Tracking A Wounded Deer

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.