Tracking A Wounded Deer

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No matter how hard we try to make responsible and ethical shots, there are times when blood trailing a deer is necessary. I have successfully tracked several deer. Some shot by me, some by friends. Unfortunately, I’ve also been a part of a few fruitless deer tracking expeditions. Some shot by me, some by friends.

Finding a deer at the end of a blood trail is one of the most exciting moments a hunter will experience. Ending the search without finding a deer is one of the most agonizing. No one is in the woods trying to wound a deer. Our goal is, and always should be, to kill a deer as quickly and humanely as possible.

There are too many variables to have 100% certainty that your shot will be perfect. I use the reasonable doubt rule. If I have any doubts, I don’t pull the trigger. It’s a good rule for archers and firearms hunters.

Deer Tracking Tips

  • Notice the direction the deer or other game was traveling when you shot.

  • Notice where the game is standing when you shoot. 

  • Look carefully for the exact area of the entrance wound or for a protruding shaft of an arrow after the shot. 

  • If the game runs after the shot, note the spot the deer was standing and the direction of travel as it ran. 

  • If you know you hit the deer and it runs off, wait at least 30 minutes before trailing. 

  • Before you begin trailing, mark the location from which you shot. 

  • Always walk in the direction your bullet or arrow traveled, checking for nicks in vegetation or any other signs that your shot was possibly deflected. 

  • Carefully inspect the area that the deer was standing when the shot was made. 

  • Look for blood and hair at the scene. Lots of hair usually means a grazing shot, while a little hair means a body shot.

  • If there is mostly brown hair the shot was high, mostly white, the shot was low. 

  • If there are bone fragments at the scene there is a possibility of a leg hit.
     
  • Mark this area and don't disturb it, you may have to return later. 

  • When you find the blood trail always walk beside it, not on it, do not destroy the clues. 

  • If you lose the blood trail , go to the spot the last blood was found an mark it. 

  • Look for any other sign that may indicate the direction of travel of the deer (i.e. up turned leaves, broken vegetation). 

  • Search in a circular pattern around the last spot of blood you found. If you still cannot locate the game, go get help. Every effort must be made to retrieve a wounded animal before resuming the hunt. 

  • You cannot predict the behavior of a wounded deer. Once you start trailing, move quickly to avoid giving blood time to dry and become harder to find. Always be ready to shoot, never assume the animal is dead. 

  • Blood Sign Heart, lung or large blood vessel hit: Fine droplets sprayed on both sides of the trail for 75 to 100 yards, sometimes several feet up on trees and vegetation. Usually a clean kill and the deer should not travel far. 

  • Gut shot food particles and putrid smelling blood. Blood trail is difficult to find at the location the shot was made. Bloody spots appear in about the first 50-75 yards and steadily decrease. Do not follow this deer too closely. Allow 2-3 hours before trailing. The deer will bleed to death when it beds down if you don't chase it.

  • Leg, back muscle, neck, or body cavity hit Large spots of blood at the spot where the animal was hit, turning to continuous drops that diminish after about 150 yards. Bleeding continues while the animal is moving but stops when the animal lies down. 

Tracking 101 - What You Need To Know

Once the shot is taken, the recovery process begins. The first step is watching the deer. Where was the deer when you shot it? What direction did it go in after it was hit? Do you know where on the body you hit it?

Visually mark where the deer was when you shot it and then make a mental note of the direction it went in. Knowing where you hit the deer is often more difficult to recall, especially for novice hunters. I’ve had hunters say they hit a deer perfectly only to recover a gut shot deer. 

A gut shot deer often hunches up when hit. Think of how you would react to being hit very hard in the stomach. A deer hit in the vitals will often “mule kick” as the shot passes through. The mule kick is a good indication but I’ve hit a lot of deer in the vitals that haven’t kicked. Over the past three seasons, I have filmed all of my hunts.

This gives me a good look at not just my shots, but how deer react to them. One thing is constant in every deer I’ve hit while filming, when they run away their tail is down. If the tail is up, there is a good chance you missed. I would still look for blood. But if a deer runs away with it’s tail up and you can’t find any blood, you can rest easy. 

Getting good confirmation of shot placement is a big reason I use lighted nocks when archery hunting. Obviously, if they’re not legal, don’t use them. Some hunters avoid them because the Pope & Young Club won’t recognize a trophy killed with an arrow with lighted nocks. Knowing where my arrow hits a deer or confirming a miss is much more important than being in a record book to me. But everyone has to make that decision for themselves.

