TrackingWounded Deer: It's an Art

By Jeff Smith
November 2001

You just shot the biggest buck you’ve ever seen and he left the scene like a racehorse out the gate. I’ve been in this exact situation as I’m sure many of you have. What happens next can determine whether or not you’re chewing on jerky this winter. I've been involved with tracking over a hundred deer throughout the years and I've learned a lot about the process simply by experience and osmosis. I've been fortunate enough to learn from some the best trackers the southeast has to offer and have tracked deer in the snow, rain, heat, night, cold, cornfields, bean fields, pastures, woods, swamps, mountains, thickets, cane breaks, valleys, cut-over and just any other place known to man. One thing that's for sure "if you wound it ... it's your responsibility to do all you can find it".

 Deer hunting can be broken down into three parts:

1) The time when you start scouting until you've located the spot where you will hunt.
2) The time you start the hunt until you release the arrow or bullet.
3) The time when the projectile is released until you find the animal.

Each part of this process is very important in harvesting a deer. I'd like to spend a little time on part three.

Let me say first that 99% of the deer that I’ve tracked that was shot in the “kill zone”, my 4-year-old son would have no trouble finding. You could walk at a slow pace and see lots of blood and find the animal within a short distance. It’s those shots that don’t exactly conform that make tracking tough and add the art-form to the process. Some of the hardest deer I’ve tracked were shot with a bow at a severe downward angle in which the arrow passed through only one lung. This can be a very tricky situation. The arrow and blood trail point to a good hit, but the deer just keeps going. It’s for this reason that I like to shoot deer with a bow at the 15-20 yard range and no closer.

I'm not going to preach about shot placement and things of that nature, I want to focus on the post-shot activities. I've had a lot of discussion lately with other hunters about what they do right after the shot is released. I believe I have a weakness in focusing too much on the animal. I always watch more for how the animal is acting. Is it running with its tail up? Did it fall down, kick or run on contact with the projectile? Is the deer running over things or going around them? Is it running full steam or just trotting? I'm beginning to warm to the idea of watching more of the path the deer takes. Marks in the woods, such as trees it passes by and so forth. This information can provide good feedback if the blood trail is lost or if a miss is suspected.

 After the shot, I stay put for a long as I can take it. With bow hunting it's a major challenge, as I’ve just got to see how the arrow looks. I try to stay in the stand for at least 30 minutes if at all possible. Of course rain can be a factor. I wouldn't sit in a stand for 30 minutes while the rain-washes the blood trail away. The rain cost me a really good buck that I shot in a field one afternoon right at dark. It was a longest shot in the neighborhood of 250 yards. There were a dozen or so deer in the field when I shot and they scattered from the sound of the weapon. I couldn’t determine which way the buck ran with the naked eye. It has just started to rain when I fired and by the time I got to the spot where I thought the deer was standing, it was raining buckets. It was a big field that is over 800 yards long; I had a mark in the background but couldn’t determine the exact distance. The deer had been scattered at varying distances throughout the narrow field and I couldn't determine the exact spot where he stood or find a drop of blood. I searched well on into the night in the pouring rain and thunder. I was sure as the recoil of the gun came back down, I saw his white belly on the ground and him jump up. I called in sick the next day to work, I was sick about loosing this buck, and searched all day for him around the field. After the season was over the guys who leased the property adjacent to this field found a buck dead within 150 yards of the place I shot. He was in some thick cane and officially scored in the 150’s. I looked on that side of the field but did not trespass on the other property. It was about 10 days from when I shot him until that deer was found.

When I shoot at a deer, if at all possible, I’ll mark something in the background as a reference to where he was standing. I know after the shot, I'll be focusing on the deer and not where he was standing at the time of the shot. This really helps if you’re hunting in a big open field, as I'll pick a tree or some structure on the horizon before the shot.

Once I approach the place of the shot, I try to locate the exact spot the deer was standing and mark it. I carry a piece of orange trail marker tape in my fanny pack or pocket. When I locate the place the deer was standing, I tie the trail marker tape in place. I don't skimp; I might tie a four or six foot piece of tape at the location. Once I find the spot, I’ll get out of the area and wait for a while before coming back. If it's a bowshot, I'll try to find my arrow before leaving as the arrow can provide valuable feedback as to where it struck the deer. The amount of time I wait depends on the situation, at least an hour but preferably two or more. Once again it depends on the weather or should I say rain.

I always carry the following equipment with me tracking:

1) Lantern
2) Small Flashlight
3) Toilet Tissue (For Trail Marking)
4) Gloves

In a Ziploc Bag:

5) Extra Mantles
6) Extra Batteries for Flashlight
7) Matches
8) Lighter

A lantern is great for tracking deer! The blood will tend to put off a glow in the lantern light and make tracking much easier. A flashlight tends to "blast" the ground with light and make it more difficult to see the blood. The lantern will bathe the ground in light allowing the blood to almost take on a glowing state. I always carry extra mantles, matches and a lighter when tracking with a lantern. The matches work well for lighting the lantern and the lighter works best for "burning in" the mantles if new ones are needed. If you don't want to carry both, I'd opt for the matches. I keep a zip lock bag with the items stored in my vehicle glove box. I bought a shield for my tracking lantern that covers approximately half the globe. This keeps the light out of my eyes and directed forward. Tin-a-foil will work as well. The nut on top of the lantern will work loose over time and will be very hot. Don’t ask me how I know. I put a lock washer on my lantern and fixed that problem while I still have some skin on my fingers.

