Tracking Wounded Whitetail Deer
No hunter likes to wound a deer, however it does happen from time to time. Never the less unless the whitetail deer you shot drops on the spot, the hunter must track the whitetail deer he has shot in order to retrieve the specimen. My intent with this article is to educate hunters or to increase education on how to successfully track and recover whitetail deer that have been arrowed or shot with gun. There are several things to consider when a hunter is mandated to track the whitetail deer he or she shot. They include Determining whether or not the shot was a hit or miss, Basic skills of blood trailing, tracking as a group, lung and heart hits, back hits, liver and kidney hits, gut shots, leg hits, nonfatal hits, tracking with dogs, along with other miscellaneous data one will need to become a better tracker.
Determining whether or not the shot on your whitetail deer was a hit or a miss
Normally when you shoot at a whitetail deer their will be some indication you have made contact with the whitetail deer. For example on September 17, 2008 a 150 inch drop tine buck made its way across the long stretch of bean field toward my tree stand with only 35 minutes of light left. I patiently waited for him to get within 23 yards and released an arrow into his heart for a clean quick harvest. The buck kicked his back legs up into the air like a bucking bronco horse at a rodeo. Most often times when a whitetail buck kicks his legs up like a bucking bronco youíve hit heart. It is vital after the shot to watch the whitetailís behavior, and to remember just where you last saw the whitetail deer and how he reacted. Deer that normally arenít hit bound off a few yards, and look back like a dumb ole mule deer wondering what has occurred. I also remember the gun season of 2007 when I took a huge 160 inch deer with my 300 Win. Mag at 20 yards. After I hit the deer he just ran as fast and as hard as he could go as if I hadnít even hit him but rather had just scared him to death. Part of the reason the deer showed not sign of being hit is that the heavy bullets probably had gone through the chest without much expansion, minimizing shock. I really thought I had missed but normally if an whitetail deer you shoot at takes off running hard and wreck less to retreat you have made a hit. One important thing to always remember when determining whether or not you have made contact is fatally hit deer donít always bleed externally. If you feel you have made a foolproof shot and have that gut feeling that you couldnít have missed itís always best to come back during daylight hours and make a thorough search of the area. As a general rule with respect to the whitetail deer always assume you hit the whitetail deer until a thorough search of the area is performed.
Because deer sometimes bleed internally rather than externally always remember the last location you saw the deer run to or by so you can go to that area in the event a good blood trail isnít found to try and pick up the track again. After the shot donít get excited and climb down from your tree stand. Look for a landmark in the same exact location you last saw the deer for the purpose of picking up the blood trail again in the event it is lost.
While we have already established that its not always possible to determine if you hit the deer by its behavioral reactions there are certain things to look for. A whitetail deer may flinch, stumble, shudder, hunch up, drop its tail, jump, kick with its hind legs, or break into what I call a hard death run. (This is common when a whitetail deer is hit solidly with an arrow.) If the deer runs after the shot watch closely to determine if it does stumble or breaks it natural gait or canter, makes a sudden change in direction, a limp or favor of one side. Whitetail deer often times tuck their tails when hit. While this is common itís not always the case. Sometimes when a deer is hit cleanly with an arrow the deer doesnít know its even been hit and goes about their business grazing or walking and then collapses. As a general rule carefully watch for any clues you have made contact with your bullet or arrow on each harvest attempt.
How Whitetail Hunters Can Determine Where the Shot Impacted the Whitetail Deer
In order to determine where you hit your deer, regardless of the whitetail deerís reaction upon shooting look for hair, and blood. A deer hit with a broadhead often times leaves strands of hair behind most likely from the exit wound as the broadhead pushes hair in upon entry but cuts hair off the exit wound. Hair from the back, chest, and rump there will be a band f brown or tan near the tip with black both above and below it. Typically these types of hits throw off brown, grey, or black hair. To be quiet honest its hard to tell from hair where the whitetail deer was hit, unless your viewing white hair. White hair often times reveals the deer was hit low or in the guts which is a hit one wants to try and refrain from tracking overnight or for at least several hours. Deer hit in the guts typically hunch up, while a deer hit in the lungs, heart, or liver may make a deer take off at a dead run. Hairs on the back and neck are the darkest by far. The lower portion of the back hairs are gray. Brisket hairs are curly hairs 2-3 inches long and found on the belly. Long white hairs are found on the underside of the tail. Hair that is found on site and contains deposits of white fat typically mean the whitetail deer was just grazed and not hit in solid manner.
