You have worked hard on your land all season long preparing food plots, hanging stands and clearing trails. Finally, the season has arrived and the moment of truth has just walked into your luscious food plot. Taking careful aim at the large doe, you imagine how good the meat will taste and also that you are doing your part to help manage your deer herd. Just remember your responsibility as an ethical hunter to do two important things next: First, make the best shot you can to ensure a quick kill, and second, be ready to put every effort into recovering the deer if it does not go down in sight. This moment of truth has happened to me twice already in the 2012 archery season and has ended both times in a successful bow shot and recovery.
Over my 35 years of hunting, I have been on my share of blood trails, on animals ranging from hogs to deer to bears. Between the whitetails I have shot and those I have helped recover, I would venture to say I have followed no less than 500 deer blood-trails. In the process, I have gained a lot of insight on the subject that I would like to share.
First, blood-trailing deer is always easier when the blood-trail is short and the deer dies quickly. You can ensure short blood-trails by practicing with your bow or firearm and taking only ethical shots within your proficiency range. Once you pull the trigger or release an arrow, remember the three cardinal rules: watch, listen and wait.
Watch: Gather as much information as you can by observing the reaction of the deer after the shot to help determine where you hit the animal, which has a lot to do with how you will proceed hereafter.
Well-placed shots in the heart and lung area typically send the deer tearing out of town, often running low to the ground and crashing awkwardly through obstacles. Heart-shot deer also typically kick like a mule after being hit in the boiler room.
Poorly placed shots in the paunch or intestines normally cause the deer to “hunch” its back and then make a short run, followed by a walk. These deer often bed down quickly, sometimes within sight of your stand.
Leg hit deer usually run hard but show signs of a noticeable limp and tend to crash through brush awkwardly.
Listen: I listen intently when I shoot for the sound of a shoulder being hit or the “hollow pumpkin” sound of an arrow or bullet passing through the deer’s chest.
By listening and watching as the deer runs off, form both a visual and audible trail of the animal as it leaves the scene. It is important that you pinpoint the place where the deer was standing when you shot it and the last place you saw it, so you can find these locations again once you are on the ground. By listening, you may even hear the sounds of the deer hitting the ground and have a good idea where it will be found.
Wait: I normally wait at least 30 minutes in the stand regardless of the shot, unless the deer is dead within view. If the animal is down nearby but not dead, you don’t want to spook it by making noise by coming out of your stand. After 30 minutes, I quietly get down from the stand and investigate the immediate scene. I locate the place the deer was standing when I shot, and I look for signs of blood, hair or a dislodged arrow.
Crimson, frothy blood indicates a hit in the lungs and usually a decent blood trail. Bright red blood can indicate a heart shot or possible leg wound. Dark red blood usually means a hit to the liver. Blood that is mixed with green or brown material and has an odor usually means a gut-shot, which will require more time and patience.
Schools of thought vary on how long you should wait on a deer. I will give you my general thoughts, but it always comes with an “it depends” disclaimer. A deer shot in the heart or lungs with a rifle should be found dead within 150 yards and can usually be recovered quickly after the initial 30-minute wait. The waiting time for an arrow lung or heart shot of a deer depends on where you hit them and whether you got one lung or two. A deer can go a long way on one good lung, and I have seen them last for hours. If you are confident in your shot, I would trail a hard-hit arrow-shot deer after one hour of waiting.
Liver shots can be tricky. I normally wait a minimum of 2 hours and sometimes 3 or 4 hours depending on the situation. A liver shot is always fatal, and a deer normally does not go far if it isn’t pushed. If pushed, it could go a long way.
A deer hit in the stomach or intestines requires more time. If there is no threat of rain, I normally wait 4 to 6 hours before picking up the trail. If it is cool enough at night, I will let a gut-shot deer rest overnight and come search the next morning. Obviously, this is a shot you want to avoid at all costs, so put every effort into being proficient with your gun or bow, and choose only ethical shot opportunities.
Trailing dogs are becoming more and more popular, and I have trained and used quite a few myself. In my home state of Georgia, there are plenty of trailing dogs available for hire. They are without a doubt one of the most effective tools for finding a marginally but fatal hit deer, as long as they are legal in your state.
I have a separate pack that I keep in my truck that contains all my blood-trailing equipment and is always ready when I need it. The following items are essential for anyone who is about to take up a blood-trail.
A good flashlight with 50 to 70 lumens is essential at night to light up a trail. I carry one of those emergency flood lights that has a battery life of over 6 hours.
I also carry toilet paper to mark the trail (I drop a square of paper at each patch or spot of blood). The helps you visualize the deer’s line of travel to aid in finding the next blood droplets, and also makes it easy to come back to your last drop of blood if you lose the trail.
I always carry a compass or a small GPS unit to help me get back to the start of my trail. This can be very valuable at night or in unfamiliar territory.
It is nice to have an area photo or map of your hunting area as well.
The other things I carry are a small pistol (when legal) to dispatch the wounded deer if necessary, a deer drag rope, my cell phone, a knife and a small spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Blood will fizz when sprayed with hydrogen peroxide, so you can use it to find or confirm the next blood droplet.
If the blood runs out and you still have not found your deer, don’t give up. Begin a grid search of the area, and recruit the help of friends if possible. Depending on how thick the area is, I try to keep everyone within sight so that no thick spots are overlooked. When all else fails, head to your nearest water source. I have found countless deer near or in creeks or shallow ponds.
The final piece of advice I can give you is to never give up until you find your animal or confirm it was not hit fatally.
Good luck this season, and may all your blood-trails be short and easy to follow!