The second thing you should do is nothing. Sit back, take a deep breathe and relax for a moment. If you know your shot was good, congratulate yourself. Quietly gather your gear but take your time. Even if I see a deer hit the ground, I generally give it 30 minutes to expire. It’s probably dead 15 seconds after it drops, but there is no reason to push it. If I feel really good about the shot but don’t see the deer fall, I’ll wait an hour or two. A deer will usually bed within 100 yards of where it was shot. If you let the deer expire there, you won’t have to track it very far.

If the deer was hit poorly, wait six to eight hours before trailing. With today’s modern ammunition and wide cutting broadheads, even paunch shot deer will generally expire within eight hours. The pressure you put on a wounded deer will determine whether the deer dies near your stand or a mile or two away. It’s much easier to track them when they die within a hundred yards.

Archery hunters generally have an excellent source of information. The bloody arrow tells the story. Bright red blood is a good indication of a shot to the lungs and possibly the heart. Brown, smelly blood is the tell-tale sign of a gut shot deer. If you’re a gun hunter, put some blood between your fingers and rub them together. If it has a grainy texture, there is a good chance the deer was gut shot. A rotten smell is another good indication.

Once you’ve started trailing, look at the way the blood hits the ground. If there is blood on both sides of the trail, you’ve hit the deer well. Stay on the trail but keep looking forward. A follow up shot may be required. Act as if you’re hunting. Look for deer as you move. If the deer gets up, you’ll be ready. If you spot the deer laying dead in the woods, your tracking job is over.

What happens if you don’t spot the deer? If I haven’t found the deer within 100 yards of the shot, it’s time to pull out. Mark the last place you found blood with trail marking tape or something else that will be easy to find. Allow the deer time to lay down and expire. When returning to track, go to the last blood and start tracking from there.

If the blood trail ends, start walking in concentric circles (in a bullseye pattern) around the last place you found blood. At this point it becomes helpful to have others assist in the tracking. Your circle may get as wide as a hundred yards before blood is spotted again. I’ve seen deer found two hundred yards from where the last blood was found. 

When should you give up? This is an ethical dilemma every hunter has to decide for themselves. I know of hunters who have searched for days and even voluntarily ended their season after coming up empty on a tracking job. My best advice is to do everything you can. Sometimes a wounded deer will run onto a piece of property that you’re not allowed to access. Most property owners will allow a hunter to pursue a deer on their land.

But some will not. At that point, your tracking efforts may come to an end. Perhaps you can gain access to a neighboring property and walk the perimeter looking for blood. Maybe the deer passed through the property you couldn’t access. If you can walk away knowing you did everything in your power to recover the animal, that is all anyone, including yourself, can ask. It is a difficult decision but one many hunters face.

If you hunt, no matter how good a shot you are, there will come a time you'll not only need to know how to track, you’ll ultimately depend on it. For me tracking is a love/hate relationship. I love the challenge and satisfaction of doing it right, but hate the fact that a bad shot put me in that position to begin with. Not everything is perfect in the world of hunting, actually far from it, but if you pay attention to detail, you can quickly turn a poor shot into a recovery. I'll mainly talk about tracking deer because that’s the most common game hunters end up tracking, but will bring up other things that come to mind.

The Start

Tracking starts the moment that trigger is squeezed or that arrow sets sail. That moment of impact will provide you with valuable clues that are easily missed in the adrenaline pumped excitement of the moment. Questions to ask yourself include: Did the tail drop on the initial bolt and stay down? Did the animal drop and pull backwards then sprint, indicating a possible jumping of the string and hitting somewhere else?

I've found that if a deer bolts “tail tucked”, it’s a pretty good indicator the shot was fatal, but how far it goes depends. Some of the things I say in this article are contradictory to what the majority believe. But my expertise comes from years of experience in the field, many seasons in the woods, and dozens of recoveries; not regurgitation from a book or hearsay.

What Helps Tracking?

A couple things that can help aid in tracking is toilet paper and peroxide in a spray bottle mixed with a food coloring that'll stand out like blue or orange or even red. The toilet paper can be used for marking last blood found while looking for more and the peroxide for spraying over the area you believe the animal went. The peroxide will foam when it comes in contact with bodily fluids and really does aid in those difficult tracking jobs. You basically spray the colored peroxide over the ground in a fan shape or sweep back and forth over the area you suspect the animal has went, the peroxide foams up on whatever bodily fluids that are there.

This is particularly useful on an animal that was shot in the gut or say at a quartering shot that took part of the intestines. What happens on that type of shot is the intestines can sometimes push out the wound preventing blood from coming out, but clear body fluids still drip and can be detected with the peroxide. You can read in Skye Goode’s article of her 2013 Archery Buck she shared on my blog and how the peroxide aided her tracking skills, a great article worth the read.

