be covered with hair and blood that can be scrutinized. It’s also common to find a coating of fat when the arrow hits high in the back, or in a leg or the neck. Semi digested chunks of food (most often dark olive-green) indicate a gut shot.

Push On or Pull Out?

The next decision is difficult. If I’m hunting with a firearm in a high-pressure area, I always go after the deer right away. In that situation, chances are good that someone will bump the deer up anyway, and I’d rather not risk someone else slapping a tag on my buck. I also begin to track right away if the clues indicate a good hit. As you begin to track, walk slowly, scanning the woods ahead for a bedded deer. Be ready to make a follow-up shot.

Before proceeding, slowly and thoroughly scan the area for a bedded deer. Pay particular attention to fallen trees, under overhanging branches and in thickets. When you’re satisfied that the area is clear, quietly stalk to the next visible blood and repeat the process.

Even when everything feels right, if the trail exceeds 200 yards, back out and wait  a minimum of 4 hours. That is assuming the weatherman isn’t calling for rain or snow. If that’s the case, push on, even under discouraging circumstances.

The weather exception withstanding, if anything at the shot location indicates a bad hit, get out. Many factors will influence how long you should wait. In temperatures higher than 60 degrees, I stick to a 4-hour wait. In cooler weather following an afternoon hit, I wait until first light the next morning. While coyotes and predators are a risk, it’s better than bumping a deer from its bed and prolonging the track. Having hunted in settings all over the Midwest and Canada, only once have I completely lost a deer to canines.

Blood Shortage

I believe that urbanization is robbing many of us of our woodsmanship skills. As a result, too many hunters don’t know what to do when they lose blood. Although each situation is different, I follow some general guidelines when I run out of blood. If the deer is following a trail, continue along it and maintain the stalk/trail technique. Keep a close eye out for new blood or spots of blood off the trail.

If that track goes cold or if the deer wasn’t following a trail to begin with, think about where a wounded deer would go. Most often it will be water or thick, protective cover. If either lay in the path of travel, stalk/trail your way to that location.

Most of us have heard that a wounded deer won’t go uphill. Although I have found more than a few exceptions, I tend to agree. If there isn’t a strong reason for a buck to go uphill, check the lowland areas first.

Needle in a HaystackThe next rule of thumb is don’t be shy; help comes in very handy. Gather your group and return to the location of last blood to systematically canvass the area. Fan the party out in a line going away from last blood. Space your trackers no more than 50 yards apart; less if it’s thick, and don’t get farther apart than you can clearly see the person next to you. Using last blood as an anchor point, begin a concentric circle of the area.

When the circle has been completed, shift everyone out. Now, the one closest to the blood must remain in visual contact with the markings from the last circle. Continue this process until you run out of woods or find blood. If you find blood, go back to the stalk/trail method and follow the steps again.

Doing this alone takes more time, but it can be done. When tracking alone, mark each circle and shift out no more than 50 yards from last circle to start a new one.

Never Say Die

I like to say that the only deer that can’t be found is one that isn’t there. Deer recover remarkably from wounds, and a superficially hit animal won’t have any trouble going about its business. But don’t give up on a blood trail too easily. Trust the clues you gathered right after the shot; and stick with a trail, especially when you think you made a good hit. Persistence is a tracker’s best friend.

A buck that two of my guide friends tracked is a perfect example. The hunt started when Alberta’s Northern Wilderness Outfitters guide Shawn Rempel spotted a magnificent buck while driving. Shawn and outfitter Larry Jolliffe were determined to have one of their clients take that double-beamed, drop-tined monster.

About a month later, Tom Nitterour got an opportunity to fire an arrow at the buck. After watching it for what seemed to be a lifetime as it walked 300 yards toward his stand, Nitterour’s moment of truth arrived. As the buck got within shooting distance, it realized something wasn’t right. A tree blocked the deer’s vitals as it turned to leave. Then, at 40 yards, it presented a slight quartering-away opportunity. Tom let the arrow go.

“He tore off back toward the crop field,” Nitterour said. “The whole way, I was begging him to drop. Finally, he stopped at the other side. I thought I could see my arrow in him, so I figured he’d go lie down and die. I knew I hit him, and I kept telling myself that was all I could do. I played the waiting game.”

Later, Rempel and Nitterour began to look for blood. After unsuccessfully scouring the field, they decided to get help. Jollife was the one who finally found it, more than 800 yards away from where the buck had been hit! When their track eventually resulted in kicking up the buck, they decided to wait until the next morning.

Almost a full 24 hours after the initial shot, and having pulled out to regroup three times, Tom Nitterour finally stood over his buck of a lifetime. When everything else fails, having a never-say-die attitude can make all the difference in the world.


Nothing matches the effectiveness of a well-placed shot, but proper blood trailing techniques and a never-say-die attitude can make a big difference in the success of tracking a wounded deer. Just like hunting, the more you do it — and do it the right way — the better at it you get.

Ironically, as much as hunters practice shooting their weapons, few practice tracking. Take every opportunity that comes along. I even recommend that you practice by tracking deer your friends have already located. If they are willing to tell you where their stand was and the shot occurred, that’s all you need. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to find a needle in a haystack.

For a comprehensive guide to cutting edge stand hunting methods, check out Steve Bartylla’s book: “Advanced Stand Hunting Strategies.” A personally autographed copy can be yours for $22.50, tax and shipping included. Steve’s new book — “Bowhunting Tactics That Deliver Trophies” — serves as an excellent compliment. Autographed copies are $30 each or $50 when ordered together. Send a check or money order to:
Steve Bartylla
1406 St. Joseph Ave.
Marshfield, WI 54449-1341
Be sure to include your name and the shipping address.

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This article was published in the August 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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