Finding wounded game is a responsibility of every hunter, but you learn some techniques only through experience and those lessons come at the cost of many hours spent on the trail. Rather than having to learn these important lessons the hard way, I’ve compiled them here so you can move up the learning curve quickly.
Limit the help: Resist the urge to get on the phone until after you have the deer in the back of your pickup. Two or three trackers are ideal. With three trackers, one can stay behind to work out the trail drop-by-drop as the other two move a little faster looking for large drops of blood along the path the deer was using. With two trackers, only one should move ahead while the other stays back to work out the details. However, the lead tracker should never get too far ahead – 20 to 30 yards – before he starts to work his way back to the last blood.
Stay on stand – watch and listen: I’ve found three bucks as the direct result of staying on stand for several hours after the shot. In the first case, a doe snorting at the blood odor led me to the buck. In the second case, I actually saw the buck cross a distant field two hours after the shot. In the third case, another buck ran the wounded deer out of a thicket and hundreds of yards in the opposite direction well after the shot. I never would have found two of those deer had I left the stand immediately.
Sneak away from your stand: I hunted with a guide named Jim Perkins several years back on a hunt in Louisiana. Jim has guided deer hunters all over the south and has been on nearly 1,500 blood trails. He said that the number one reason an otherwise recoverable deer gets away is that the hunter leaves the stand and walks the wrong way.
Rather than sneaking away from the stand in the opposite direction the deer ran, the hunters walked too near the wounded deer and jumped it. Worse, in some cases they took up the trail immediately upon climbing down from their stands.
Use a lantern for night trailing: I don’t do a lot of night time blood trailing unless the temperature is warm and threatens to spoil the meat, or unless coyotes are a factor. Of course, if the hit is known to be good, I’ll also trail those deer in the dark. In the past, I have used only bright flashlights for trailing. Recently, I’ve begun using propane and butane lanterns to light the trail. Lantern light illuminates blood much better than a flashlight. In fact, the blood is actually more visible with the lantern in the dark than it is in the daylight. Use a reflector shield to keep light from coming back in your eyes.
Don’t give up on the blood: I’ve always felt that the first step in losing the animal is to give up on the blood trail. Impatience is a common reason for abandoning the trail. I can’t tell you how many blood trails I’ve been a part of where the person who had shot the animal wanted to immediately begin looking for the carcass as soon as the blood trail became sparse. You should not abandon the blood until you’ve exhausted every possibility. Wounded big game animals are unpredictable and can change directions seemingly for no reason. If you abandon the blood too quickly you risk missing a twist or turn in the trail that would take you to the carcass much more easily.
Know the nature of the hit: It is critical that you know as closely as possible where you hit the animal before deciding what to do next. First, you can look at the blood and hair that you find where the animal was standing. Bowhunters can study the arrow on a pass-through hit.
You can also learn a lot from the reaction of the animal to the shot, but there is definitely a margin of error here so remain conservative. When you strike the animal in the heart or lungs, 90% of the time it will drop its head and take off in a mad dash. You may also hear a hollow thump on impact. Also, a heart/lung hit animal may kick its rear hooves up before dashing. Again, be careful not to read too much into the body language of struck game. I have arrowed several deer over the years that didn’t react at all.
Liver hit deer may run a short ways first before humping up and walking off slowly. Paunch hit deer will generally hump up immediately on impact. If not pursued, neither animal will go far if not pursued.
Wait before you start: It is important to wait the prescribed amount of time for the type of hit made before taking up the trail. In some cases, rushing makes an easy trail much more difficult and in other cases, the animal actually gets away. If you are going to err in your decision of when to follow-up on the trail, you are better off waiting a little too long than starting too soon. Here is a summary of how long you should wait before taking up the trail.
Blood Types and Waiting Times
|Description of blood sign||Most likely source||Min. waiting time|
|Bright pink-tinted blood, possibly bubbles (profuse)||Heart or lungs, lung hit if bubbles are present||One hour, immediately if you see the animal fall|
|Red blood (profuse at first)||Liver||Three to four hours|
|Reddish-brown blood, may show signs of fibrous matter (non-profuse)||Paunch||10 to 12 hours|
|Bright red with pinkish-tint (profuse)||Artery||One hour, immediately if you see the animal fall|
|Dark red, may appear watery (non-profuse)||Muscle/bone||Follow-up immediately only if you are sure it was a muscle hit|
Mark the last sighting: Being able to find the exact location where you last saw the animal is a tremendous help if you are having a hard time finding a good blood trail. For this reason, you should take plenty of time to mark this spot mentally before climbing down from your stand. Choose something distinct to use as a reference. I like to pick a specific tree or terrain feature – maybe a large fallen log or bend in a creek – to serve as a reference.
It never ceases to amaze me how much different the woods look from the ground than from 20 feet up in a tree. You should never take for granted that you can find the last place you saw the animal without marking it carefully before climbing down.
Wait when it rains: Inclement weather may tempt you to take up a blood trail before the normal waiting period has expired. Resist this temptation. My friends and I have proven that you are better off letting the animal die close to your stand even without a blood trail than to push it from its first bed, give it a fresh burst of adrenaline and then have the trail wash out anyway.
