Most hunters have blood-trailed deer or another big-game animal. Those who haven’t either have poor luck or haven’t been hunting very long. Tracking a double lunged or heart-shot deer is often simple, but marginal hits always make tracking difficult. Regardless of how long you’ve been hunting or how many perfect shots you’ve made, you’ll eventually face a challenging blood trail.
I’ve been involved with tracking dozens of deer. Some jobs were short and sweet. Others were long and tedious. None of them were exactly the same, but I’m happy to say the majority ended with wide grins and high fives. I’ll share a few blood trailing tips and tactics that have guided my friends and me to successfully recover our deer.
First few seconds
The first few seconds after the shot play a key role in determining when to take up the trail. As the deer departs, watch for the impact wound and the angle at which the arrow entered the animal.
Things look much different from an elevated stand than from ground level, so before climbing down from your tree stand, memorize the exact location where the deer was standing and where it was last seen running or walking. Use landmarks like a unique log, tree, bush, rock, or brush pile to mark the spots.
Your first instinct might be to climb down and look for the arrow and first blood, but you’re probably not thinking clearly. Often this leads to going too far too soon and bumping the wounded deer.
For example, let’s say you climb down to look for blood and find none. Panic sets in, and you look a little further. Suddenly, the deer jumps up and flees to areas unknown. In the end, it could result in a lengthier recovery or no recovery at all.
Regardless of where you think the deer was hit, wait at least 30 minutes before climbing down. In cases where you suspect the deer was hit too far back—liver, paunch, or one lung—sit quietly for at least an hour, then back out and give the animal more time to expire.
Assess the shot
Go to the spot where the deer was standing and look for your arrow. Assuming you find the arrow, your initial assessment of the blood and color will help determine or confirm where the deer was hit.
Blood from a double-lung shot will appear bright red and contain small air bubbles. However, in the absence of air bubbles, don’t assume you missed both lungs. Air bubbles aren’t always obvious, especially with single-lung hits or high entry wounds.
If major arteries aren’t cut, the blood from deep muscle shots like the ham, back, or shoulder will also appear bright red.
Examine the arrow for other clues such as greasy fat or tallow. Green or brown matter smeared on the arrow and fletching are sure signs of a gut-shot.
Dark burgundy-colored blood generally indicates a liver hit. However, blood from a gut-shot will sometimes appear dark when stomach matter discolors the blood.
Taking up the trail
Unless you suspect a poor hit, avoid calling in the troops just yet. Your buddies might want to take part in the excitement of blood trailing, but too many people can hinder the search and recovery when crucial sign is walked on or overlooked. For that reason, I limit trackers to myself and one other person.
Keep a cool head and take it slow. First blood is generally found within the first 10 to 20 yards, but it could be farther if there isn’t an exit wound. This is especially true for high hits because the chest cavity fills to a certain level before blood starts spewing out the entrance hole.
As you begin tracking, flag the blood trail frequently with bright surveyor’s tape or reflective markers. If the blood trail peters out, the markers will help relocate the last sign should you need to backtrack and start over. When blood trailing, the markers will also help you confirm the direction the deer is traveling.
Stop frequently and look ahead as if you were spot-and-stalking the deer. In the event, the deer is still alive, be ready to make a finishing shot. If you have someone helping, one should be looking for blood, while the other looks ahead for the deer.
Path of least resistance
Most fatally wounded deer exert as little energy as possible, and usually follow the path of least resistance, which often leads to a place where the deer feels most secure, like a bedding area.
As you follow the blood trail, try to anticipate the deer’s travel route based on the terrain. This is easier if you’ve been flagging the trail as you go.
Wounded deer often travel toward a water source. This is especially true for gut and liver-shot deer as they become thirsty or dehydrated. I’ve found tons of dead deer near ponds and creeks.
If you lose the blood trail, always search around nearby water sources.
There are two schools of thought on single-lung hits. One asserts that a deer will expire, but it just takes longer to happen. The other suggests that a deer can and will survive with just one lung. I’ve probably helped track a couple of dozen single-lung-shot deer, and approximately 90% were recovered.
If you suspect a single-lung hit, give the deer four to five hours before tracking. If you bump the deer in the process, back off and wait another two or three hours.
Although some may disagree, past experience proves that a liver-shot deer can live four or five hours, sometimes longer.
Not long ago, I shot a buck too far back and suspected a liver shot. I left the area quietly and came back four hours later. I found the buck bedded in a standing cornfield, very much alive. A follow-up shot finished the deer.
The adage, in doubt, back out, always applies to paunch (gut) shots. A gut-shot deer will undoubtedly die; it’s simply a matter of when. Once the stomach matter releases internally, the deer will eventually die of sepsis.
Your best chances of recovery are to back out of the area entirely and take up the trail eight to 10 hours later. Some claim recovery odds are slim, but I disagree, if the deer isn’t pushed.
As a rule of thumb, if a deer is shot early in the morning, wait until late afternoon to begin blood trailing. If it was shot late in the afternoon, leave the deer overnight and return the following morning an hour or two after sunrise. If you bump the deer, retreat immediately and give it a couple more hours.
When I find bright red blood without bubbles, I think of shoulder and rump shots. Shoulder-shot deer may have one of the lowest recovery rates, but they also have one of the highest survival rates.
One of the first things we learn in a first-aid course is to apply pressure to a cut to stop bleeding. Shoulder-shot deer generally run some distance before they slow down or stop. If left undisturbed, they will lie down on the wound side, which applies pressure and helps begin the clotting process.
I firmly believe shoulder-shot deer warrant immediate follow-up to keep the wound open. If your broadhead is still in the deer, pushing the deer can cause the broadhead to auger around and inflict further damage. In cases where the arrow falls out, there’s still a chance of recovering the deer, which happened to be the case for my buddy, Tom, last year.
To shorten a long story, the broadhead didn’t penetrate the thick shoulder blade, and the arrow fell out. First blood was found nearly 200 yards away. After tracking the deer for four hours and nearly a mile, we spotted the buck beneath a cedar tree, very much alive.
Before Tom could nock an arrow, the buck jumped up and split the scene. An hour later, we caught up with the buck again, and it took another arrow to finish him off. Had we not pushed the deer, it probably had a 50/50 chance of surviving.
When the blood trail is lost altogether, start where the last blood was found and determine the deer’s line of travel. Next, look ahead 10 yards and break the terrain into two grids, both 10 yards by 10 yards to the left and right of where last blood was found.
Search one grid thoroughly, even if it means getting down on your hands and knees. If you don’t find a sign, scour the second grid. If you don’t pick up the trail, grid out the next 10 yards and repeat.
When all avenues are exhausted, call in the troops. Assemble three or four people and form a line, spacing each tracker 5 yards apart. Sweep through the timber from one end to the other. Continue doing this until you’ve covered every square inch. Don’t overlook small woodlots, satellite timber, tall CRP grass, or crop fields around the periphery.
Conclusions on blood trailing
Blood trailing is not complicated if you manage to keep a cool head. Before you start tracking a marginally hit deer, give yourself time to calm down. Move slowly to avoid overlooking small clues. Be persistent and don’t quit searching until you’ve exhausted all options and resources to recover your trophy.
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