How to Track Deer

First thing we always do is look for blood, hair or intestinal matter. These clues will take you further into what is going on with the animal. Judging a hit by the hair alone is something a seasoned hunter will quickly pick up on, but first timers may need to do a little research. Was it back hair or main body hair, light or dark, long or short? These clues are important in determining shot placement since trying to remember the hit is near impossible with your adrenaline pumping.

If there is any blood initially, is it dark and clotted, or lighter pink and foamy? Dark red typically indicates a liver or artery shot, while lighter red and foaming bubbles points to a possible lung hit because air mixed with the blood. If there was an arrow to recover, can you smell bile, indicating a gut-shot?

These clues aid me in my decision of how and when to start the track job. I like to wait a little just to calm myself down, gather all the info I need by those clues, and then determine what is best to secure a recovery. Many hunters will say wait a half hour and give the animal time to bleed out, some say longer, etc. In my opinion, if you determine your hit on the animal was a gut-shot, leave it sit overnight. Instinctively, the animal will lay up somewhere close in proximity to where it was hit and die overnight.

If the animal is pushed prematurely, you will be tracking for hundreds of yards and, in some cases, a couple miles. If it isn’t dead by morning, chances are it'll be too weak to go far. Been there, done that. A gut shot is a dead animal and although leaving it overnight can change the flavor of the meat, it’s still a better option than chasing it for miles and still having off tasting meat and tough chewing because the adrenaline is going or not finding it at all, the only time it may be advisable to get on a gut-shot deer immediately is if the weather is going to change, like rain or snow coming in, which can basically erase the sign you need to recover the animal.

On the other hand, if you have blood, light or dark, WITHOUT intestinal matter or bile, I will get on that animal within 20 minutes like a dog. My reasoning is I want that animal to bleed out; I do not want it lying down and blood clotting. Contrary to what you hear, any shot that does not hit the immediate fatal category (heart, double lungs or main artery), if left for a long period of time, the animal can clot up and be unrecoverable. I’ve seen where animals with secondary wounds that are not in the immediate fatal category have clotted because they were left to rest. Animals are tough critters and deer have a will to live.

Most of my tracking jobs have been for others with a lot of variables over the years, many times lacking vital initial info. I have seen deer and coyotes that were hit in the leg and while tracking, saw where that wound was pushed into the snow or ground and each time the blood trail getting less and less prevalent. Animals know what to do to survive.

When I was 15 years old, I sat and watched a doe lay down and pull an arrow out of her hindquarter with her teeth because a branch threw the hunter’s arrow off course. She then got up and left. I tracked her but soon the blood quit running and never recovered the deer. If pushed, that broadhead would have finished the job when she was moving. Bows and archery equipment have come a long way since then and pass throughs are the norm these days.

Aspects to Pay Attention to While Tracking Deer

When tracking, if you pay attention, you can actually read what I call stages the animal is going through. The initial run is usually panic flight mode and goes a short distance, then gradually takes on a deliberate line of travel. Most times the animal will take to heading for a trail that leads to cover where it feels safe. Sometimes they head into the wind other times with the wind to check what may be following them, each one is different. Knowing where good cover or bedding areas are from where you are hunting can help aid in figuring out the direction the animal is going to head to, especially if the trail goes cold.

Pay Attention to Blood

When you first start tracking, pay attention to where the blood is that you find. Sometimes you can determine how close your point of impact was compared to your aim. For instance, blood high on a sapling or the tops of weeds can indicate a high hit. Blood in a track where the animal stood indicates a forward shoulder hit or maybe even a hindquarter or is a leg dragging. If there is blood on both sides of the deer’s path, such as if it walked between two saplings and blood is on both, a pass through is probable.

If you can’t find blood on both sides at all and just on what you thought was the exit side, it could mean the animal spun or jumped the string on the shot and was hit at a weird angle on what you thought was the exit. I've seen those incidences many times. Or when you find where the animal bedded temporarily and the location of blood in that bed. Figuring this type of stuff into the equation can help you determine how badly the animal was hit and where.

Look for Changes in the Nearby Environment

There are other clues besides obvious blood trails that can help figure out what direction the animal is going. At your last blood, take a look ahead from where you’re standing and survey the surroundings. You may be able to see a faint line of disturbance in the leaves or say dew on the grass that has been disturbed. You might even see faint tracks that are pushed into the ground debris. If so, check it out, but be careful where you step and to be sure you marked your last blood so you can refer back to it if the path you chose was incorrect. If your track job brings you to a logging road and the sign tapers off, it could be the body shift of the animal turning to go parallel to the road, which will change the blood flow.