Lantern Advantages:

1) Make the blood really stand out.

 Lantern Disadvantages:

1) Harder to carry.
2) More to handle when dragging the deer out.
3) Stays hot for a long time.
4) Harder to transport to and from location.
5) Needs to be held fairly close to the ground.

I carry a small flashlight for backup in case the lantern runs out gas or somehow gets destroyed. The lantern has only one advantage, but to me this advantage far out weights the disadvantages, which are mostly of the inconvenience nature. I always turn the lantern off as soon as possible after finding the deer and use the flashlight. This allows the lantern more time to cool before putting it back in the vehicle. I bought a plastic case and made a strap to go around it for the lantern. It’s easier to transport in the case inside the vehicle and the lantern will usually be cool enough to store in the case after 30 minutes or so especially in the winter months.

Once I return to the site, I'll study the area the deer was standing at the time of the shot. I'm looking for any indication of where the animal was struck in the body cavity. I look for hair, bone fragments and such on the ground. I also study the blood at the site. How much has the blood coagulated? Is it a pinkish or bright red in color? How much blood is present? Is there blood at the spot the animal was standing or did he start to bleed afterwards? Each time you track a deer you should mentally note as many characteristics about the blood as possible and then after finding the animal you can determine what area the deer is bleeding from. Use this information on future tracking opportunities to try and determine where the animal was hit at the shot site. After several deer, you can look at the blood and tell what to expect from the shot. How does this help? If it's muscle blood, then you can wait a longer period of time and try to allow the animal to lie down to expire instead of jumping him to run half way across the state. There are lots of advantages to knowing where the animal is hit.

I also look for blood marks on trees to determine the height of the wound. I look for trees brushed on the right and left side of the animal to determine a pass through shot. I look for blood blown on the tops of low hanging leaves or the ground that might come out of the nose indicating a lung shot.

So what have we done so far?

1) Before the shot I noted something to use as a reference to locate the spot the animal was standing
2) Noted the way the animal acted when it ran off and picked out certain landmarks it ran by
3) Waited before approaching the shot location
4) Found the spot the animal was standing with minimum disturbance to the area
5) If it was a bowshot I try to recover the arrow
6) Left the area as quietly as possible
7) Waited to give the animal some time to expire
8) Returned to the site with supplies and help
9) Studied the site for clues as to what occurred

I like to track with one or two other people. Too many cooks can ruin the pie and the same is true with tracking. It seems if more than a couple of people are present, people tend to wonder around looking ahead of the blood trail. This is bad news! It's fun to carry a lot of people to help but the most important thing is to find the deer not make a party out of the situation. You owe it to the animal to recover it. Not only do they potentially destroy valuable sign but can cause the others on the blood trail to rush in order to catch up. I've seen this happen far to many times. If I show up to help someone track a deer and several people are there, I tend to just hang back a few steps behind the trackers and help if I'm asked to. Wandering away from the trail can spell disaster. I've been with people following a good trail to only have it play out, after a short period of time everyone is wandering around up ahead where they think the animal went. I feel you should stay on the blood trail until you have literally exhaustive every possible tool to find the next speck of blood.

I use toilet tissue to mark the trail as I move through the woods. Toilet tissue is biodegradable and I'm not required to go back to retrieve it. If your use trail marker tape, you should go back and take it down. For this reason I don't use it and would be highly agitated if someone left a trail marker tape line on our property tracking a deer. I will usually drop a small piece, a sheet or so, of tissue every three or four steps on the trail. It helps to line up the trail, provides a reference if you need to back track and helps keep you from getting lost. Yea, I've been lost a few times and it's no fun.

It also seems that after you recover the deer, there’s always a better way to get the animal out of the woods. If you use a non-biodegradable material, you need to back and retrieve it. This is just another reason to use toilet tissue.

 So at this point with a couple of trackers, I'm moving along the blood trail still studying the blood and marking the trail with toilet tissue. I'm always very reluctant to leave the trail if the blood seems to play out. If the blood does play out, I search vigorously for the next drop of blood but if it can't be located, I'll look back at my trail of tissue and try to determine which way the animal went. If the deer is following a deer trail and seems to be acting "normal", that's a bad sign. However, I'll use that information to look for the next drop of blood. I try to not step in the area I think the animal went and move very slowly ahead looking closely at the exact location for my next boot print.

I shot a buck with a bow one afternoon; the deer was one of several together in the area. After the shot, the deer stood for a moment and then they all ran off. The buck I shot actually ran about 30 yards away at the shot and then ran back to the original area with the other deer. After I retrieved the arrow and started tracking the deer, the blood trail just ended. The deer was shot through the heart and it seemed impossible for him to completely stop bleeding. I'm talking about going from buckets to zero. I followed the trail back up the line and he had retraced the original trail before running off and expiring 50 yards away. The blood trail made a V shape. Sometimes you have to expect the unexpected when things just don't seem right.

When gun hunting, I want the deer to drop in his tracks. If he runs off and I don't see him go down, I start feeling very uncomfortable about the situation. Most bow shot deer that are hit in the "good stuff" will run less than 100 yards and leave a blood trail my 4 year old can follow. It's those marginal shots that make it tough.

In summary, I'd recommend staying on the blood trail as long as possible, be patient, carry the right equipment and don't take a small army of people with you.

Good luck this year – hold low and squeeze slow!

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