By: Nick Johnson
It was late October, three years ago. I received a phone call from my good friend Josh Sievers and his voice sounded like someone had just let the air out of his sails; not typical for Josh. “I need your help walking a blood trail with me tomorrow morning if you are free”, Josh says. “How big is he”, I ask. “He’s in the 160’s, good mass and real tall”. Josh had apparently arrowed the bruiser a little low, gave him plenty of time and then proceeded to blood track. After about 400 yards the blood trail faded and that’s when he backed out and called me.
The next morning I met with Josh and our other friend JD Vandenburg and we struck out on the trail. Josh led the way and JD and I followed along looking for any undiscovered clues. The blood, although dry, appeared fairly red; not pink bubbly lung blood or dark liver blood. Our hopes began to run thin. We found where the blood ran out and I stayed put while Josh and JD made wide circles, scouring the leaf litter for the tiniest droplets or hoof sign.
After the better part of the day picking apart the timber draws and creeks bottoms we made the call to give up on the track. Morally drained, Josh felt absolutely terrible. We all felt terrible. Not because this was a trophy buck but because as hunters we are responsible for making the best effort possible in tracking and recovering a wounded animal. Josh even had history with this buck on trailcam and had observed him while hunting and scouting numerous times so the mental pain cut even deeper.
I must finish this story though, with a bit of info to conclude. While scouting for late muzzle loader season, Josh and JD saw the very same buck Josh wounded out in a field feeding with a group of does and bucks. He looked no worse for wear and even chased some of the smaller bucks off “his” food. They nicknamed the buck “Invincible” and to this day he has never presented another shot opportunity.
Those who hunt deer long enough whether with a gun or a bow will undoubtedly have to track an animal after a shot. Deer are extremely tough and this just goes without saying. It is our duty as hunters to respect the game by giving them plenty of time to expire in peace and put forth the maximum effort to find the downed animal.
I have come up with some key points that I feel are an absolute necessity to consider even before climbing the stand this fall as some of you reading this will end up tracking a whitetail. Even for those that watch their animal expire within view this season, these points are still good to log in the back of your mind. You may even be the person that receives a phone call from another seeking help in tracking their animal.
Be Patient and Watch
When an arrow or bullet is sent flying, that is the time when you need to be most aware of the situation. We all get excited and it is quite easy to be overcome with adrenaline but keeping a cool head and staying observant until the animal goes down within sight or flees from view is paramount. Make note of the exact point where the shot was taken and also use the landscape to make a mental note of where the animal was last seen such as a bent tree or clump of bushes etc…
Did the deer buck like a horse when it got hit? This generally denotes a heart or deep lung shot. Did the deer hump up and jump when hit? A lot of times this happens when a lung shot or gut shot is made. Did the deer immediately start sprinting away seemingly unscathed? This often means a miss but can also be a fatal lung shot or liver shot, even a heart shot. Does the deer run like it has a stomach cramp? Usually this signifies a gut shot. Did the deer pick up a leg or run with an obvious mobility problem? This can happen when the animal is hit in the shoulder, leg or pelvic region and can end with an animal that either gets away or needs a second shot.
If the deer runs with its tail up, there is often a good chance it hasn’t been hit fatally. If the deer runs with its tail down or tucked then this usually means the shot was fatal or the animal is badly wounded.
After all of this observation has happened you can let the adrenaline take hold but still remain in the stand, blind or wherever you were hunting from. Focus on the landmarks, let the nerves cool down and give the animal time to expire.
What an Arrow and the Point of Shot Can Tell You
For archers that find their arrow after a shot, this arrow can sometimes tell a lot about the kind of shot that was made. If there is a lot of fat or white hair on the arrow then the shot was likely low, below the vitals or in the brisket. This often winds up as a less than lethal impact but sometimes when shooting down at enough of an angle a lung may have been clipped so it is still important to track.
An arrow with light red or pink frothy blood is what all archers want to see. This signifies a lung hit and the deer is usually not far away. If the arrow has deep red, almost burgundy or purple blood this usually means the deer was hit in the liver. This is almost always a fatal shot but the animal often takes a few hours to expire. If the arrow contains bits of greenish-brown partially digested food, or the arrow has a very unpleasant fermenting aroma then the shot was in the gut area. This is most often a fatal shot but again it may take the animal a few hours to expire.
The ground near where you shot the deer can also reveal some clues to the careful observer. Deer have a few different colors of hair on their body, each stemming from a different location. Smooth, brownish hairs will naturally be from the deer’s midsection. White course hairs come from the stomach and brisket and dark course hairs can either come from the edges of the legs or the front of the brisket. Course brown hairs with dark tips are common on the back of the deer. Locating hairs on the ground will often reveal where the arrow or bullet may have penetrated, exited or grazed.
