It was early October and I was sitting at the bottom of a finger ridge, near the edge of a cut hay field. The evening was fading fast and just before shooting, light turned to night. A group of does stepped out into a small clearing. I contemplated passing on the shot opportunity, but with the lead doe at just 12 yards, and my presence completely unknown, I knew I could make a clean kill. A few seconds later my arrow was on its way; it penetrated squarely behind the deer’s shoulder. She high-kicked and fled, spooking the rest of the heard back up the hill. By the time I got down out of my tree I realized that I had made a critical mistake – I didn’t pay enough attention to the exact spot of impact or the precise path that the deer fled. Dusk had now turned to pitch black, as the moon was all but invisible behind the clouds. Luckily, I ended up recovering the mature doe just 70 yards up the ridge, but it took some work. It was one of my first archery hunts and I learned many valuable lessons during that recovery, and on many tracking jobs since. Here are some of the tracking and recovery tips that I’ve found to be incredibly helpful.
One of the most important things to do, if possible, is to find your arrow after the shot. The arrow contains a huge amount of information regarding where the animal was hit and the action that should be taken.
Mark the Spot
I know it’s exciting to release an arrow on an animal and hear the “thwack!” that we all hope for, but don’t get caught up in the excitement and emotions just yet. Mark the exact spot of impact and study the path that the animal fled after the shot. Select distinct and easily identifiable markers as reference points in the surrounding terrain. I’ve even gone so far as to toss something out of my treestand, such as my wind checker, to mark the spot of impact before I climb down. It’s amazing how different things look from 20′ up, compared to the view at ground level.
Study the Sign
Once you’re on the ground at the spot of impact, study the sign that was left. Look for blood at the spot, or other markers such as hair. If possible, recover your arrow and try to determine what type of hit you may have by analyzing the blood on the arrow. Is it bright and bubbly, or darker in color? Are there any signs of flesh or gut? Determining where you’ve hit the animal, and what organs may have been penetrated, will help you decide how fast you can begin the tracking job.
Mark the Course
Next, using the identifiable markers that you studied when the animal fled consider the course that the animal took. If you know the land well, anticipate the destination that it might be seeking out. Is the animal going downhill, as the wounded often will do? Maybe it’s headed to a water source? Or, maybe it’s seeking cover in a dense thicket?
Proceed with Caution
If you feel like you have made a lethal shot, and have waited an adequate amount of time for the animal to expire, it’s time to begin tracking. Even if you’re seeing good blood, you still want to proceed slowly, and with caution. I have followed heavy blood trails that have all of a sudden faded out. I was tracking without caution; so much of the progress I had made was literally overturned by my careless stomping through the woods.
Chart Your Progress
Take note of the progress that you’ve made, and the direction that you’re heading. If the blood trail is sparse, then mark the sign every so often with orange flagging tape. (You do carry marking tape in your pack, don’t you?) Alternatively, you could use a GPS to track your trailing efforts. If you lose the trail, it’s vital that you can easily return to the last spot of significant sign along the trail.
Try to always mark your trail using bright tape or some other highly visible material just in case you have to go back and retrace your steps.
Avoid Tunnel Vision
Be sure that you don’t get tunnel vision as you’re tracking the animal. Yes, you want to look intently for blood, or other sign, but you also want to remain alert and ready in case you bump the animal. You also don’t want to get so focused on the step in front of you that you lose context of your overall position and direction. It’s easy to get turned around when you’re only staring the ground! Be sure to look up at the terrain ahead of you, and also look back to remain familiar with the direction that you’ve come from.
Change your Perspective
If the trail is hard to follow, it can be incredibly helpful to change your perspective. I have had to get down on my hands and knees and scan individual leaves to find blood or other sign. Another tactic that I have found helpful is to parallel the trail instead of following it head-on. Sometimes it is easier to see things from an angle than it is to see directly in front of you. Go slow and get low.
Light the Way
Tracking blood in the dark can be terribly difficult. Standard lights help, but they also must be used with caution. I prefer to always have a headlamp, so that my hands are free to navigate and hold my bow, binoculars, or other gear. If possible, use a light source with a wide, soft beam. Light that is narrow and harsh will cast hard shadows on varied terrain, which can actually hide blood sign.
Make sure to have plenty of light when trailing deer at night. Without proper lighting it can often be a daunting and futile task.
Make it Glow
If you have trouble picking up the color of blood, or the sign is very scarce, then you may want to consider a few options that will help make the blood more visible. For example, hydrogen peroxide reacts when it contacts blood, causing a foaming effect. Carry some hydrogen peroxide in a small spray bottle and it might help you pick up the trail.
Alternatively, Luminol is a chemical agent that reacts with a bright blue glow when it comes in contact with blood. This compound, which is the same stuff used by crime scene investigators, can also be purchased for hunting needs. If you hunt during the evening hours frequently, then you might consider purchasing a specialized tracking light. These lights, which are offered by a variety of manufacturers, use special tints to filter the light’s color and make blood more visible in low-light conditions.
Specialized lights, like the Primos Bloodhunter, are effective at making blood droplets stand out when they otherwise might be missed.
Last, but certainly not least, consider calling for help before you ever take up the trail. Not only can an extra set of eyes make the tracking job much easier, it’s also great to share the joys of a successful harvest with a friend or family member. And the fact that they can help you get the animal back to your vehicle doesn’t hurt either. Good Luck.
Don’t be afraid to get help during the tracking process but don’t go overboard because too many people can complicate things and increases the chance that evidence will be accidently disrupted.