Letís discuss the issue of blood. While itís a gruesome subject it is vital a whitetail deer hunter understand what type of blood he or she is looking at in order to determine how soon to try and retrieve the whitetail deer that has been hit. Pink or bright red foamy or blood containing bubbles indicates a lung hit. Of course that is what we all hope to find at the scene of the crime. Lungs are generally pink in color. When they are damaged they fill with small air bubbles that are blow out of the deer onto the ground or sometimes even the arrow that is retrieved. Sometimes this blood is sprayed on saplings along the travel route of the retreating whitetail deer so donít just be looking on the ground for blood sign. I recently retrieved a lung shot whitetail deer and when I turned the whitetail deer over her side was covered with foamy pink blood from the lungs. The only tricky part is if the windpipe or trachea is hit you may also see bubbles.
Bright red blood usually results from major artery hits on whitetail deer. Heart shot whitetail deer also leave the bright red blood trail. Muscle shots may often times result in blood that looks like an arterial hit but serious arterial hits more often times spray blood due to the massive amounts of blood a whitetail deer emits when hit in an artery or in the heart. Thus as a general rule is the blood is sprayed a good distance (3 to 4 feet) from the traveling whitetail deer as it exits the area itís not a muscle hit.
When the whitetail hunter hits a leg bright red blood may appear but if bone fragments are present at the scene it means you have hit an artery along the legs.
Dark or purple blood is characteristic of a deer hit in the liver. Liver shot whitetail deer need many hours to die and with liver or gut shot deer they usually produce a fever which push deer to water in the forms of creeks, rivers, etc.
If a whitetail hunter is bow hunting you always want to smell and examine your arrow for the aforementioned clues and smell the arrow to see if you can determine stinky intestinal odors. Much can be determined by looking at the arrow. You can immediately determine the color of blood, color of hair, and the smell of the arrow to once again determine gut shot whitetail deer. Again I will say that gut shot and liver shot whitetail deer need many hours to pass away. Donít push deer that you believe to be shot in either of these areas of you will usually not recover them.
Blood sign on the arrows can also tell you the amount of penetration on a whitetail deer hit. A lot of blood over the shaft of the arrow is a good sign. Arrow only covered on one side normally reflect hits that are high in the back and in the brisket.
Bowhunters that hear a loud smack upon impact can almost always bet they have hit the shoulder. With shoulder hits you want much penetration. This is where I could give you my ďDonít Use Carbon Arrow Speech to Defy the Laws of EnertiaĒ but I will refrain from doing so as normally nobody listens.
On a recent recovery of a deer for a friend he told me he thought he had made a wonderful shot. From the initial location he had hit the deer little blood was present. I thought to myself, ďWe are in trouble.Ē I tracked the deer with literal drops of blood for a couple hundred yards. I just knew we wouldnít find the deer. The deer even climbed a steep incline. At the top of the incline a 2 foot radius of pool of blood was found and then no more blood was present. Fifteen yards away laid his Pope and Young Whitetail Deer. The deer had bled a lot but it was all internal. This makes a perfect case for always track the whitetail deer as far as you can and never give up until your out of blood and then look some more. Normally deer that are bleeding good and then just stop have ran out of blood and are somewhere close.
Lessons on Blood Trailing
Normally if massive amounts of blood are present and in a relatively straight line the whitetail deer hasnít gone far. After the shot always be mindful of where you last saw the deer and what direction he was heading. Brent Thomure may be the best tracker I have ever seen. When Brent tracks your deer he mandates that everyone stay behind him if a group of people are present. The reason is because if one person gets ahead of the group and clumsily turns one wrong leaf, blade of grass, or twig over that has blood on it then it can mean the difference between retrieving the deer or not. Never let a bunch of guys get out ahead of the lead man running the track so they can carelessly turn over evidence leading to the successful retrieval of the deer.
Its also a good idea to leave orange tape of a new product the industry has introduced that are orange lights on orange strings to mark where blood is present in an effort to pick up the direction and trail the next day. Often times it gives away the direction the whitetail deer is traveling for exit of the shot premises.
Its best for whitetail deer archers to let deer lie for a while prior to tracking unless active precipitation or oncoming precipitation is present. Blood will get washed away leaving no clues. In active precipitation whitetail deer must be pursued no matter what kind of shot was made on the animal. Always remember to proceed quietly and cautiously when tracking the wounded or hit whitetail deer as to not kick the animal back up. Animals that lay up after a hit often times clot up and if kicked back up can leave no blood trail resulting in no retrieval. Also the hunter always needs to take his or her weapon on the tracking of the whitetail deer that has been hit as a follow up shot may be required. Donít ever track a deer without bringing you weapon.
