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Whitetail Deer: Anatomy, Tracking, and Recovery of


Nothing is more disappointing than failing to recover an animal after the shot. As hunters it is our responsibility to be ethical. We must do everything in our power to assure a quick harvest, accompanied by an effective follow-up. It is critical to become familiar with the anatomy of the whitetail deer, and become educated on tracking tactics in order to insure a recovery.
Become familiar with deer anatomy, prior to heading for the timber. Approximately ten vital circulatory channels exist. The oblique cervical, is located in the mid-upper section of the neck. The jugular vein, lies in the mid-lower neck. Just below the jugular vein lies the carotid artery. The aortic arch and exterior pectoral lie close to the heart. The Interior Pectoral is located just above the legs. The Dorsal Aorta lies in the mid-upper back. The Posterior Vena Cava lies in front of the intestines, and leads to the heart. The Femoral Artery is located in the back hip. Do not select any of the circulatory channels, with the exception of the heart, for a target. Become aware of the composition of the circulatory system. This will assist in analyzing future tracking after the shot.
“The average white-tailed deer weighing about 150 pounds, carries about 8 pints of blood in its circulatory system. Massive hemorrhage is necessary to bring a deer down quickly. A deer must lose at least 35 percent of its blood, or 2 3/4 pints in a 150 pound animal, before falling the first time. Vital area hits insure quick blood loss. Deer blood carries high levels of Vitamin K1 and K2 in early autumn. This vitamin is an antihemmorrhagic agent, which promotes clotting” (Deer and Deer Hunting, 1999).
There are six vital organs to be aware of. These include lungs, heart, liver, rumen, intestines, and kidneys. The lungs are located inside the diaphragm behind the skeletal system’s shoulder blade. The heart is located slightly above the lungs. The liver lies behind the lungs toward the mid-section of the animal. Kidneys lie in the back portion of the deer, just above the intestines.
When shooting at deer with a bow, aim for the heart. If a deer “jumps the string” by dropping sharply before bounding away, the arrow will still hit the lungs. Shot placement for whitetails falls into one of three categories, they are as follows:
1) Broadside-(bows & guns):
Gun-hunters can drop deer instantly with a broadside shot by putting a bullet through the shoulder blade. A well constructed bullet will pass through the blade and hit the spine, destroying its major nerve bundles.
The broadside shot is also good for bow hunters, but doesn’t leave as much room for error as the “quartering away” shot. Arrows which pass through the vital organs produce quick, clean kills. Aim for the heart, knowing that a high shot will still hit the lungs. Archers should avoid the shoulder blade.
2) Quartering Away-(bows & guns)
For archers, the quartering away shot offers the best chances for success. Even if the arrow hits a bit too far back, it can angle forward into the chest cavity for quick kill. When taking this hot, the point of aim should be through the deer to the opposite shoulder. This is also a great shot for gun hunters. As with the bow, the gun hunter’s point of aim should be through the deer to the opposite shoulder.
3) Head On-(for guns only)
This shot presents gun hunters with three vital targets. A shot in the chest will hit the heart or lungs. A bullet in the neck will usually break the neck or cause enough shock to drop the animal instantly. It could also destroy the esophagus and/or carotid artery or jugular vein. The head on shot is not good for archers. Unless the arrow hits the chest dead center, which presents a very small target, it can easily deflect off bone” (Deer and Deer Hunting, 1998).
Following the initial shot, prepare for a second shot, if the animal remains in bowrange. Most likely the animal will flee, or “bust out”, on a “last run”. Remain calm. Study the area, memorizing the location where you lost visual contact with the animal. It’s not enough to remember what direction the animal fled. Pinpoint specific terrain features of the location, where the animal was last seen. For example, a specific bush, tree, rock, or discoloration. The surroundings will look different from the ground. Stay alert for signs of the deer’s direction of travel.
It’s a good idea to remain on stand for about an hour before climbing down, unless you are hunting in active precipitation. Give the animal a chance to die instead of “spooking” him. Many times the deer doesn’t realize what has happened, and may lay down nearby to die.
Upon exiting the stand, immediately mark two key locations to begin the track. Mark where the shot occurred, as well as the location where visual contact with the animal was lost. A roll of florescent trail marking tape is recommended for this purpose. During the track, always keep your weapon handy. A follow up shot is sometimes necessary.
The first clue which may indicate the location of the hit, begins with arrow examination. If the arrow has blood on only one side of the shaft, and one on two fletchings, it is likely a meat hit. Any cavity hit will completely cover the arrow. An arrow covered with bright red blood, and bubbles signifies a lung hit. Dark red blood is from the liver. A leg hit produces watery blood. A rank smell on an arrow points to a gut hit.
Wait 3 to 4 hours before following a liver hit, one hour for a lung or heart hit, and 12 hours on a gut hit. Muscle hit animals should be followed immediately to perpetuate bleeding. It is typically more profitable to wait too long to track, rather than not long enough, for other hits.
Once blood has been located, do not leave the blood trail to randomly search the woods. Always stick with the blood trail. Attempting to find deer in dense terrain is nearly impossible without a blood trail.
As a sidenote, don’t assume a weak blood trail is an indication of a non fatal shot. No matter what your assumption may be about the shot, track every animal as if he were down for the count. Over the past 10 years as a hunt outfitter when a client reported the shooting of a whitetail deer I immediately ask 2 questions:

#1. Are you utilizing “Open upon impact or punchcutter broadheads or are you shooting fix positions broadheads?” It has been my experience that fixed position broadheads are three times as successful in harvest of the animal than open upon impact broadheads. The old debate then always begins, “If I hit them in the vitals it doesn’t matter.” While that is the truth, mistakes or miscalculations are increased in the field as opposed to target shooting, thus open upon impact broadheads may be accurate in the field but a real risk in the timber when actually positioned with a shot at a trophy whitetail deer.

#2. The second question I always ask the hunter when shooting a whitetail deer is, “Where you shooting carbon arrows or aluminum?” While carbon arrows do increase speeds of arrows they do not carry the added enertia which aluminum arrows possess. One might easily discover that carbon arrows do not get near the penetration of aluminum. Most misplaced shots by carbon arrows do not yield “pass through” shots and thereby minimize blood trails, further minimizing chance for recovery.

Shoot fixed positions broadheads and aluminum arrows. Forget speed and all the fancy talk at the pro shop and you will increase your odds at successfully retrieving game. Trust me, I outfit and guide hunters abroad and have done so for many years.

Darrin Bradley

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