Hot on the Trail:
A Hunterís Guide to Tracking Wounded Deer
Don W. Sangster
As deer hunters, we strive for quick, one-shot kills. Unfortunately, though, things sometimes just don't work out that way Ė factors beyond our control can result in an animal running off after the shot. This is especially the case for bowhunters.
Unlike high-powered bullets or slugs that generally kill game quickly due to shock, broadheads cause animals to haemorrhage to death. Thatís because of the relatively low energy an arrow delivers at impact delivered by an arrow, compared with todayís hunting cartridges. Consequently, bowhunters are more likely to find themselves tracking wounded game.
Not that rifle hunters arenít sometimes forced to search for lost animals. In fact, this becomes more likely the longer the shot. At extreme ranges, the bullet loses too much energy to produce a quick kill. Instead, the animal eventually succumbs to the trauma of the wound, although it may travel some distance first. So, while the following 10 pointers are primarily geared toward bowhunters, rifle hunters would also do well to brush up on their tracking skills.
1. Make the First Shot Count
Some of the most important things you can do to minimize the amount of tracking should actually be done before you take the shot. For starters, itís essential to maintain a razor-sharp edge on all broadheads. Similarly, rifle hunters should make sure they theyíve chosen an appropriate cartridge-bullet combination to do the job.
Bu more importantly, you need to carefully pick your shot. This means waiting for that perfect broadside or quartering-away shot, and passing on others. It also means not shooting when the target is beyond the maximum range you are comfortable with, or if there are obstructions that may deflect an arrow from the heart and lung region.
This level of discipline is hard to achieve, especially when the target is a trophy buck and you have few such opportunities. But strive for a quick, humane kill; nothing can ruin a season like a lost trophy or an animal that suffers needlessly.
To help ensure clear shots, carefully choose the location of your treestand or ground blind. This requires pre-season scouting, if possible, and factoring in the prevailing wind direction, morning and evening sun locations, surrounding terrain, available cover, etc. If after setting up your stand you are seeing plenty of deer, but they are out of range, or are coming in head on, move. This may seem obvious, but it is amazing how many hunters will stubbornly stick with their original location, day after day, hoping the deer will eventually appear as theyíd predicted. Perhaps some of us are too proud to admit that our first assessment of the location was wrong?
2. Refine Your Shooting
The second item of pre-shot importance is practice. Getting a good shooting opportunity is one thing, but you must be able to hit the mark. Using the same equipment you plan to hunt with, practise until you are completely familiar with all of your gear, and you are comfortable shooting at all ranges, from a variety of positions. And donít forget to practise from your treestand, where trajectories and ranges will be different than on the ground.
3. Learn to Judge Distances
Knowing or accurately estimating the distance to your target is crucial in bowhunting, and range estimation is something that should be practised year-round, in case of a sudden, unexpected shooting opportunity. A good way to sharpen your eyes is to guess the range to various everyday objects that you encounter while walking on the street, such as light posts, trees, cars, people, etc, and then pacing-off the actual distance. Of course, it helps to measure the actual length of your stride in advance. This simple and fun exercise can result in surprising accuracy, especially at bow ranges, after just a short time.
However, when you are in your stand, greater accuracy is possible. Usually, you will have a fairly good idea of where game should appear, so there is no excuse for not knowing the exact range to these spots. Pace off the distance (preferably in scent-free rubber boots) to natural markers such as rocks, stumps, trees, etc., or put out your own, but make sure that they will be visible under low light conditions without spooking the animal. Remember to allow for the height of your treestand, as this adds distance to the range. I know of one very disciplined bowhunter who will not shoot beyond 20 yards, so he ties one end of a 20 yard piece of string to his treestand, and then walks around the tree with the other end in his hand, marking his maximum distance to various points all around his stand
The best method, however, is to use a range finder, as they are highly accurate, they factor treestand height and angle, and they prevent you from permeating your stand location with human scent while pacing off distances. Just make sure you get the yardages before the game appears, and remember to mark spots all around your stand Ė not just where you expect the deer to appear, as you just never know.
4. Stay Focused
Let's say youíve taken the shot, but the buck has run off and disappeared. It is extremely important that you make a careful mental note of where the animal was standing when you fired, and where you last saw it before it vanished. The latter is where you will start tracking, while the shot site should offer clues as to whether you actually hit the animal. I canít over-emphasize the necessity to indelibly mark these two spots in your mind, in preparation for the next step.
5. Donít Rush Things
So youíve taken the shot and made a mental note of where you last saw the deer. Now what? In a word, wait Ė for at least 30 minutes. This is the time to sit back, relax, smoke íem if you got íem, but just donít forget the location of the above two sites. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to charge off after your trophy, as you imagine it getting further and further away with each passing minute, but resist you must. Donít even climb down from your treestand, as the animal may see, hear or smell you.
The reason for the long wait is simple. If you immediately start stomping around after the deer, you will push it further and further, as adrenaline will start pumping through the deerís system and may allow a mortally wounded animal to travel much farther than one that is left alone, thereby making tracking and recovery that much harder (especially if you suspect you made a poor shot or hear the animal still on its feet). Many veteran deer chasers also swear that venison from a deer that was chased a long distance before recovery does not taste as good due to the high levels of adrenaline.
Conversely, if not pursued, the animal will likely lie down to rest after a short distance, and will then succumb. With a solid hit in the vitals, it will usually not travel more than 100 yards, unless harassed.
A good way to occupy your mind while waiting is to reflect on the shot. Did you see or hear the arrow or bullet strike home? How did the animal react to the shot? A deer that runs off with its head and neck stretched out low to the ground, crashing through the brush, is a good indicator of a hit, as is a deer that kicks out its hind legs as it runs off. However, the absence of such signs does not automatically mean a miss.