White hair can often just be where the arrow had exited the animal, especially if the shot was angled strongly down through the deer. If there appears to be a lot of white hair or a clump of white hair then this often concludes the shot was low on the animal.
How Long To Wait?
As I mentioned earlier, it is respectful to the animal to give it adequate time to expire without forcing it to move while wounded. This also makes the track job a lot shorter if the animal beds down and expires there instead of bumping it and making it run. In addition to this, your nerves are often a lot calmer and you can focus more intently on the track and stay patient.
For heart and lung shots, the general time to wait is usually 30-45 minutes. If you feel the shot was in the liver or gut then the animal should be given at least 3-4 hours. If the shot is unknown and the animal was running hard then an hour or two may be sufficient. Use your best judgment and do not rush.
Watch The Weather
While waiting for the animal to expire, it is always wise to check your phone or call someone and get an update on the hourly forecast. Impending rain or snow will change your tracking time. If it is raining or there is forecasted precipitation, you will want to begin tracking immediately, throwing the chances of bumping the deer against loosing the blood. Be sure to have your weapon on you in the event the animal gets up and presents another shot.
Now that you have assessed the shot, landmarks, point of impact, the reaction of the animal and have given the proper waiting time it is now time to find that animal. You may not find blood right away which is why you should know exactly where the last point you saw the animal was. Begin at the point of impact and tag the location with a strip of trail tape or toilet paper. Move along slowly towards the landmark where the animal was last seen and tag the foliage as you go, carefully looking for any blood along the way.
Blood can tell you a lot about the situation at hand. Just as mentioned previously, the color of the blood can reveal where the animal was hit. If there is a wide swath of blood splatter on either side of the path the animal ran then you likely had a complete pass through and the animal shouldn’t have gone far. If there is little spits of blood here and there in a narrow path then this animal may have ran for some distance. If there is no blood, do not get discouraged; a high shot through the vitals sometimes takes a while to bleed out as the body cavity fills with blood before exiting the wound.
Once you reach the point where the animal was last observed fleeing, now is the time to really slow down and look carefully. Do not just look on the ground, look on the limbs, grasses and shrubs a few feet off of the ground for any faint drops or smears. With blood on the ground, look at the formation of the splatter. Blood will always splatter in the direction the deer is running. If there appears to be no splatter then the animal is likely moving slowly but if the blood appears to have impacted the ground and splattered violently then that deer was still running hard. Be sure to keep taping the trail and look back occasionally to get a bearing on the animal’s trajectory.
Observe The Tracks
If the blood seems to run out the only option at this point is to look for tracks. This can be extremely difficult especially in dry weather but it can aid in the discovery of the down animal. Tracks can also tell a little about the deer’s condition. Hoof prints that seem to drag along usually reveal that the animal has a broken leg or shoulder but can also mean that the deer is fading fast. A splayed hoof track on somewhat level ground may reveal that the animal has suddenly taken off running and still has some gas left in the tank. Splayed, reckless hoof prints going down-hill signal the animal’s struggle to keep moving.
Watch for disturbed leaves, broken twigs and anything that looks freshly overturned. Twigs and grass that are broken will sometimes be broken in the direction the animal was traveling. Look for the white tips of these twigs that show a fresh break.
Look To Water
Sometimes when a deer is hit in places such as the gut or liver, fever sets in and they seek the nearest source of water to quell their ailment. If the blood has disappeared and there are no obvious signs of the deer on the ground, begin carefully scanning a nearby water source. I have even seen pictures of deer found physically in the water with only so much as an ear or antler tine sticking out.
When every move of discovery has been exhausted, call upon a buddy or two to help in the find. Start at the spot where you last marked blood or visible sign and begin to make slow, wide arcs in the direction you believe the deer may have been traveling. You can even have your search partner do the same in a different direction.
Be sure to check the bottoms and sides of draws carefully but do not discount looking on ridge tops. Deer most often do not like to travel uphill when wounded but I have personally seen this happen more than once. Ridge tops give a good vantage point to scan below for a body also. If all else fails, use these high spots to scan with a pair of binoculars into the surrounding brush to look for a white belly or the brown shape of a deer body.
• A gas lantern is a great tool for night tracking as the light is produces shows blood very well.
• A spray bottle with hydrogen peroxide is great for revealing dry blood.
• Injured deer often run in a “J” or “U” pattern but they sometimes double back on their own trail.
• Injured deer may also run into the wind if they can.
• If the deer was never found, carefully watch the ground for circling vultures and listen for coyotes in the evening that may have found your dead game.
• When a deer beds down its metabolism directs blood flow to the stomach area and food digestion sets in which in turn lessens external blood flow.
• Always carry your weapon when tracking.
• If a deer crosses onto someone else’s property, be sure to acquire permission before entering to be courteous, especially if planning to carry a weapon.