Always carry good lights and extra batteries when beginning the track. Sometimes tracking can go on for a long time. Weak flashlights without back up batteries have no place in the tracking game. Use each spot of blood as a vital point or clue leading to the next spot of blood. I canít count the number of times I have been on my hand and knees looking for drops of blood. Some animals that donít bleed well on level ground will disperse large amounts of blood when traveling up or down inclines due to the exit of the bullet or arrow. Kind of a bathtub drain effect.
Trackers of whitetail deer often times walk down deer trails thinking the whitetail deer has traveled the deer trail to exit. Often times injured whitetail deer run wrecklessly through the timber without paying attention to trails they would normally follow. Think if you were hit with an arrow or bullet. You probably wouldnít react by coolly and concisely staying on a trail when exiting the hunt area or where weapon impact occurred. Also remember running deer make a noticeable disturbance on the ground every time they touch down, kicking up soil, leaves, stones, and other debris. Kicked up dirt will be a different color. Often times branches at waist level will be broken off and white on the tips giving away the direction the whitetail deer is heading.
If all else fails and no deer is recovered within a day or so magpies, crows, buzzards, or other predatory birds may hover or circle above the carcass to feed. I have found deer shot by hunters using these birds that scavenge. While your cape of the deer may be ruined you can still salvage the antlers and pay the taxidermist to get you a cape so you may mount your trophy.
Recently in Pike County, Illinois a deer hunter I know shot a nice 150 class buck which folded and fell to the ground within visual site of his tree stand. When this happens the whitetail hunter needs to remain quiet and watch the deer to see his reactions. This particular deer lived for many hours and would lift his head on occasions quite groggy but was just a tough animal and refused to give up. In a scenario such as this the hunter has to just sit in the stand and wait until he believes the deer is dead. Donít get down from the stand and approach the animal to get another shot quickly. Let nature take its course or your running the risk of losing your trophy whitetail deer. Years ago, early in my whitetail career I shot a buck and watched him fall to the ground only 50 yards from my position. I got excited and climbed down out of the tree to go look at him. When I got to him he was gone and never was found. I was impatient and paid the price dearly. As a general rule let the deer lay up and die.
Whitetail Deer Shot in the Head or Neck
Typically no whitetail deer hunter wants to aim at a head or neck despite the fact most of these shots are fatal. Sometimes on a head or neck shot the hit can temporarily shock the deer requiring a follow up shot. As a general rule just donít aim at these locations.
Whitetail Deer Shot in the Back
A spine shot can put down an animal in his tracks but obviously isnít the best of choices for shot placement. A spine shot animal often times trys to crawl away despite paralysis so be ready to shoot again. This is the one time I would get down and put another bullet or arrow in the whitetail deer. Hunters who hesitate on wasting another arrow or bullet to follow up a spine shot deer need a spanking. It is unethical.
Whitetail Deer Shot in the Liver or Kidneys
My first experience with a liver shot deer was in Illinois. The track began with purple blood and thanks to an experienced hunter that was accompanying me we immediately stopped tracking the deer and went into town for dinner and some soda. Liver shot deer can take up to 5 hours to pass on. Remember that the dark purple blood is a direct clue of a liver or kidney contact on a whitetail deer. These shots are not shots that you should employ an immediate pursuit of. You canít let whitetail deer that are shot in these areas lie too long. Patience will result in recovery.
Gut Shot Whitetail Deer
If hunters employ the proper strategies gut shot whitetail deer can be recovered but this shot may be the worst shot of all in the whitetail world. As aforementioned normally gut shot deer will hunch up just as if they were holding their stomach if they had arms with a tummy ache. Archers with arrows smelling of intestines or have feces on the arrow are obviously gut shot whitetail deer. Remember you are literally looking for digested or semi digested juices and food on the arrow. Once a hunter determines that a deer is gut shot you must simply mark the last blood and back out for up to 12 hours. This is when a tracking dog can pay dividends if legal in your state. Normally gut shot deer will head for water to reduce fevers accompanied with a gut shot. Thus ditches with water or ponds, rivers, etc. may be their final destination. Normally a gut shot deer wonít travel more than 300 yards from the location of which is was shot. When trailing gut shot deer you will see that blood isnít to the side of where they are walking but rather directly underneath them on most occassions. And again sometimes gut shot deer are only recovered by watching local ravens, crows, and buzzards as they circle the carcass days later.
Remember that ethical hunters always do everything they can to track and successfully recover wounded animals. Do all you can and look as long as you can. It often times does result in the recovery of a trophy animal.