While the 30-minute rule is critical, there are times when it is simply not possible or practical. If a heavy rain or snow is falling, and would quickly obliterate all sign, immediate tracking, preferably with some assistance, is usually advisable. A rapidly approaching nightfall can be another exception. In areas with high predator populations, namely coyotes, anything left out overnight may be ruined or eaten by morning, so immediate or night time follow-up is best. Otherwise, postponing the search until morning is usually a good idea, especially when the temperature is cool enough to prevent spoilage of the meat. You must simply use your judgement under such circumstances.
6. Search for Clues
Once the 30 minutes are up, you can then climb down and search the shot site for evidence of a hit, such as bits of hair, tissue or blood. Note, however, that the absence of such clues does not necessarily mean you missed. In fact, always assume you made a hit, until you are sure or convinced otherwise.
If you know that you made a hit, evidence at the site can tell you more about the nature of the hit. For instance, blood that is bright red or pink, and foamy or frothy, is a good sign of a lung shot. White belly hair or bits of intestines means a gut-shot animal, and likely a long tracking job.
When you find such clues, mark them with big, bright objects, such as blaze orange vests and hats. Orange trail marker tape, or biodegradable facial or toilet tissue, can all be used for marking spots Ė just make sure that you remove them after recovering your trophy. Mark the shot site and the spot where the animal was last seen, as you may need to come back to them.
7. Follow the Evidence
Naturally, ground cover like snow, mud or sand makes tracking a lot easier, but what if you donít have such a luxury? Start looking for any sign just beyond where the animal was last seen, while having someone else look ahead for a possible follow-up shot. Get down low and go very slowly. Youíre looking for things like hoof marks in the grass or leaves, broken twigs or branches, bits of hair and, of course, drops of blood. Keep in mind that, depending upon whether the arrow or bullet exited, the majority of the bleeding, especially from a good hit, could be internal. Donít expect to see pools of blood Ė especially not right away Ė just small spots on the ground or cover.
Autumn leaves, especially when wet, can often take on colours that are easily mistaken for blood. Feel these areas with your hands to see if the colour comes off or is actually part of the leaf. Don't be afraid to get down on your hands and knees and get dirty Ė it will all be worth it
Make sure that you clearly mark each spot where you find some spoor, as it may become important later on. If you lose the trail, go back to the last marker, and start circling it, gradually moving further out until you find the next sign. Donít step on the trail and be careful to preserve all sign. If you have to backtrack, be on the lookout for your trophy lying next to some obstacle that may have blocked your view on the way by, but is now wide open when approached from the opposite direction.
8. Follow your Instincts
Letís assume that you lose the trail, and all further sign seems to have vanished. If you have not already done so, this is the time to get as many buddies as possible to help you search. This is also when the trail of markers you have left behind becomes very important. Go back to the shot site and look at the line of markers laid out ahead of you. You should be able to see a path emerging, and if you know the area (or have a topo map), you may be able to predict where the animal has headed. However, you should first follow the directional line past the last place where you found sign, and concentrate your search there for more sign. Only when no more sign can be found is it wise to head off in the direction in which you think the animal has travelled.
Wounded game will often head for the thickest, nastiest, most impenetrable cover around, in order to find a place to bed down where they feel safe from possible pursuers. Swamps, bogs, river bottoms and dense brush are all good bets as possible destinations. However, along the way to these thorny hideouts, deer will often take the path of least resistance, usually in the form of game trails, but possibly fence lines, logging trails, etc.
Such paths arenít always evident, however, unless you get down low and look under the branches, at the deerís level. The tendency for deer, especially wounded ones, to choose well-used escape trails is important to remember when trying to predict the path and destination of your quarry.
Also think about where the animal has been hit, as this can also determine which direction it may travel (or vice versa). For instance, if an animal is hit in the hindquarters, it would be very difficult for it to travel uphill. Conversely, downhill travel would be next to impossible if the animal is hit in the front legs. Watch for signs of such hits, such as drag marks, and use these clues to predict where the animal may go.
Before plodding right into the cover where you believe the deer has hopefully bedded down, search the perimeter for a possible entrance or exit point the animal may have used. This is when the search can really become tough, but we must do everything possible to try to recover the animal, as it is our ethical and moral responsibility, and the law.
9. Donít Get Discouraged
Take frequent breaks. Analyze. Sit down, clear your head, and think about the situation. It may not be as hopeless as it seems. Above all, donít give up. Think of the waste of a lost animal, and redouble your efforts. Even if you end up giving away most of the meat to those that helped you search, it is worth it.
10. Know When to Say ďUncleĒ (or Not)
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of tracking to advise on, as it really all depends on a number of variables. We must always assume a hit, but if the shot didnít look right, and you have absolutely no evidence to indicate a hit, and the animal appears to be travelling normally, it is probably safe to declare a miss after about a half-mile of tracking. Keep in mind, though, that countless hunters have finally found the tiniest drop of blood just as they were about to call off a long search.
However, if a hit is confirmed, our obligation is almost never-ending. There is virtually no place that a deer can go that a human cannot. If you know where the animal went, follow it. If you canít find any more sign, keep looking until you do. Do grid searches for the deer itself, not for sign, before you give up. Donít be afraid to search again the next day, and even the day after, as that trophy may be lying just under your nose, in the smallest bit of cover. I have seen three adult deer bed down and disappear in a patch of brush so small that if I had not seen it myself, I would never have believed that three full-grown deer could be hiding in there.
We all like to see the animal drop at the shot as if pole-axed, but when that doesnít happen, following these tips will help put the odds in your favour to find your trophy. If Iíve made the job of tracking and recovery sound like a lot of hard work, thatís because it can be. Perhaps more of us should consider this before taking a low-percentage shot.