Five Rules for Recovering Liver-Shot Deer

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I settled into my stand with favorable weather conditions and plenty of optimism for an early season September bowhunt in the rolling hills of Eastern Ohio.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, I heard a branch crack to the right and behind me. It was a buck sporting a symmetrical 8-point frame, most likely a 2½- or 3½-year-old. I was in college at the time and still a bowhunting novice, and this would be the largest buck I’d ever taken with a bow. He walked past my setup at 5 yards. I drew and made the rookie mistake of aiming with my arms and not my body. When a deer is that close to your stand and you are at full draw, bend at the waist to keep your anchor point consistent.

Lesson learned.

I shot high, and the deer bounded 15 yards away, uncertain what had just whizzed right over his spine. His confusion bought me enough time to nock another arrow, draw and shoot. The second shot hit the deer in what looked like the middle of his frame. On impact, his rear legs kicked backward and up like a bronco. He bolted as I sat shaking.

The real work was just about to start.

Every bowhunter strives for perfect shot placement, but every shot can’t hit the mark every time. Sometimes we make a lethal hit but compound less-than-desirable shot placement with mistakes in recovering the animal. A liver hit often leads to such a situation. The liver is tucked between the lungs and the rumen or stomach, so a shot that hits just slightly farther back than you would like will often hit the liver. If you think you may have hit the liver, remember these five steps to make sure you give yourself the best chance at recovery.

The liver (dark purple) is tucked just behind the lungs. The white line shows the location of the entire organ behind the lung.
The liver (dark purple) is tucked just behind the lungs. The white line shows the location of the entire organ behind the lung.

Back Off Right Away

My experience was a classic case of a liver hit—because of where I saw the arrow hit on impact, the deer’s reaction, and the dark red blood I found on the ground and arrow. After giving the deer a half hour, I made the mistake of going after it. I kicked him up about 100 yards from where I shot him. It was at that point I decided to depart the woods for the night and come back the next day. If ever in doubt, give the animal time.

Bring Help

I was hunting by myself, so I didn’t have the luxury of having a friend to help me find the deer – or so I thought. My uncle, who lived about an hour from the property, volunteered to come help me track. His help was invaluable because a liver hit typically produces only small, sporadic drops of blood. Several times my uncle located blood when I couldn’t. More eyeballs help. Also, check your local laws and regulations regarding the use of tracking dogs. You can’t underestimate the nose of a well-trained tracking K-9.

Get Rest and Stay Hydrated 

Don’t miscalculate your rest and how you feel before and during the track. Bring water and snacks. This was especially true for me since it was September and temperatures still reached well into the 80s. If you become fatigued, your motor skills and senses suffer, and you may give up the trail too soon. Also, you need to maintain high morale, and that starts with feeling rested and nourished. 

Track Your Tracking

Develop a system to mark the last spot you saw sign. Whether its tracks, blood or the site where you saw the animal, bring marking tape, glow sticks, toilet paper, or use the GPS application on your phone to track your progress. Don’t waste time and energy having to backtrack or – worse – getting lost. Take your time, and record your path.

Take a Weapon

A liver hit is a lethal shot, but it may take longer for the deer to expire than with a heart/lung hit. When you find the deer, it could still be alive. Bringing a weapon with you on any tracking job is a good idea but especially for a liver hit.

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Fortunately, I was able to find my buck the next morning. He was on a trail only 100 yards from camp in the opposite direction from where I started to track. In total, the buck traveled about a mile and showed signs of bedding down on several occasions the night he was hit. There were times when blood was sparse and patience paid dividends. I’m hard-pressed to find a tougher animal than a whitetail, but every deer will succumb to a lethal liver hit. Follow these rules and stick with the trail and you will increase your chances of recovering your deer. 

About the Author

Jeremy Juhasz is a public relations and marketing professional from Atlanta, Georgia. When he’s not in the office, Jeremy is an avid bowhunter who has chased whitetails in Western New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Georgia. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyJuhasz for all things PR, hunting and Buffalo, New York sports.

  • Robert Brandywine

    I’ve shot two deer in the liver. Both dropped at the shot. Quicker kill than a lung shot in these two cases.

  • Educationallysound

    If you hit a deer in the liver don’t bother going after it for at least three hours. Do not in any way get on it in half an hour; you will jump the deer and may never find it. I hit one in the liver; a nice 6 point buck. He ran ten yards, stopped and stood there for a couple of minutes out of my range. Then he walked about 60 yards and laid down for 25 minutes. I timed him. I decided to hit the doe bleat because I had seen another buck. However, when he heard it, he rose up and walked slowly down hill. I sat for three more hours hunting and never left the tree stand. After three hours, I got down and tracked him. I took my sweet time and marked the blood trail with toilet paper tied around branches where I had seen blood. I followed the blood trail into a swamp; i spied him lying down, and when he saw me, he raised his head and tried to rise: I shot him through the heart from about ten yards. He had actually been to weak too come to his hooves. When you don’t get right on a deer, which is mortally wounded, but from a bad shot, you give it a chance to lay down, bleed out, and stiffen up, which gives you a better chance of success.

    • Jeremy Juhasz

      Thanks for reading and sharing your story! You did the right thing by letting your buck bed down. Mine did several times during the overnight hours before expiring. With those hits, it’s always against your nature to let the animal suffer, but you know if you push it the likelihood at recovery dwindles significantly.