Notice the Direction the Animal is Heading

Pay attention to the direction the animal is approaching such roads; it'll give you an idea which way it followed along the road. Although animals will sometimes cross roads, I've found more times than not they'll follow parallel to it, not wanting to cross the wide open, especially if it’s used quite often by people. They’ll cross when they get close to better cover or close to the place they intend to layup.

Be Patient When Tracking

At some point you'll notice where the animal’s movement turns erratic, where it'll suddenly go one way and then another from its normal course with no rhyme or reason. That tells me the lights are fading fast and the animal is looking for a place to go down. I’ve found in most cases the animal will be laying within 25-50 yards. You'll also notice that it might be when the blood and sign get hard to find. The reason being is the animal is pretty much bled out and will be piled up close by. If you can’t find any more blood, mark the spot with toilet paper and walk a small circle around the spot.

If you find nothing make the next circle a little bigger each time and at the same time watching for blood as well. Chances are it’s laying close by and one pass will find it. Other times I've seen where just spots of blood are only found during tracking then all of a sudden there’s blood all over like someone opened the flood gates. These are usually from marginal hits that were close to an artery and the exertion the deer puts out bursts that bruised or damaged artery. In those cases, there’s no problem following that trail.

There is quite a bit involved in tracking that only experience teaches you and makes you better at it. I learn something new with every track job. One thing is for sure, you can actually get in that animal’s head if you pay attention to the little details. I once tracked a small buck for a guy that swore up and down he hit it just behind the shoulder-a good solid hit. The blood was just red and no gut matter or odor. After two hours of tracking in the dark and kicking this deer up I started to have my doubts; something wasn’t adding up but we kept on it. Another two hours went by and we came upon the deer, still alive, bedded down but too tired to keep moving.

The guy stuck it and bled it out. We checked the buck over and I was surprised at what we found. The deer was hit on top of its right hindquarter, basically a deep flesh wound laid open. The buck would have probably healed up over time if predators didn’t discover him first. At the time I didn’t know that; I could only go by what the hunter told me. But the tracking sign didn’t coincide, the blood was high on vegetation and blood in one track many times and blood on a couple spots right on top of fresh droppings, but he swore it was a front shoulder hit.

At any rate, pay attention to what the animal is telling you, whether it’s direction, how many times it’s bedded, where the blood is, etc. Today there are many modern-day conveniences that can help you greatly as far as to knowing where you hit when bow hunting, such as blood illuminating flash lights or the illuminated nock points. If you don’t have them, I’ve used a light coating of white spray paint on the shaft and you can still see the arrow’s flight pattern well in low light. I've tried tracking strings but don’t like them and actually had them tangle and ruin the shot.

Pay Attention to Other Animals

One other thing that will help aid is watching for crows or ravens, especially if you have to leave your deer overnight. Many times these birds can and will find your kill before you even begin tracking in the morning. When leaving an animal overnight, the best time to get back out there is at first light. Reason being the dew is settled and it actually keeps the blood wet and easier to spot, compared to later where it gets dried from the sun and wind making it tough to see against all the different colors in the fall leaves, and if you ever tracked you know what I'm talking about, it can be difficult.

There is a possibility of predators getting your kill overnight. It is unfortunate, but it’s all a part of the game. I would rather share a small portion of my kill with the coyotes, than lose the entire animal because I did a poor track job and never recovered it.

Now taking this all into consideration, my breakdown is this. Gut shot animals I leave overnight hands down. On a good solid hit lungs, heart or major artery, let them sit a half hour and go get them. Chances are if you didn’t see or hear them crash, it won’t be long. Any other marginal hit I get on them within 20 minutes to a half hour; keeping the blood flowing and bleeding will put them down and keep them from clotting up. Many people disagree with that but it’s a theory that hasn’t let me down yet. If you really think about it, it makes a lot of sense and works.

You can always sharpen your tracking skills in everyday life whether you’re walking in the woods or walking your dog. Pay attention to signs that are left behind, disturbed leaves, crushed vegetation or dew wiped off of the grass or weeds. Keep an open mind, be diligent and take your time, and pay attention while looking. The clues are all there, even when tough to spot, but the animal can only move on its feet and can’t sprout wings, so perseverance will pay off. Not every shot is perfect and we owe it to the game we pursue to make the recovery as quick as possible.

Conclusion

So the next time you're faced with the task of tracking a deer or any other critter, keep what I've wrote in mind. Tracking starts the moment the shot goes and every detail can and will aid you in the recovery of that animal. Keep in mind that every animal you track adds more experience and helps one gain knowledge and insight that will be beneficial in making the next tracking job more efficient and successful. Good Luck!