Author: James L. Bruner
I have been fortunate enough to track and find every deer I have shot with archery equipment. Admittedly, some of those shots were far from perfect but persistence and knowledge worked in my favor in most cases. In my youngest years of hunting, around age 14, I lost a huge 8 point buck with very tall antlers after a seemingly perfect shot at 50 yards from a 30-30 bolt action. The old buck dropped like a rock and I let my guard down for an instant while walking from my brush blind to the trophy that lay before me. In the moment that I rounded the brush a sight of sheer terror flooded my vision as the buck stood up, kicked like a donkey, then staggered off into the brush that was 10 yards away from where he dropped. As a rookie I stood there dumfounded before realizing I hadnt even chambered a new round after the initial shot. As I slammed a new shell into the chamber and shouldered the rifle, all I caught was a glimpse of the deer fading into the trees.
I sat and cussed to myself realizing I had blood to follow. Not much but there was blood. As the scene played back in my mind it became apparent that the deer seemed to be nearly stumbling over himself as he walked away and then again nearly bouncing off trees as he faded from sight. I figured this deer wouldnt go far but man was I wrong!
Nearly an hour later my father drove up to our meeting spot at the end of the evening hunt. Did you shoot? Yeah I shot a big -beep-beep- deer that dropped like a -beep-beep- rock and then kicked like a -beeping- donkey and… I knew by the look in his eyes that he was as surprised at the words coming from my mouth as was my brother who sat mouth agape in the backseat of the blazer. The short story here was he didnt appreciate the language but, as a hunter understood the excitement and disappointment so, he let it slide.
Minutes later we were on the trail with flashlights. In practically no time at all dad was observing and commenting aloud as to what he was seeing. Me. I was taking mental notes. My brother was still giving me the I cant believe you said that look that he had back in the blazer. That tracking session lasted for 2 hours until we returned the next morning with a friend. The three of us set out on the trail where dad, myself, and little brother, had left off and returned to the truck 4 hours later realizing the buck must have been shot in the leg and, from the distance he covered through the night leaving a very sparse drop of blood here and there, would more than likely survive. I learned a lot that year about tracking and some 27 years later still cannot get losing that buck out of my head.
Since then I have gathered much knowledge regarding tracking wounded game, mainly whitetails, and will share some tips here with the readers in the hopes that this will help someone recover their wounded deer.
First and foremost to me is preparing at home before the hunt. I know a lot of people are raising an eyebrow but just give me a minute or two and I will explain. Nobody plans to wound a deer but the fact is that more than likely it will happen. Having prepared at home you stand a much better chance to succeed in putting that animal in the freezer.
Make yourself a tracking pack. Backpack, fishing creel, fanny pack, whatever it takes to hold some items for both tracking and possibly survival. Tracking a deer can be long and tedious. Finding out you are lost while tracking your deer is a nightmare. Pack your bag with sensible items for survival first. A compass, gps, whichever you choose. Flashlight, extra batteries, waterproof matches, trail mix, small first aid kit, and water. A 20 oz bottled water will go a long way if you ration yourself at the first signs of trouble. On the tracking side of items I tend to go overboard simply because my pack also consists of extra gear like peep aligners, sight pins, releases, and so forth. For tracking I use flourescent orange trail marking tape. They make a bio-degradable version that can be left in the woods if you cannot retrieve them. A lot of people use tissue paper to mark trails or blood. I find they are not as effective. Also a small spray bottle of peroxide is very effective to have in your pack for reasons we will discuss later. For most cases a good working flashlight, and some marking tape, will be all the gear you will need but you will be thankful to have the rest for those odd times when the moment calls for more intense times of covering ground through the swamp. It may seem like overkill but preparing at home is preparing for the field. You put a lot of time and effort into honing your shooting skills. There should be at minimum an equal amount of time making preperations towards recovering the animal.
If you did not see or hear that deer drop then it is likely you will be following up with a tracking situation that should not start where you last saw the deer. You should be starting right where you shot the deer. A lot of clues can be found in those first instances so dont pass them by because you think you know where the deer went. Calm down and replay the event in your mind. Fatally shot deer will usually bed within 150 yards of the shot. Keep your wits not to follow up too soon and chase the deer further. Consequently, when a deer moves a distance of 250 yards or more before bedding, it means that you are more than likely in for a long trail. I hope you checked the weather forecast for rain or snow before you left.
Analyzing The Evidence
People tend to look for blood right away as it is easily spotted in any amount. What many hunters do not realize is hair can tell you something you hadnt realized. Deer hair, along the back and spine, is darker and longer than the rest. If you find this type of hair its quite possible you grazed the animal but you could be in the area known as the dead zone by many hunters. Shorter grayish hair is often from the brisket or chest area. Unless this were a very extreme angle its unlikely to be a fatal shot. Dark brown hair with lighter tips can point to a neck shot that was high. Hair similar to the brisket area could point to a low neck shot that has nearly merged into the brisket area. And although a lung or heart shot deer should be fairly obvious, you can expect to find longer brown or grayish hair on the ground.