Many hunters are also tempted to rush the job on public land in an effort to beat any claim jumpers. You should still wait the normal amount of time for the animal to die.
Listen for coyotes: I recovered the biggest buck I ever shot after waiting in the dark for coyotes to start yapping. I wasn’t sure of the hit and didn’t want to rush the job, so I decided to wait until the scavengers found him. I would have found the buck easily the next morning because the hit was good, the blood trail was acceptable and only about 200 yards long, but I would have dragged out a skeleton. Instead, I listened and then swooped in when the coyotes found him and then lit up nearly seven hours after the shot.
If you doubt the quality of the hit you made and feel like you should wait before attempting the recovery, you will have to contend with coyotes in areas where they are abundant. Rather than taking a chance on loosing the meat, consider taking a thermos of coffee and waiting on a high spot near your hunting area for the necessary time to elapse.
Always carry your bow: I’ve made the mistake in the past of assuming a deer was dead when it wasn’t. When I came up on it alive without my bow, the situation became dicey. Now, I always carry my bow when trailing during daylight hours whether I think the animal is dead or not.
Have a long-range sight pin: Regardless of your maximum ethical range while bowhunting, you should sight in a longer-range pin to use when finishing off wounded game. I once made a 75 yard shot on a caribou after initially hitting it in the liver and then sneaking in for a second shot. I would never take a shot of that length on anything but a wounded animal. There is no ethics question when attempting long follow-up shots.
Sight-in your long-range pin for 20 yards beyond your normal maximum range. This gives you some leeway to hold over on super long shots and permits you to gap between pins for shorter shots.
Start with shot selection: Nothing makes a blood trail easier to follow than a good shot. Game recovery starts before you even pull the trigger or release the string. Many bowhunters want a super close shot because they know they can hit the vitals then. However, close-range shots with a bow – where the deer is right under your stand – should be avoided because they can all-too-often result in a single-lung hit, which can be hard to recover. I think the single-lung hit is the worst hit you can make because it is usually lethal but recovery can be very difficult because it takes time for the animal to die.
When to give up the blood: Stick with the blood when tracking a wounded animal, at least until you have spent three hours, or more, looking for the next drop. At this point, you must make an important decision. When you abandon the blood trail, you are making something of a concession that you may not find the animal. This is not to suggest that carcass searches are always a failure, but they are not as good for returning dead game as a standard blood trail. Don’t take this step lightly. Spend as much time as you can trying to find the blood before giving it up. I’ll look for two hours for the next drop of blood before giving up the blood trail and looking for the carcass.
Organize a grid search: I don’t waste time doing standard searches anymore. I jump right to the grid search, because it is so much more efficient. I’ve been on enough of them that produced the animal that I know you shouldn’t give up yet. Gather as many friends as you can, and organize the searchers abreast in a line.
Each person should be close enough to the next that he is able to see the other’s feet most of the time. This means that nothing will slip through the net. In open cover, this might be 20 to 30 yards while in thick cover this may be only a few feet. I once organized a search in an Alabama pine plantation. The new growth of trees was so thick that it was impossible to see the next person unless he was only a few feet away. Everyone stayed very close and we soon found the deer.
At the end of each sweep, the searcher at one end should remain in place to retrace his steps exactly while the other searchers move past him to line up for the return sweep. This will assure that you search every inch of ground.
Use a dog where it’s legal:I’ve hunted in places were tracking dogs were legal and have been astounded by how effectively well-trained dogs unravel a blood trail. Even if you don’t have a dog, it is well worth the time and any handling fee to hire someone who does. A good dog will be able to follow sign that you can’t even see.
Beware of the double back: Pay attention to the blood trail early in the tracking process to determine which side of the trail the blood falls. This is important information to know in case the animal doubles back on its own trail. This happens regularly and you will be mystified if you don’t notice that the blood is now dropping on both sides of the trail. There will be cases when the animal is bleeding from both sides. When that happens, you will have a harder time determining when it doubles back, but always expect the animal to pull this trick at some point and be ready to reverse course if the trail suddenly stops.
Look high for blood: Don’t look just on the ground for blood. The vegetation the animal brushes against will serve as a great source of blood sign in thick cover.
Mark the blood: When the blood trail starts to taper off so that you can no longer follow it at a walk, begin marking every patch of blood with something highly visible. I usually use toilet paper tied to a branch because it is highly degradable should a piece or two be left in the woods. The marked trail will help you to determine the route the animal is using and will make it easier to anticipate where the next drop is likely to occur. Also, you can quickly go back to the last blood and start searching in a new direction if the blood trail suddenly stops.
Forget about myths: There is an old rule of thumb that says a wounded animal will only travel downhill. This is not true. I’ve seen many deer, and other game animals, pull some pretty steep hills only to be found near the top stone dead. Don’t let these myths about what a wounded animal is supposed to do cloud your thinking when setting up a grid search. Search everything, even if you don’t think the animal would go there.
There is no such thing as a standard blood trail. Every one is different, requiring some creative thinking and woodsmanship on your part. Most importantly, they all required patience. If you have a fundamental understanding of which tracking methods work and which ones don’t work you will be ready for any blood trailing challenge that comes your way, and you will never again lose a fatally hit animal.