Whitetail Shot Placement Outcome and Blood Tracking Guide

By Noah Gandy

The moment of truth has finally arrived and all of your hard work has paid off. You got your shot on that whitetail you’ve been after for so long. Your arrow struck and your animal has bound out of sight. The impact was not enough to let the animal expire within sight so now comes the adrenaline-laced task of recovering your game. Often times these experiences can be filled with joy and enthusiasm upon the recovery of your trophy. Other times, they can turn into frustration, disappointment, and a sinking feeling in your stomach when doubt begins to creep in as to whether or not you made a lethal shot.

Luckily for deer hunters, there are some tell-tale indicators that can help you make more informed decisions when it comes to tracking your game.

The moment your arrow strikes the deer there are a myriad of notes you should mentally take. First, where on the deer’s body did my arrow enter? This is our first indicator of how lethal the shot was on the game we’re attempting to harvest. The entry point lets the hunter know if he initially struck the heart, lungs, liver, stomach, bones or other areas of the body.

The exit point of the arrow is equally as indicative of a lethal hit as the entry point. Based on the angle of the deer and whether or not he was quartering to, broadside, or quartering away from the hunter can help the shooter understand the anatomy of the hit. Paying attention to these things, the entry and exit point of the arrow, and having a working knowledge of the internal structure of the whitetail deer can help you know right away whether you can take a confident trail because of a lethal hit or begin thinking of backing away due to a marginal shot.
So far the impact has been made and you have mentally noted the entry and exit zones on the animal. Next, a hunter will want to notice the posture that the deer uses as he bounds away.

A heart shot, which is always lethal, will usually result in the deer making a mule-kick on impact and then running away with some wobble in his step. Normally only lasting for 100-200 yards or so, a heart shot deer will generally slow his pace extremely and end up with a tail flicker before falling over in his deathbed. There are always exceptions but this generally is a good rule.

Deer that have been hit in one or both lungs, and most shot deer for that matter, will also likely have those back legs kick when the arrow strikes. Experience proves that lung shot deer will generally bolt at top speed upon evacuation with no regard of obstacles in their way and often but not always take a similar trail back towards where they last felt safe.

Deer that were shot in the liver or even the guts will generally have a “hunched” trot or walk as they exit the scene. It is not uncommon for these deer to tuck their tail as they run away. Noticing small things such as these will help you pick up a better blood trail before ever exiting your tree.

Upon realizing your hit and noticing the posture of your deer as they run away a mental marker of where you last saw your animal needs to be noticed. This is one of the most underappreciated aspects of trailing. Often times, terrain looks extremely different from the ground as it does from an elevated position like a tree stand. Taking time to make a note as to a certain bush, tree, or other landmark that your deer crossed paths with could possibly save you some heartache in the long run. After all, it is not unusual for an animal to take 30-50 yards to begin bleeding, especially if there was not an exit hole with the shot.

It is not always a given that the impact site will be loaded with clues for blood trailing. In this event, going to the spot where you last saw the deer can normally prove fruitful. Using a landmark to find where the deer was standing on impact can also be super useful, especially in the waning hours of the day where light is scarce.

You’ve done all of the legwork that you’ve needed to do from the tree. You’ve given the animal some time to leave the premises, and, let’s face it, you’ve given yourself some time to calm down and text your buddies that you’ve shot the big one. Now it’s time to locate the place where the deer was standing when you shot.

Blood, hair, and footprints can give you a wealth of information for tracking purposes. In Iowa, I have been able to follow tracks that were indicative of a running deer through cut soybeans when blood was sparse. Don’t overlook running footprints. Placing a bit of flagging, toilet paper, or even a cheap glow stick at the impact site or first blood can help with a track job especially when it is dark out.

If bow hunting, locating the arrow can be a wonderful indicator of the lethality of the shot that was made. You don’t always get a pass through but if you do it is super helpful. Blood, hair, or gut on the arrow can let you know what to look for on the ground.

A bright red to pink, frothy blood indicates a hit in the lungs and usually a decent blood trail. The Quality Deer Management Association recommends that you always aim for the back of the heart/lungs area of the deer’s body so this is a very lethal hit. The deer should be a short track job away but, as always, slow and steady wins the race. Take time to keep up with the trail; always looking ahead for the white belly of a deer or listening for the rustling of leaves as he jostles the ground.

It is important to note too that a deer hit in only one lung can live for a long time. If you suspect the arrow only hit one lung give the deer extra time to expire before you start your tracking efforts. Single lung hits usually occur when an arrow hits too high or too low, clipping only the one lung.

Bright red blood can indicate a heart shot or possible leg wound. This is when our prior information that we took from the treestand or ground blind comes into play. Do you recall hitting the deer forward or was the hit more likely in the “boiler room?” The prior knowledge that you have upon inspection of your arrow or the blood on the ground will give you the intel that you need as to whether you should take up the trail immediately or give the animal some time.

Dark red blood usually means a hit to the liver. While this is a lethal hit there must be some patience exercised while taking the trail. The impatient tracker will follow these spots of dark blood on a good trail and will often times jump a deer from its deathbed causing it to relocate. There are no guarantees of the distance a deer will run after it is bumped initially. Giving a deer 2-3 hours to expire before taking up the trail of a liver hit deer is never a bad idea. Many times, for all hits, the more time given the better off you will be.

Blood that is mixed with green or brown material and has an odor usually means a gut-shot, which will require more time and patience. Most “experts” tend to agree that four to six hours is a safe amount of time to take before taking the trail of a deer that has been gut-shot. Again, go slow and steady and be ready to back off of the trail if things start to seem “pushy.” The best thing to do is to avoid the gut-shot but mistakes happen and if you hunt long enough you’ll understand.

There is nothing wrong with waiting overnight to take up a blood trail if the weather lends itself to doing so. Venison will likely keep, even if allowed to sit overnight, during many of the cool Iowa fall and winter nights that we experience. Check your forecast for temps below 40 degrees fahrenheit if you wish to keep the table fare from spoiling.

A guide to trailing a wounded deer would not be complete without mentioning your ears. Although it might sound strange that ears would be a tool for tracking a deer they should not be neglected. If hunting in timber or even on a field edge listen carefully as your deer runs away. There is a chance that you could hear him crash and help you locate him quicker. Also, as you take up the trail, be on the lookout and keep an ear open for local coyotes. These predators have a knack for smelling out fresh blood so they, along with birds of prey, can give you a fresh indicator of the location of an animal if it has been laying for some time.

Tools that are useful to keep in your trailing pack can include but are not limited to: a good flashlight, trail marking tape, an aerial map, and a spray bottle with hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide can act as an agent to make blood have a foaming effect when it comes into contact. This can be extremely useful in dirt fields or where blood is sparse.

These indicators, tips, and tricks are all useful but are definitely not conclusive. The whitetail deer, especially the big-bodied brutes that run in Iowa, are resilient and can each act differently upon the hit and, quite frankly, upon the personality of the deer. Some that give every indication of being mortally wounded have lived to fight another day and others that showed no signs of being impacted have fallen in sight. Such is life. The best we can do is work with what God has blessed us to know and be flexible enough to adapt to the circumstances that we are given. If so, then we will likely run into many pots of gold at the end of our blood trail rainbows.