A Complete Guide to Finding the Deer You Shoot
Blood-trailing game is a blend of art and simple technique. As in most bowhunting endeavors, it's often a sequence of things that eventually leads you to success. With that in mind, here are the secrets I've discovered through two-plus decades of bowhunting and blood-trailing dozens and dozens of critters.
Taking a Visual Log
Immediately after the shot, there are three things you should do. First, don't move an inch from where you shot. Then, note exactly where the animal was standing upon the arrow striking, and exactly how the animal fled the scene. These three factors will prove most vital to recovering your trophy. To help with this, pick out certain bushes, rocks or trees next to the hit spot or the route the animal used to escape. This will make it easier as things always look different from up close and as you begin the trailing process.
Analyzing the Hit
Next, visualize in your mind the animal's position and where the arrow hit. If you suspect a perfect double-lung hit, then you probably won't have any trouble finding your deer. These hits usually result in lots of blood on the ground and a relatively short, easy-to-follow blood trail.
However, this is not always the case. Sometimes animals bleed internally, even lung-shot ones, and when this happens, you'll have to look for other clues, mainly fresh tracks and perhaps tiny droplets of blood; these will hopefully lead you down the path of recovery. Sometimes a general zigzag walk of the area, if you're hunting in open country, will allow you to spot your animal.
If you find your arrow at the hit site, analyze it for clues as well. The blood on it tells a lot. Bright-pinkish, frothy blood is a positive indication of a solid lung hit. Darker blood without the telltale froth-like bubbles in it usually means a hit to the liver or heart. Greenish matter smeared on the shaft, usually with white fatty tissue, means a paunch hit. Beyond a solid strike to both lungs or the heart, blood trailing doubles in difficulty. Here are several scenarios to consider that involve less-than-perfect hits.
Shots that are taken quartering-to or at extreme angles often result in single-lung hits. Just so you know, it's well documented that animals can actually live with just one lung. This is especially true of larger game such as elk.
On quartering-to shots, if deep broadhead penetration is achieved, then sometimes the liver and paunch can also be cut in the process, which is good. The liver is a vital organ and damage to it will eventually cause the animal to expire, usually within a couple hours. However, an animal can travel on a punctured liver, which means, if pushed, it can run into the next canyon, or well off your hunting property.
For this reason, you must wait a good amount of time before following up. It's best to wait four to six hours on such hits. Sometimes the animal will expire within this timeframe or be sick enough that you can sneak up and shoot it again.
Severe angled shots, such as when shooting from a treestand, can result in the arrow hitting high. When this is the case, the arrow angles downward, only striking the top of one of the lungs. This usually results in good initial blood, but depending on the damage, the trail can go dry after a couple hundred yards. If not found within this distance, the animal is likely to survive.
Shots that hit slightly behind the lungs (opposite the shoulder area) will likely strike the liver. This is a vital organ (served by large arteries) that filters the blood supply to the body.
If the broadhead laces the liver, the animal will die. However, liver-hit animals can live for a while, complicating animal recovery. With suspected liver-hit game, I suggest waiting two to four hours before following up. A common trait of a liver hit is dark, somewhat brownish-colored blood.
Unfortunately, this hit is quite common, and I would suspect it results in more lost game than all other hit types. Extreme patience is required for these shots. The worst thing you can do is push a gut-shot animal, as infection takes time to impair the animal's ability to travel. Combine this with adrenaline flowing in the body from being chased, and the animal can travel for miles. Once that happens, your chances of recovery are virtually zero. This is even more so because arrows bisecting intestines or paunch rarely leave much blood.
I recommend waiting eight hours or longer before following up. Left un-pushed, gut-shot deer usually bed down within 100 to 200 yards from where the shot occurred and simply expire.
There is one exception to all of this. When hunting open-country, follow-up shots are sometimes advisable when the animal is clearly approachable and hunched up and/or sick looking. In this case, you should sneak in and shoot the animal again. In doing so, it's crucial that you don't let the animal see you, which could cause it to run frantically. Dense, noisy terrain could foil any attempts at closing the gap, and waiting is a better plan.
Theoretically, shoulder hits occur just as often as paunch hits do, since this area is far back the other way. Sometimes a shoulder-hit animal will bleed for a while (the broadhead cuts the outer tissue repeatedly), giving the impression the animal is hurt worse than it is. But the animal will show little sign of slowing down, usually continuing on with regular behavior and eating habits within a few hours.
A shot to the butt is fatal, believe it or not, since the heaviest part of the leg is ultra-rich in blood vessels. The femoral artery runs along the lower, inner side of each leg. If your broadhead clips it, blood will squirt out like water flowing from a faucet.
Of course, you should never deliberately aim at the animal's butt. There's simply too much margin for error and waiting for a solid lung shot is the way to go. However, if you happen to hit the area by accident, just know that it's quite lethal, and as long as you're using a scalpel-sharp broadhead that's capable of severing every blood vessel in its path, you can expect to find your trophy in short order. Most solid butt hits down the animal within 10 minutes, if not sooner.
Spine and Superficial Wounds
On a broadside or quartering-away shot, a high hit will place the arrow directly in line with the spine or just below it. If you hit the spine, the animal will drop instantly, becoming paralyzed. Always shoot the animal again for a prompt kill if necessary.
If the arrow misses the spine but is still not low enough to catch lung tissue, then it ends up in the area commonly referred to as the muscle band. This area contains no vital tissue. It results in the animal bleeding quite profusely at first, but eventually surviving.
An extreme low hit, on the other hand, puts it below the lung tissue and at the brisket area. This usually results in good, bright blood, but again, it's not fatal. A common trait of superficial flesh wounds is a plentiful initial blood trail which progresses down to tiny specks that eventually peter out, usually after 200 to 300 yards.
Neck shots usually fall under the superficial wound category as well. The only exception is if you happen to strike the carotid artery or jugular vein, both which are quite small. However, if you do, the animal will die quickly.
When Bad Weather Strikes
What do you do when it begins to rain or snow? My take on it is simple: follow the blood trail immediately, but only if you suspect a solid double-lung hit. Otherwise, always wait. Pushing marginally wounded game is a mistake, no matter the circumstance. I'd rather have the animal bed down and expire within 100 yards, where I can find it later in the day by grid-searching, than to have it run a half-mile because I pushed it.
Successful blood trailing is all about being smart. In nearly all cases, being foolish and/or anxious will end up costing you a trophy because you decided to force the situation. Analyze each shot closely, wait the correct amount of time based on the clues, and follow up, searching for blood and other details like a trained detective on a crime scene. Shots at big game are simply too precious to do it any other way.
Editor's note: This was originally published in 2009.
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