If there is any blood at the scene color or possibly smell can be your best indicator. Heart and lung shots produce bubbles in bright red blood which are easily spotted. If this is what youre seeing then congrats. You should be field dressing before too long provided the animal doesnt have immediate access to standing water that could dilute the trail and require an actual body search. The deers reaction would be a wild run normally from beginning to end. Many times you hear these deer crash into the ground so listen carefully. Dark red blood could point you towards a liver shot. The deer will typically bleed drops of blood about the size of a nickel. Reaction would be the deer running off quickly before settling down to a slower pace and you may notice the tail down rather than its normal upright position.
Blood that appears watery or almost slimey points to a leg shot. This was something I wasnt aware of years ago when tracking my 8 point in the beginning of this article. Some will say this deer can be recovered by moving it slowly and hoping for another shot or, hoping it bleeds out. I have never seen a deer bleed out from this type of injury and, have never gotten close enough for that extra shot. Regardless do not give up. As you long as you have blood and sign stay on that trail because it is possibly that the sign had been mis-interpreted.
While on the subject of the leg lets touch on arteries. I wouldnt recommend trying to shoot a deer in the leg hoping to hit the femoral atery but, if by chance your shot goes awry, you should find bright pinkish blood from an artery and the shot will be fatal. And last but not least doesnt really deal with blood but excrement or stomach matter. Many times there will be a fowl smell or actual physical evidence. Once shot the deer tend to either hunch up and take a few jumps before walking off in an odd manner. This is a tough call for any hunter as you definately should give the deer as much time as possible to expire. Sign during tracking may be very limited so this can be a very difficult track to follow. Generally I would suggest a minimum of 4 hours before any follow-up and longer if weather permits.
On The Trail
Do not call all your buddies to help you track the deer. I have seen it dozens of times. Unless you have completely lost the trail and are now performing a grid search for the animal itself, its guaranteed that someone will trample right over the sign needed to retrieve the animal. When I am called out by a friend to help on a track the first thing I ask is who has already been out there looking. When they say well…me and my brother and my….I grumble and realize that this isnt going to be any easier thanks to the many feet that have already been stomping through the woods. Keep it to minimum. I seldom track with more than two people and for me three is a maximum simply because you can no longer control the situation.
Mark your very first blood or sign with some marking tape. Whenever possible I tie the tape to a branch at eye level above the blood and when the blood is sparse also place tape near the blood spot. Tying your tape at eye level allows you to stand back in the more open woods and look back at the path the deer traveled. At times this can guide you in the right direction.
From every blood spot no person of the tracking party should move forward until more blood is found and marked. If you have been marking blood consistently at similar intervals you can use that measurement for guidance when searching for new blood. If nothing is found backup to the last marked spot. This is where your peroxide comes in handy. Mist the area with the spray bottle filled with peroxide and wait to see if you can spot the reaction. When peroxide hits the blood it foams up just as it does when applied to an open wound on a human. Many times this will lead you in the right direction. Continue and mark each new spot as you have until this point.
I have completely lost the blood trail. What now? Now is the time to put all the pieces together. What color was the blood? Where do you figure the hit was from the evidence you have analyzed? How far have you traveled? Did the spots of blood appear to be spattered or dropped? Was the blood consistent or sporadic to this point? Take a break and talk about it with your tracking partner if in fact you are not alone. Try to speak as quietly as possible just in case the deer is fairly close by and bedded. Refresh your energy with a drink of water decypher your plan and stick to it.
Hypothetically speaking lets say you hit the deer high or possibly grazed the liver. You followed the blood a couple hundred yards and now the trail had died out. The deer appears to be walking along as the drops of blood do not have the signs of movement according to their pattern. Chances are its time to let the deer lay and come back later hoping that he beds and expires. Now, since you are starting fresh, more or less, pick up where you left off.
I would go right back to the peroxide and mist the entire area while I walked slowly just to be sure you havent missed anything. If nothing is found I use the general rule of a deer will use the most convenient, safest, and quickest route of travel when wounded. I would visually pick the most used trail or easiest route from the last point and move forward in that direction from the last blood from earlier. Visually checking for sign I would also spray the area every 20 to 30 feet hoping to once again pick up the trail until I was satisified that this was not the direction. Repeat this routine on each trail in the direct vacinity.
If all has revealed no results its time to hit the trails and walk but, stay on the trails looking for blood. Keep in mind many times while the deer is wounded and traveling a trail, he will find the thickest cover right off the trail to bed to expire. Most times when tracking a good blood trail I find that the deer suddenly takes an abrupt turn off the well worn trails into the thicker cover in a last ditch effort to evade being found. If you hit every trail and turned up no further sign then its time to call in a few friends or perform a simple grid search looking for the animal itself.
A grid search is nothing more than a group of hunters, or a single hunter, walking a straight line for a pre-determined distance, then moving over a few yards and walking a similar parallel line. At this point it turns into mainly a body search but keep your eyes peeled for blood just in case. You are obviously going to cross the deers path of retreat at some point or another and its not uncommon for deer to stop bleeding and then start again later.
In any event you will find that every single tracking session will teach you something. For myself I wont simply walk to my deer even if I see it drop when archery hunting. Following the blood trail for that short distance just might hold the clue that I just may need to retrieve my own deer on a day when the arrow did not fly as true as I wanted.
If you keep these pointers and tips in mind they should help you along on your next trailing session. We owe it to the game we pursue to make every effort of recovery humanely possible.